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.
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.
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).
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.
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
½ 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 tbspn finely grated or minced fresh ginger root
1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves, stems discarded before measuring, chopped
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.