Meeting of the Minds: Aldous Huxley- British Writer and International Idealist

  
Paul Fischer
Nov. 30, 2008
John Zimmerman
Meeting of the Minds: Aldous Huxley- British Writer and International Idealist
          “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Aldous Huxley
            The “father of the hippie movement,” Aldous Huxley, wrote dystopian books through the twentieth century (Labin 250). Though he was born in England in 1894, he spent the most productive part of his life in America, where he helped found a counter-culture of anti-materialists. A large amount of the work Huxley did pursuing “liberty, peace, justice, and brotherly love” was written in the Mojave Desert in California (Murray 463). Huxley was best known for his impressive literary output, ranging from essays to novel, short stories, and even screenplays.  These writings rank among the very best of the English language’s political analysis, literature, and philosophy.  Huxley successfully redefined the way modern writers thought about both the novel, and the way society thought about power.
            Aldous Huxley’s decision to pursue a literary career was largely the result of contracting the disease keratitis punctata in 1911 at the age of seventeen. He would remain blind nearly until the beginning of the First World War. Until the illness, Huxley was studying at Eton College following learning from his father’s botanical laboratory (Murray 27). It is probable that he would have pursued a career in botany if he had not received what his brother, the distinguished biologist Julian Huxley, referred to as “a blessing in disguise.” Until the disease, Aldous might have pursued a career in biology as much of his family did; his grandfather, Thomas Huxley, was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” (1). Instead, he assumed responsibility and began to recognize his genius in its own right after leaving for college in Oxford by beginning several novels that viciously attacked the Edwardian lifestyle he had come to know and despise. Indeed, he believed that it was this very lifestyle that had led to the First World War, and would lead to another one. In this prediction, he was unfortunately proven correct.
            After his blindness, Aldous Huxley studied English Literature at Balliol College in Oxford (Murray 14). He graduated with honors in 1916 at the age of twenty-two. Unfortunately Huxley was heavily indebted to his father and was forced to earn a living. During these middle years he had several occupations including a job teaching French at Eton where one of his students was a young George Orwell (Murray 27). It would be fascinating to learn the extent of their relationship, as their novels deal with the ideas of political control over a society by elite classes. It is evident that Huxley’s writing gained a great deal of depth and inspiration from  Another job at the Brunner and Mond chemical plant supplied Huxley with an universe in a world of what he called “planless incoherence” that he later wrote of in his novel Brave New World (1932).
            In 1938 Aldous Huxley moved to Hollywood, California, beginning the most prolific and mind-expanding period of his life (Barron 31). In his time in California he became a proponent of the counterculture, and is referred to as the father of the “hippie” movement. While many of his greatest works were written during his stay in Hollywood, his cinematic endeavors were less successful. Indeed it seemed that he was completely unable to deliver the kind of action based dialogue that movie producers looked for in Hollywood in the middle of the century. While he received some credit for films including Jane Eyre (1944) and Pride and Prejudice (1940) his leisurely development of ideas was not well suited to Hollywood. Walt Disney rejected his screenplay of Alice and Wonderland, saying he “could only understand every third word.” (Shelfari)
            Following World War II, Aldous Huxley applied numerous times for citizenship in the United States but was refused on the grounds that he would not agree to take up arms in defense of the nation (Meckier 215). Another barrier to his application for citizenship was that his writing on the psychedelic experience was increasingly becoming early counter-cultural reading. While Huxley’s first psychedelic experience is believed to have been in the 1930’s, it was not until the 1950’s that his writing became heavily influenced by the use of psychedelics (Young 65). These writings would affect his legacy in both positive and negative manners; in any case, he was never known as one to rub shoulders with authority. He would continue to use and experiment with various mind-altering substances for the duration of his life.
          Huxley was diagnosed with cancer in 1960, only five years after the death of his wife, Maria from breast cancer (Murray 26). Most of the last three years of Huxley’s life was devoted to the writing of his final utopian book, Island (7). In this book and in lectures he gave at the Esalen Institute despite deteriorating health, Huxley laid groundwork for the Human Potential Movement, an early hippie movement that focuses on the self-actualization of members. He helped in the foundation and expansion of many similar projects not only through monetary funding, but also by delivering lectures to colleges, among them was the early Occidental College in California where Huxley eventually took up residence for the writing of many of his fringe works. Huxley’s tangible effects on society around him were not limited to the counter-culture groups he associated with in America, however, and a great part of the world mourned his death on November 22, 1963.
           Huxley’s death was actually overlooked by most of the media because of the extraordinary circumstances of November 22, 1963 (Kreeft 6). On the same day that Huxley, on his deathbed, requested of his wife “LSD, 100 μg, intramuscular” John F. Kennedy was shot and C.S. Lewis, an Irish author, died of renal failure (7). This coincidence inspired Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. In any case, Huxley had a relatively peaceful demise after his drawn out and bitter battle with cancer. Lasting for decades, this battle both inspired and overshadowed some of Huxley’s greatest work. Today, his work is taught in courses across the world in dozens of languages and his work is considered by many to be among the greatest of modern literature.
           Huxley is probably best known for his work concerning the expansion of American materialism (Watt 233). Brave New World (1932) deals with how society can just as easily be held captive by pleasure as fear. A literary theme he is less well known for, in America anyway, is his attacks on the Victorian and Edwardian social principles that led to World War I. Crome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923), both written in the early 1920’s following World War I, express a mood of disenchantenment, reflecting, as Huxley wrote, “the life and opinions of an age which has seen the violent disruption of almost all the standards, conventions and values current in the present epoch.” (Shelfari)
           Huxley successfully fused the novel and the essay together (Watt 2), his self-described aim as a novelist. He used this revolutionary writing style to attack foundations of a rapidly changing society. Brave New World and Island are the foundations for Huxley’s attack on technological commercialism. Because Huxley was successful in his attacks on modern society, many of his books were banned or met with disapproval. In fact, Antic Hay was actually burned in Cairo (9). While his early writing created uproar for Huxley’s graphic imagery and promotion of free thought in his fiction, Huxley would take a whole on a whole new level of outrage with his books written in the Mojave Desert.
          The books Huxley wrote in the Mojave Desert not only encouraged, but directly addressed the use of psychedelics. These books’ incendiary content not only set a new generation of beatniks alight, but also ignited fierce opposition in critics and even former fans of Huxley (Geiger 31). The Doors of Perception, for example, catalogues Aldous Huxley’s experiences directly after taking mescaline and other drugs. The psychedelic rock band, The Doors, actually used Huxley’s book for their name (Riordan 68). This ensured Huxley’s immortality as The Doors became popular soon after Huxley’s death and Jim Morrison became a legend of rock.
          Huxley continued through this time period to defend the Bates’ method. Although Bates was already exposed as a fraud, with no evidence as to his success other than a few very strong anecdotal cases such as Huxley (Murray 31). High profile individuals who swore by his method have made Bates surprisingly hard to get rid of despite the extensive research that suggests that Bates has little actual effect in a controlled study. While Aldous Huxley swore that he had regained most of his eyesight through the Bates’ method, there are numerous humiliating instances in which he was exposed as being unable to even read a speech off a piece of paper; rather than admit this handicap, Huxley would routinely memorize entire speeches and lectures. In particular, a personal friend described one humiliating experience at an acceptance speech in New Mexico where Huxley, who was delivering his speech admirably and was seemingly using his papers as reference, seemed to falter, squint at the paper, indeed it appeared he could not see it even as the paper was brought to his very nose (320). After a very painful minute Huxley fished out a magnifying glass and continued his speech. Remarkably, he had memorized the entire thing. Even after humbling experiences such as these, Huxley continued to stand by the Bates’ method.
       
          Along with Huxley’s extreme defense of the Bates’ method of curing eyesight, Huxley’s credibility as a British literary figure eroded. In Brave New World Revisited, for example, his unchecked attack on capitalist and communist societies alike left readers wondering where exactly he stood. What was once brilliant political analysis had deteriorated into conspiratorial drivel. He claimed that where he once thought Brave New World belonged in a setting seven hundred years in the future, he now believed it to be just around the corner (238). In the last decades before his death, his writing both intensified, gaining a stronger following, but also lost respect in the literary community.
Bibliography
“Aldous Huxley Author.” Shelfari. 6 July 2008. 15 Nov. 2008 . 
Barron, Stephanie, Sheri Bernstein, and Ilene Susan Fort. Reading California – Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000. New York: University of California P, 2000.
Geiger, John. Chapel of Extreme Experience : A Short History of the Dream Machine. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 2004.
Kreeft, Peter. Between Heaven and Hell. New York: InterVarsity P, 1982.
Labin, Suzanne. Hippies, Drugs, and Promiscuity. Arlington: Arlington House, 1972.
Meckier, Jerome. Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond. Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2007.
Murray, Nicholas. Aldous Huxley : A Biography. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2003.
            Riordan, James, and Jerry Prochnicky. Break on Through : The Life and Death of Jim Morrison. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Watt, Donald, ed. Aldous Huxley : The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Limited, 1975. 
Young, Warren R., and Joseph R. Hickson. LSD on Campus. Dell Pub. Co., 1966.
  


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