The Talented Mr. Huxley
By Danny Heitman
At six feet four and a half inches, Aldous Huxley was perhaps the tallest figure in English letters, his height so striking that contemporaries sometimes viewed him as a freak of nature. British novelist Christopher Isherwood found Huxley “too tall. I felt an enormous zoological separation from him.” Virginia Woolf described him as “infinitely long” and referred to him as “that gigantic grasshopper.”
Everything about Huxley seemed large. “During his first years his head was proportionately enormous, so that he could not walk until he was two because he was apt to topple over,” writes biographer Sybille Bedford. Shortly before his death, Huxley confided to a friend that his childhood nickname had been “Ogie,” a substitute for “Ogre.”
But this seems like the kind of exaggeration children so often use to rib each other. In pictures, Huxley looks imposing, but far from ugly. Anita Loos, the American screenwriter, playwright, and author, was impressed by Huxley’s “physical beauty . . . the head of an angel drawn by William Blake.”
His voice, preserved in recordings easily sampled online, was also part of his charm. Huxley spoke like Laurence Olivier—with exacting British diction and an unerring verbal accuracy that few people, then or now, possess in casual conversation. He talked in silver sentences, treating conversation as a form of theater, or even literature.
The largeness of the man and the precision of his language continue to live more than a half a century after his death. Every year, another generation of young students gets that sense of him from Brave New World, the 1932 novel that’s become assigned reading for millions of middle schoolers.
Taking its title from an ironic line from The Tempest by Shakespeare, Brave New World envisions a fictional society in which infants are grown in laboratories, and people become so conditioned to consumer comforts that they no longer question their leaders. Amid this malaise lingers a dissident regarded as a savage because he still embraces Shakespeare, his passion for poetry suggesting an indulgence of feeling that, in this brave new world of tomorrow, seems dangerously taboo. Readers still argue about the degree to which Huxley’s grimly conceived future has become the human present, and the emergence of test-tube babies, television, and online culture invite obvious parallels to Brave New World.
Huxley transcribes the emotionally arid landscape of Brave New World into visual terms, translating the dormancy of the human soul into a city devoid of bright colors. In his description of a laboratory where new citizens are conceived, he writes:
The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north . . . for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. . . . The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-colored rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost.
Huxley also wrote poetry, plays, travelogs, essays, philosophy, short stories, and many novels. Sadly, the overshadowing fame of Brave New World has tended to obscure the range of his talent.
Huxley came from one of England’s great intellectual families: He was born in Surrey, England, the son of Leonard Huxley, editor of the influential Cornhill magazine, and Julia Arnold, niece of the legendary poet and essayist Matthew Arnold. Huxley was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, a scientist and friend of Charles Darwin. Huxley’s brother Julian was a noted biologist and writer, and his half-brother Andrew was a Nobel laureate in physiology.
Huxley appeared destined to work in science, too, initially planning to become a physician. But, in 1911, when he was 16, he suffered an eye infection that left him nearly blind for almost two years. His sight was so compromised that he learned to read in Braille. He eventually recovered some vision, initially using strong eyeglasses to cope. With his sight damaged, a career in medicine or science seemed impractical, so Huxley turned to writing.
“He rose above the disability but he never minimized the importance of the experience in his life,” notes biographer Nicholas Murray. Huxley was fascinated by how adjustments in the senses greatly altered how we perceive reality, a theme that would deeply inform some of his later books.
His struggle with vision was the subject of a 1943 book, The Art of Seeing, in which Huxley championed the controversial theories of Dr. W. H. Bates, who asserted that eyes could be improved with training exercises instead of prescription lenses. Huxley claimed that the Bates Method worked for him, though it still remains far outside the medical mainstream.
Just how much Huxley was able to see is uncertain, although his eyes were obviously compromised, forcing him to compensate in creative ways. Julian Huxley thought that his brother developed a Herculean memory so he could better retain what he labored so hard to read. “With his one good eye, he managed to skim through learned journals, popular articles and books of every kind,” Julian recalled. “He was apparently able to take them in at a glance, and what is more, to remember their essential content. His intellectual memory was phenomenal, doubtless trained by a tenacious will to surmount the original horror of threatened blindness.”
Early in his writing career, Huxley worked as a journalist and teacher, including a stint at Eton instructing a young Eric Blair, who would eventually become known to the world as George Orwell.
Published in 1949, nearly two decades after Huxley’s masterpiece, Orwell’s 1984depicted a world in which the state imposes its will by force. Huxley wrote a fan letter to Orwell after 1984 appeared, complimenting him on “how fine and how profoundly important the book is.” But Huxley offered a polite dissent from Orwell’s premise: “I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.” Huxley thought it more likely that in the long run, despots would find it efficient to coddle rather than coerce humans into conformity.
When Huxley published his first novel, Crome Yellow, in 1921, he gained attention not as a sober prophet of human oppression, but a light satirist of the English gentry. “What makes Crome Yellow . . . so appealing is its restfulness,” literary essayist Michael Dirda has observed. “There is no plot to speak of. Nothing dramatic happens. Instead, the book sustains interest almost solely through its style, a low-keyed ironic wit, and the evocation of a leisurely summer of cultivated country-house pleasures. Young people make love and their elders discourse about life; afternoons are spent in walking or painting, evenings taken up with reading aloud and conversation.”
The fictional house of the novel’s title appears to be based on Garsington, the estate where Lady Ottoline Morrell hosted Bloomsbury-era artists and writers, including Huxley. At Garsington, Huxley met the beautiful Maria Nys, a Belgian refugee displaced by World War I. They wed in 1919, and their marriage, perhaps reflecting its origins in Bloomsbury avant-garde society, was unconventional. Maria was bisexual, and the Huxleys at one point entered into a romantic triangle with a mutual friend, Mary Hutchinson. Unusual though such an arrangement might have been, the Huxleys appeared devoted to each other until Maria’s death in 1955. Their household grew to include one son, Matthew, born in April 1920.
“She devoted herself wholly to him,” Murray writes of Maria’s relationship with Aldous. “Because of his poor eyesight, she read to him, endlessly, even if the material bored her beyond belief. She drove him thousands of miles around Europe and the United States—putting her profession as ‘chauffeur’ in hotel registers. She typed his books and was his secretary and housekeeper.”
The life the Huxleys created seemed a mostly happy one. Although the future Huxley popularized in Brave New World was bleak, the author himself didn’t lack cheer or humor, as anyone who reads his essays quickly discovers. “Aldous Huxley is an essayist whom I would be ready to rank with Hazlitt,” Somerset Maugham declared. “The essayist needs character to begin with, then he needs an encyclopedic knowledge, he needs humor, ease of manner so that the ordinary person can read him without labor, and he must know how to combine entertainment with instruction. These qualifications are not easy to find. Aldous Huxley has them.”
“Meditation on the Moon,” a 1931 essay, exemplifies Huxley’s sometimes dreamily poetic style. He argues that skygazers don’t have to think of the moon as either a rock or a romantic icon; it can be both. It’s an essay about the claims and limits of technical knowledge, in which Huxley, whose family tree included poets and scientists, attempts to reconcile their intellectual traditions. He wrote:
The moon is a stone; but it is a highly numinous stone. Or, to be more precise, it is a stone about which and because of which men and women have numinous feelings. Thus, there is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding. There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love—to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe.
The passage points to Huxley’s deftness as a scene-setter, a skill that made him a great travel writer, too. Along the Road, Huxley’s 1921 collection of travel essays, is perhaps one of the best modern travel books—and inexplicably, one of the most overlooked. It chronicles his jaunts around Europe, often with self-deprecating charm. In a funny musing called “Books for the Journey,” Huxley considers the bibliophile’s tendency to overpack. “All tourists cherish an illusion, of which no amount of experience can ever cure them; they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading,” Huxley writes. “They see themselves, at the end of a day’s sightseeing or motoring, or while they are sitting in the train, studiously turning over the pages of all the vast and serious works which, at ordinary seasons, they never have time to read.”
Huxley suggests, as an alternative to all those heavy books, just toting a random volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica along for the ride. “I never pass a day away from home without taking a volume with me,” he confides. “Turning over its pages, rummaging among the stores of fantastically varied facts which the hazards of alphabetical arrangement bring together, I wallow in my mental vice.”
Huxley was really serious about carrying around the Britannica. “Bertrand Russell joked that one could predict Huxley’s subjects of conversation provided one knew which alphabetical section of the Encyclopedia he happened to be reading at the time,” Murray notes. “Huxley even constructed a special carrying-case for it on his journeys.”
This was so like Huxley, his mind sparked by any fact, however arbitrary. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was living in Brazil when Huxley arrived for a visit, described what it was like to see him explore a new place:
There is a slight cast to his bad eye, and this characteristic, which I always find oddly attractive, in Huxley’s case adds even more to his veiled and other-worldly gaze. When examining something close . . . a photograph or a painting, he sometimes takes out a small horn-rimmed magnifying glass, or, for distant objects, a miniature telescope, and he often sits resting his good eye by cupping his hand over it.
Huxley’s travels paralleled an intellectual and spiritual odyssey that increasingly shaped his work. His early fiction, which extended the wry tone of Crome Yellow, evolved into more somber, psychologically complex novels like Eyeless in Gaza, his 1936 story about a cynical Englishman who comes of age during World War I and eventually turns to Eastern philosophy and meditation to address his disillusionment. Many readers see Eyeless as a deeply autobiographical work reflecting Huxley’s own turn away from ironical detachment to life as, in Dirda’s words, “a gentle mystic.”
Huxley’s globe-trotting took him to the United States in 1937, where he made his home, primarily in Los Angeles, for the rest of his life. Lucrative Hollywood screenwriting jobs proved hard to resist. He wrote film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, as well as a Disney version of Alice in Wonderland that was never made. In 1956, a year after Maria’s death, Huxley married Laura Archera, an Italian violinist and psychotherapist who had been a family friend, and who proved an equally devoted wife. California’s climate of cultural experiment seemed suited to Huxley, whose willingness to explore new things in the pursuit of enlightenment led him to the strangest writing project of his life.
In the spring of 1953, Huxley took a precisely measured dose of mescalin, the hallucinogenic drug derived from the peyote cactus of the American Southwest, then recorded his experience in a small book, The Doors of Perception, its title inspired by a quote from the visionary poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Huxley found that the drug greatly enhanced his sense of color. “Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood,” he wrote. But Huxley also noted that under the influence of mescalin, “the will suffers a profound change for the worse. The mescalin taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular.”
The book doesn’t argue for unrestricted drug use, and in other writings, Huxley pointed out the dangers of abuse and dependency. “In their ceaseless search for self-transcendence, millions of would-be mystics become addicts, commit scores of thousands of crimes and are involved in hundreds of thousands of avoidable accidents,” he cautioned in his essay, “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.” Even so, The Doors of Perception achieved considerable cachet in the drug culture of the 1960s. The rock group the Doors took its name from Huxley’s book, and in a sad irony, its lead singer, Jim Morrison, struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism until his death in 1971.
Huxley’s own death after a lengthy struggle with cancer contained an irony of its own. He died on November 22, 1963, just hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and on the same day that fellow writer C. S. Lewis passed away. Kennedy’s death overshadowed the passing of Huxley and Lewis. But just as events in Dallas cracked open the chaos of the 1960s, so Huxley’s life and work, with its questioning of conformity and the power of the state, seemed to anticipate the countercultural revolution that would soon sweep his adopted country.
In a 1958 nonfiction work, Brave New World Revisited, Huxley concluded that new developments had made it even more possible for the ominous social order of his most famous novel to be realized. But in Island, a utopian novel completed shortly before his death, Huxley depicted a benevolent mirror image of Brave New World, in which ingenuity is harnessed for good rather than evil. It was Huxley’s way of saying that human destiny is still a matter of moral choice—a choice that must be informed by constant inquiry.
“Fearless curiosity was one of Aldous’s noblest characteristics, a function of his greatness as a human being,” Isherwood recalled of his friend. “Little people are so afraid of what the neighbors will say if they ask Life unconventional questions. Aldous questioned unceasingly, and it never occurred to him to bother about the neighbors.”
Originally published to the public domain by Humanities, the Magazine of the NEH 36:6 (November/December 2015).