This question sparked a journalist's quest to understand what clearly seemed to be a little-known interest of Aldous Huxley. Through interviews, road trips, and family documents, the author reconstructs a time peaking in mid-1950s Los Angeles when Huxley experimented with psychedelic substances, ran afoul of gatekeepers, and advocated responsible use of such hallucinogens to treat mental illness as well as to achieve states of mind called mystical. Because the author's father had studied hundreds of hands, including those of schizophrenics, he was invited into Huxley's research and discussion circle.
This intriguing narrative about the early psychedelic era throws new light on one of the 20th-century's foremost intellectuals, showing that his experiments in consciousness presaged pivotal scientific research underway today.
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About the Author
Allene Symons is the author of Nostradamus, Vagabond Prophet: A Novel of His Life and Time and an instructor of communications and media studies at Santa Ana College. She previously worked as a senior editor at Publishers Weekly, Drug Store News, and For the Pharmacist magazines and as general manager of Rizzoli International Bookstore in Costa Mesa, California.
Read an Excerpt
Aldous Huxley's Hands
His Quest for Perception and the Origin and Return of Psychedelic Science
By Allene Symons
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2015 Allene Symons
All rights reserved.
I am glad curiosity brought you here, and I imagine it's because Brave New World has become a kind of shorthand, a catchphrase for technology overtaking humanity.
Aldous, whose own curiosity took him in wildly experimental directions, lives on in the scrapbook of a generation. He looks out at us from the album cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a cameo-nod to how Huxley laid groundwork for the psychedelic revolution with his slim book The Doors of Perception, which in turn inspired a 1960s rock band called The Doors. A dozen years later, the same year as the band's Jim Morrison died at age twenty-seven, Huxley's story of a documented case of possession and exorcism, called The Devils of Loudun, became a mind-searing Ken Russell film. Such impressions linger.
Huxley died fifty years ago almost to the day as I write this, but he still holds many of us in a kind of retro-cultural thrall. My own take, however, is personal.
During the 1950s when I was a child, Aldous and Maria Huxley hosted weekly salons at the Huxleys' home in Hollywood on North Kings Road, gatherings my father often attended, and sometimes my mother came along too. Their Tuesday night group participated in séances and age-regression hypnosis, sought ways to prove ESP, and explored techniques to bring about remote healing. Such exploration of the byways of the mind led to experimentation with substances that later came to be called psychedelic.
My father was invited to join this eclectic circle of friends after Aldous heard about my dad's amateur photographic study of human hands, which at the time amounted to hundreds of hands of musicians, twins, stutterers, proclaimed psychics, and schizophrenic patients.
At the time I write these introductory pages, psychedelic substances forbidden for decades are back in clinical trials. Fingerprints and palm prints are making headlines because of studies underway in fields ranging from medicine to global security, all in pursuit of an incorruptible wax seal to verify identity. Soon we may be known less by our passwords and strings of other numbers than by subtle patterns found in our skin.
You might say old is new, or new is old, or that the leading edge oddly resembles shamanic and occult arts with branching histories reaching back millennia.
Which brings me to the heart, or rather the hand, of this story and the common bonds between the Tuesday circle, my father, and Aldous.
I'll start at the end then go back to the beginning. As final exits are concerned, Huxley's death stands out as a unique act, also for the historic day on which it occurred. Around noon on November 22, 1963, Aldous scribbled with some difficulty a note requesting an intramuscular injection of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. Around the same time in Dallas, Texas, an open black limousine carrying President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, along with Texas Governor John B. Connally and his wife, continued along the prescribed parade route and neared a curve.
In distant Los Angeles, inside a Spanish-style stucco house under the shadow of the Hollywood sign, a frail Aldous Huxley neared the end of his three-year struggle with laryngeal cancer. The LSD presumably took effect while the nursing staff and the doctor, along with a few friends and family members, attended the author or waited in a room nearby. On an ordinary day he would have been writing in his bright upstairs study, where a reproduction from the Edgar Degas bather series hung on the wall. In that room he had hoped to continue his life's work: the poems and essays, short stories and articles, biographies, plays and screenplays, and a dozen novels, most recently Island, more famously Brave New World.
During the last weeks of his illness, while the satisfaction of making decisions remained within reach, Huxley managed to complete at least three tasks. One was finishing an article called "Shakespeare and Religion." Another, it appears, was arranging to have a photograph taken of his right hand. Back when Aldous was a decade younger, my father had captured a similar image of both of his hands, but this new black-and-white photo seems to have been taken in October or early November.
When the photographer arrived at the Huxley home he must have wondered, Why does this famous writer want a picture of his hand, and why now? The photographer used standard equipment, unlike a decade earlier when my dad brought his custom-designed camera rig with its specially angled strobe lights. This second photographer did not control for glare. His flash washed out details of an intriguing area: a triangle-like configuration, a rare but significant indicator sometimes found where one of the fingers joins the palm.
Huxley's last task took place on November 22, after Laura Huxley and the attending physician saw a change in vital signs. Scrawling the last line he would ever write, Aldous asked for an intramuscular dose of lysergic acid diethylamide. In May of 1953 he had experimented with a similar substance called mescalin (or mescaline) and now, a decade later, the physician gave his tacit consent. Huxley's last wish was granted.
Who knows what a person perceives in the transition called dying, whether JFK felled by a rifle in Dallas or Aldous Huxley under the spell of LSD. This time Huxley would write no guidebook like The Doors of Perception, no map showing readers what lies ahead in the valley of mystics and madness.
The decade-long task of writing this book, far longer than I had imagined, began one day when I was poking around in the garage behind my grandparents' 1910 Craftsman bungalow. Long Beach had been their final destination after migrating from Iowa to Los Angeles County back in the 1920s, and ever since then this garage between my grandparents' larger house and our smaller one had sheltered three generations of my family's cars and castoffs.
I was wearing rubber gloves and tossing out stuff to make more room for cartons of books I'd previously hauled home after a decade of living in Manhattan. The day before this I'd reached deep into a cubby hole and pulled out an intact Art Deco Roseville Iris vase, a valuable find, but on this day no such booty, at least not so far. By now the midday heat had released a stifling potpourri of dust and old redwood siding.
Then something caught my eye in the gloom, and I saw a jumble of cardboard boxes peeking out from behind a row of rusty paint cans. Was this trash or treasure? The first clue was their labels, written in my father's distinctive draftsman's style. Four were labeled "The Hand." One was labeled "The Church."
It dawned on me that the first group contained my father's unpublished study and its supporting photographs, the yield of his seven-year project of the early 1950s that, like in the Harrison Ford film Mosquito Coast, in many ways held our family hostage to his obsession. At the time, I didn't feel much like a hostage because when I was a kid my dad's hand project was a shared adventure with surprising excursions. Instead of playing with friends my age, I wanted nothing more than to serve as his research and darkroom assistant. Flash forward fifty years and I felt both wariness and a sense of excitement about what I'd found. These boxes held everything my dad thought he had lost in the final days when our family was still intact, before the 1957 divorce.
I removed the silver masking tape from the first box and found a bundle of index cards next to a pair of long boxes filled with photographic slides tucked into glassine sleeves. Packed inside the second box I found eleven-by-fourteen-inch photographic prints of hands, intact though slightly curled. In the next box I found three-ring binders with lists of names and measurements written in a tiny precise script like some primitive Excel spreadsheet, as if I had excavated the lost language of my dad's Rosetta Stone.
By this point the dust and the heat of the garage were starting to get to me. I was about to quit for the day, but I decided to open another box, smaller and wedged behind the others. I removed a black hardcover book with no jacket and set it aside, though later I would come to know its meaning. I saw a stack of letters and pulled off the dirty gloves before pulling out stationery from Duke University dated 1952, written to my father, and at the bottom of the sheet I saw the signature of Dr. J. B. Rhine.
Under that letter I found a small envelope with a stamp and a smudged December postmark from the 1950s. On the front, the address of our home in Long Beach; on the back, the return address: 740 N. Kings Road, Los Angeles 46.
The inside card of creamy, rag-edged paper had a distinctive black-and-white woodcut design. Embossed at the top was the name Maria, at the bottom, Aldous. Inside, in a sprawling and whimsical handwriting, the message read:
With the very best wishes for the three of you, From your friends the Huxleys
What was all this about? I wondered, as I began thumbing through index cards with names coded to match numbers on the mounted slides. Toward the front section of the box, I found an index card with the handwritten name Maria Huxley, Number 248, next to Number 249, Aldous Huxley.
The memory of my dad's hand project started coming back to me. What had seemed like child's play at the time now grabbed me with a grown-up compulsion. I needed to know the story behind what I could already tell was at least hundreds of photographs of hands — but mainly what I had to find out was how did my eccentric, pocket-protector-wearing engineer dad ever become Huxley's friend?
Of course, Huxley was hardly conventional, and just how unconventional I would soon learn. Even as a kid, I'd noticed that my father was not like other dads. No driving his daughter's friends to Saturday movies like Susan's policeman dad. No mixing up Sunday waffle batter like Donalee's dentist dad. On weekends my father sometimes went to the desert alone, and after workdays at Vultee Aircraft, and later at North American Aviation, my father crossed a threshold into his private world of experiments. This eventually blossomed into a seven-year-long, obsessive study of one thousand hands.
Then it all ended when he left my mother and me in 1957, shortly after his project crashed, why I never understood back then — and with it collapsed the bridge he was trying to build between science and the so-called paranormal. Eventually Dad remarried, and after-ward we rarely saw each other. I moved to New York, and we saw each other even less. Then three things happened. After a decade on the East Coast I moved back to California, my stepmother died, and my elderly father came back into my life. His reappearance gave rise to my new project — chasing down the story behind the hands of Aldous Huxley.
I started with a micro recorder in my initial stab-in-the-dark attempt to understand how my father had become an exceedingly unlikely friend of the famous author of Brave New World. Dad agreed to meet for interviews on Friday afternoons that summer of 2001, so we set about getting reacquainted, or really getting acquainted for the first time. Except for a couple of years in the 1950s when we had been close, and like so many daughters of divorce, as a child I had known very little about my father. I guess one of my main memories was of him leaving.
There were other questions, too. Who were these names on the file cards? Surely some of these people were Dad's age by now, men and women in their eighties who had lived this story of the '50s. I wondered if I could locate some of them, or if I should even bother; and, if I did find them, could I trust their recall, or could I even trust my dad's?
I began burrowing into biographies, checking websites and obituaries, and it looked like I had mainly missed my chance for live interviews. Yet I did turn up curious biographical bits, such as finding out that hand number 247 was Gerald Heard. I learned that he was Huxley's friend and a respected BBC science commentator, as well as a bestselling author who, apart from his public persona, happened to write ghost stories on the side. I saw that one sequence of names was associated with terms like "psychic" and "trance medium," so it began to look like this collection of names might have something to do with the far side, the fringe, of science.
On the Huxley side of my investigation, I faced daunting shelves of books, mainly focused on his literary life. Hungry to get oriented, I pored over Sybille Bedford's 1974 Aldous Huxley: A Biography, although several other biographies had appeared since then and I rounded them up.
Soon I had filled two micro tapes with Dad's interviews, and by then I had noted a curious similarity between Aldous and my dad. Both men had undergone life-changing experiences dating back to childhood that might have sent both of them chasing after questions that eluded answers. You might say Aldous was made for the role. Aldous Leonard Huxley was born on July 26, 1894, in Laleham, near Godalming, in the county of Surrey, in southeast England, not far from where someone whose life would intersect with Huxley's, psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, would be born a few years later.
Aldous was the youngest son in a family with a reputation for upending orthodoxy. His paternal grandfather was biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who had mounted such a vigorous defense of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection that T. H. Huxley became known as "Darwin's Bulldog." Growing up in the shadow of this natural science legend, the younger Huxley appeared destined for Cambridge and an eventual medical research career, but that was before three tragedies changed his course.
At age fourteen, Aldous lost his beloved mother, Julia. An admired woman who had established a school for girls, she died only two months after receiving a diagnosis of cancer. Two years later, when Aldous was sixteen, and had reached his height of six-foot-four, what seemed like pink eye was belatedly diagnosed as keratitis punctata, an inflammation that left him blind for a year and a half and left severe scars on his right cornea. He had to give up his studies, and during that time was privately tutored until age eighteen. Throughout much of this time he was taken under the wing of his older brother Trevenen, a student at Oxford.
In a period when I imagine day and night could seem equally dark and soon would become even darker, Aldous summoned his grandfather's tenacity by teaching himself Braille and figuring out touch-typing. During this sequestered time Aldous wrote his first novel, though the manuscript was afterward lost.
The third blow in a space of six years came about in 1914 when Trevenen, the brother who had kept an eye on the younger Aldous, fell into a deep depression over a failed love affair. Though admitted for psychological treatment, he walked away from the clinic and hung himself in the nearby woods.
Aldous was motherless, he had lost most of his vision, and he had lost his favorite brother. His father had remarried in 1912 and had become more distant as he established a new family. At that time Aldous had been eighteen, with a ninety percent loss of sight in one eye and compromised vision in the other, yet he would go on to complete his education at Oxford's Balliol College, taking Firsts in English and History.
Though initial plans for a medical research career in the tradition of T. H. Huxley had been ruled out, he could look for inspiration to his great-uncle, poet and critic Matthew Arnold. He had other templates as well. His father, Leonard, was editor of the Cornhill, a literary magazine, and his mother before her death had been a respected educator. As he groped his way forward, these paths opened and Aldous, despite his damaged eyesight, embarked on what would become a future of writing and lecturing.
But that outcome was mainly in the future at this point. He had had a few poems published, and by the 1920s he would have four volumes of poetry to his credit. He would teach young boys and find out by sampling this career that he disliked teaching. He eventually found his way as a magazine journalist covering a broad range of subjects, in training for an unmapped future. In those early years he would write book reviews, articles on house decoration, and reviews of plays (250 plays in one year, after which he quit the job), though an advantage of theater reviews for a sight-impaired critic was, as he later said, the greater importance of dialogue compared to the lesser importance of visual effects. He would write for high- and middle-culture readers, including those who followed Condé Nast's House and Garden, Vogue, Vanity Fair (and later on, across the Atlantic, for Esquire), and had no reservation about writing for all levels of readers. While on the staff of Vogue he wrote art reviews, developing a technique of peering at a distance with a spyglass and up close with a magnifying glass. For a time he even rewrote advertisements for the magazine, coming to appreciate the difficulty of getting the wording for a product just right. Biographer Ronald Clark thinks this and the mixed-magazine discipline brought about skills that would later enable Aldous to write about abstruse subjects like mystical experience in a way people could comprehend.
Excerpted from Aldous Huxley's Hands by Allene Symons. Copyright © 2015 Allene Symons. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART I — THE WORLD'S BIGGEST DRUGSTORE,
Chapter 1 — Adaptation, 9,
Chapter 2 — Seekers of Peace, 31,
Chapter 3 — Jacob's Hands, 43,
Chapter 4 — Chasing Schizophrenia, 72,
Chapter 5 — Stranded in the Studebaker, 93,
Chapter 6 — Tuesday Nights on North Kings Road, 101,
PART II — ONE BRIGHT MAY MORNING,
Chapter 7 — Take a Sip of Amazement, 117,
Chapter 8 — Mescalin and Marilyn Monroe, 132,
Chapter 9 — Slamming the Doors, 145,
Chapter 10 — The French Connection, 153,
Chapter 11 — Aldous Goes Rogue, 161,
Chapter 12 — Maria, 173,
Chapter 13 — Consternation at Menninger and Miramar, 179,
Chapter 14 — Successor Wife, 190,
Chapter 15 — Take a Pinch of Psychedelic, 194,
Chapter 16 — Convergence in Cambridge, 199,
Chapter 17 — Purifying Fire, 204,
PART III — AFTER ALDOUS,
Chapter 18 — Backpedal on LSD, 215,
Chapter 19 — With Laura Under the Hollywood Sign, 226,
Chapter 20 — The Visionary Experience, 235,
Chapter 21 — The Return of Psychedelic Science, 251,
Chapter 22 — Beside Psychedelics, 266,