Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley

by Christopher Hitchens

Aldous Huxley absolutely detested mass culture and popular entertainment, and many of his  toughest critical essays, as well as several intense passages in his fiction, consist of sneers and jeers  at the cheapness of the cinematic ethic and the vulgarity of commercial music. He chanced to die on  the same day as the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 (being cheated of a  proper obituary notice as a result, and sharing the date of decease with C.S. Lewis, chronicler of  Narnia), so he missed the televisual event which once and for all confirmed the “global village.” But if  he were able to return to us, and cast his scornful and lofty gaze on our hedonistic society, he would  probably be relatively unsurprised at the way things are going. Sex has been divorced from  procreation to a degree hard to imagine even in 1963, and the current great debates in the moral  sciences concern the implications of reproductive cloning and of the employment of fetal stem-cells  in medicine. The study of history is everywhere, but especially in the United States, in steep decline.  Public life in the richer societies is routinely compared to the rhythms of spectacle and  entertainment. A flickering hunger for authenticity pushes many people to explore the peripheral and  shrinking worlds of the “indigenous.” This was all prefigured in Brave New World. So, in a way, was  the “one child” policy now followed in Communist China, where to the extent that the program is  successful we will not only see a formerly clannish society where everyone is an only child but a  formerly Marxist one that has no real cognate word for “brotherhood.” Intercontinental rocket travel  has not become the commonplace Huxley anticipated, but its equivalents have become a cliché:  jumbo jets do the same work of abolishing distance for the masses even though, in a strange moment  of refusal, the developed world has stepped back from the supersonic Concorde and reverted to the  days of voyaging comfortably below the speed of sound.

No, what would astonish laconic old Aldous would be the discovery that his photograph is  among those on the album cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band –  perhaps the least cacophonous of the signature records of pop and rock – and that Jim Morrison of  The Doors named his group after Huxley’s later and proto-psychedelic book The Doors of  Perception. In America, as Joan Didion once wrote, people who say “No man is an island” think that  they are quoting Ernest Hemingway: the fans who still make a shrine of Morrison’s grave in Paris  probably don’t appreciate that Huxley was himself borrowing from William Blake. Nonetheless,  literary immortality often depends on such vague but durable misunderstandings, and the three  words “Brave New World” (themselves annexed from Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s Tempest)  are as well known as “Catch-22” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four” – virtual hieroglyphics which almost  automatically summon a universe of images and associations.

English literary society in the twentieth century was a fairly small pond, and the English class  system tended to mean in any case that a limited number of people kept running into each other.  (This is one of the bonding yet realistic elements in Anthony Powell’s splendid novel sequence A  Dance to the Music of Time.) However, that Aldous Huxley should have taught George Orwell at  Eton, which was also Anthony Powell’s old school, seems to strain the natural serendipity of  coincidence. Having originally hoped to become a physician, Huxley contracted a serious eye  infection as an adolescent, lost a good deal of his sight, and until he could launch himself as a writer  was compelled to be a rather diffident and reluctant teacher of French. In his class were Stephen

Runciman, later to become the grand historian of Byzantium and the Crusades, and Eric Blair, later to  metamorphose into George Orwell. Runciman remembers that Blair admired Huxley’s command of  French culture and that he detested those boys who took advantage of the schoolmaster’s myopia.

Orwell never referred to this personal connection in print, as far as I know, when Brave New  World was published in 1931 and when its dystopic metaphors entered the conversational and social  bloodstream. He suggested at one point that Huxley had “plagiarized” from an earlier anti-Utopian  novel, Evgeny Zamyatin’s We. But since he acknowledges that work as an inspiration of his own, the  allegation may have been no insult. He didn’t get around to reviewing Brave New World until July  1940, when Britain seemed to have more urgent problems than the supposed nightmare of too much  free sex and narcosis:

Here the hedonistic principle is pushed to its utmost; the whole world has turned into  a Riviera hotel. But though Brave New World was a brilliant caricature of the present  (the present of 1930), it probably casts no light on the future. No society of that kind  would last more than a couple of generations, because a ruling class that thought  principally of a “good time” would soon lose its vitality. A ruling class has got to have a  strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique.

For some decades after this review was written, many people might have been inclined to say that  Orwell was right, and that the “true” threat was one of jackboots, tanks, bombs, and bullies.  Nonetheless, Huxley never went out of style. Something about his work seemed to tug at our  consciousness.

One could also point out that, in the picture of Mustapha Mond with which Huxley opens the  work, we are in fact introduced to a self-conscious ruling class with ideas of its own. Mond is not  represented as wanting a “good time” for himself, after all. He is the chilly, objective theorist of the  idea that social engineering and the wide distribution of easy pleasure will keep the masses in line.  And two further things are made plain at once, both of which may have influenced Orwell more than  he knew. We are told quite early on, in the flashbacks that occur during Mond’s address to the  awestruck students, that the brave new epoch began after the “Nine Years’ War” in which weapons  of mass destruction (including “anthrax bombs”: a superbly modern detail) had been employed. And  we are also reminded of the crucial role played by amnesia in the maintenance of power. Mond  takes the great capitalist Henry Ford at his word.

“History,” he repeated slowly,” is bunk.”

He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had  brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some  spiderwebs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Snossos and Mycenae. Whisk.  Whisk – and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama  and Jesus? Whisk – and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome,  Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom – all were gone. Whisk – the place where Italy had  been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of  Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk…

This combination, of annihilating war and the subsequent obliteration and erasure of cultural and  historical memory, is almost exactly what Orwell later relied upon to set the scene for his 1984. But he was writing about the forbidding, part-alien experience of Nazism and Stalinism, whereas Huxley  was locating disgust and menace in the very things – the new toys of materialism, from cars to  contraceptives – that were becoming everyday pursuits. Perhaps that is why his book still operates  on our subconscious.

There must indeed be an explanation for this, because I have to say that the fine passage  quoted above is not completely typical. Huxley was thought rather snobbish even in his own  generation, and often tended to condescend to the reader, as much of the dialogue in Brave New  World also tends to do. It is didactic and pedagogic and faintly superior: indeed you might say it was  the tone of voice of an Etonian schoolmaster. It is also somewhat contradictory and even self-defeating. Clearly, Huxley disdained socialism and the idea of equality: why then give the name of  Bernard Marx to the only dissident in his awful system? And why call one of the few natural and  spontaneous girls Lenina? This is stodgy and heavy rather than ironic, and it becomes absurd when  we meet an oversexed little child named Polly Trotsky in the opening chapters. (It’s elsewhere stated  that all citizens must be named from a pool of officially authorized surnames: the hedonistic regime  either wants to abolish interest in history or it does not, and in neither case will it tempt fate by  naming millions of its subjects after revolutionaries.)

Huxley came from revolutionary stock, but of a different kind. His grandfather was T. H.  Huxley, a celebrated naturalist, who was a partisan and friend of Charles Darwin. It was the elder  Huxley who first coined the term “agnostic” and who vanquished the Victorian Bishop Wilberforce in  the famous debate between evolution and creationism at Oxford University. On his mother’s side,  Aldous could claim Matthew Arnold, author of Culture and Anarchy, as a maternal uncle. His own  views were to fluctuate between the affirmative importance of high culture and the necessity of  skepticism. His favorite philosopher was the ancient Hellenic thinker Pyrrho, who argued that  judgment be suspended on any matter concerning the truth: Every position may be held to be  equally right as well as equally wrong.

It’s worth knowing this about Huxley, who often held and expressed diametrically opposite  opinions, and who described himself as an “amused Pyrrhonic aesthete” in the introduction he wrote  to the twentieth-anniversary edition of Brave New World. In the novel itself, one can often detect  strong hints of a vicarious approval of what is ostensibly satirized. For example, when Mustapha  Mond invites the medical student to “try to imagine what ‘living with one’s family’ meant,” he goes  on:

Home, home – a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by a man, by a periodically  teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an  understerilized prison; darkness, disease and smells.

Huxley was never at all impoverished as a boy (and in any case we can recognize the denunciation  above from any study of Victorian or now “Third World” domestic conditions), but his mother died  of cancer when he was fourteen and his brother committed suicide two years later, so he knew that  even upper-class family life could be distraught. The above passage combines this insight with a  fastidious disdain for the masses.

The study of eugenics was popular among the governing and intellectual classes of Britain in  the Victorian epoch and subsequently (indeed it was an aspect of what has been termed “Social Darwinism”), and we learn from his biographer Nicholas Murray that Aldous Huxley was highly  interested in “breeding,” in both the aristocratic and the scientific sense of the term. I know from  Huxley’s own essays that he fell straight for the early theorists of IQ, who believed in its distributing  by heredity. To this he added that it was important to encourage “the normal and supernormal  members of the population to have large families,” while preventing the subnormal “from having any  children at all.” So it was very clever of him – as well as quite Pyrrhonic – both to mobilize his own  feelings on this subject, and then to harness them for a satire on the planned economy. One needed  not object to his having things both ways, as long as one notices the trick being performed.

In rather the same way, Huxley thought that free love and infidelity were all very well for people like himself (he and his first wife had an open marriage and even shared the bed of the same  female lover, Mary Hutchinson). But still, when he came to describe the mindless and amoral sex  lives of the men and women in Brave New World, he wrote with a curled lip. In an article describing  the “jazz age” in California in the late 1920s, he had relished the profusion of nubile young girls and  wrote that: “Plumply ravishing, they give, as T.S. Eliot has phrased it, ‘a promise of pneumatic bliss.’”  Eliot spent his critical and poetic energy in the attempt to revive, in a more specifically Christian and  conservative form, the values of Matthew Arnold. So it is again amusing to note that the coarse word  “pneumatic,” used throughout Brave New World by both its male and female characters as a cheap  synonym for good sex, derives from this rather disapproving source, as well as expressing Huxley’s  own divided view of the subject.

The influence of T.S. Eliot can also be felt in the depiction of “World Controller” Mustapha  Mond, described as possessing “a hooked nose, full red lips, and eyes very piercing and dark.”  Martin Green has drawn attention to the resemblance to Mustapha Kemal, better known as Ataturk,  who was a commanding figure when Huxley was writing. Sir Alfred Mond, the founder of the giant  chemical multinational known as ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), was also a power-celebrity of  the period, and Eliot often alluded to him as the prototypical cosmopolitan Jew. (Huxley’s few  references to Jews were also often disobliging: he blamed them for the mercantile sleaziness of  Hollywood, among other things. As if to rub this in, there’s also a somewhat repellent character in  Brave New World named Morgana Rothschild.) And we catch another pre-configuration of Nineteen  Eighty-Four, when the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning finds himself nervous in Mond’s  presence, because “there were those strange rumors of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the  Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry – Ford knew what.” Did Orwell half-remember this when he  created the looming figure of O’Brien and the Inner Party’s secret book? If so, his review of Brave  New World was again unfair to Huxley.
I find the tracing of these contemporary influences to be valuable, because Huxley was  composing Brave New World at a time when modernity as we know it was just coming into full view.  He later reproached himself for not mentioning nuclear fission, about which he was quite well-informed, but this element of the literal hardly matters. Readers then and since have filled in many  gaps for themselves: they knew and they know what Huxley was driving at. Can the human being be  designed and controlled, from uterus to grave, “for its own good”? And would this version of super-utilitarianism bring real happiness?

Huxley himself conceded that his fictional characters were no more than puppets to illustrate  his points, and this lack of characterization (truly a drawback in his earlier and later novels, most especially in Island, his last and most self-consciously Utopian effort) is paradoxically rather a help in  Brave New World. The marionettes do their stuff, giving us a very rapid and complete picture of  mindless bliss and its usefulness to power. Then they begin, or some of them are authorized by their  carpenter to begin, to experience vague but definite feelings of discontent. They find themselves  asking: Is this all there is? The three deficiencies they feel, often without knowing how to name them,  are Nature, Religion, and Literature. With only chemical, mechanical, and sexual comforts provided  to them, they sense the absence of challenge and drama and they fall prey to ennui. With no concept  of a cosmos beyond the immediately human, they are deprived of the chance to feel awed or  alienated. And with nothing but sensory entertainment (Huxley might not have been the best of  movie critics, given his near-blindness, but he used this disadvantage to imagine “the feelies” as the  culmination of “talkies” and “movies”), they have no appreciation for words.

Huxley’s expression of this dilemma, and of its resolution, is again very didactic. He allows  some of his prefabricated figures to feel the stirrings of sexual jealousy and its two accompaniments:  the yearning for monogamy and the desire to bear one’s own child. He permits them the aspiration  to experience the wilderness, even if it is only a reservation, and to take the requisite risks. And he  leaves a tattered copy of Shakespeare lying around. (I’m sorry to keep doing this, but when Winston  Smith awakes from a haunting dream of a lost pastoral England, he does so to his own surprise “with  the word Shakespeare on his lips.”)

The possessor of the Shakespeare edition is The Savage, and it is he who wreaks revenge on  the overprotected and superinsulated creatures who stumble upon his existence. This revenge is  partly accidental, in that his own need for authentic emotion is enough in itself to cause convulsions  in the society that adopts him as a fearful curiosity or freak. Huxley later said that if he could rewrite  the novel he would have given The Savage more warning of what to expect. This shows that fiction  writers do well to leave their creations alone and spare them from second thoughts: it is the effect of  The Savage upon others that makes the dramatic difference, and it is his very naïveté and simplicity  that make a quasi-Cavalry out of the final chapter. Huxley was fairly indifferent to Christianity as a  religion (and his satire on the Church of England and the “Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury”  has since been easily surpassed by the fatuous degeneration of that Church itself), but he was not  immune to its metaphors, and the seeker for reality in the wilderness is only one of these. We can  always be sure of one thing – that the messengers of discomfort and sacrifice will be stoned and  pelted by those who wish to preserve at all costs their own contentment. This is not a lesson that is  confined to the Testaments.

In a way, I have been arguing that Brave New World was both ahead of, and behind, its time.  And Huxley was – shall we say? – a reactionary modernist. He had this quality in common with  Evelyn Waugh, who also took his tone from Eliot’s Waste Land and who dilated about eugenics and  euthanasia while carrying a burden of unpurged religious guilt. The disguised presence of original sin  is reimagined in Brave New World when Huxley, in the most absurd of his scenarios, shows us little  children being sleep-conditioned to consume, and to use up material goods and opportunities with  as much abandon as possible. Here one must ask, who but a member of the comfortable or agnostic  classes imagines that people need to be brainwashed into being greedy? The acquisitive instinct,  perhaps initially supplied by Satan himself in one interpretation, is, after all, fairly easily engaged. It  was Karl Marx and not Bernard Marx who wrote that, in relation to his victims, the capitalist  “therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive and by filling their ears with babble about new needs.” Marx also  thought, as is usually forgotten or overlooked, that this impulse led to innovation and experiment  and to the liberating process of what has sometimes been called “creative destruction.” In other  words, it is a means of arousing discontent with the status quo, not a mere means of stupefying the  masses. Our own contemporary world suggests that the energy of capital is not easily compatible  with stasis.

Having never wanted for much himself, Huxley was quicker to miss this point than he might  have been. And, in his Pyrrhonic way, he was also quicker to surrender to the blandishments of  Nirvana, in its consumer-capitalist form, than most. This is what makes Brave New World Revisited  into a disappointment. Once again, the clue is to be found in an exchange with Orwell, who sent  Huxley an advance copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In late 1949, Huxley wrote back to say “how fine  and profoundly important” the book was. However, he was convinced that future rulers would  discover that

infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of  government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as  completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging  and kicking them into obedience…the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined  to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I  imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought on as a result of a felt need  for increased efficiency.

Perhaps it is partly Orwell’s fault, since his descriptions of the Thought Police and Room 101  are so annihilatingly and memorably ghastly, but it does deserve to be said that his own  fictionalization of absolutism does not depend exclusively upon the power of fear and violence. The  masses are not handed soma to tranquilize them, but they are given plentiful cheap gin. Lotteries are  staged for their amusement and excitement, and cheap pornographic literature is freely available to  all proles. The cinema is depicted as an orgy of distraction and propaganda, on Colosseum lines  admittedly, rather than of exquisite sensation. The Nineteen Eighty-Four regime is one of scarcity  rather than abundance, but the traditional bribes of materialism and, indeed, of conditioning cannot  be said to have been overlooked.

  When he came to publish Brave New World Revisited almost a decade later, in 1958, Huxley  nonetheless opened with a long contrast between his own vision and the Orwellian one; a contrast  very similar to the one he had sketched in his letter of 1949. He rightly pointed out that in the Soviet  Union the need for rationalization of the economy had produced some alleviation of the totalitarian  system. However, his general obsession with eugenics once again caused him to replace the  emphasis elsewhere:

The United States is not at present an overpopulated country. If, however, the   population continues to increase at the present rate (which is higher than that of  India’s increase, though happily a good deal lower than the rate now current in Mexico  or Guatemala), the problem of numbers in relation to available resources might well  become troublesome by the beginning of the twenty-first century. For the moment overpopulation is not a direct threat to the personal freedom of Americans. It remains,  however, an indirect threat, a menace at one remove. If overpopulation should drive  the underdeveloped countries into totalitarianism, and if these new dictatorships  should ally themselves with Russia, then the military position of the United States  would become less secure and the preparations for defense and retaliation would  have to be intensified. But liberty, as we all know, cannot flourish in a country that is  permanently on a war-footing, or even a near-war footing. Permanent crisis justifies  permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central  government. And permanent crisis is what we have to expect in a world in which  overpopulation is producing a state of things, in which dictatorship under Communist  auspices becomes almost inevitable.

In no respect is this a paragraph of prescience. The geopolitical sentences are both too  detailed and too vague. One might note, also, that the chief demographic problem of the United  States in 2003 is its aging population, with the “graying” process somewhat delayed or postponed by  legal and illegal immigration. Scholars, such as Amartya Sen in particular, have come up with  multiple refutations of Malthus. “Population bomb” theorists, most notably Paul Ehrlich, have seen  their extrapolated predictions repeatedly fail to come true – at least partly because they are  extrapolations. Finally, it would appear from his remarks about Mexico and Guatemala that Huxley  suddenly isn’t all that much in love with the primitive adobe and cactus natives, or not as much in  love as he affected to be in Brave New World.

One element of that ancestral culture had, however, quite bewitched him in the years that  separate the writing of Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. His Lawrentian sojourns in  California, New Mexico, and elsewhere – he was the editor of D.H. Lawrence’s letters – had exposed  him to the psychedelic properties of peyote and mescaline and their derivatives, such as LSD (the  “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” of the Sergeant Pepper smash hit). I don’t mean to be too  judgmental about this: Huxley was almost blind and was entitled to any colorful voyage of the  imagination that he could get his hands on. But there is something almost promiscuously uncritical in  his Brave New World Revisited recommendation:

In LSD-25 (lysergic acid diethylamide) the pharmacologists have recently created  another aspect of soma – a perception improver and vision producer that is,  physiologically speaking, almost costless. This extraordinary drug, which is effective in  as small doses are fifty or even twenty-five millionth of a gram, has power (like peyote)  to transport people into the other world. In the majority of cases, the other world to  which LSD-25 gives access is heavenly; alternatively it may be purgatorial or even  infernal. But, positive or negative, the lysergic acid experience is felt by almost  everyone who under goes it to be profoundly significant and enlightening. In any  event, the fact that minds can be changed so radically at so little cost to the body is  altogether astonishing.

Huxley became a friend of Dr. Timothy Leary, a man of great charm and wit (as I can testify  from experience) and a truant Harvard scientist whose advocacy of LSD trips made him an emblem  of the “Sixties”. It was this comradeship that attracted the attention of the Beatles and Jim Morrison.

But again one must pause and notice a contradiction. Leary believed that the use of mind-altering  drugs was essentially subversive, and would help individuals both evade and erode “the system.”  The authorities appear to have agreed with him on this, pursuing and imprisoning him (at one point  in a cell adjacent to Charles Manson) and making it highly illegal to follow his advice, not just  concerning LSD but also cocaine and marijuana. What becomes, then, of Huxley’s belief that such  hallucinogens, analgesics, and stimulants are the ideal instrument of state control? The “war on  drugs” is now being extended to a state sponsored campaign against tobacco and alcohol and  painkillers: if the ruling class wants people to be blessed out it has a strange way of pursuing this  elementary goal. In our time, the symbol of state intrusion into the private life is the mandatory urine  test.

A map of the world that does not show Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. In  Brave New World, and in his closing novel Island, Huxley tried to fix Utopian cartography in our  minds. In the first setting, sex and drugs and the conditioning of the youth are the symptoms of un-freedom and the roots of alienation and anomie, while in the second they are tools of emancipation  and the keys to happiness. The inhabitants of Brave New World have no external enemies to keep  them afraid and in line; the Island-people of Pala have to contend with an aggressive neighboring  dictatorship led by Colonel Dipa, a Saddam/Milosevic type who seems to think, and with good  reason, that the traditional methods of club and boot and guns are still pretty serviceable.

We should, I think be grateful that Aldous Huxley was such a mass of internal contradictions.  These enabled him to register the splendors and miseries, not just of modernity, but of the human  conditions. In his essay “Ravens and Writing Desks,” written for Vanity Fair in 1928, he said:

God is, but at the same time God also is not. The Universe is governed by blind chance  and at the same time by a providence with ethical preoccupations. Suffering is  gratuitous and pointless, but also valuable and necessary. The universe is an imbecile  sadist, but also, simultaneously, the most benevolent of parents. Everything is rigidly  predetermined, but the will is perfectly free. This list of contradictions could be  lengthened so as to include all problems that have ever vexed the philosopher and the  theologian.

Aware perhaps that this teetered on the edge of tautology, the old Pyrrhonist wrote  elsewhere in his essay on the great Spinoza:

“Homer was wrong,” wrote Heracleitus of Ephesus, “Homer was wrong in saying:  ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was  praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer was heard, all things would  pass away.”

The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is  ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There  is no escape from anxiety and struggle, and Huxley assists us in attaining this valuable glimpse of the  obvious, precisely because it was a conclusion that was in many ways unwelcome to him.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here