Metaphysics is out of fashion. There is, as department-store sales assistants say, not much call for it nowadays. The word “metaphysics” does not even occur in the index of the current bestseller about human nature, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, nor does Professor Pinker’s text betray any interest in the topic. Most of us, if challenged to disclose our metaphysical beliefs, would probably offer a part-baked dualism. Yes, certainly there is an outer reality, “the universe,” made up of material objects whose behavior, thanks to four hundred years of diligent scientific inquiry, we can understand, or at any rate predict, in fine detail. And yes, there is an inner reality, “the self,” comprised of mental objects about which science has much less to say, and some irreducible core of which, we are inclined to think, exists independently of the material world. Those of us who are up to date with developments in neuroscience, or who have read Tom Wolfe’s famous article on the subject (“Sorry, but your soul just died,” in the December 1996 issue of ForbesASAP) are uncomfortably aware of the relentlessness with which researchers have been shrinking the size of that core, but we live in faith that they will never succeed in eliminating it altogether. Professor Pinker, who is very up to date indeed in these matters, plainly does not share that faith, hence his utter neglect of matters metaphysical.
Living as we do in such an un-metaphysical age, we are in a poor frame of mind to approach the writer who said the following thing, and who took it as a premise for his work through most of a long literary career.
It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic.
Aldous Huxley published his first book, a collection of poems, in 1916, shortly after his twenty-second birthday. He died in November 1963, a few weeks after having brought out his twentieth book of essays. (He actually died on the day John F. Kennedy was shot.) At that point Huxley’s published work also included three more poetry collections, eleven novels, five short story collections, two travel books, two biographies, a play, some collaborative work on movie scripts, and a mass of fugitive journalism. It was the essays, though, that were the essential Aldous Huxley for a large part of his readership. A star-struck young visitor at the Huxleys’ California house in 1939 wrote that: “I had been bitterly disappointed with [Huxley’s sixth novel Eyeless in Gaza] and unsympathetic to religious experiences, but of course it was Aldous of the Essays, … gentle, inquiring, fascinating, and fascinated too with every fact, every thought, hesitatingly brought out with the amazed inflection of his voice.”
Huxley’s essays have now been gathered together in six volumes by Robert S. Baker of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and James Sexton of Camosun College in British Columbia. The first volume appeared two years ago; the last, covering the years 1956–63, has just come out. Here, in a uniform edition, are not only the essays Huxley published in book form, with his two travel books included for good measure, but also scores of magazine and newspaper pieces previously accessible to the general reader only with difficulty. Title notwithstanding, the Complete Essays is not absolutely comprehensive, and does not claim to be. None of Huxley’s earliest articles for the Athenaeum or the London Mercury are here, and a few later pieces I would have liked to see—the 1944 Harper’s piece on Sheldonism (see below), for example—are missing. This is, though, a good representative collection, gathering between hard covers the whole sweep of Huxley’s thought, as it developed across forty-four years.
All of Huxley’s biographers begin by pointing out that his bloodlines were distinguished, but somewhat oddly mixed. His paternal grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the great Victorian biologist, best remembered for his victory against Archbishop Wilberforce in the 1860 debate about evolution. Known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” T. H. Huxley advocated scientism—that is, the belief that there is no area of human experience or understanding into which science will not eventually advance, or which the scientific method will be unable to explain. He seems to have coined the word “agnostic,” and used it to describe his own position on the mysteries of mind, spirit, and creation. Aldous’s mother was a granddaughter of the great evangelical headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold, the “Doctor” in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, originator of the “muscular Christianity” style of boarding-school education for boys, and father of the poet Matthew Arnold (who was, therefore, Aldous Huxley’s great-uncle). Dr. Arnold was an intensely religious man, who, when headmaster of Rugby, was reported to break down and weep openly in front of the whole school at the story of Christ’s Passion.
To what degree these antecedents, or his consciousness of them, shaped Aldous’s own thinking, is a matter of some interest, the more so since eugenics—a respectable field of discussion and inquiry until tainted by association with Nazi “race science”—is a key topic in Huxley’s best-remembered novel, Brave New World, published in 1932. The following things, at least, can be said with certainty: Aldous Huxley was raised in a family that took intellectual inquiry very seriously indeed, he maintained a lifelong interest in science, and he treated the religious instinct with utmost respect.
The high summer of Victorian scientific optimism in which Aldous’s grandfather had basked was long gone by the time Aldous reached intellectual maturity. So—thanks in part to Grandpa Huxley’s efforts—was the social atmosphere in which serious intellectuals, at any rate in the Anglo-Saxon countries, could base programs for social reform on evangelical Christianity, as Dr. Arnold had. The second and third decades of the twentieth century were notoriously an age of failed gods and shattered conventions, to which many thoughtful people responded in obvious ways, retreating into nihilism, hedonism, and experimentalism. Literature became subjective, art became abstract, poetry abandoned its traditional forms. In the “low, dishonest decade” that then followed, much of this negativism curdled into power-worship and escapism of various kinds.
Aldous Huxley stood aside from these large general trends. Though no Victorian in habits or beliefs, he never entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of modernism. The evidence is all over the early volumes of these essays. Ulysses, he declares in 1925, is “one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the least significant.” Jazz, he remarks two years later, is “drearily barbaric.” Writing of Sir Christopher Wren in 1923, he quotes with approval Carlyle’s remark that Chelsea Hospital, one of Wren’s creations, was “obviously the work of a gentleman.” Wren, Huxley goes on to say, was indeed a great gentleman, “one who valued dignity and restraint and who, respecting himself, respected also humanity.”
In his thirties, in fact, Huxley comes across as something of a Young Fogey. “I have grown shameless… . I can watch unmoved the departure of the last social-cultural bus—the innumerable last buses which are starting at every instant in all the world’s capitals. I make no effort to board them, and when the noise of each departure has died down, ‘Thank Goodness!’ is what I say to myself in the solitude.” Those remarks preface a horrified review of the first non-silent movie to strike box-office gold, The Jazz Singer.
A beneficent providence has dimmed my powers of sight, so that, at a distance of more than four or five yards, I am blissfully unaware of the full horror of the average human countenance. At the cinema, however, there is no escape. Magnified up to Brobdingnagian proportions, the human countenance smiles its six-foot smile, opens and closes its thirty-two inch eyes, registered [sic] soulfulness or grief, libido or whimsicality with every square centimeter of its several roods of pallid mooniness… . For the first time I felt grateful for the defect of vision which had preserved me from a daily acquaintance with such scenes.
Considering that he is thought of nowadays largely as a herald for some soon-to-arrive future of hedonism via genetic manipulation, Huxley could be remarkably old-fashioned.
That “defect of vision” for which Huxley offered ironic thanks was in fact one of the great determinants of his life, constraining his movements in the world and keeping him out of military service during World War I. It began in 1911, when, at the age of seventeen, he was afflicted with a disease of the eyes (eventually diagnosed as keratitis punctata, an inflammation of the corneas) that for several months rendered him actually and completely blind. Huxley reacted to this disaster with heroic fortitude. Sent home from Eton, he took up Braille and used it to pursue his studies. He even taught himself to play the piano, with one hand on the keyboard and one on the Braille music sheet. He wrote his first novel while blind (it was never published), and spoke of his affliction only to crack jokes about it. His cousin Gervas Huxley came into his room one bitter winter morning to be greeted with: “You know, Gerry, there’s one great advantage in Braille, you can read in bed without getting your hands cold.”
Huxley’s later description of the state of his eyesight at the time he went up to Oxford in 1913 was as follows: “I was left … with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with enough vision to permit of my detecting the two-hundred foot letter on the Snellen chart at ten feet.” Under these circumstances, the recollections of his Oxford coevals are astonishing. Gervas, in a comment one feels obliged to read twice to make sure one has got it right, reported that: “He had read a great deal while he was blind—working on his own, he read a lot of things, like French, which we didn’t know.” Raymond Mortimer, who was a freshman with Huxley, described him as: “formidably sophisticated … dazzling. … The erudition: he had read everything.” Huxley graduated with a first in English, having done all the reading for his degree with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass.
To have passed through such a crisis, at just the age when one is reading with the most attention and absorption, emerging on the other side of that crisis to impress the brilliant young undergraduates of pre-World War I Oxford as a person who had “read everything,” was a stunning intellectual achievement. I do not think there is any question that Aldous Huxley regarded the life of the intellect with utmost seriousness, and worked very hard at keeping his own mind well-furnished. He read slowly and doggedly, but constantly, all through his life. Here he is writing to George Orwell in 1949, when the latter, or his publisher, had sent a courtesy copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. “It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references [presumably this was Themes and Variations, reproduced in Volume V of this Complete Essays]; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The greatest impact of Huxley’s near-blindness was on his scientific interests. He had originally intended a career as a doctor, until the problems with his sight put an end to the possibility. He might indeed have made a fine research scientist—an astronomer, perhaps, or a physicist. He felt himself to be that way inclined. “If I could be born again and choose what I should be in my next existence, I should desire to be a man of science… . [E]ven if I could be Shakespeare, I think I should still choose to be Faraday.” It is very easy to imagine Huxley as the more thoughtful kind of scientist, perhaps turning in later life to the writing of good popular books about the origins of life and the future of the human race, like Freeman Dyson, or producing occasional startling science fiction novels, like Fred Hoyle. He sought out and enjoyed the company of scientific professionals—the astronomer Edwin Hubble, after whom the space telescope is named, was a close friend from 1937 until his sudden death (sitting in his car, in his driveway) in 1953.
Huxley was, I believe, a rather pure specimen of the natural-born scientist, equipped with the scientist’s tireless curiosity and passion for classifying. Point Counter Point, the best of his literary novels, is almost comically a “novel of types”—the equivalent of Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda, which has six precisely equiponderant roles, one for each major vocal category. Unfortunately, the early failure of his sight denied Huxley the rigorous disciplines of the laboratory and the peer review. This threw him back on much more speculation about science than working scientists—young ones, at any rate—generally go in for, and thence toward the metaphysical imperative I stated up above. Edwin Burtt’s Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science was a favorite book. Huxley enthused about it in a 1925 letter to his father. He recommends it to the reader twelve years later, in the book of essays titled Ends and Means, and again in the 1946 collection Science, Liberty and Peace. This is also the book we find on the lap of Philip Quarles, Huxley’s fictional self-portrait, when he is crossing the Red Sea by steamship in Point Counter Point. Burtt, whose dates were 1892–1989, was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago when he published Metaphysical Foundations in 1924, bent on seeking what he called “an adequate philosophy of the mind” through a study of scientific revolutions and the thinkers who brought them about. Burtt’s interests, prefiguring Huxley’s, later turned to Eastern religion: his 1955 anthology of Buddhist scriptures is still in print today.
The frustration of Huxley’s natural scientific bent also had at least one malign consequence: a much too uncritical attitude towards fringe and crank sciences, especially those that offered some hint of a connection to the world of the spirit. He was an early enthusiast for the work of Dr. J. B. Rhine of Duke University, which Huxley believed had established the reality of extra-sensory perception. Huxley’s 1954 essay in Life magazine probably did more than anything else to bring Rhine’s “results” (which rested on a misapplication of the rules of statistical inference) to the attention of the broad general public. J. W. Dunne’s “experiments with time,” which involved sifting through one’s dreams for episodes of precognition, got Huxley’s attention. So did dianetics, which was later incorporated into Scientology. Huxley and Maria, his first wife, had three or four sessions with L. Ron Hubbard.
The body-typing theories of William Sheldon, the academic psychologist who gave us the words “endomorph,” “mesomorph,” and “ectomorph,” were another enthusiasm. Sheldon taught that every human physiognomy could be placed somewhere on a body-type triangle, with these extremes at its three vertices. Associated with each component of body type was a characteristic personality, which Sheldon named, respectively, “viscerotonic,” “somatotonic,” and “cerebrotonic.” These words are scattered through Huxley’s books, and must be very baffling to readers now, when Sheldon’s theories have sunk into academic oblivion. Huxley classified himself as an extreme cerebrotonic ectomorph: he stood six feet four—perhaps another point of affinity with Hubble, who was six feet five.
Huxley is mainly remembered by the general public now for having written Brave New World, one of the two great admonitory novels of the twentieth century. It used to be, and for all I know may still be, a common classroom exercise for high school seniors to read Huxley’s novel together with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and then to express and justify an opinion about which is a more probable future for the human race. Huxley himself seems to have been in two minds about the matter. In his essay on the French metaphysician François-Pierre Maine de Biran (another “extreme cerebrotonic,” by the way), Huxley notes that Orwell’s forecast “was made from a vantage point considerably further down the descending spiral of modern history than mine, and is probably more nearly correct.” However, in the 1949 letter to Orwell, Huxley argued that his own imagined future was the more probable one.
Most of us would agree with this latter opinion, I think. The great terror-despotisms of mid-century are a fading memory now. Their style lingers on in some minor Third World hell-holes in Africa or Arabia, but nobody bothers much about that. Those are barbarous places, of which little better can be expected. The shocking thing about the Nazi and Soviet terrors was that they had planted themselves in civilized European nations, the nations that had brought forth Goethe, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Tolstoy. If such things could happen there, they could happen anywhere —or, as in Orwell’s novel, everywhere.
As Lenin and Hitler recede into history, the idea that a civilized nation can descend so deep into a totalitarianism maintained by fear seems less and less plausible. Huxley’s dystopia, by contrast, is all too plausible. Indeed, the unsettling thing about Huxley’s imagined future is that it is not easy for a modern reader to say what, exactly, is so bad about it. To be sure, we maintain our democracy, religion is still alive, and our inclination to join up in pairs and raise our own children seems to be ineradicable. In many other respects, though, we have settled happily into the infantile hedonism of Brave New World. Re-reading that novel recently after many years, I suddenly realized why it is that I find the current hit TV show Friends so unwatchable. In the World State of the year 632 After Ford, would not Phoebe, Chandler & Co. be model citizens? In the terms of that great Dostoyevskian exchange between the Savage and the Controller at the end of Chapter 17 in Huxley’s masterpiece, we have come down pretty firmly on the side of the Controller, and trust to science to cope with whatever unpleasant consequences may attend our choice.
“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V .S. treatments compulsory.”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenalin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”
“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
So do we, so do we.
Orwell was an essayist as accomplished as Huxley, though in a very different style. The two men barely knew each other, their closest contact having occurred in 1917–18, when Huxley taught at Eton, where Orwell was a pupil. The letter of thanks for Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to have been the only one from Huxley to Orwell; I do not know of any in the other direction. Huxley was of course an established writer while Orwell was shooting elephants on behalf of the Indian Imperial Police. I counted twenty-four references to the older man in The Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism of George Orwell, including a couple of prize say-what? Orwellisms. Sample, from a letter to Richard Rees: “You were right abt Huxley’s book [Ape and Essence]—it is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex. He cannot get off the subject of flagellating women.”
Orwell included Huxley among those writers he described as “inside the whale,” that is, looking out at the world through a thick transparent layer of insulating blubber. The Complete Essays amply confirm this. Huxley does his conscientious best with social and political issues, but can never stay moored to plain fact for long. Soon, after a perfunctory paragraph or two, he soars off into lofty abstraction. This makes Huxley’s social and political writing very tedious to read. Compare his detached, colorless description of a visit to a coal-mining region, recorded in the essay “Abroad in England,” with the vivid immediacy of Orwell’s similar excursions in The Road to Wigan Pier. Similarly, while Gandhi’s assassination inspired one of Orwell’s finest essays, it brought forth no lengthy relections from Huxley, only some offhand remarks at the beginning of Ape and Essence. This is particularly striking since Huxley was a pacifist and admirer of Gandhi, while Orwell regarded the sage with mild contempt. Huxley seems not to have noticed Pearl Harbor, though he was living in California at the time.
So what was Huxley’s metaphysics? His first sustained attempt to express his outlook in writing was the aforementioned 1937 book of essays, Ends and Means, reproduced here in its entirety. “It is a dull book,” said Evelyn Waugh, reviewing it. He added: “There is no reason to suppose that in ten years’ time [Huxley] will hold any of the opinions he holds today.”
In this latter opinion, Waugh was mistaken. In fact, so far as metaphysics was concerned, Huxley seems at this point to have settled into the views that he held to for the rest of his life, and which led him to those well-known experiments with mind-altering drugs he conducted from 1953 onwards. (In the last hours of his death from cancer, Huxley asked for, and got, injections of LSD. He died under the influence.) Ends and Means is about a great many things—war, politics, religion, economics, and the beginnings of a concern with what we should nowadays call “the environment”—but it is all rooted in metaphysics. I took that starting quote in my second paragraph from Ends and Means.
Huxley adopted a philosophical outlook based on mysticism, most especially on Hindu and Buddhist concepts. There exists a single universal consciousness, the “Mind at Large,” of which individual selves are manifestations, extrusions into the world of space, time, and language. It follows that our individual consciousnesses, our private selves, are in principle capable of apprehending the whole of reality. In Doors of Perception, Huxley quotes with approval the British philosopher C. D. Broad: “The function of the brain and the nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and otherwise irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive.” Mind at Large, says Huxley himself, “has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system.” The contents of this much-reduced awareness are then encompassed and fixed (in the chemical sense: “to make nonvolatile or solid”) by language, so that they are, by definition, all that language can cope with. Connoisseurs of pseudoscience will spot the parallels with dianetics here, though Huxley had formed his ideas long before Hubbard launched his own system on an unsuspecting world in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
The ethical problem raised by this outlook—the fact that the Mind at Large is impersonal, and therefore ethically neutral—is dealt with in Ends and Means by traditional Vedantic and Buddhist arguments. Though ultimate reality is neither good nor evil in itself, it is only by practicing goodness that one can hope to attain any real acquaintance with that reality. My impression, however—and I had better confess here that I find metaphysics tiresome, and may not have grasped the full subtlety of Huxley’s exposition—is that the ethical side of things was never well thought out. The Huxley-mouthpiece character in the 1939 immortality novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, for example, argues that evil is intrinsically inherent in time, and that only by escaping from time can one approach goodness. It seems that in order to attain the sole state in which goodness dwells, we must practice goodness… . But, as I said, it may be my own understanding that is deficient here.
All of this was, in Huxley’s case, pure intellection. He told Rosamond Lehmann in 1961 that he had never had a religious experience. He did not actually like religion, as a social phenomenon. “One is all for religion until one visits a really religious country.” (He seems to have India in mind here.) Huxley took lessons in Indian techniques of meditation from Swami Prabhavananda at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. He was not, though, willing to accept the Swami as a guru, nor to join with him in devotions to Hindu gods. Huxley was in fact strongly averse to the notion of religion grounded in culture. He sought the universal, the common denominator of religious experience. Writing of Simone Weil, he dismisses as irrelevant the question of whether or not she knew Sanskrit.
[T]he Upanishads are not systems of pure speculation, in which the niceties of language are all important. They were written by Transcendental Pragmatists, as we may call them, whose concern was to teach a doctrine which could be made to “work,” a metaphysical theory which could be operationally tested, not through perception only, but by a direct experience of the whole man on every level of his being. To understand the meaning of tat tvam asi, “thou art That,” it is not necessary to be a profound Sanskrit scholar. (Similarly, it is not necessary to be a profound Hebrew scholar in order to understand the meaning of, “thou shalt not kill.”)
One is not surprised to recall that this is the author who, thirty years earlier, had become the first (I feel pretty sure) to have a character in a novel mention Wittgenstein.
In this context, Sybille Bedford’s account of Huxley’s U.S. naturalization interview makes curious reading. The McCarran Act of 1952 had denied citizenship to any person who refused to bear arms for other than religious reasons. Aldous was a pacifist, and said so at the interview. Was he a religious man? asked the interviewing judge. “Aldous said that he was indeed a religious man; his opposition to war, however, was an entirely philosophical one.” This particular metaphysical circle was never squared to the satisfaction of the immigration authorities; though he lived in the United States for the last twenty-six years of his life, Huxley never did get citizenship, and died a subject of the Crown.
Huxley himself, in the preface to a 1959 collection of his essays, gave it as his opinion that: “Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal.” He goes on to elaborate a sort of Sheldonian classification for essayists, with Charles Lamb at the first vertex of the triangle, Macaulay at the second, and Bacon sharing the third with Emerson and Dr. Johnson. (I note in passing the absence of Hazlitt from this preface, and indeed from Huxley’s works altogether. This seems odd to me. I should have thought the intellectual affinity quite strong.) Essayists of real genius, Huxley goes on to say, are those like Montaigne, who can roam easily between all three poles.
My impression is that Huxley saw himself as dwelling at that third pole with Bacon, Emerson, and Johnson. If I am right about this, he misjudged himself, as artists often do. Going through these essays now, decades after their first appearance, the “abstract-universal” writings make pretty dull reading. Even at the time they were published, in fact, they struck some very discerning readers that way, as Evelyn Waugh’s remark illustrates. (Ends and Means is almost solidly “abstract-universal.”) Huxley was actually at his best with some literary, artistic, or historical material to comment on, or when traveling.
The 1956 essay collection titled Adonis and the Alphabet offers especially rich pickings here. If the publisher of these volumes will forgive my saying so, in fact, I think a person who wanted to form a first acquaintance with “Aldous of the Essays” could do worse than find a second-hand copy of Adonis. (The Adonis essays are in Volume V of this set.) That comes with a slight qualification. By this stage of Huxley’s life, metaphysics had become a hobby-horse, and many of the essays end with a little coda, relating the principal theme to the need for “direct experience of the basic fact of the divine immanence,” or “knowledge of the Whole within.” After a few encounters with this sort of thing, though, the reader learns to disregard these metaphysical flourishes, rather as one does the compulsory moment of sappiness at the end of a traditional TV sitcom, and just enjoy the body of the thing.
Here in Adonis is the essay titled “Ozymandias,” the strange, atmospheric tale of the short-lived Llano del Rio socialist commune, where “everything that ought not to have been done was systematically done.” Here is “Hyperion to a Satyr,” an amusing and instructive discourse on dirt, halitosis, and cognate topics. Here is a wittily and, to this musical ignoramus, inexplicably fascinating piece on the Neapolitan composer Carlo Gesualdo (1560–1613), whose first marriage had an abrupt ending when the lady took a lover. Gesualdo broke into his wife’s room, slew her and her lover, then “took horse and galloped off to one of his castles where, after liquidating his second child (the one of doubtful paternity), he remained for several months … to avoid the private vengeance of the Avalos and Carafa families.”
Adonis also has some fine travel pieces. The title essay, in fact, was inspired by a visit to the site of ancient Byblos. Huxley was quite an accomplished travel writer, and four of these six volumes have separate sections headed “Travel.” (I should explain that the general system of organization adopted by the editors has been to group the essays in each volume under three or four broad thematic headings, breaking up the original volumes of essays as necessary.) He early developed a fine contrarian attitude toward the great spectacles of the tourist trail. Of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs: “Holiness and costliness make up for any lack of architectural merit. For architecturally the temple is less than nothing.” This is merely a warm-up for his assault on the Taj Mahal:
[I]ts elegance is at the best of a very dry and negative kind. Its “classicism” is the product not of intellectual restraint imposed on an exuberant fancy but of an actual deficiency of fancy, a poverty of imagination. One is struck at once by the lack of variety in the architectural forms of which it is composed… . When the Taj is compared with more or less contemporary European buildings in the neo-classic style of the High Renaissance and Baroque periods, this poverty in the formal elements composing it becomes very apparent.
Any idea that Huxley’s failure to appreciate the Taj Mahal might have been due to his limited eyesight is soon dispelled by reading his art criticism, most especially, I think, the earlier pieces in this line. Poor as his eyes may have been, they did not hinder him from developing a comprehensive knowledge of art, built on a sound esthetic sense. (Nor, come to think of it, from marrying a very beautiful woman when he was young and penniless.) Huxley sketched and painted as a hobby, at least into his early forties. All his writing is sprinkled with judiciously-chosen metaphors from art, as in this crisp piece of travel writing from Beyond the Mexique Bay. The location here is Honduras.
We came back from the ruins to find the entire population of Copán clustered round our aeroplane, like a crowd of Breughel’s peasants round a crucifixion. Some were standing; some, with the air of people who had come out for a long day’s pleasure, were sitting in the shade of our wings and picnicking. They were a villainous set of men and women; not Indian, but low ladino, squalid and dirty as only a poverty-stricken half-caste, with a touch of white blood and a sense of superiority to all the traditional decencies of the inferior race, can be dirty and squalid. Before the doors of the cabin stood half a dozen ruffians, looking like the Second Murderers of Elizabethan drama, and armed with genuinely antique muskets of the American Civil War pattern. The local police.
What is left of all this now? Those “objective, factual, and concrete-particular” essays aside, Brave New World aside, and the (to my taste) much faded ironical charm of the early fiction likewise, what else is there in Huxley’s work that can be read for enlightenment or inspiration by a person of our time? I am sorry to say that I think the answer is: very little. Whether this speaks worse of Huxley, or of us, I am not sure.
The abiding impression one is left with after reading through 2,907 pages of Huxley’s nonfiction writing is one of seriousness. That is not, I hasten to add, the same as unrelieved earnestness. Huxley was not a humorless man, as the early novels and short stories amply testify, and the lighter essays occasionally confirm. His style included something of a talent for throw-away apothegms: “Ignorance is no deterrent to the hardened journalist,” for example. He was a satirist of genius; the description of the California cemetery in After Many a Summer must surely have given Evelyn Waugh the idea for his own dark comedy The Loved One. Huxley had, in fact, a well-developed sense of the absurd, and that conviction—I always associate it with G. K. Chesterton, though it is of course more widespread—that the universe is radically weird. Comments to this effect turn up again and again in Huxley’s writing: “the astonishingness of the most obvious things,” “the unutterably odd facts of human experience,” etc. He was much tickled to find, when typing one day, that his left hand had slipped from “c” to “v,” giving him the phrase: “the human vomedy.”
Huxley described himself as “by temperament extremely anti-social,” but he was not anhedonic, and the pleasure he took in art, literature, close friendships, and the ordinary processes of life, are plain to see in his writings. He was, though, a bookish intellectual with chronically poor eyesight, and his pleasures were mostly of the private and interior kind. “Fulfilled, domestic duties are a source of happiness, and intellectual labor is rewarded by the most intense delights,” he wrote in 1931. “It is not the hope of heaven that prevents me from leading what is technically known as a life of pleasure; it is simply my temperament. I happen to find the life of pleasure boring and painful.”
This fundamentally serious nature manifested itself in a lifelong concern with the question: How should we live? The reason for the current irrelevance of most of Huxley’s thinking is that, over the past fifty years, the Western world’s educated middle classes have arrived at an answer of their own that satisfies the great majority of them fairly well, and this answer implicitly repudiates most of Huxley’s ideas.
We should live, we have decided, in modest hedonism, tempered and constrained by a similarly modest respect for traditional moral precepts, these latter encapsulated, for those of us so inclined, in established religious observances. We entrust the keeping of the peace to armies and diplomats, not to idealists. We entrust our social order to policemen and judges, not to hopes for universal moral improvement. We seek personal fulfillment in work, hobbies, child-raising, and service to others, not in the pursuit of Nirvana. If we want to read about human types, we pick up Psychology Today, not a novel. For the latest insights into human nature, we go to Professor Pinker, not to writers of literary essays. Mind-altering drugs? They mess up your life. Demographic or ecological catastrophe? We’ll science our way out of it. Metaphysics? Hey, we don’t even understand physics any more! Leave that stuff to the experts, they’ll sort it out.
Undoubtedly there is a worm in this rosy apple somewhere. In human affairs, there always is. The End of History is invariably an illusion; when one chess game stops, another starts immediately. This cheerful embourgeoisement of the world will proceed for a few more years, then take a wrong turn somehow, spreading misery and desperation among people raised in comfort and security, as the traumas of 1914–45 did to Huxley’s generation. Until then, though, we are not in a very serious frame of mind, and seriousness on the Huxley scale does not much interest us.
- Complete Essays: Volume VI, 1956–1963, by Aldous Huxley, edited with commentary by Robert S. Baker and James Sexton; Ivan R. Dee, 416 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
- According to Huxley’s biographer Sybille Bedford, “In 1919, in the course of the eight months-odd he was working for the Athenaeum, Aldous contributed 29 signed articles and 171 anonymous notices and reviews to the paper, did 8 articles for the London Mercury and some reviews.” Bedford’s biography, which first appeared in two volumes in 1973, has been reissued in a single volume by Ivan R. Dee, 832 pages, $24.95 (paper). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 6, on page 13
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