Mention the name Aldous Huxley and most people will probably think of two things: his novel Brave New World and his experiments with psychedelic drugs. But there is more to Huxley than this: his collected works represent a lifelong struggle to understand how people could live more fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Huxley was born in southern England in 1894 into a wealthy, cultured family. He studied English Literature at Oxford, wrote a series of brilliant satirical novels, befriended other writers of his day (most notably D.H. Lawrence), moved to the United States and died in California in 1963.
Before turning to his ideas, two things should be stressed. First, Huxley was a polymath: a man whose work covers everything from Elizabethan poetry and Renaissance painting to Quantum Mechanics and Evolutionary Biology. Second, he was born into 19th century Europe’s intellectual and cultural elite. And this combination of intellectual brilliance and social privilege seems to have instilled in Huxley a sense that he must somehow use his gifts to benefit the human race.
How Not to Live
Huxley’s most famous work (though not his best) is Brave New World. Published in 1932, it depicts a future society governed by enlightened despots. Whereas the rulers of Orwell’s 1984 are interested only in power, Huxley’s rulers are concerned more with order. They ensure this by keeping the population docile and happy rather than brutalized and terrorized. Indeed, life in Huxley’s Brave New World is rather nice: casual sex is encouraged, the fear of death discouraged, and recreational drugs are distributed by the government itself.
But the inhabitants of this world have been deprived of the opportunity to grow, change and fulfil themselves. Theirs is the happiness of sheltered children. Of course, not everyone in the novel is happy. Several characters feel dissatisfied, either due to physical difference, intellectual curiosity, or, in the case of the main character, because they were raised outside of the society altogether.
This clash is brought to a head at the end. A representative of the new society argues in favor of safety and happiness over freedom and self-realization. His opponent disagrees, choosing the lonely, difficult path of self-reliance and self-discovery.
Though once an aspiring scientist himself (and grandson of Darwin’s closest friend), Huxley had a lifelong interest in mysticism. But he also had little time for conventional religion, believing instead that it was up to the individual to find his own path.
In the 1950s, as part of this continuing fascination, Huxley experimented with the drug Mescaline. Of course, he was not the first to use drugs for self-growth – even today many tribal cultures in Africa and South America use a sacred drug. He recorded these experiences in his book The Doors of Perception, arguing that drugs like Mescaline somehow removed the normal obstacles to heightened, or ‘mystic’, awareness. Under its influence, he was given temporary relief from the ego and, in his words, experienced “the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”
For Huxley, self-realization meant a new way of perceiving and experiencing. Nowhere does he make this more explicit than in his final major novel, Island. At its centre is the character Will Farnaby, a sort of everyman figure – a cynical, secular journalist sent by his London newspaper to secure access to the oil deposits of a Polynesian island known as Pala. The inhabitants have formed a new kind of civilization, one that combines the best of Western science and Mahayanian Buddhism: they practise a deep spirituality but reject organised religion, keep the birth rate to a sustainable level, and use Western technology to improve their standard of living without simultaneously wrecking the environment. Only under such conditions, Huxley stresses, can self-realization occur.
But Will is a man haunted by a lifetime of unhappiness. Like so many people, he is trapped inside a personal hell of guilt, cynicism and trauma. Raised in England by a bullying, alcoholic father and a whiney, self-pitying mother, his childhood was lonely and empty. His aunt, the one person from whom he received affection, died a dreadful death from cancer. Later, he was unfaithful to his wife, leading in turn to her death. Of course, Will is not alone in these sorts of experiences, neither is his detached misanthropy unusual. And this needs to be stressed; Will’s transformation can be undergone by anyone.
In essence, his transformation demands a re-engagement with life. His marriage, for example, had been a failure because, though he had loved his wife, they were unable to consummate this love. Will then embarked on a series of affairs which left him feeling empty, lonely and guilty. He has experienced love without physical intimacy and physical intimacy without love – the Palanese teach him how to combine the two. They are sexually liberated, but also understand that sex must include respect, intimacy and love if it is to be fulfilling. As he grows to love one of the islanders, the prospect of a real relationship seems possible.
As a journalist, Will has travelled the world and seen nothing but poverty, war, and overcrowded slums. Consequently, he has grown detached, bitter and misanthropic. For example, he recalls a nightmare hallucination in which the London crowds were transformed into swarming maggots. But here, on a calm, peaceful island whose birth rate is controlled and whose people are not gripped by vulgar consumerism, he begins to value human beings once more. This is helped by the practise of mindfulness, which the islanders have perfected. Gradually, this too alters his perception and, walking through the market place one day, he finds himself revelling in the bustling crowds and their “good gross odours.”
But it is above all the climactic experience that completes Will’s self-realization. The islanders have a sacred drug named Moksha whose effects resemble those of Mescaline or LSD. Will takes the drug and gains temporary relief from memory, time, and self in what Huxley describes as “knowledgeless understanding.” Initially the experience is ecstatic, but it soon turns nightmarish. His guide, who is not herself under the influence, reassures him that this is necessary. She encourages him to see the beauty even in the horrors of existence. Finally, he turns to his guide and realizes that true, deep, communication with other human beings is possible – that the doors of hell really are locked from the inside.
Huxley was no fool, however, and Will’s self-realization represents no simplistic, happy ending: the island falls to the greed and stupidity of a neighboring power, and there is no guarantee that Will won’t “return to my vomit,” as he puts it. But the seeds of growth are there.