Nov 222018
 

On this date in 1963, president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and the world took notice. His death overshadowed the deaths of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis on the same day, and it feels now as if their deaths went unnoticed. Obviously, close friends and family paid attention to their passing, but few others did. Why was the death of one U.S. politician more important around the world than the deaths of two English writers? The unfortunate coincidence of Huxley and Lewis dying right around the time JFK was shot did not escape some people’s attention and is the subject of Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley.  Did JFK’s death merit more attention than the other two? I’d like to tease that question apart.

People of my generation, especially in the US, can recall the details of what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. It was as game changing in its day as the events of 9/11 were to a later generation. I was 12 and living in South Australia at the time. I heard the news on the morning of Saturday, November 23rd on the way to play cricket, but because of the time difference between Dallas and Adelaide (16 hours), the news was only a few hours old, and very little was known about the precise events in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Then events seemed to happen in lightning succession. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, then when he was being transported, he was shot by Jack Ruby in front of television news cameras. Then there was the funeral, and the investigation which brought to light some grainy photos and amateur movies. It was all a hailstorm of incomplete information that added little to what we already knew, but fueled endless conspiracy theories. Was this retaliation by Cuba or Russia? Was there more than one shooter? Were shots fired from the grassy knoll? Etc. etc. Some of these conspiracy theories won’t die, but it is unlikely that any new information will ever come to light at this stage to change the conclusions of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone, even though doubts linger.

In some ways, the prominence of JFK’s assassination in the news cycle, more or less to the exclusion of other news, is no great mystery. The US was certainly no stranger to the assassination, and attempted assassination, of presidents, but there were few people alive in 1963 who could remember the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 – the last successful attempt, although virtually every president thereafter had been the subject of at least one attempt. It still came as a profound shock because Kennedy represented something new. He was a new kind of president for a new decade – bringing a sense of youth and vitality to the White House which many called Camelot. Perhaps he was the best that the US had to offer in the way of royalty – a blue blood, war hero (young and energetic: not a seasoned veteran general like Eisenhower, but a decorated naval lieutenant PT boat commander who was in the thick of fighting in the Pacific theater with tales of bravery surrounding him). Jack and Jackie presided over a glittering spectacle at the White House brimming with artists, musicians, and actors for their courtiers.

Kennedy was also a knight in shining armor in the Cold War. He had faced down Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when Sputnik showed the Russians up to be the leaders in the Space Race, he vowed that the US would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Of course, there was a downside: the Bay of Pigs, and the full throated approach in Vietnam being the most salient.

All in all, Kennedy’s era was one of renewed hope, with the post-war Baby Boom coming of age and expecting great things to emerge. A bullet from Oswald’s rifle ended that hope, and replaced it with a brutal reality. There is no need to wonder why Kennedy’s death pushed Huxley and Lewis off center stage. They were not world leaders, and they had died in their beds. Admittedly Huxley died tripping on two doses of LSD administered by his wife as he lay dying, but this fact was not made public until some time afterwards. It was certainly a fitting end for the man who had blazed a trail in the realm of the psychedelic. Lewis seemed to be improving from kidney problems that had plagued him for a few years, but then suddenly collapsed and died in his bedroom in his home in Oxford. In that sense the deaths of Huxley and Lewis, although tragic, were not unexpected, and they had left a stack of completed work. Kennedy, on the other hand, was in the prime of life – a father of young children, with much left to be accomplished. He was cut short with a great deal of unfinished business.

So, yes, there is a reason that Kennedy’s death overshadowed the other two. But should we remain in the same pose we were in back in 1963, 55 years on? I think not. We have had time to let the dust settle and assess the three men dispassionately. What did they leave behind that is lasting?  We have to be fair to Kennedy in arguing that he might have accomplished great things if he had lived. He may not have ratcheted up the Vietnam War in the way that Johnson did, and he might have presided over Civil Rights and the landing on the moon. We cannot know now. However, we can say that his legacy has not endured to the same extent that those of Huxley and Lewis have.

C.S. Lewis

We cannot lay the whole of fantasy fiction at Lewis’ door, but he was a giant in its creation, and the many tales of Narnia are still big sellers as books and on the big screen. His popular apologetics for Christianity should probably be consigned to the trash can of history. I suppose it’s all right for people who don’t think too much about religion, and want easy answers, but it’s amateur stuff at best – “God can’t make beautiful sculptures of us without chiseling bits off which hurt” – that sort of thing. All lame thoughts of someone who has not read theology deeply, nor knows anything about world religions.

Aldous Huxley

Huxley explored pain from a somewhat different, yet related, angle. Brave New World describes a world without pain. I don’t know if it is read much any more. It does not have the insight of Orwell’s work, partly because it envisages a world that cannot exist because he has his facts all wrong about the possibilities of eugenics and psycho-social conditioning. But he does raise the key theological question: “What is the point of life if it is mechanical?” Pain and suffering are what inspire artists and poets to great heights. If you give up the one, you forfeit the other. Is it worth it? Very good question. The Doors of Perception not only gave us Jim Morrison and The Doors (in more than name only). It gave us Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and a generation intent on exploring the limits of perception and consciousness.

While I would not say that Kennedy’s legacy in the political sphere has endured well, his and Jackie’s tastes did change White House kitchens. Previous White House meals were a rather dull affair. None of the recent occupants had been what could be considered gourmets. Calvin Coolidge inexplicably referred to any and all meals as “supper,” even if it were breakfast time; the Roosevelts famously served hot dogs to the king and queen of England; and a menu for the state dinner for the crowned heads of Greece given by the Eisenhower administration is depressing: “toasted Triscuits, fish in cheese sauce, sliced lemmon [sic].”

Not long after the inauguration, Jackie Kennedy hired a French chef, René Verdon. Quickly, the White House menus changed from featuring saltines and beef stew to more sophisticated fare, such as sole Veronique and strawberries Romanoff. Verdon’s influence was felt throughout the country, as magazine and newspaper articles went crazy for all things Kennedy. Julia Child’s celebrated public television program The French Chef began about this time, too.

Perhaps the most celebrated White House dinner of the Kennedy years was held at president Washington’s grand house, Mount Vernon, in honor of the president of Pakistan. Guests were transported down the Potomac on yachts, with dance music played and champagne freely poured. The French meal was prepared in the White House kitchen, and trucked the 15 miles to Mount Vernon in specially modified military vehicles. Guests were treated to a crabmeat and avocado mimosa, poulet chasseur and fresh local raspberries with whipped cream. You can find my recipe for poulet chasseur here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/orient-express/  Fresh raspberries and whipped cream scarcely need a recipe. Here is crabmeat and avocado mimosa:

Crabmeat and Avocado Mimosa

Ingredients

2 ripe avocados
1 scallion, minced
2 tsp lemon juice, divided
¼ tsp salt (or, to taste)
hot pepper sauce
3 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp chili sauce
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
white pepper
8 oz cooked fresh crabmeat
2 cups watercress
2 hard cooked egg yolks
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Instructions

Peel half of one avocado. In a small bowl, mash avocado half. Add scallion, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and hot pepper sauce to taste. Stir until well combined. Reserve.

In separate bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, chili sauce, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and remaining teaspoon lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Reserve.

Peel the remaining 1 ½ avocados, cut into half-inch cubes, and place them in a large bowl. Squeeze the excess moisture from crabmeat. Add to cubed avocado and gently combine. Fold in the mayonnaise.

Line the bottoms of 6 chilled open champagne glasses or small glass serving dishes with watercress. Divide crab mixture evenly among glasses. Top each with a dollop of mashed avocado mixture.

Press the egg yolks through a fine mesh sieve and combine with the parsley in a small bowl. Sprinkle the yolk/parsley mixture evenly over each portion. Mimosas can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 hours.

Serve chilled.

 

Jul 262013
 

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Today is the birthday (1894) of Aldous Leonard Huxley, an English writer and intellectual, and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel writing, film stories and scripts. He spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death. Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist. He later became interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism, in particular Vivekanda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism. He is also well known for his use of psychedelic drugs. What is least known about him was that he was almost completely blind most of his life.

Aldous Huxley was born in Godalming, Surrey, England, in 1894. He was the third son of the writer and schoolmaster Leonard Huxley and his first wife, Julia Arnold, who founded Prior’s Field School. Julia was the niece of poet and critic Matthew Arnold and the sister of Mrs. Humphrey Ward. Aldous was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the zoologist, agnostic and controversialist (“Darwin’s Bulldog”). His brother Julian Huxley and half-brother Andrew Huxley also became outstanding biologists. Aldous had another brother, Noel Trevelyan Huxley (1891–1914), who committed suicide after a period of clinical depression.

Huxley began his learning in his father’s well-equipped botanical laboratory, then continued in a school named Hillside. His teacher was his mother, who supervised him for several years until she became terminally ill. After Hillside, he was educated at Eton College. Huxley’s mother died in 1908 when he was 14. In 1911, he suffered an illness (keratitis punctata) which left him practically blind for two to three years.  Huxley’s near-blindness disqualified him from service in World War I. Once his eyesight recovered sufficiently, he was able to study English literature at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1916 he edited Oxford Poetry and later graduated (B.A.) with first class honors. His brother Julian wrote,

“I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking up medicine as a career … His uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.”

Following  Oxford, Huxley was financially indebted to his father and had to earn a living. He taught French for a year at Eton, where Eric Blair (George Orwell) and Stephen Runciman were among his pupils, but was remembered as an incompetent and hopeless teacher who couldn’t keep discipline. Nevertheless, Blair and others were impressed by his ideas and use of words.

Significantly, Huxley also worked for a time in the 1920’s at the technologically advanced Brunner and Mond chemical plant in Billingham, Teesside, where an introduction to his famous science fiction novel Brave New World (1932) states that this experience of “an ordered universe in a world of planless incoherence” was one source for the novel.

During World War I, Huxley spent much of his time at Garsington Manor, home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, working as a farm laborer. Here he met several Bloomsbury Group figures including Bertrand Russell and Clive Bell. Later, in Crome Yellow (1921), he caricatured the Garsington lifestyle. In 1919 he married Maria Nys, a Belgian woman he met at Garsington.  They had one son. The family lived in Italy part of the time in the 1920’s, where Huxley would visit his friend D. H. Lawrence. Following Lawrence’s death in 1930, Huxley edited Lawrence’s letters (1933).

Works of this period included important novels on the dehumanizing aspects of scientific progress, most famously Brave New World, and on pacifist themes (for example, Eyeless in Gaza). Starting from this period, Huxley began to write and edit non-fiction works on pacifist issues, including Ends and Means, An Encyclopedia of Pacifism, and Pacifism and Philosophy, and was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union.

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In 1937, Huxley moved to Hollywood, with his wife Maria, son Matthew, and friend Gerald Heard. He lived in the U.S., mainly in southern California, until his death, but also for a time in Taos, New Mexico, where he wrote Ends and Means (published in 1937). In this work he examines the fact that although most people in modern civilization agree that they want a world of “liberty, peace, justice, and brotherly love”, they have not been able to agree on how to achieve it.

Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta (Upanishad-centered philosophy), meditation, and vegetarianism through the principle of ahimsa. In 1938 Huxley befriended J. Krishnamurti, whose teachings he greatly admired. He also became a Vedantist in the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, and introduced Christopher Isherwood to this circle. Not long after, Huxley wrote his book on widely held spiritual values and ideas, The Perennial Philosophy, which discussed the teachings of renowned mystics of the world. Huxley’s book affirmed a sensibility that insists there are realities beyond the generally accepted “five senses” and that there is genuine meaning for humans beyond both sensual satisfactions and sentimentalities.

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In October 1930, the English occultist Aleister Crowley dined with Huxley in Berlin, and to this day rumors persist that Crowley introduced Huxley to peyote on that occasion. He was introduced to mescaline (the key active ingredient of peyote) by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1953, taking it for his first time during the evening of May 5. Through Dr. Osmond, Huxley met millionaire Alfred Matthew Hubbard who would deal with LSD on a wholesale basis. On 24 December 1955, Huxley took his first dose of LSD. Indeed, Huxley was a pioneer of self-directed psychedelic drug use “in a search for enlightenment,” famously taking 100 micrograms of LSD as he lay dying (administered by his wife). His psychedelic drug experiences are described in the essays The Doors of Perception (from which the band The Doors took their name).

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After World War II, Huxley applied for United States citizenship. His application was continuously deferred on the grounds that he would not say he would take up arms to defend the U.S. He claimed a philosophical, rather than a religious objection, and therefore was not exempt under the McCarran Act. He withdrew his application. Nowadays you may simply check ‘No’ in a box on the application form concerning military service, but I can tell you from personal experience that when you do, your application is held up a long time: in my case four years.

Here’s some of Huxley’s wisdom:

“In the course of evolution nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man’s biological nature.”

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

“Single-mindedness is all very well in cows or baboons; in an animal claiming to belong to the same species as Shakespeare it is simply disgraceful.”

“Death is the only thing we haven’t succeeded in completely vulgarizing.”

I thought a psychedelic recipe would be suitable for Huxley.  This one comes from the “surreal gourmet,” Bob Blumer.  It is “psychedelic” in its colors primarily, but also in the flavor blends.

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Psychedelic coleslaw

Ingredients

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon honey

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated

? head red cabbage (essential for the purplish color), cored, then cut crosswise into the narrowest ribbons possible and separated

1 yellow bell pepper, seeds and membranes removed, then sliced lengthwise into the thinnest strips possible

1 red pepper, seeds and membranes removed, then sliced lengthwise into the thinnest strips possible

½ medium-size white onion, finely sliced, rings separated

1 ½ tbspns finely grated or minced fresh ginger root

1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves, stems discarded before measuring, chopped

Instructions:

In a small bowl, whisk together the rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, lime juice, honey, and cayenne. Set aside.

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan, over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until lightly browned.

In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients and toss thoroughly. Then toss with the dressing.

Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Just before serving, toss with sesame seeds (reserving a few to sprinkle over the top).

Serves 6 (as a side salad)

 

Note: Do not prepare this more than a couple of hours in advance because the color of the cabbage will seep into the other ingredients.