Aldous Leonard Huxley was an unlikely transcendentalist (as such seekers were – more or less politely – called. His pedigree gleamed through the career of his grandfather, biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Also known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Grandfather Huxley popularized Darwin’s theories to the general public and was a gleeful controversialist in the science/religion arena. Thomas Henry also coined the word “agnostic” in a way that gave the word bite and meaning instead of the sullen and witless apathy to which it descended.
Wide-eyed Aldous bobbed in grandfather’s wake. But if his path was marked out to be a materialistic agnostic, Aldous also had the arts flowing through his veins – a gift for words and a view for the world of ideas that could not be stilled. Here again genetic fortune sounded: his father Leonard was a writer (and schoolmaster) and his mother’s family was steeped in writing and the arts. The course was set.
Yet what genetics gives, genetics takes away – or keeps giving, even when you no longer wish to receive. For instance, in 1908 terminal illness struck Aldous’ mother while she was teaching him at Hillside School in Malvern. At age fourteen Aldous was taught a hard lesson about the impermanence of things. In 1911 his course was belabored by a genetic condition known as keratitis punctata: an inflammation of the corneas of Huxley’s eyes that left him effectively blind.
Huxley’s optical hardships would wax and wane for the rest of his life, giving rise to a curious controversy concerning just what Aldous could see and not see. What is certain is that Huxley could no longer rely on his vision to supply the fuel for his creativity. The source for his ideas was now his mind. In that sense he was a blind visionary.
The course young Huxley set as a boy took another blow in 1914, and it wasn’t from the World War that was beginning. This war was internal, and it consumed Aldous’ older brother, Noel Trevelyan Huxley. At the time they called it “depression.” Yet a word, a label, cannot convey the state of mental torment necessary to end a life. Nor can a word speak to the sword of sorrow and sadness that pierces a family who loses one of their kin by his own hand. Another pall shrouded the pacesetting Huxleys.
In fact the Huxley family were accustomed to the grief of mental illness. The venerable Thomas Henry Huxley – known with respectful affection as “grandpater” or THH – came from a crazy family. Illness diminished his father to a “childish imbecility of mind” and he died in a lunatic asylum. Senior Huxley’s three sons were also afflicted with mental disorders. HTT was the most successful and perhaps the most tortured of the three, suffering as he did from depression much of his adult life. What a grim paradox that the order, coherence, and beauty biologist Thomas Huxley worked with were such a stark contrast to his aching inner life.
Aldous Huxley seemed to evade the hereditary madness, although some could argue his later life was over the brink. But his younger career was unremarkable. All Huxley’s were expected to attend Oxford and excel. Aldous did so, using a magnifying glass to read. He majored in English Literature and edited the journal Oxford Poetry. In 1916 Aldous graduated Oxford with First Class honors.
Two desires were denied Aldous Huxley because of his vision. He volunteered to fight in the British army in World War I but was medically unfit. He also wanted to pursue medicine, but eventually accepted that his eyesight just wasn’t up to the task. The setbacks were providential, at least according to Aldous’ brother Julian, who believed his brother’s blindness “was a blessing in disguise…his uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.”
During and after his education at Oxford Huxley had the privilege to make the acquaintance of literary and philosophical elites like Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Wolff, and Eric Blair (better known by his nom de plume George Orwell). The educated and the erudite crowd vibed at Garsington Manor, a Tudor estate owned by Lady Ottoline Merrill, an imperious and overbearing socialite who made the Manor a haven for writers, thinkers, peaceniks, and conscientious objectors. Huxley met his wife there.
The Huxley’s spent much of the 1920’s traveling around the world. Aldous began writing novels: Crome Yellow in 1921, Antic Hay in 1923, Those Barren Leaves in 1925, and Point Counter Point in 1928. The books established Huxley as a social critic with a gift for satire, brilliant dialogue, and irreverent humor. Then, in 1931, as most any college student can tell you, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World.
Brave New World (BNW) is a “novel of ideas,” in which the themes the author wishes to explore dominate the book and determine action and characterization. BNW also featured Huxley’s familiar irreverent style, placed in a fictional London of the future, where rulers sought to make citizens happy and therefore less of a bother by denying them freedom, joy, and pain. In their place was soma, sex, and golf – evidently the 1930’s version of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Somas were happy pills that made everyone comfortable and lazy. Sex and golf need no explanation. Yet tampering with human lives, even with the intent to do well, can itself be an evil with unintended consequences of the most annihilating kind. Huxley’s growth as a writer and a man shown through BNW – he was no longer just a satirist, he was a social philosopher with important ideas. BNW foreshadowed totalitarian Russia and fascist Germany. It was one of the most important books of its time.
Huxley’s concern with his brave new world was not that books would be banned, but that no one would even want to read. No one would care about things like ideals, the truth, right and wrong. People would just want to be entertained – like the millions who tune into Youtube every day to watch kitten videos and argue with strangers. One could argue that Huxley’s Brave New World has already come to pass, appearing on the wings of technology and progress rather than by governmental oversight.
After Huxley’s breakthrough book, it seemed natural in a way that the Huxleys would migrate to the United States, and that the blind visionary would create screenplays in Hollywood. Perhaps his most well known is the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which starred a young Laurence Olivier. Huxley earned an enormous amount of money writing screenplays. Although he never mentioned this, it has been said that Huxley used part of his money to transfer Jewish writers and artists from Nazi Germany to safety.
It is also said that Huxley’s vision was restored in California. But the accounts are contradictory. Some have it that he had surgery that saved his eyesight. Yet Huxley himself wrote a book, “The Art of Seeing,” claiming the Bates Method and the clear California air had restored his sight. Then there are later accounts of Huxley faltering during a speech because he had memorized the speech ahead of time but then forgot a passage. He had to hold the papers right up to his face and use a magnifying glass to finish that portion of his speech.
Whatever you make of this, Huxley was always consumed with vision, be it literal or metaphorical. After World War II his writing changed. No longer content with novels, Huxley explored the essay as a form of communication. This coincided with Huxley’s involvement with Vedanta meditation and the Hindu religion. Introduced to Vedanta by his friend Gerard Heard, Huxley also developed a friendship with Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti had a wide circle of influence that included the Dalai Lama and Bruce Lee. He insisted that each human being must begin an inner revolution in order to have world peace. He flatly denied the possibility that any government or other organization could bring this about, thus verifying the premise of Brave New World.
Influenced by Krishnamurti, Huxley became a Vedantist under the tutelage of Swami Prabhavananda and wrote a book, The Perennial Philosophy, an anthology of wisdom from all beliefs: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. As Huxley says in his introduction, “ If one is not oneself a sage or saint, the best thing one can do, in the field of metaphysics, is to study the works of those who were.”
The book was widely praised and even today is considered a standard in the field of “consciousness studies.” There were some, however, who noticed that in writing of religious topics Huxley appeared to have abandoned his sense of humor, particularly his mordant wit. Gone was the materialistic scientist and social critic, his initial legacy. It had been replaced by a spiritual curiosity that informed the rest of Huxley’s life, including his experiments with psychedelic drugs.
In spring of 1953 Aldous tried mescaline for the first time. Over the next ten years he tried either mescaline or LSD about twelve times. Through his mentor, Gerard Heard, Huxley was introduced to Harvard Professor Timothy Leary. Leary was on the cutting edge of consciousness studies. His theory was an early version of “better life through pharmaceuticals,” using LSD to bypass the human ego in order to access religious experience directly and unfiltered. Like all theories, there was an intriguing result to be had – maybe…
Huxley was all for trying. He and Leary and Heard and an American professor named Huston Smith had a series of trips using LSD under strictly controlled scientific studies. At the time LSD was legal, and its use was respectable (until Leary got stupid about things). It was not viewed as a recreational drug, but as a possible portal into the mystic world of religious experience. Using LSD was strictly controlled and the recording of experiences was documented and assessed using the scientific method.
Huxley ended up writing two books about his experiences: The Doors of Perception, and Heaven and Hell (1956). Huxley also ran into some misunderstandings with the Vedanta crowd, who were not enthusiastic over the use of psychedelics to achieve religious experience. Huxley was able to remain on good terms with them, however, eventually writing almost fifty articles for their organization.
Doors of Perception contained this exchange between Huxley and a questioner.
Interviewers: Here this afternoon, as in your book, The Doors of Perception, you’ve been talking chiefly about the visual experience under the drug, and about painting. Is there any similar gain in psychological insight?
Huxley: Yes, I think there is. While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one’s own life. Many people get tremendous recalls of buried material. A process which may take six years of psychoanalysis happens in an hour — and considerably cheaper! And the experience can be very liberating and widening in other ways. It shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it’s healthy that people should have this experience.”
Healthy or not, Huxley gives us a clue regarding his fascination with psychedelics: “the visual experience” he has under the drug. It helps him to see. Even so, the gold standard is Huston Smith’s conclusion about using psychedelics to look for God:
“The heart of religion is not altered states but altered traits of character. For me, then, the test of a substance’s religious worth or validity is not what kind of far-out experience it can produce, but is the life improved by its use? That’s the test.”
Was Aldous Huxley becoming a better person as a result of his experiments on the other side of reality? “Better” can be a hard card to read. Huxley stayed altruistic, using his money to help those less fortunate than him. But he needed assistance too, when wife Maria died in 1955. She had helped Aldous work around his sight difficulties for decades. She took care of him, devoted herself to him, drove him around Europe and read to him. She was a good wife in every way. Surely Huxley missed her, and most assuredly he needed another wife. The most practical solution was to marry Laura Archera. He had met Archera while Maria was alive. The three became close friends in 1949 when Archera contacted Huxley about writing the screenplay for a documentary she was trying to get John Huston to finance.
In 1960, Huxley was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer and his health deteriorated. He stayed busy writing and even gave some lectures on human potential that were credited with beginning the human potential movement. .
But Huxley could not remain on the speaking circuit. His cancer progressed and he became bedridden. At 11:20 am he wrote his wife a note: “LSD, 100 ug, intramuscular.” She dutifully injected her husband. Did Huxley know his last moments had come? Was he planning to meet God on his homemade rocket? Or was he simply trying to squeeze in one more recreational religious experience while he could?
An hour later Huxley asked for another injection and received it. “Light and free you let go, darling; forward and up,” she whispered to him as he drifted away. “You are going forward and up; you are going toward the light.” Later that afternoon, 5:20 to be exact, Aldous Huxley’s real flight took off. He died in good company, for the day was November 22 1963: the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the day Christian apologist C.S. Lewis also died. Later a book was written imagining all three men chatting in purgatory. I haven’t read it but I wonder what an Irish American, an Irishman, and an upper crust Brit would have to talk about that wouldn’t lead to blows?
At any rate, Huxley’s memorial service occurred the following month in London. Later his ashes were interred in the family grave at Watts Cemetery near Surrey, where he grew up. Aldous Huxley tried to overcome the scientific materialism of his youth, but perhaps it was ingrained so thoroughly that it took hallucinogens to allow him to think – and finally to see – outside of the ordinary realm of scientific experience. At any rate, Aldous Huxley gave the beast one hell of a ride. Anyone curious what happens when one of us peasants presumes to meet our maker with a head full of acid? What a conversation that must have been.
Nytimes review of Sybille Bedford’s biography of Aldous Huxley,http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/01/23/huxley-at-home/
Laura Archera, This Timeless Moment, Biography of Aldous Huxley.