Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3914
Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
A British-American novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, critic, and playwright, Huxley was noted in his early works for a satiric tone, while his later works express a concern for the political and social problems of contemporary society. The grandson of Darwinist T. H. Huxley and brother of scientist Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley retained a central interest in science. His concern with societal problems and his continuing interest in science coalesce in his most famous work, Brave New World. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5.)
[Huxley's] excursions into political philosophy were most notable for the uncompromising pacifism which drove him into his self-imposed Californian exile. He was, most of the time, miserable there during the war years, unavoidably prone to feelings of guilt in the bad years. He had brought the misery on himself because he remained to so large an extent the prisoner of the Victorian rationalism in which he had been brought up and against which he constantly rebelled. In true rationalist style, he seems never to have believed in evil as a positive force. This seems to have made him incapable of grasping the significance of Hitler, and of the inevitability through him of World War Two, and allowed Huxley in his last years to divert his enormous talent into the unreal and fatuous Wellsian serenities of Island (written in 1960)….
One might have supposed that Huxley's self-exile, his separation from his normal environment—and in Los Angeles, of all uninspiring places—would have had a damaging effect on his talent. This did not happen. Some of his best writing belongs to these years. Grey Eminence, written in 1940 and 1941, is a masterly performance. His first novel since 1936, Time must have a stop (published in 1944), was Huxley's own favourite among his fiction. It is a brilliant invention, though … I cannot believe that it is more than that. The Perennial Philosophy, published in the next year, 1945, is perhaps the book by which Aldous Huxley will be best known to future generations. The most horrifying of all his novels, Ape and Essence, was published in 1948. It is a book of great and terrible power….
After 1950, he wrote books which are better described as brilliant pieces of controversy rather than masterpieces, with one exception. One of them, The Doors of Perception, is still a matter of lively controversy today. At the risk of sounding prudish, I give my opinion that it would have been better if he had not published this book. If one reads it, one quickly appreciates that Aldous Huxley's attitude to drug-taking was responsible, reasonable and morally justifiable. He saw the dangers in his tolerant view of the use of certain drugs. What he did not see was that the fact of his name appearing on a book which, superficially viewed, seemed to approve of drug-taking, would give enormous encourgement to pushers of pot and suchlike…. He underestimated, even though aware of the possibility, its harmful latency. He continued to think of evil as a negative force.
Christopher Sykes, "The Unhappy Pacifist," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Christopher Sykes), October 17, 1974, p. 511.
[Aldous Huxley] was haunted by the vision of two possible futures. One, the most likely, was of destruction, war and ever-increasing tyranny in an overpopulated world. The other was that of the "pragmatic dream" that he advanced in his last essay-novel, Island: psychologists must be given power to disqualify certain types of people from ever getting into positions of power. The economic system must be cured of overproduction and the world of overpopulation. Scientists, psychologists, educators who have mustered techniques which could bring life closer to the "pragmatic dream" should be given every opportunity to do so. This is the Huxleyan Utopia of a happiness brought about by scientific techniques. It is the opposite of his somber vision of a world made miserable by its abuse of these techniques in the hands of power maniacs.
Stephen Spender, "A Pilgrim's Progress," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 17, 1974, p. 1.
There is not a character who speaks on his author's behalf in Huxley's novels—Gumbril, the timorous inventor of pneumatic trousers for men of sedentary habit, in "Antic Hay"; Quarles; Anthony Beavis in "Eyeless in Gaza"—who fails to share his affliction of non-feeling. As a man Huxley is remote and unresponsive. As a writer he lacks the all-encompassing humanity of the real novelist.
But if there was this always-visible inherited disproportion between his capacity for thought and feeling, at least Huxley's intellectual endowment was an uncommon one….
[One] can think of no other writer who was as personally implicated as Huxley in the break in traditional thought between the 19th and 20th centuries; in important part it had been the work of his own grandfather. Under the general burden of social uncertainty and the peculiar burden of being a Huxley, he turned to satire as his instrument of social and personal renovation and, during the years in which he made the contribution for which he is best remembered, wrote the brightest, most mercurial books of his generation. (p. 1)
[Despite an enormous] output it was actually to a small handful of early novels … that Huxley owed the special reputation he had in his contemporary literary world; and even among these only "Antic Hay" blended charm, erudition, humor, intelligence and narrative interest with an entire ease and success. Never did a writer who worked in so many different fields, from poetry to playwriting, from travel reporting to sociology to politics to spiritualism, impress himself so particularly in but one field, satire, and even in that one field produce really only a single completely satisfactory book. And certainly never did a satirist flash so coruscating a wit over so vast a field of learning: not alone the range of his study—history, ancient and modern literatures, philosophy, the social sciences, all the physical sciences, music, art—but his competence at whatever he undertook was staggering….
Man's greed, his folly and selfishness, his concupiscence, his inability to use his skills to his own best purposes: all of this in Huxley's best work became his good-natured joke behind which there loomed, of course, his great fear. Fifty years ago in his early satiric fiction the issues which today press upon us so relentlessly—pollution, the uncontrolled growth of populations, the destruction of cities, our insane waste of the world's natural resources, social and racial inequity, national ambitions and prides—were already given first sharp statement.
An advantage which Huxley shared with his literary contemporaries Lawrence and Joyce—it made his despairing view of the universe also an enlivening one—was the possibility of shocking his readers. Looking back on Huxley from our present circumstances it is difficult to suppose that it required much daring to write about sex as he did—the most he ventured in erotic overtness was an occasional gaping blouse or the rhythmic strokings of a female arm and shoulder. It was not, however, what happened on the pages of his novels that made Huxley famous for "sophistication," that poor sad accolade now lost to us; it was what he suggested as taking place off-page, especially the compulsions and deviations of sexual desire. For Lawrence sex was a metaphor for burgeoning life. For Huxley it was among the plainer manifestations of the tyranny of selfhood. The erotic sphere might be only one area in which to observe the infinite gradations of human gracelessness, but for someone of Huxley's disposition it was an inescapable one….
Death, ugliness, decay: he brings these repeatedly into juxtaposition with sensuality.
As a countervailing principle to sensuality Huxley proposes the religious transcendence of self. He speaks of a self simultaneously discovered and lost in one's spiritual unity with one's fellow man….
For Huxley,… who was a writer of the twenties and thirties [in contrast to today's writers], society was still there, faulty and perhaps doomed but still decipherable; a sum of discernible parts, not an undifferentiated and undifferentiating hostile mass. Its intimate patterns of waywardness and perversity, even of possible beneficence, were still available to description. Huxley might himself choose not to describe in the manner of the traditional realistic novelist. "My life … is not so long," he has a character protest in "Antic Hay," "that I can afford to spend precious hours writing or reading descriptions of middle-class interiors." But as solidly as he rested his portraits of the people in his books on their unexplained or certainly unspoken inner lives, he accounted for their conduct in terms of their membership in a society of class, money, custom, an English society, indeed, of establishment, education and taste. (p. 2)
Already in "Crome Yellow" in 1921 Huxley had made it clear that faith is the necessary attendant on our worldly programs, their sole reliable source of proper content and direction…. But it is not until the final section of "Eyeless in Gaza," the novel published in 1936 with which Huxley followed his very popular "Point Counter Point" and his very disturbing "Brave New World," that we are introduced to the "miracle," his first didactic statement of the nature of the spiritual quest which he will from this time forward increasingly urge upon us. (pp. 2, 42)
Following "Eyeless in Gaza" only one other novel of Huxley's, "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan" (1939), would even partially attract his old enthusiastic audience. The times had changed; Huxley had changed too but not with the times so much as several decades in advance of them; good humor and charm were gone. There are several passages in this novel where Huxley mocks with mordant vividness the California search for panaceas; he describes, for instance, the road signs on a Los Angeles highway: "Astrology, Numerology, Psychic Readings. Drive in for Nutburgers." It seems not to occur to him that it is the satirist who himself now requires to be satirized; that he has now in significant part become California. (p. 43)
Diana Trilling, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1974.
The relation of Brave New World to Wells's fantasies is (with the exception of a number of technological details to be dealt with later) of a rather general nature. Though it may have started out as a parody of Men Like Gods, Huxley is quite right in insisting that Brave New World ended up as something quite different. It is no Shamela to Wells's Pamela. The only major areas at which the two novels intersect concern the emotions and the Savage. In Wells's utopia, as in Huxley's dystopia, deep feeling is either nonexistent or reprehensible. (p. 265)
It is clear that Huxley borrowed a number of the technological aspects of his Utopia from Wells [especially from When the Sleeper Wakes], but it would be dangerous to assume that Wells was Huxley's only or even primary source of scientific information. In the immediate Huxley background, one should remember, were his brother Julian and various sometime friends such as J.B.S. Haldane, Bertrand Russell and J.W.N. Sullivan. And in any case, the technological details, whether Wellsian or no, are not what matter most. They are only the most superficially memorable aspects of Huxley's novel, and as he himself soon realized, he had blundered badly by missing out on one of the most obvious ones, atomic energy. But while this omission is surprising, it certainly does not vitiate the continuing force of his satire. Is Swift's Gulliver's Travels no longer of interest because a thorough exploration of the globe has turned up no islands inhabited by Houyhnhnms? (pp. 267-68)
Despite all the gadgetry,… the proper study of the novelist remains man. That is why a remark like Gerald Heard's about Brave New World being "obsolete because of the growth and findings of subsequent research" seems quite beside the point. So, for that matter, is Hillegas' conclusion that Huxley "is against Utopia not only because it would mechanize human life but because it would give abundance and leisure to everyone, making these no longer the special privilege of people like Huxley himself." Huxley, it is true, made no secret of his suspicion of democracy and of the machine, especially when in combination…. After his first traumatic experience of the U.S.A. in 1926, that suspicion grew even more intense. But surely not, as Hillegas asserts, for selfish reasons. After all, a great deal of Huxley's intellectual and artistic life prior to Brave New World (and following it) was taken up with the effort to find an adequate solution to the wearisome condition of this chiefly gregarious but intermittently anti-social creature called man. Brave New World is no exception. It is no mere what-would-it-be-like-if-pigs-could-fly fantasy, but a bitter attack on a kind of mentality which was seeking to destroy man and replace him with an anthropoid beast or an anthropoid machine. That after all was the point of the epigraph which Huxley had chosen for his novel from Berdyaev's The End of Our Time (1927). (p. 268)
Lawrence bears a considerable, if indirect, responsibility for the figure of Mond/Wells in Brave New World. Nor is that his only responsibility. For just as behind Mond and behind the whole technological world which he controls stands H. G. Wells, so behind the Savage and the New Mexican Pueblo stands D. H. Lawrence.
When Huxley began work on Brave New World, he had never been to New Mexico. That he had not seems in fact to have troubled him, since nearly thirty years later he recalled having "had to do an enormous amount of reading up on New Mexico, because I'd never been there. I read all sorts of Smithsonian reports on the place and then did the best I could to imagine it."…
If, however, Huxley had not been to New Mexico and if, for that reason, he had to do a good deal of boneing up on it, one wonders why he bothered. If it was underdeveloped or non-Western societies he was after, he had already seen several such during his travels in the Far East in 1926. Why then?…
The real answer is Lawrence. By the time Huxley came to know him intimately, Lawrence had already, to be sure, closed the New Mexican chapter of his life, but he had by no means forgotten it…. New Mexico, it seems safe to assume, existed for Huxley (that is, before he delved into the Smithsonian reports) only insofar as he had heard about it from Lawrence. (p. 272)
There are signs that Huxley was debunking Lawrence even when their friendship was at its height. Lawrence must have been at least partly on his mind when Huxley wrote in "The Cold-Blooded Romantics" (1928) that "the modern artist seems to have grown down; he has reverted to the preoccupation of his childhood. He is trying to be a primitive. So, it may be remembered, was the romantic Rousseau. But whereas Rousseau's savage was noble, refined and intelligent, the primitive our modern artists would like to resemble is a mixture between the apache and the fifteen-year old schoolboy." Reading this, one is reminded of the scene in "Indians and the Englishman" where Lawrence is confronted in the dusk by an Apache who, he is convinced, wishes to murder him. Here they are, the twin spirits of Lawrence: Natty Bumppo and the primitive blood-consciousness.
Certainly, by the time Huxley was writing Brave New World, he was sure that Lawrence's primitive Utopia no longer cut any ice, or certainly no more than Wells's technological one…. [In a 1931 essay,] Lawrence's Utopian vision is degraded (or should one say debunked?) to the point of being just another literary stone piled on an already ruinous edifice. Later on in the essay, Lawrence is degraded even further, to the level of a fad (as he is in Eyeless in Gaza). "With every advance of industrial civilization," Huxley predicts, "the savage past will be more and more appreciated, and the cult of D. H. Lawrence's Dark God may be expected to spread through an ever-widening circle of worshippers." Now Lawrence is the fashionable cultist, no longer the prophet of a new religion. And now the connection is made explicit: Lawrence is the savage past.
The savage past or the Fordian future? That is the question which Brave New World poses. The Malpais (literally "bad country" in Spanish) of prehistory or the ironically "Buenpais" of post-history? The choice is between two evils. Not that Lawrence is to be exclusively identified with the one or Wells with the other; that would be to simplify excessively the complexity of Huxley's vision—and to err by trying to make a partial truth do the work of a whole one. Huxley's Pueblo Indians, closely related as they are to Lawrence's, also have other ancestors. The fragmentary tales they tell derive, for instance, not from Lawrence, but from Frank Cushing's Zuñi Folk Tales (1901), which seems also to be the source of many of Huxley's Indian names, including Mitsima and Waihusiva. Not to mention the Smithsonian reports….
No, though Lawrence's experience of New Mexico and Lawrence's antipathy to science, to social regimentation, and to promiscuous sexuality surely helped shape the spirit of the Savage, it would be wrong to identify him with Lawrence too completely. For one thing, it is important to note that Huxley transformed the Pueblo Indians, in one respect at least, almost as much as he did our own world. The Pueblo Indians—as the Smithsonian reports, among others, make clear—are anthropologically a separate entity from the Penitentes…. [There] is no mingling of the two, certainly nothing like the fusion that exists in Brave New World. Huxley was, of course, aware of this fact and in his foreword described the religion of his Indians as "half fertility cult and half Penitente ferocity."
The fertility cult is Indian, and as one might expect, the snake dance is part of that cult. How closely this feature of Pueblo Indian life was linked with Lawrence in Huxley's mind may be appreciated from H. K. Haeberlin's observation that "the Great Serpent of the Pueblo is commonly known as the 'plumed serpent.'" So too with the sipapus, the openings in the floor of the kiva, which play an important part in Huxley's description of the snake dance. It is there that the deities of germination and fertility reside. And associated with these deities are also the wargods, "Püükon" and his less important [twin] brother."
"Püükon" is obviously Huxley's Pookong, but in Brave New World his twin brother has been replaced by Christ, and along with Christ have also come the Penitentes…. The Pueblo Indians would certainly never tolerate sadism of the kind which climaxes the snake dance in Brave New World. Their whippings take place at initiation ceremonies only and then always in groups, with each youth accompanied by an adult sponsor who is sometimes also whipped. The maximum number of strokes is usually four, and there is no attempt on the part of the person being struck to conceal pain. Furthermore, no Pueblo Indian would go out alone into the desert and commit an act such as the Savage describes. "'Once,'" he tells Bernard Marx, "'I did something that none of the others did: I stood against a rock in the middle of the day, in summer with my arms out, like Jesus on the Cross,'"…. (pp. 274-76)
What is Huxley's point here? Why does he insist on combining an Indian fertility cult with a Christian penitential ritual? If it is merely to suggest that the forces of life are balanced by those of death—Huxley, one remembers, is often accused of Manicheanism—then he could have portrayed that balance with much less effort by means of the Aztecs of the Old Mexico. Sir James Frazer's Sacrificial God is full of horrific examples.
Then why? Because, I suspect, he wishes to make a point about the relation of life and death which he could not have done using the Aztecs. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice in order to preserve the life of their gods; for them death was merely another aspect of fertility. This is one of the chief reasons why Lawrence rooted his dark god in the old Mexican soil. But here again Huxley is debunking Lawrence. Life, Huxley implies, is life, never to be confused with death—unless it is the everlasting life, the life beyond death. Lawrence, as Huxley knew, disliked Christianity and may have feared it. Characteristically, he tried to shut himself off from all contact with the Penitentes during his stay in Taos. (pp. 276-77)
There is another and perhaps more important reason why Huxley may have chosen to put the Penitentes into his novel. Brave New World portrays a future as well as a past which differ from the present in that they have no history. Our Ford's remark that "History is bunk" applies with equal force to the Pueblo and to the London of AF 632. Both are stable societies which can tolerate no change and therefore possess no history. Now, the one relatively stable institution known to the West in modern historical times is the Church. Significantly, Christianity is the most important shared element of both the Fordian and the Pueblo societies.
This may be less apparent in the new world, but it is no less true. The Solidarity Service which forms a counterpart to the Pueblo Snake Dance is an obvious parody of the mass. (p. 277)
Christianity is an essential element in both of the worlds Huxley depicts. But—and this is a crucial distinction—it is not the same Christianity. In the one instance, it is the Christianity which maintains that we inhabit a value of tears and that we should mortify the flesh in this life in order to store up credit in the next; on the other, it is the Christianity which promises a paradise on earth. The one is Christianity in rags, with flagellation and retreats into the desert; the other Christianity in riches, with everybody "happy" and the peace of the world insured by ten semi-apostolic World Controllers. "Suffer little children," Mustapha Mond admonishes the DHC who has disturbed the little girls and boys at their erotic play.
At the end of Brave New World, secular and fanatic Christianity meet and join. The Savage's flagellation of himself and Lenina, echoing the dance at the Pueblo, merges with the orgy-porgy dance of the visiting Fordians and culminates in a fertility-sterility rite in which the Savage finally yields his principles and himself. The only purification for that sin, he realizes on the following day, is death. Such is the result of the Controller's "experiment." Pueblo is Pueblo, and Ford is Ford, and ne'er the twain shall meet, for if they do disaster ensues. Stability lies at the extremes, not at the middle; in machine and in monster, not in man. The choice is between the chiliastic horrors of the Wellsian future or those of the Lawrentian past, both of which exclude the (by comparison lesser) day-to-day trauma of the Huxleyan—or human—present.
And what does Huxley mean to suggest by all this? Perhaps, as he once wrote to his brother Julian, "all's well that ends Wells." To which he might later have added that finishing off Lawrence, as a social philosopher at least, was not a bad idea either. (pp. 277-78)
Peter Firchow, "Wells and Lawrence in Huxley's 'Brave New World'," in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1976), April, 1976, pp. 260-78.