Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Happy Birthday, Aldous Huxley: Ford's In His Flivver, Not Sure All's Right With the World

"A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention." - Aldous Huxley, who is 127 today. I say "is" because he's immortal to me.

I went through a very heavy Aldous phase in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It wasn't because some teacher made me read Brave New World. I read that on my own one summer in the late 80s, back-to-back with Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I guess I sought more worries about the future that were not "my" own worries; but at the time I think I was simply enjoying the momentous paranoia to be had in the reading of those books, of which Huxley's seems to have cashed in the most prophetic chips so far. 

No, the way I remember it: I bought some 800 page book for a dollar at a yard sale, something like The 100 Greatest Short Stories In English. There was a very short story in there by Aldous about a genius child born in Africa, but because Africa was so desperately poor, the world would, ignorantly, never know the fruits of the kid's genius, and how many other geniuses have we allowed to die on the vine?

I may even be mangling the thrust of that short story, it was so long ago. But suffice: there was a brilliance to Huxley's ideas and the way he presented them, that I made a note to look further into him. 

(Isn't that probably the main value of those massive collections of short stories, essays, or Best-Loved Poems of Slavic Peoples - type books? Aside from being forced to read them in school, for the outsider: if we stumble upon just one writer in those books, it can change our entire lives?)

I was overwhelmed when my eyes traveled down the list of Huxley titles in the college library: novels, books of essays, non-fiction scattered in many different parts of the library: books in religion, science, technology, and...hello! What's this? Books on psychedelic drugs, too. He also wrote film scripts and plays. He lectured at Berkeley, Harvard, everywhere.

He seemed to agonize about his own privilege and his responsibility as a Huxley. His grandfather T.H Huxley defended Darwin's ideas against all comers, especially Christians. Aldous's half-brother Andrew won the Nobel Prize in Biology.  His full-brother, Julian, was an extraordinary contributor to neo-Darwinism. By the 1940s the name "Huxley" had become a signpost for "towering intelligence." Predictably, there's lots of madness in the family, too. (See this Wiki for more on Aldous's genetic lines.)

I became a voracious Huxleyan. In fat novel after fat novel, I was stunned by his erudition. Only later did I realize that, in his novels, Huxley was carrying on in a tradition of Thomas Love Peacock or George Meredith: the Novel of Ideas. In a Huxley novel, a cast of disparate characters meet in some manor or estate for a few weeks, or a summer, and all they do is discuss ideas. The major-general, the painter, the lady with lots of money, the sportsman-womanizer, the bohemian guy, the stuffy pretentious puritan woman, the man of the cloth, etc. Huxley had poetic gifts. These were truly novels. But the main thing that happens is the many points of view these types of characters embody (the word "type" has at minimum two meanings here) are juxtaposed with the others. These novels are like Aldous's essays, with the ideas he dislikes being articulated by the types he dislikes, there are some "progressive" ideas articulated, and he uses enough novelistic technique to satisfy the requirement. How much does the reader need to triangulate, quadrangulate, and quintangulate in order to ascertain, "What's Huxley's view?" He doesn't spell it out.

But when you've read four or nine of his novels and a handful of his essays, it's a lot easier to guess.

Someone should write a learned piece on the sociology of knowledge in the novels of Aldous Huxley. The only literary genre (not crazy about woid "genre") these days - possibly since 1950 - that can be said to consist heavily as Novels of Ideas would be science fiction. (And possibly some historical novels.)

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty thought the free philosophically-minded person in an open society ought to look into a lot of things and see how they"hang together," in a Nietzschean project of self-creation. In Huxley novels we see profound, gleaming examples of this sort of self-creation. Another way to say it: he was a Generalist in the most extreme senses of the term...

I was thumbing through a recent book on the history of Indian philosophy and yoga and how it influenced the West, American Veda, by Philip Goldberg. In the chapter on Vedanta Goldberg writes about "The Public Intellectuals," and three who left England for Hollywood near the beginning of what we call "World War Two." The three were Huxley and his possible equal in erudition, Gerald Heard, and Christopher Isherwood. Goldberg says of Aldous:

"A Renaissance Man if ever there was one, Aldous Huxley had intellectual passions that ranged far and wide, from philosophy, politics, and religion, to the social sciences, the physical sciences, history, and the arts. Since his death in 1963, Huxley tributes have been offered on a regular basis, and Huxley conferences have convened around the world. Through his work and his friendships, he affected vast numbers of people, some of whom were highly influential themselves. In this regard, he did as much as any other individual to introduce Vedanta to Western culture." -p.94

Yes, yes, yes. But there are many Aldouses to get lost in. He wrote a tiny book at the end of WW2 called Science, Liberty and Peace that blew my socks off. It was maybe 86 pages long. It reads like proto-Green Party philosophy. It is a plea to get our act together, now that we know how to harness the atom for megadeath. There is a worry that, we have made enormous strides in science and technology but we are still the same apes, morally, that we were 50 million years before. We're just better-dressed.

Aldous could be funny too. He was a terrific traveler and had special cases made so he could carry the entire 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica with him. He read that edition cover-to-cover, or so the legend goes. Alan Watts said he could tell at parties what volume Aldous had been reading in, because he would regale a small group about fascinating aspects of the Reformation, then, a little later, the wonders of refrigeration. 

He was almost clinically blind, yet astonished people with his learnedness about different painter's techniques. He'd get up so close to a painting his nose would almost touch it, and he'd talk about brush strokes. 

He died of tongue cancer the same day JFK was assassinated; his wife Laura Archera, a concert violinist, read from The Egyptian Book of the Dead quietly, into Aldous's ear, as a massive dose of a psychedelic drug called "LSD" (Hey, I'm as in the dark as you are on this one) coursed through his brain. Laura read, "It is easy, and you are doing this beautifully and consciously." She repeated this a few times. Then, "Forward and up, light and free, forward and up toward the light, into the light, into complete love." He died at 5PM. (At this moment I can't help but think of Montaigne - who Aldous loved! - and what Montaigne would think of Huxley's death. Montaigne's essay about studying philosophy is learning how to die! Could Montaigne conceive of such a death scenario? He catalogues famous people who died in flagrante delicto, but LSD? Voluntarily? I still find it marvelous.)

Regarding the large dose of psychedelic, Laura said, "Aldous asking for the moksha-medicine while dying is not only a confirmation of his open-mindedness and courage, but as such a last gesture of continuing importance. Such a gesture might be ignorantly misinterpreted, but it is history that Huxleys stop ignorance, before ignorance stops Huxleys."

Read him? Here's the Wiki, with a bibliography.

Aldous on intelligence, war, ecology, evolution, from early 1950s. Less than 5 minutes. He seems sort of ethereal here to me.


ARW23 said...


ARW23 said...

Aldous Huxley and George Orwell - writers of "Negative Utopia" in which we live now, today, every day! They warned us! Who listens?

michael said...

I see the word "dystopia" more often than Negative Utopia, but yes: cautionary tales. And a pharmaceutical biometric genetic caste system? It's easy to see inklings. Technological "happiness" rather than individual responsibility: I see a lot of that. I don't foresee someone named Mustapha Mond as World Overseer soon, though.

Huxley's move to Hollywood, and esp. his experience with psychedelics made him go from an intellectual pessimist to a mystical intellectual who emphasized human choice, and that things were only inexhorrible (to get all Joycean on yas) if we let it.

The Patriot Act and seeming continous invasions and warfare seem more 1984-ish.

Ray Bradbury didn't foresee Kindle.

SatoriGuy said...

I remember recently hearing a recording by Terence McKenna in which he said that he was a huge Huxley fan growing up. He loved Doors of Perception and alot of the social commentary novels. But the first Aldous Huxley book he read was called The Art of Seeing, at the insistence of his mother. Terence claimed this helped him pay closer attention to the beauty of nature and see the physical world more wholely. I really really need to reading Huxley again!

michael said...

A welter of ocular data has the Bates Method - if it "works" - probably mostly due to autosuggestion or something like it. But for those of us not going blind, tuning into our vision, doing exercizes to see what kind of effects we get, simply PAYING ATTENTION to what we see, can be a zen-like experience.

I was gratified when I found out Terence had a Huxley phase - Aldous had turned me on to so much science and art that he spun off into that for me, and then I heard Terence on KPFK in LA. (and then: RAW).

From RAW's friend David Jay Brown's interview with Terence in 1989: "And the interest in altered states of consciousness came simply from, I don't know whether I was a precocious kid or what, but I was very early into the New York literary scene, and even though I lived in a small town in Colorado, I subscribed to The Village Voice and Evergreen Review, where I encountered propaganda about LSD, mescaline, and all these experiments that the late beatniks were involved in. Then I read The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, and it just rolled from there. That was what really put me over. I respected Huxley as a novelist, and I was slowly reading everything he'd ever written, and when I got to The Doors of Perception I said to myself,'There's something going on here for sure.'"