I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Interested In Everything: Aldous Huxley

by Thomas Michalski
Oct. 6, 2012

The passage of time sometimes instills in us a rather myopic view of important people’s lives and accomplishments, particularly artists and writers, ignoring the totality of a career in favor of focusing on just one generally accepted magnum opus. Most high school graduates could, I hope, tell you that Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, that Beethoven must have had at least 9 symphonies, and that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was penned by Mark Twain, that guy who looks a bit like Colonel Sanders, but it’s easy to forget they were living, breathing people who led messy lives and managed to have an enormous impact on their times and on our culture. Take Aldous Huxley; obviously the first thing that comes to mind is the 1931 dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World, and with good reason, it’s a loaded, amazingly prescient novel, whose language and themes have managed to become part of our collective consciousness. The thing is though, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, only hinting at a sprawling body of work that spans nearly every form of writing, and at an intellectual and personal life lived to the fullest.

Scientific, philosophical and aesthetic achievement practically ran in Huxley’s genes. Born July 26, 1894, he was the product of the union of two influential Victorian English families, the combined list of whose cultural and academic activities is too long to get into here, but includes his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, a prominent biologist who earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his spirited defense of evolution. Growing up in such an environment, there was certainly a good deal of priority put on ambition and education, but by all accounts, it was perfect for the gifted, curious Aldous. Though plagued by sight problems that left him nearly blind, he was said to have, as a child, read the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety, displaying an astonishing capacity for processing and storing knowledge. In addition to being bookish, he was also frail and physically awkward, which would seem to be the makings of a lonely, isolated child, but he was as inquisitive about people and their lives as he was about facts, and others were drawn to his intellect and charm.

Possessing both a way with words and a challenging mind, it’s not surprising that, as he got older, he was drawn to writing (a profession he later said required one who, “has the urge, first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning to life; and along with that goes the love of words for their own sake and a desire to manipulate them.”) or that he excelled at it, but the breadth and scope of his output is astonishing nonetheless. He wrote novels, biographies, art and theatre criticism, children’s books, plays, short stories, essays, poetry, film scripts, travel books and articles, all of which seemed to come in one unending stream of prolific creativity. It’s ultimately somewhat ironic that it was a work of fiction that secured his legacy, since as he famously put it, he was not a “congenital novelist”, by which he meant the form did not consume him, or come as naturally to him, as it did others, and that often it was simply an effective way of communicating broader thoughts and ideas. As biographer Milton Birnbaum later put it, “Even his most ardent admirers, however, will not claim for Huxley a seminal role in shaping twentieth-century literature.”

But whatever vein he was working in, it was always enlivened by that massive, brilliant intellect, which was so comprehensive that it often left those around him speechless. In person, he cut a strange figure – six-foot-four, thin as a rail, with a gentle, compassionate demeanor – but most were more taken aback by his words. He could, with seemingly no effort, expound upon just about any subject with shocking fluency. “In conversation his learning comes out spontaneously, without the slightest hint of premeditation;” said the Paris Review, “If someone raises the topic of Victorian gastronomy, for example, Huxley will recite a typical daily menu of Prince Edward, meal by meal, course by course, down to the last crumb.” His insights and ideas, along with the sharp yet lyrical way in which he expressed them, made him influential with the public, a sought after interview and an intellectual darling.

He was interested in everything, it was one of the things friends, family and fans treasured about Huxley, but more staid minds couldn’t always follow him. Some of those who appreciated the rigorous scientific logic he brought to the public discourse on politics, psychology and philosophy were shocked when his voracious curiosity turned to subjects they deemed beneath consideration, including mysticism, spiritualism and, perhaps most famously, the potential boon to human existence presented by psychedelic drugs. “His intelligence roamed freely and was uninterested in boundaries,” observes Nicholas Murray, “In California, he gave lunch to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the batty science of Dianetics – for the simple reason that he wanted to find out what he had to say - and when a friend wrote about flying saucers he confessed that he had ‘no settled opinion so far’ about whether or not they existed.” It wasn’t that he abandoned the flawless reasoning that made him so respected in the first place, he simply brought that reason to examining some outré areas. His interest in psychedelics and their spiritual and psychological applications, which grew out his experimenting with Mescaline, was pioneering, leading to continuing clinical research that shows their benefits in therapeutic environments.

His passion for learning and writing never left him, even after being diagnosed with the laryngeal cancer that would take his life. In his last days, confined to a bed and without much strength, he would exert himself in order to scratch out poetry or snatches of prose on a pad, or to mutter them into a Dictaphone. In what turned out to be his final hours, he asked his doting wife Laura, who had been continually posted by her husband’s side, reminiscing and reading aloud from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for an injection: “LSD 100µg , intramuscular.” She obliged, and, reportedly, he met his end with serenity and acceptance. In a cruel twist of fate, he expired on the exact day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, so the world had bigger things on its mind than taking the time to celebrate Huxley’s life and legacy (weirdly, a fellow literary lion, C.S. Lewis, suffered the very same fate).

Those willing to explore his vast bibliography will find a deep reservoir of works that are resolutely humanist and empathetic, but also bursting with monumentally important ideas. His prose may not be the most beautiful produced in the 20th century, and his research into drugs may not have the same radical chic cache of, say, Timothy Leary, but Huxley possessed a unique capacity for pinpointing the things that either help, or stand in the way, of man reaching his full potential and elegantly explaining them. “Huxley’s philosophy might be summed up as: the world can be made better, but only if we make ourselves better,” says Nicholas Murray, “He was not an ideologist, a writer of manifestos, a practical politician. But he wanted to change our minds – or to release their potential.” He was a lot of different things to a lot of different people, vexing, eccentric, genius, but one thing is certain, he’s a lot more than “that guy who wrote Brave New World.”

  1. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4698/the-art-of-fiction-no-24-aldous-huxley

  2. http://books.google.com/books?id=rKlGAdNUDAkC&pg=PA47&dq=Storming+heaven+Noonday+Sun&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false

  3. http://books.google.com/books?id=tukmDMYu6ysC&pg=PA5&lpg=PP1&ots=EuucyI_bs8&dq=aldous+huxley

  4. http://books.google.com/books?id=ZuBkUrNPvb8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=aldous+huxley&source=bl&ots=gqKkDfSgiJ&sig=iJwEX0Kpy06Jr49m1N6dsv1uSWY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ePlsUJbqBoLt0gHJz4GIBQ&ved=0CFYQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=aldous%20huxley&f=false

  5. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/03/most-beautiful-death.html


Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/