Nov 22, 1963: Aldous Huxley

Michael Cook
22 Nov 2013
Reproduced with Permission

In the 1920s and 30s Aldous Huxley was the darling of British literati. His witty novels -- Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point -- populated with characters drawn from his own immense circle of acquaintances, were more esteemed than Evelyn Waugh's. Unusually for an English novelist, he was more interested in the drama of ideas than the drama of character. He wrote dozens of novels, short story collections, plays, film scripts, poetry collections, and essays. But only one of them is likely to survive, Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley was born in 1894, the scion of two leading families of English intellectual life, the Huxleys and the Arnolds. His paternal grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist called "Darwin's Bulldog" and the coiner of the word "agnosticism" (to describe his own religious views). His father was Leonard Huxley, a teacher, biographer and journalist.

Unlike the Huxleys, the Arnolds were god-botherers. Aldous's maternal grandfather was Tom Arnold, who established public education in colonial Tasmania and worked with Cardinal Newman to found a university in Ireland. Under Newman's influence, Tom became a Catholic, much to the dismay of his shrewish wife who penned abusive letters to Newman denouncing his conversion.

Tom's brother (and Aldous's uncle) was the immensely influential literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold, an agnostic who described the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of ebbing religion as the central tragedy of the Victorian age. One of Tom's daughters wrote novels under the name Mrs Humphrey Ward, the most famous of which was a best-seller about an Anglican clergyman's rejection of orthodox Christianity. The other, Julia, was the mother of Aldous.

So Aldous Huxley's family tree placed him at the centre of the central intellectual struggles of the 20th - and possibly the 21st - century between science and faith, technology and humanism.

Huxley was not conventionally religious. But from the 40s on, he became interested in mystical experience. (His book The Perennial Philosophy is an anthology of texts culled indiscriminately from Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi and Christian sources.) He found that drugs helped and he was an early adopter of mescaline and LSD. As he lay dying in California in 1963, he asked for an injection of LSD.

He should have known better. He had already shown in 1932, in Brave New World, that drugs and pneumatic, loveless sex were unsuccessful attempts to evade existential anxieties. Nonethless, Huxley's yearning for something permanent beyond the flux of the visible world made him an acute critic of the hollowness of 20th century materialism. This is his ultimate target in his most famous novel.

Set 600 years in the future, Brave New World depicts a society which is contented, peaceful and prosperous. Materially speaking, it is a paradise. But social harmony has been purchased at a high price. With a few exceptions, its citizens are mere drones whose humanity is leached away by free and abundant sex and a drug called soma which dispels depression. "One cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments," is the government's slogan. In this environment, religion and politics are irrelevant.

Sex has been decoupled from reproduction and babies of different intellectual castes are produced on assembly lines and raised in "hatcheries and conditioning centres". The lower ranking castes are cloned with Bokanovsky's Process, which produces up to 96 children from a single embryo. Families do not exist and an omnipotent paternalistic state cares for everyone.

Brave New World's political framework is characteristic of the 1930s. With the impressive industrial and military success of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, writers like Huxley and George Orwell (whom Huxley taught at Eton) assumed that totalitarianism was all but inevitable.

George Orwell's 1984 represents one vision of the future. The state has become all-powerful, freedom is treason, and individuality is repressed with physical and psychological violence. But when 1984 actually arrived (approximately) the repressive Soviet Union silently dissolved and an even more repressive China gave Maoism a big raspberry and embraced a free market in a guided democracy.

It is Huxley's vision which is closer to the mark. 1984 is a nightmare; Brave New World is the TV news. We live in a society in which reproduction can be outsourced to surrogate mothers, children are conceived and eugenically selected in IVF clinics, sex has become recreational, pornography widely accepted, and anti-depressants are common.

As political analysis, Brave New World is just plain wrong. But its enduring insight is that people will sacrifice the drama of being responsible, fully human persons in a free society for the sake of comfort. They freely drug themselves with recreational sex, pornography and anti-depressants.

Both Orwell and Huxley assumed that governments would eventually manage every aspect of human existence. What neither anticipated was that jackboots and central planning are not needed to degrade society. In a technologically advanced market economy without religious convictions, people will pay to be dehumanised.