Aldous Huxley was descended from two eminent Victorian families – he was grandson of noted biologist and writer on science, Thomas Henry Huxley, and a great-nephew of Matthew Arnold. His Christian name commemorates a major character, Aldous Raeburn, in Marcella, a novel published by his aunt, Mary Ward, in the year of Huxley's birth, 1894. Huxley's father, Leonard, was editor of Cornhill, the venerable magazine once edited by Thackeray.
Born in Godalming, Surrey, Huxley attended Eton, then took a first in English at Balliol College, Oxford in 1916. Two early blows – the death of his mother in 1908, poignantly alluded to in Antic Hay (1923) – and an attack of keratitis while a student at Eton, which left him nearly blind for the rest of his life – may have sharpened his tendency to rely overmuch on his own inner resources, effectively cutting him off from others.
In 1919, his patroness, Lady Ottoline Morrell, prevailed over John Middleton Murry's objections against taking on any “young Oxfords” at his review The Athenaeum, and soon Huxley was writing “middles” under the pen name Autolycus, Shakespeare's “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” Between 1920 and 1923 the young polymath served as chief staff writer and editorialist for the British House and Garden magazine, art critic for the Bloomsbury-influenced Vogue (dubbed “Brogue” to distinguish it from the American edition), as well as music and drama reviewer for the Westminster Gazette.
His first novel, Crome Yellow (1921), is a country-house symposium in the manner of Thomas Love Peacock, replete with antiquarian references and all too easily recognizable caricatures of Garsington regulars such as Bertrand Russell and the painters Dora Carrington, Dorothy Brett, and Mark Gertler. These portraits so of fended Huxley's patroness that several years passed before she again corresponded with him. The character Scogan, based partly on Russell and partly on H. G. Wells, approvingly describes a future sunlit Rational State, which has abolished democracy, the family, and viviparous birth. Before the mid-1930s, Huxley was attracted to the elitist state modeled on Wells's versions of Plato's Republic; and under the influence of H. L. Mencken, he grew increasingly receptive to the idea of a state run by an intellectual aristocracy. Scogan's strictures on architecture and painting also reveal him as an early version of Dostoevsky's Euclidean mind, which advocates the tyranny of instrumental reason. He praises the architect of Crome for creating “aggressively a work of art. It makes no compromise with nature, but affronts it and rebels against it” (100). Similarly, cubist paintings, which are “exclusively of the human mind,” win his approval because they “banish Nature from Art” (252); and his comment on the superiority of the London Underground – with its “iron riveted into geometrical forms and straight lines of concrete” – prepares the way for the broader critique of American and Soviet industriolatry in Point Counter Point (1928), Music at Night (1930), and Brave New World (1932).
His second novel, Antic Hay (1923), depicts the postwar world he described elsewhere at this time as “socially and morally wrecked. Between them the war and the new psychology have smashed most of the institutions, traditions, creeds, and spiritual values that supported us in the past” (Huxley 1922. Myra Viveash, one of the denizens of this fictional wasteland, is the prototype of vamps such as Lucy Tantamount (Point Counter Point) and Mary Amberley (Eyeless in Gaza), as well as Hemingway's similarly named epitome of the lost generation, Lady Brett Ashley, in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Although few of the characters in Antic Hay have any ideals, one at least – Emily – elicits in the sensitive yet cynical protagonist, Gumbril, an openness to spiritual values. He briefly imagines a refuge from the jazz and foxtrot-distracted world of Viveash in the “crystal world” of Emily's country cottage, where he experiences a mystical annunciation, described as “a faint sound of footsteps, something inexpressibly lovely … [yet] terrifying” (187). But Huxley's early receptiveness to mysticism appears to have been nipped in the bud after his visit to India, for in 1926 he informs Mencken that “this rigmarole of Light from the East … is genuinely nonsense” (Bradshaw 1994 21).
The ideas of Huxley's next guru, the science writer J. W. N. Sullivan, probably influenced the characterization of Calamy, the world-weary sensualist turned mystic, in his next novel, Those Barren Leaves (1925). Sullivan's journalistic demonstration of the compatibility of “the new physics” with philosophical idealism made a significant, if brief, impression on Huxley, but the vitalist ideas of D. H. Lawrence soon gained a greater hold on his imagination. Mark Rampion, the character who embodies Lawrence's “lifeworship” in Point Counter Point, accuses all political parties of savoring “the stink” of industrialism, and his protest against it in his painting of a nude family in a pastoral landscape, reinforces the attack on cubism, first seen in Crome Yellow. Huxley's alter-ego, Philip Quarles, mordantly suggests a more fashionable portrait of life in the civilized world: the same family clothed in massproduced garments, sitting on an asphalt-covered bank – and all painted in the cubist manner – which prompts Rampion's observation that such modern art is unparalleled for “sterilizing the life out of things” (420). Not until 1936 did Huxley again seriously explore the salutary possibilities of the “perennial philosophy” for which Sullivan's elucidations of relativity and quantum theory, both in London's highbrow press and in person with Huxley, had helped prepare the way.
During his long literary career, Aldous Huxley published poetry collections, plays, essays, short fiction, travel narratives, and biography, but, like George Orwell, he is best remembered as the author of a hugely influential utopian satire. Brave New World began as a response to H. G. Wells's utopia, Men Like Gods (1923), although, unlike Orwell, he was not indebted to Zamyatin's We (1924), a novel he never read. However, in 1929 he reviewed René Fülöp-Miller's The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (1927), a work whose description of Soviet machine-worship may have contributed as much as Dickens's Hard Times to his portrait of reified workers in Brave New World.
Huxley became an innovative fictional stylist, effectively using the cinematic technique of montage for the purpose of exposition in the third chapter of Brave New World, thereby avoiding that major defect of most utopian novels – the tedious guided tour of utopian institutions. Using montage and intertextuality, Huxley did for the novel what Eliot had done for modern poetry in The Waste Land 10 years earlier, deliberately juxtaposing excerpts from, say, Shakespearean tragedy with the utopians' behaviorist jingles in order to emphasize, in Baker's phrase, “the erosion of cultural hierarchies” (259).
In October 1931, Huxley confided to an interviewer that the main purpose of his writing was “the desire… to clarify a point of view to myself. I do not write for my readers; in fact, I don't like thinking about my readers … I am chiefly interested in making clear a certain outlook on life.” He then summarized his entire literary output as “provisional work toward a definitive and comprehensive outlook on the world” (Huxley 1931 15, 16). The provisional nature of most of the novels after 1925 is reflected in what becomes a structural staple in his middle and final periods. Each novel presents characters with opposing “outlooks” on the world. In each novel from Point Counter Point onward, a guru-figure becomes a spokesman for Huxley's provisional philosophy.
Taking a cue from Huxley's often hostile assessment of Wells's “aseptic” utopianism – the adjective is used by Mercaptan in Antic Hay – most critics have emphasized the anti-Wellsian quality of Brave New World. Firchow convincingly shows how the characterization of World-Controller Mustapha Mond owes as much to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor as to Wells's Samurai (33–4). However, critics have recently called attention to the congruence of Huxley's and Wells's views – especially during the height of the worldwide economic crisis around 1931. Bradshaw even calls Huxley a “card-carrying open conspirator” and suggests that, although Huxley's original purpose in writing his famous utopia may well have been to travesty Men Like Gods, “parody soon gave way to hesitant prescription,” and that Mustapha Mond “acts as Huxley's ideological spokesman” (1995, 161). That Huxley's latest “provisional outlook” on the world became distinctly more Wellsian at this time is clear. Both advocated Soviet-style planning, rationalization, and greater authoritarianism, including measures to guard against the lowering of general intelligence caused by “differential birthrates.” Not surprisingly, one communist critic labeled both Huxley and Wells “Liberal Fascists” because of their support for “organized capitalism… Mondism” (Mirsky 34).
Still, Huxley's commitment to what he mockingly called “the great god Plan” (1994, 177) was fairly short-lived. In late 1935 he joined the Peace Pledge Union, producing in 1936 the anti-war tract “What are You Going to Do about It? The Case for Constructive Peace.” His most autobiographical novel, Eyeless in Gaza (1936), confirms his adoption of a committed, socially active position. Another guru emerges, the Buddhist, Dr. James Miller, whose ideas owe much to the “kinesthetic re-education” model of Huxley's teacher, F. M. Alexander, who, according to Huxley's wife Maria, had soon “made a new and unrecognizable person of Aldous … not physically only, but mentally and therefore morally” (Bedford 315). Dr. Miller's pacifist platform is based on that of Canon Dick Sheppard, the Anglican cleric and founder of the Peace Pledge Union. Influenced by their ideas, Huxley can been seen to have entered a new phase: that of polemicist-prophet. Huxley's protagonist and autobiographical alter-ego, Anthony Beavis (A.B.), rejects his past aesthete's life and moves toward an ethical one, embodying the struggle between the two antithetical outlooks of the detached sensualist-aesthete – A – and the ethical judge – B – in the main source for this novel, Kierkegaard's Either/ Or (Wasserman 142).
In After Many a Summer (1939), protagonist William Propter functions as a mouthpiece for the decentralist ideas of Ralph Borsodi, whose experiments at his “School for Living” convinced Huxley that decentralized production could be a viable alternative to mass production. Echoing F. M. Alexander, Propter insists that Good exists, on the physical level, as “the proper functioning of the organism,” and on the higher level, “… as the experience of eternity … the transcendence of personality, the extension of consciousness beyond the limits imposed by the ego” (120).
By the time Huxley came to write what he considered his best novel, Time Must Have a Stop (1944), he believed that in order to gain access to the Divine Ground, one must abandon the ego. The novel's title signals Huxley's by now consistent mystical position. The protagonist's scapegrace uncle, Eustace Barnack, another sensualist aesthete, is presented with an opportunity to escape from his ego, but he fails what Huxley calls the “immensely stringent intelligence test” (2007, 386) that he describes in a tour de force chapter recounting his immediate after-death experience. The metaphor of the divine intelligence test conveys the main theme of Time Must Have a Stop.
As Baker says in his essay on Huxley's critique of Enlightenment reason, “The inevitable outcome of Huxley's sweeping indictment of temporality and desire [in the 1940s] … is the gradual displacement of narrative by… critical prose” (259). Late in his career, Huxley confessed to a television interviewer that he was not a “born novelist, but an essayist who writes novels” (1957).
Huxley died on the day President Kennedywas assassinated, November 22, 1963. In an acceptance speech for an honor bestowed on him bythe American Academy of Arts and Letters only six months earlier, Huxley, recalling Montaigne, refers to Island (1962) as “an essay in positive Utopianism” (2000, 1). It serves as the culmination of his writings from the socially committed, American period of 1937 onward. Yet few critics would disagree with Baker's assessment of the work after 1939:
by the early forties Huxley's novels had become pretexts for discursive analyses of contemporary socio-economic, political, and religious issues. Narrative desire was, as a component of Utopian desire, partially recovered in Island, but Huxley's creative energies as a novelist seemed to collapse into irretrievable decline ironically at the moment in which his critique of the Enlightenment's faith in scientific thought had reached its clearest and most penetrating formulation. Once all human desire was construed as Sadean “craving,” anarchic and insatiably egoistic, Huxley's “novel of social history” … was simply displaced by the desire to transcend the ego, art, and history itself. (259–60)
SEE ALSO: Lawrence, D. H. (BIF); Modernist Fiction (BIF); Orwell, George (BIF); Politics and the Novel (BIF); Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (BIF); Wells, H. G (BIF)
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- Those Barren Leaves. London: Chatto and Windus. (1925).
- Point Counter Point. London: Chatto and Windus. (1928).
- Interviews with Great Scientists (VII): Aldous Huxley. Observer, pp. 15-16 (Feb. 1). (1931).
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- After Many a Summer. London: Chatto and Windus. (1939).
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- [Interview.] Look Here (dir. Feldman, D. ). NBC Television Network. (1957).
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- Aldous Huxley: Satire and Structure. London: Chatto and Windus. (1971).
- The Intelligentsia of Great Britain. New York: Covici, Friede. (1935).
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- Huxley's Either/Or: The Case for Eyeless in Gaza. In Meckier, J. (ed.), Critical Essays on Aldous Huxley. New York: G. K. Hall, pp. 132-148. (1996).
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