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‘Born into the rain,’ Aldous Huxley told the New York Herald Tribune in 1952, ‘I have always felt a powerful craving for light.’1 Huxley had in mind his lifelong struggle with defective eyesight, which sent him first to the Mediterranean and then to Southern California. But the wider metaphor is irresistible. His life was a constant search for light, for understanding, of himself and his fellow men and women in the twentieth century. This intellectual ambition – not unknown but rare in English novelists – sent him far beyond the confines of prose fiction into history, philosophy, science, politics, mysticism, psychic exploration. He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: aun aprendo. I am still learning. Grandson of the great Victorian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley – ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ – he had a lifelong passion for truth, artistic and scientific. His field of interest, declared Isaiah Berlin after his death, was nothing less than ‘the condition of men in the twentieth century’.2
Like an eighteenth century philosophe, a modern Voltaire – though in truth he found that historical epoch lacking in depth and resonance – he took the whole world as his province, and like those urbane thinkers he did it with consummate clarity and grace, was frequently iconoclastic, and struck many of his contemporaries in the early decades of the twentieth century as a liberator and a herald of the modern age of secular enlightenment and scientific progress. He was also an often disturbingly accurate prophet who became steadily more disillusioned with the uses to which science was being put in his time. His was an early voice in the ecological movement, which gathered pace after his death. He warned against the dangers of nuclear weapons, over-population, exhaustion of the world’s natural resources, militarism and destructive nationalism. His subtler messages – about the corrosive effects of modern consumer capitalism and brainwashing by advertising, about the slow surrender of freedom – have made his most famous work, Brave New World, in many ways a more accurate prophecy than Orwell’s 1984. From a certain point of view, it is true, Huxley’s brand of high amateurism might look a little anachronistic in an era of intense academic specialisation – he loved to mock ‘the professors’ (not least when he became a ‘Visiting Professor of Nothing in Particular’ himself) and considered no subject, however abstruse, alien to him. The wide-ranging intellectual, acknowledging no disciplinary barriers, nor feeling the need to kow-tow to the appointed custodians of this or that area of knowledge, if not extinct is certainly an endangered species. The example of Huxley – who constituted what Rosamund Lehmann called ‘a luminous intelligence incarnate’3 – serves as a reminder of what might be at stake were the species to disappear for good.
But Huxley was never – in spite of his prodigious intellectual gifts – a mere desiccated calculating machine. It is true that he confessed to ‘a fear of the responsibilities of relationships’.4 And he admitted: ‘I know how to deal with abstract ideas but not people’.5 In spite of his exceptional intelligence and his frequent impatience with human stupidity (expressed more at a theoretical than at a personal level) Huxley was a surprisingly modest and self-effacing man. He showed an exceptionally acute perception of his own shortcomings as a man and as a writer. In the 1940s, Huxley was smitten by the classification of human types drawn up by Dr William Sheldon in The Varieties of Human Physique and The Varieties of Temperament. In this scheme, Huxley was a ‘cerebrotonic’, a term that would crop up regularly in his later works. In an article which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in November 1944, with droll illustrations by James Thurber, Huxley explained the characteristics of his own type:
The cerebrotonic is the over-alert, over-sensitive introvert, who is more concerned with the inner universe of his own thoughts and feelings and imagination than with the external world … In posture and movements, the cerebrotonic person is tense and restrained. His reactions may be unduly rapid and his physiological responses uncomfortably intense … Extreme cerebrotonics … have a passion for privacy, hate to make themselves conspicuous … In company they tend to be shy and unpredictably moody … Their normal manner is inhibited and restrained and when it comes to the expression of feelings they are outwardly so inhibited that viscerotonics suspect them of being heartless.6
Huxley, however, was not ‘heartless’. As a young writer in the twenties, he was seen as a cold-eyed and ruthless satirist, disgusted by human folly, but the underlying humanity was always there, and keener readers noticed it.
One sticky afternoon in Los Angeles in the early part of the year 2000, I was taken by a gentle Armenian taxi-driver – with perfect manners and an imperfect grasp of the street-plan of Hollywood – to the house in Mulholland Highway in the Hollywood Hills where Huxley ended his life and where his second wife, Laura Archera Huxley, still lives. Sitting on the verandah at the back of the house, in view of the famous white HOLLYWOOD letters erected on the hillside at what seemed only a stone’s throw away, I found myself asking Mrs Huxley at one point in our conversation about the view of Huxley that had been disseminated widely towards the end of his life: that he had been transformed into an other-worldly sage, abstracted, almost ethereal, his moorings cut loose from the world. It is a common view of Huxley in the 1950s and 1960s. Laura Huxley dissented vigorously: ‘He was very present and light and amused,’ she insisted. We had been talking for more than an hour. The light had begun to fade and a cool breeze bringing the scent of vegetation was blowing gently in from the hills. Mosquitoes, like tiny paratroopers landing on an enemy beach, were dropping in at angles. There was a long pause:
I cannot tell you how gentle and tender the man was: accepting and tender and caring.
Laura Huxley’s comments echo many of the tributes made at the time of his death. Testimonies to what Leonard Woolf called his ‘essential gentleness and sweetness’7 abounded. For Osbert Sitwell he was ‘that rare thing, a good man’ and for Isaiah Berlin ‘a wholly civilised, good and scrupulous man’.8
Present-day criticism and biography is not at ease with this way of speaking about writers. Until very recently critics were pre-occupied with formal and theoretical questions. The writer’s moral stance was considered, in Derrida’s words ‘hors-texte’ – beyond the text and therefore irrelevant. But nothing dates more quickly than critical fashion and there are growing signs of dissatisfaction with such narrow approaches. We are perhaps now ready again for Huxley and writers like him. On the other hand, those who have called Huxley a secular saint (when coined by Gladstone to describe John Stuart Mill, that epithet was intended to carry an ambivalent charge) run the risk of inviting a sceptical reaction. Yet even the unillusioned Cyril Connolly, interviewing Huxley for Picture Post in 1948, was forced to conclude that the man he had met at Claridges during the West End run of one of his plays was qualitatively different from the general run of contemporary authors:
If one looks at his face one gets first an impression of immense intelligence, but this is not unusual among artists. What is much more remarkable and almost peculiar to him is the radiance of serenity and loving-kindness on his features; one no longer feels ‘what a clever man’ but ‘what a good man,’ a man at peace with himself and plunged as well – indeed, fully engaged – in the eternal conflict between good and evil, awareness and stupidity.’9
Huxley’s philosophy might be summed up as: the world can be made better, but only if we make ourselves better. He was not an ideologist, a writer of manifestos, a practical politician. But he wanted to change minds – or to release their potential. His intelligence roamed freely and was uninterested in boundaries. In California, he gave lunch to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the batty science of dianetics – for the simple reason that he wanted to find out what he had to say – and when a friend wrote about flying saucers he confessed that he had ‘no settled opinion so far’ about whether or not they existed.10 An open mind is such a rarity that perhaps we should hesitate to censure it.
But, in addition to the intellect and the moral vision, there was the physical man. Huxley was immensely tall – six feet four-and-a half inches – and the near-blindness that afflicted him for much of his life sometimes gave him an air of strangeness, perhaps intimidating for those who met him for the first time. For Christopher Isherwood who knew him in his southern California years he was ‘too tall. I felt an enormous zoological separation from him. There is a very, very great chasm between the tall and the short.’11 For the scallywags of Hampstead where Huxley lived in a tiny flat just after he was married in 1919, he was the spindly Old Etonian toff they would tease in the street by shouting up to him: ‘Is it cold up there, guv?’12 Virginia Woolf confided to her diary after her first meeting that he was ‘infinitely long’. It was on the lawn at Garsington, while scanning the manuscripts of Gerald Manley Hopkins which Robert Bridges had just handed to her, that she looked up at ‘that gigantic grasshopper Aldous folded up in a chair close by’. A few years later she met him at a concert ‘more of a windmill and a scarecrow, more highbrow, purblind and pallid and spavined than ever’.13 The zoological comparisons proliferate. Sybille Bedford noticed at her first meeting with him: ‘the apartness, the vulnerability, the curious young bird’s unprotectedness that has caught so many women’.14 Then there were the botanical analogies: to Frieda Lawrence he was a ‘weed’15 and to Sewell Stokes ‘like a tall sad tulip, whose head rests a little too heavily on its stalk’.16 To the children of St John and Mary Hutchinson, he was ‘the Quangle-Wangle’.17 Anita Loos, a close friend of Huxley in Southern California, was struck by his ‘physical beauty … the head of an angel drawn by William Blake. His faulty sight even intensified Aldous’s majesty, for he appeared to be looking at things above and beyond what other people saw.’18 Mary Hutchinson was struck by his physical appearance: ‘so long and gentle and languid suggesting untouchable withdrawn snail’s horns in strange contrast to his flowing outgoing mind’.19
And there was the famous voice: beautifully modulated, silvery, precise. Listening to a recording of himself, pressed on vinyl in the summer of 1949, when he had lived in Southern California for more than a decade, Huxley reflected:
Language is perpetually changing; the cultivated English I listened to as a child is not the same as the cultivated English spoken by young men and women today. But within the general flux there are islands of linguistic conservatism; and when I listen to myself objectively, from the outside, I perceive that I am one of those islands. In the Oxford of Jowett and Lewis Carroll, the Oxford in which my mother was brought up, how did people speak the Queen’s English? I can answer with a considerable degree of confidence that they spoke almost exactly as I do. These recordings of 1950 are at the same time documents from the seventies and eighties of the last century.20
Locked for a day in a booth at the National Sound Archive in London, listening to that voice – unaltered by years of residence in the United States – ‘neat as a seamstress’s stitching’21 as his friend Gerald Heard put it, one can testify to the accuracy of another friend, Raymond Mortimer’s, judgement that, ‘his voice and articulation remained the most exquisite I have ever known.’22 His conversation was peppered with ‘how extraordinary’ and ‘fascinating’, and with casual references to leading contemporary authorities on this or that branch of knowledge and effortlessly deployed allusions to past masters (‘There’s a very striking phrase in Spinoza …’). Just occasionally, that easeful, liquid articulation, the tone almost of languor, rises a little to a degree that could become, were it to be taken a little further, querulousness, as if the speaker cannot quite comprehend the sheer enormity of human folly in his time, falling back exhausted at the spectacle. Yet the speaking voice was the man and Yehudi Menuhin declared, ‘he had made himself into an instrument of music … his voice was the gentlest melody.’23
‘Aldous,’ observed his nephew, Francis Huxley. ‘How well the name suited him, and how often have I heard people refer to him with familiar reverence by that name alone, as though there were but one Aldous in the history of the world!’24
Aldous Huxley was born in 1894, when Queen Victoria was on the throne of England. As a child he glimpsed the Queen in old age, taking carriage exercise in Windsor Great Park, attended by her faithful servant John Brown.25 He died in Hollywood, in 1963, a few hours after the fatal shots rang out from the Texas Book Depository in Dallas which killed President John F. Kennedy. He was the grandson of a great Victorian scientist and the great-nephew of the Victorian poet and critic, Matthew Arnold. He was thus a kind of conduit or link between the world of high Victorian liberal intellectualism and the world of the twentieth century, whose course those ardent, progressively-minded meliorists could not have predicted. It was this aspect of Huxley which first drew me to him, for I had written the life of Matthew Arnold, and was curious to explore the ways in which that nineteenth century tradition of the writer and thinker as enlightened public intellectual had persisted into the modern era. In his youth, Huxley was seen by his contemporaries as the opponent of that Victorian inheritance, a defiantly modern figure who was breaking free – and encouraging others to break free – from what was perceived as a stuffy, reactionary order of society. The eponymous heroine of Two or Three Graces (1926) knows what she is up against:
As for Grace’s parents, they were only a generation away; but, goodness knows, that was far enough. They had opinions about socialism and sexual morality, and gentlemen, and what ought or ought not to be done by the best people – fixed, unalterable, habit-ingrained and by now almost instinctive opinions that made it impossible for them to understand or forgive the contemporary world.26
Seen in a wider context, however, profounder continuities can be seen at work. Huxley’s passion both for science (even though he was painfully aware of the misuses of science in his time) and for communicating to a large public recall his grandfather’s determination to bring scientific knowledge to ordinary people, in plain language, in his lectures at the Royal Institution, attended by working men and cab-drivers, one of whom famously refused to accept a fare in gratitude for what he had heard. On his mother’s side, the Arnoldian inheritance of urbane public discourse and a love and practice of poetry is plain. Huxley had no time for those who would erect barriers between art and science, knowing them to be two complementary modes of knowing, as Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold had agreed them to be a century before, when Arnold vigorously insisted to his friend, Huxley, that his famous definition of culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ embraced scientific knowledge and culture.27
Two principal obstacles face anyone seeking to write a life of Aldous Huxley. The first is the fire that swept through his home in 1961, destroying papers, letters, and diaries belonging to Huxley, but also letters from others, including family members and relatives who had deposited material with him after he indicated that he was contemplating some form of autobiographical writing. Huxley, however, like most of his literary contemporaries, was a prolific letter writer and this book draws on the hundreds of unpublished letters which survive and which are scattered throughout library collections in Britain, the United States and Europe. The second cause for hesitation given to anyone contemplating a new life is the authorised biography of Huxley by Sybille Bedford, published in two volumes in 1973 and 1974. One of the outstanding post-war literary biographies in English, this book is more than a biography: periodically it acquires the special authority and richness of a memoir – for Sybille Bedford was an intimate of the Huxleys for many years. It is also an eloquent honouring of a life, and a way of life, that she seemed peculiarly well-equipped to perform. I am especially grateful to Sybille Bedford for the long conversations that I was able to have with her at her London home in the summer of 2000 and for her kindness and encouragement.
A new life, however, needs no justification. The last thirty years have seen the publication of many collected editions of letters and diaries of those who knew Huxley – Lawrence, Woolf and many others. In addition, as my acknowledgements indicate, there is now a wealth of unpublished material, which necessitates a bringing up to date of the Huxley story. Inevitably this means that the intimate life of Aldous Huxley and his remarkable wife, Maria, can now be more fully documented. Maria’s bisexuality, the extraordinary ménage à trois in the 1920s of Aldous, Maria and Mary Hutchinson – absent for obvious reasons from previous biographical accounts – are described here for the first time. Not the least of the many paradoxes of Aldous Huxley’s life was the co-existence of this complete sexual freedom and a long and loving marriage: what Huxley described, in a letter that has only recently come to light, as ‘thirty-five years of being two in one’.28 The Huxleys matriculated in sexual ethics at Garsington. They had an easy and civilised enjoyment of the sensual life. They loathed the ‘smut hounds’ whom Huxley angrily denounced for snapping at the heels of his friend D.H. Lawrence. Whatever is revealed of the private life of the Huxleys, their marriage remains one of the most extraordinary and sustaining literary marriages of the twentieth century.
At the centenary of Huxley’s birth in 1994, much emphasis was laid on Huxley’s early politics – in particular his supposed democratic lapses during a brief period in the very early 1930s. Two years earlier, a book by John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), had enjoyed considerable acclaim for its thesis that many leading twentieth century intellectuals imagined ‘the masses’ as ‘ripe for extermination’ as part of a ‘cult of the Nietzschean Superman, which found its ultimate exponent in Hitler’ – to quote from its excited blurb. The immediate success of this book was not hard to understand. It told conservative English opinion what it wanted to hear: that the high-toned progressives were no better than they ought to be. The Daily Mail was delighted. The Carey thesis – from which, in relation to Huxley, I wholly dissent – had an unfortunate influence on the centenary, including an hour-long BBC2 Bookmark programme about the writer which dutifully reflected the new orthodoxy.
What effect these passing media trends, however, have had on long-term assessments of Huxley is something hard to quantify. His nimble and lucid intelligence always contrives to keep him several paces ahead of the leaden-footed heresy hunters. His books are in print. Brave New World at least figures regularly on lists compiled to indicate the most popularly esteemed books of the twentieth century. His appeal is international – the enfant terrible of contemporary French writing, Michel Houellebecq, though seriously misinformed about some basic facts of Huxley’s biography, makes a dialogue with the writer a feature of his novel, Les Particules élémentaires (1998).29 Huxley scholars are few in number when compared to the Fordist masses at work in the Lawrence, Woolf, and Joyce industries. But Huxley is clearly still read, and still popular, and, although I have written a biography not a critical study of his novels, I hope to show in this fresh life that he may be speaking to our current condition in more interesting and thought-provoking ways than has recently been allowed.
New York Herald Tribune, 12 October, 1952
Aldous Huxley: A Memorial Volume edited by Julian Huxley (1966) [henceforward: Mem. Vol.] p148
Aldous Huxley: A Biography by Sybille Bedford. [henceforward SB] Volume 2 (1974), p280
Letters of Aldous Huxley edited by Grover Smith (1969) [henceforward L.] P357
L.361. See also L.390: ‘my besetting sin … an avoidance of emotion’
Harper’s Magazine, November 1944, p519
Mem. Vol. p35
Mem. Vol. pp33 and 153 respectively
Cyril Connolly, Picture Post, 6 November 1948, p21
Christopher Isherwood, Interview with David King Dunaway, 2 June 1985. Huntington Library Oral History Transcripts [henceforward HL]
Frank Swinnerton, The Georgian Literary Scene (1935), p458
The Diary of Virginia Woolf, (1977–84) ed Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, Vol 1, 17 October 1917, Vol 3, I July 1926, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, (1975–80), Vol 4, 28 January 1931 respectively
The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed James T. Boulton and Lindeth Vasey, Vol 5 (1989), P569, 31 October 1926. Frieda Lawrence to Montague Weekley
Sewell Stokes, Hear The Lions Roar (1931), p206
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, Austin, Texas [henceforward HRC], Mary Hutchinson unpublished profiles of Aldous and Maria Huxley (undated)
Anita Loos, Mem. Vol., p89
HRC, Mary Hutchinson Profiles
Sound Portraits (NY), July 1949. Text of sleeve note in University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Huxley archive
Gerald Heard, ‘The Poignant Prophet’, The Kenyon Review (1965), p51
Mem. Vol., p137
Mem. Vol., p86
Francis Huxley, ‘Preface’ to Aldous Huxley Recollected (1995) edited by David King Dunaway, pv
AH lecture at Santa Barbara, quoted in Laura Archera Huxley, This Timeless Moment (1969), p21
Two or Three Graces (1926), p88
See Nicholas Murray, A Life of Matthew Arnold (1996) p301. Arnold wrote to Huxley: ‘I never doubted that the formula included science.’
HRC Letter to Lady Sandwich from AH, 17 April 1955
Michel Houellebecq, Les Particules élémentaires (1998, Paris). Houellebecq seems to think that Leonard Huxley was a scientist, not a classics master and literary journalist, and that Huxley in California was an associate of Alan Ginsberg. But see the chapter, ‘Julian et Aldous’, pp193–201
ALDOUS HUXLEY. Copyright © 2002 by Nicholas Murray. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.