Themes in Aldous Huxley’s Life and Literature
by Brock Bakke
Writing styles of specific authors tend to be rather dynamic. Aldous Huxley is no exception to this. The evolution of his writing style from Crome Yellow, his first novel, to Island, his last, shows very distinct changes in its character. Here it is important to note that Huxley’s education was that of the most proper English literary gentleman. He graduated first in English literature at Eton, going on to receive a degree in the subject from Oxford. Because of this, one can assume that his early writings must be somewhat aristocratic and resumed. This is, in fact, partially the case. In Huxley’s earlier novels, he displays a sort of negative but reserved satire for his readers. In his Vulgarity in Literature he apologizes by saying that to "shock the stupid and morally reprehensible truth-haters" into an acceptance of reality is not only a duty of the satirist, it is also a rare pleasure (Bentley 142). Though much of his literary goal was to make the public think by ‘shocking’ them, his earlier novels were not all too vulgar. For instance, in Brave New World, when we find that the savage has hanged himself, there isn’t a long and drawn out gore scene, but we get a very reserved description of the swaying of his feet from side to side. In some of his later novels, though, we see a more carnal undertone. This period probably lasted from the late 1930’s to the late 40’. Still the very distinctly reserved English gentleman, the period sees, though, a more descriptive Aldous Huxley when it comes to violence. This trend held its strongest point in the beginning. For instance, in Eyeless in Gaza there is a "scene in which a dog falls from a passing airplane, explodes on a roof, and covers a pair of nude lovers with blood and gobbets of flesh" (Bentley 144). The later embodiments of this vulgarity served a more useful purpose for Huxley. In Ape and Essence, there is a scene in which, to help the reader more fully understand the seriousness of the situation, a deformed child’s head is ritualistically impaled upon a dagger. This scene is not excessively described and marks the winding down of the gore-phase in Huxley’s writing. It should also be noted that where this particular occurrence takes place in Ape and Essence; it is within a screenplay, as the bulk of the book is, that is the original subject of the book. This, in my opinion, is done so that a greater dissociative quality is created between Huxley and the reader, making it more appropriate for him to display the blatant statement that the book is. The satirical contexts of Huxley’s writing can be viewed throughout his career, migrating from the more sardonic negativity of his youth to the more mature and reconciled styles of his later years. In Island, Huxley has almost completely severed himself from the vulgarity and aggression of his youth. In the novel, he spends very little effort speaking emotionally about the antagonists of the book, turning instead for a greater amount of energy to fuel his discussions on the greatness of the protagonist. More of the changes in Huxley’s satire will be seen when we later discuss the attitudes present in his writing.
There are a few trends that are observable in Aldous Huxley’s plotlines. Presented in his more popular works, we see a ‘fish-out-of-water’ scenario many a time. Through this vantagepoint of an external observer the reader can, to a certain extent, identify with the character in question, at least in regards to point of view. This provides an excellent opportunity for Huxley to more fluidly convey the point of whatever the story may be to his assumably naïve reader. The Savage in Brave New World is an example of this. He comes from a preserved Indian reservation and experiences the dehumanized utopia of the book’s futuristic city. Of course the Savage is very maladaptive to this new environment, as the reader, though maybe not to such an extreme, probably would be. A better portrayal of this theme is offered through the character of Will Farnaby in Island. Will is a journalist who becomes stranded on the secluded island Pala, and through his eyes we are, at the beginning of the book, first introduced to this new environment. Throughout the story Will is shown to be a very dynamic character, evolving from an average self-centered type of person from ‘our’ world into one who understands the humanity expressed in the philosophy by which the island is run. The same ‘fish-out-of-water’ theme was used fifteen years earlier, about median to these two novels chronologically, in Ape and Essence. In this novel, the main character, a very embroiled Dr. Poole, is thrown rather abruptly into a chaotic civilization sprung from post-apocalyptic America. Again, it is through his eyes that we are shown the consequences of an irresponsible human race, as is reminiscent of Brave New World (although the embodiment of this in Ape and Essence differs from that of Brave New World in that its future is the result of derelict, overorganization being that of the other). A less common plot trend in Huxley’s writing is that of dementia. Mr. Stoyte in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is an example of this. In the book, he employs the main character Jeremy Portage to aid him in his mad search for immortality. In the short story "Eupompous Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers," the passing of madness from one person to another, via obsession, is also illustrated in a unique and entertaining manner. As one would expect there are many deviations from Huxley’s more common plotlines, as with any author. The use of the more prevalent plotlines, however, does make it easier for Huxley to transmit the oftentimes-satirical nature of his tale, and to express whatever attitude about society he may be wishing show.
A conglomerate of satire, the attitudes expressed in Aldous Huxley’s body of writing have shaped and reshaped themselves many a time. The general themes tend to remain the same; however, the attitudes expressing those themes have shifted greatly in the latter parts of his career. As mentioned earlier, Huxley received one of the very best educations possible. He was the product of two aristocratic intellectual families, the Huxleys and the Arnolds, so from this it is not suprising that he was a carrier of curiosity. This curiosity manifested itself as skepticism in his youth, rendering Aldous a "debunker of moribund truths" (Kuehn 1). Of course, his earlier writing reflected this, as we can see in Brave New World. The more negativistic, more sardonic tones of this work paint a picture of a more optimistic Aldous Huxley than we see in, say, Island or any of his later writings. At the time Brave New World was written, 1931, one can assume that a sense of cause and conviction was being felt; new and foreign technology was rapidly increasing and changing society from what it was, as well as several world powers were beginning to establish themselves in ways more powerful than ever before. The world events of the time sparked quite a cause for alarm in Huxley, which is illustrated in a London interview conducted with him in 1961:
Greed and Hate:--
Two baboon-Persons in one Supreme Gorilla
(Ape and Essence 46).
Herbert Hoover once said, "Words without actions are the assassins of idealism" (Edwards 285). This may be true, unless, of course, your actions are your words. Aldous Huxley, especially in his later life, held many views and ideologies regarding numerous aspects of society. Since he was in fact a writer, his best way of expressing these thoughts, as well as illustrating them in the most persuasive manner, was through his writing. Slowly throughout the course of his writing career, we see a gradual shift in Huxley’s view of the utopia as a concept of the future. In his most popular of novels, Brave New World, Huxley shows a grim and bleak view of a future utopia, most likely reflecting his personal interpretation of where the world was going in 1932. The characteristics of hypnopaedia, mass control and mass regulation, directed breeding, and large scale Pavlovian conditioning help to illustrate Huxley’s fear of a mindless drone society in the novel. There is also a dramatic loss of individuality, as exemplified by the trance-inducing repetition of the phrase "everyone belongs to everyone else" throughout it. In Brave New World, Huxley creaes a terrible view of what he believed could happen. In December of 1948, the short novel Ape and Essence was published. In it, we see yet another view of the future, but this time one in chaos, far from any utopian society. Here, Huxley has abandoned the utopian involvement completely, though many of the negative characteristics, such as mass control and intense social conditioning, of Brave New World are seen again. Ten years after the publication of Ape and Essence, Huxley released Brave New World Revisited, a collection of essays regarding the issues questioned in Brave New World. A much more direct and philosophically written book, Brave New World Revisited addresses the psychological reasons behind why human nature renders us to be predisposed to the hideous consequences of the novel in question. The final essay in the collection deals with, as titled, what can be done. What can be done? retorts back to the earlier essays, saying that the preservation of freedom, because it can be attacked from so many different directions, must be protected from numerous directions. In 1962, most of these protective measures are employed in Huxley’s final novel: Island, an idealistic view of the most well formed society–a non-utopian utopia of sorts. The ideal society in Island is that of Pala, a small island off the coast of India. The reason the individuality of the citizen is lost in Brave New World is that the general populous is forced to act for the good of society. In Island the individual contributes to the good of society out of his/her pure unselfishness, and thus she/he doesn’t loose his/her personal individuality, because it doesn’t have to be taken from her/him in order for society to survive. In What can be done? one of the key factors that Aldous Huxley discusses for the improvement of society is better education: "Freedom is menaced, and education for freedom is urgently needed" (131). Liberal education about freedom, and more importantly, the responsibilities of freedom are taught to the children of Pala, so that complicated government control and regulations simply aren’t needed because the citizens of Pala, when they are grown, are well developed psychologically, and understand what they need to do in order to maintain proper sociological function. There is a multitude of other connections between Brave New World Revisited and Island, far to numerous to cite and discuss here. The main concept, however, is still apparent: Aldous Huxley’s portrayal of utopianism has branched into a slew of other dimensions that have aided in the construction of what he feels is the ideal embodiment of social perfection.
In regards to spiritual matters, in his life and suitably reflected in his writing, those of Aldous Huxley are quite dynamic. In his earlier works, we see a very cynical view of religion produced from Huxley. In his 1923 publication of Antic Hay, is a good display of many of his early views on religion as it illustrates a world of lonely individuals searching for themselves. In it we see several different views of God, some of which, many critics agree, accurately reflect Huxley’s at the time (Birnbaum 46). In the 1926 publication of Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday, Huxley states that "religion is a device employed by the Life Force far for the promotion of its evolutionary designs. But they would be justified in adding that religion is also a device employed by the Devil for the dissemination of idiocy, intolerance, and servile abjection" (Huxley Jesting Pilate 58). In his 1929 essay "One and Many" Huxley announces himself "officially and agnostic" (Huxley Do What You Will: Essays 1). Milton Birnbaum, in a critical account of Huxley’s religious views states:
Perhaps what Aldous Huxley is most known for, at least with younger generations after the 1960’s, is his writings about surreal and mystical experience. His essay "The Doors of perception" and its later companion "Heaven and Hell" were both forerunners to the psychedelic movement. In fact Huxley himself was the first to coin the term psychedelic, meaning "mind revealing" or "mind opening" (L. Huxley 134). "The Doors of Perception" is a work documenting Huxley’s first experience with a hallucinogen, mescaline, in 1953. This was in the context of an experiment performed by the rather established surgeon Dr. Humphrey Osmond of the Royal College of Surgery, Medicine, Psychiatry, etc., England (ibid.). After LSD-25’s introduction later that decade, Huxley became a strong supporter of its use in psychotherapy and spirituality. He became well acquainted with the discoverer of the substance, Swiss Chemist, Dr. Albert Hoffmann as well as his family. Timothy Leary has also attributed "The Doors of Perception" as the initial inspiration for his leading role the psychedelic movement. LSD-25 is discussed in greater detail in "Heaven and Hell" and in an essay entitled "Chemical Persuasion" that appeared in Brave New World Revisited. Contrary to popular belief, in the years between 1953 and ’63, Huxley had only "about ten or twelve chemically induced psychedelic experiences: the total amount of chemical taken during those years was not as much as many people take today  in a single week, sometimes in a single dose" (L. Huxley 131). Long before the advent of hallucinogens, Huxley was very interested in the mystical experience. In an appendix to "Heaven and Hell," for instance, he describes earlier methods for a psychedelic, by his definition, experience being brought upon by the use of staring into a strobe light with one’s eyes closed for an extended period of time, as well as fasting, meditation and other such methodologies (149-156). Early in his career, Aldous Huxley did hold a certain curiosity for hallucinogens, at which point it is unclear whether it is within a positive or negative light. The legendary soma in Brave New World, for example, holds a strong illustration of this. Whereas Huxley viewed the Soma in Brave New World as more of a drug drug (he and Hoffmann both felt that the psychedelics are nothing like conventional drugs and should categorized entirely separately), inducing dream-like detachment similar to that of the initial feelings associated with heroin injection; the more psychedelic-oriented Moksha Medicine of Island was viewed in a far more positive perspective. This, of course, is a reflection of the numerous, and what Huxley considered positive, experiences he had had with hallucinogens between these two books. He even thanked Albert Hofmann in a letter for inventing the then dubbed Moksha Medicine (Hofmann 2). However, the Moksha medicine in Island was derived from a mushroom, probably similar to that of the psilocybine strain. The last ten years of Huxley’s life were, to a certain degree, interrelated with these themes, and it is no surprise that they were reflected in his writing so often. It is here that we can further examine other parallels between Huxley’s life and work.
An interconnectedness of each of his ideologies is apparent both in the life of Aldous Huxley as well as paralleled in his writing. In the evolution of his writing career, more and more of Huxley’s art imitated his life. Huxley’s second wife, Laura Archera Huxley, noted in her book This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley, "I was so totally unaware of anything connected with the process of writing that it was an enormous surprise for me to find much of our lives in Island." (L. Huxley 147). A reoccurrence of many artistic and literary themes are present throughout the writings of Aldous Huxley. Now since Huxley’s education is that most suited for producing the proper English gentleman, it is not all too suprising to note that he was somewhat of a renascence man. In many of his works, there are numerous references to various components of British literature. This is likely the result of, as I mentioned earlier, his graduating first in the subject while at Eton, and his degree in it from Oxford. As his background in English literature would so likely render, there are many Shakespearean references in several of his books and essays. For instance, the local World Controller, Mustapha Mond, in Brave New World holds a collection of the long since banned works of Shakespeare, as well as the Savage gets his first experiences in reading with Shakespeare while growing up on the reservation. He, the savage, uses "Romeo and Juliet" as a template for his love for Lenina. Another instance of Shakespearean influence on Huxley occurred one month before his death in October of 1963 with an article published in Show magazine entitled "Shakespeare and Religion." In "The Arts of Selling," an essay published in Brave New World Revisited, there is also a mention of Keats’ famous "Beauty is truth" quote, where Huxley goes on to speak of it only on a superficial level in pertinence to the subject of the essay (61). In an essay that I’ve only been able to find on the internet, "Culture and the Individual", Huxley at one point goes into detail in analyzing a selection of Wordsworth’s writing, again the topic of which is in pertinence to the subject matter of the essay. He also was quite fond of painting, and this is apparent in many of his works (e.g. Rembrant in Island and Doors of Perception, Monet in Doors of Perception, as well as countless others). As is discussed in most of the biographies concerning him, Aldous Huxley had certain degree of trouble with his eyes throughout his life. The bulk of this actually occurred in adolescence, while at Eton actually, when he had a degenerative eye disorder for about eighteen months which left some scarring in one eye (Bedford 32). Contrary to what many superficial researchers say, Aldous Huxley was not blind his entire life (he was, practically, during those eighteen months though–forcing him to learn Braille) and had only slight problems with night vision after the initial problem had subsided. Huxley claimed that he had overcome the day to day troubles that his eyes had caused him by following a series of optical exercises referred to as "The Bates Method." He used these and later documented his successful account and rules to follow for such a therapy in his 1942 publication of The Art of Seeing (L. Huxley 57). Another, and most verily pronounced, parallel between the life and writing of Aldous Huxley is the incidence of cancer. A very deep and painful scar was imprinted upon Aldous in early childhood. While in his first half at Eton, his mother, Julia, died very abruptly after suffering for only four months from cancer (Bedford 24). It is possible that the contracting of cancer and death of one of the most maternal and remarkably gentle of his characters, Lakshmi in Island, is a direct tribute to his mother, whom Aldous was deeply saddened by the death of. I myself feel, however, that the death of Lakshmi is more likely a result of the death of Huxley’s first and dear wife Maria, who unfortunately also died of cancer, and did so just a few years before the writing of the book. It is ironic to note, also, that Aldous himself eventually succumbed to the illness.
The vast array of themes expressed both in the life and writings of Aldous Huxley are as numerous as they are diverse. From the satirical, and even bitter, youth to the philosophical pacifist of his later years, Huxley richly infused his literature with several themes that reflected his notably active life. This is, by far, not a complete documentation of all these themes and any one of the presented topics could be discussed at length, as many have. The distinct character Huxley gives to his writing is unique in all of its differing manifestations. Whether it is campaigning against global turmoil or the inspiring the psychedelic movement, everything Aldous Huxley did, and accordingly wrote about, he invested his total creative energies in. It is not suprising that he is viewed as a literary genius, contributing largely to the present body of classic English literature of the twentieth century. What is suprising, or to state it clearer, amazing, is that Huxley is viewed in high esteem from both the world of the intellectual and that of the snobby intellectual’s nemesis: the hippie (although Huxley passed away before the manifestation of the latter). If there is any one theme in Huxley’s literature that could summarize it as a whole, it is that of evolution and progression. From Brave New World to "The Doors of Perception" to Island, this is the dominating theme, and is an encouragement for man to better himself. Whether an individual agrees or disagrees with Huxley’s opinions one thing is certain: Aldous Huxley generated a tremendous impression on the intellectual and literary world.
Works CitedBedford, Sybille. Aldous Huxley. New York: Alfred A Knopf \ Harper & Row, 1975.
Birnbaum, Milton. "Aldous Huxley’s Quest for Values: A study in Religious
Syncretism." Aldous Huxley. Ed. Kyehn, Robert E. New York: Prentice, 1974
George Orwell. (Compilation) New York: Octopus/Heinemann, 1980.
Hofmann, Albert. "On meeting Aldous Huxley." LSD: My Problem Child. online.
Huxley, Aldous. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks,
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- - - . Devils of Loudun, The. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996.
- - - . Doors of Perception, The \ Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
- - - . Do What You Will: Essays. New York, 1931. qtd. in.
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- - - . Eyeless in Gaza. New York: Harper Row, 1963.
- - - . Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday. New York, 1926. qtd. in.
Birnbaum, Milton. "Aldous Huxley’s Quest for Values: A study in Religious
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Huxley, Laura Achera. This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley. New
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"Idealism." Dictionary of Thoughts, The New. 1961 ed. Ed. Browns, Ralph Emerson.
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