Aldous Huxley was a culture hero to three generations. For baby boomers coming of age in the 1960’s, he was one of the figures who appeared on the cover of the Beatles 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the man who coined the word “psychedelic” and whose bookThe Doors of Perception (1954), describing his mescalin experiences, inspired rock singer Jim Morrison to name his band the Doors. Those coming of age in the 1930’s knew Huxley as one of the leading pacifists in England, the moral conscience of that nation. For members of his own generation, the one that came of age during World War I, he was the iconoclastic novelist who, in the 1920’s, articulated their cynicism and disillusionment with pre-war ideals.
Huxley was born in England in 1894. His family belonged to Victorian Britain’s literary elite, and Nicolas Murray, in his biography of Huxley, argues that this Victorian elite shaped Huxley’s life and ideas. From his family Huxley inherited an interest in both art and science—his great uncle was the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, and Huxley’s grandfather was the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, a champion of Darwinism. From his grandfather, Aldous Huxley took a simple and direct prose style. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Huxley, like his relatives, became a public intellectual writing for an educated general audience. Murray argues that Huxley also took from the Victorian liberal intellectual elite from which he sprang a high regard for the rational intellect and a conviction that the freedom of the individual must be protected from encroachments by the state.
Against some of the Victorian legacy, however, Huxley rebelled. He was encouraged in that rebellion by the antiestablishment artists and intellectuals whom he, while a college student, encountered at Garsington, a country estate where Lady Ottoline Morrell conducted an artistic and literary salon. There Huxley met philosopher Bertrand Russell and writers Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence (Lawrence became Huxley’s good friend). At Garsington Huxley also met Maria Nys, a refugee who had fled Belgium during World War I; she became his wife. Murray argues that Huxley took his sexual ethics from Garsington. The Huxleys had a long and loving marriage and one that allowed sexual freedom. With Maria’s approval, and sometimes her help, Huxley had a series of brief affairs. Maria, who was bisexual, enjoyed a number of passionate attachments to women, and Aldous and Maria engaged in a long-term ménage à trois with the writer Mary Hutchinson.
Huxley’s career divided into two phases. In the 1920’s and early 1930’s he gained fame as a writer of iconoclastic novels—including Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point(1928)—that satirized the clergy and consumer capitalism and realistically portrayed the liberated sexual behavior of English upper-middle-class artists and writers in a way that some found shocking. Murray contends that the bitterness behind the satire in these novels stemmed, in part, from three tragedies Huxley experienced in his youth: his mother’s death from cancer, his brother’s suicide, and a corneal infection that left Huxley nearly blind.
This period climaxed with the publication of a book that critics list among the greatest novels of the twentieth century, Brave New World (1932), a satirical view of a future centralized authoritarian state that breeds human beings for servitude and gets them to accept their enslavement by using propaganda and brainwashing and by providing the enslaved with such distractions as mass entertainment, easily available sex, and a narcotic drug.
The year after Brave New World came out, Huxley went through a psychological crisis; he suffered from insomnia, fatigue, and writer’s block. Discontented with the cynicism and the despair about the human condition that characterized his early novels, he was looking for something positive to believe in, and he found it in the pacifist movement, for which he became a spokesman in 1935. He came to believe that true pacifism depended on living a certain kind of life. The rest of his career became a quest for truth, a search for the right way to live.
As a result of his psychological crisis, Huxley’s writing entered a new phase. He became disillusioned with literature, with beautiful writing for its own...
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