22 March 2015

Aldous Huxley, prophet of totalitarianism

Aldous Huxley
(1894 - 1963)
Aldous Huxley was an English novelist who is probably now best remembered for the science fiction work Brave New World, one of the first books to use the concept of totalitarianism, and predating Orwell’s 1984 by more than a decade.

Huxley moved to California in the 1930s, and during the 40s and 50s became associated with some of the mystical and counterculture movements based there, including Vedanta. He was interested in techniques such as meditation to achieve altered states of consciousness. For similar reasons he experimented with the drug mescaline, leading to the publication in 1954 of The Doors of Perception, a book that influenced a number of writers and artists.

I met Aldous Huxley on a number of occasions at the Society for Psychical Research in London, but only in rather social situations, such as lecture meetings and parties. Around that time some members of the SPR, including Professor H H Price, themselves took mescaline under medical supervision for experimental interest.

The meeting with Huxley which I remember most clearly was at an SPR lecture, probably one that was given by a particularly statusful person as I remember it was a bit of an occasion, although I do not recall the speaker. A lady who was leading Huxley around on account of his diminished eyesight, possibly his wife, brought him to be introduced to me. By that time I had an Oxford BLitt (postgraduate degree), but my way to academic appointments, research grants, and support of any kind, was being blocked.

Huxley treated me very politely, putting on a highly sophisticated act of Old Etonian charm. While I knew that such charm could be layered (i.e. potentially dishonest), I had the impression that in this case it was underlain by a genuine perception of my exceptionality.

Huxley seemed respectful and even deferential towards me. He appeared to take an interest in what I was saying about possible research into hallucinatory phenomena.

I had read very few of his books, although The Doors of Perception, about his mescaline experiences, was a topic of conversation at the SPR at the time. It would seem that he must have been interested in indications that there were higher levels of consciousness, and in ways of reaching out towards them.

The intense descriptions of jewel-like colours in The Doors of Perception may have been partly provoked by his problems with eyesight. I found the book vivid and interesting, probably because it was primarily a factual account of his own experiences and did not make much attempt to generalise theoretically.

Another of his books with which I was familiar was Time Must Have a Stop. It was on the bookshelf in Sir George Joy’s flat, and I often sat reading it while waiting for Sir George to cook the steak and Brussels sprouts for our dinner. What I remember from it suggests that Huxley was aware of the threatening nature of existing as a human being. For example, I remember the preoccupations of an elderly gentleman with his deteriorations as he grew older, and his attempts to make himself feel as if he was young again, until finally he collapsed in the bathroom with a heart attack and died. After that, the character’s role in the book involved descriptions of his experiences in the afterlife.

Huxley made attempts in Time Must Have a Stop to describe the feelings of being in the position of existing as a dead person, including the effort of connecting with the body of a medium and achieving communication via her with the world of the living. While these attempts may simply have been made in the service of entertainment – Huxley’s novels all seem to have an air of black humour about them – they may also have reflected a genuine interest in the theoretical possibilities of disembodied consciousness.

I suppose that a preoccupation with the meaning of existence, and how there might be access to anything beyond life, would account for Aldous Huxley’s occasional contacts with the London SPR while he was living in California. Although the SPR was not prestigious or noticeable among societies (by contrast with, say, the Royal Geographical Society), it was in effect a social club for upper-class people, so that Huxley would be fraternising with people of his own social class when he attended its functions.

I was disappointed that Huxley never gave me any financial support. This was all the more surprising considering his own high intelligence, and the fact that he seemed to have some independence of thought, and ideas of his own. He was in fact just as unsupportive as any of the other statusful people I was meeting at the SPR.

Of course it did not help that I met him under the watchful eye of Rosalind Heywood, an influential person who was clearly hostile to me. However, one might have hoped that someone as insightful and upper-class as Huxley could have made up his own mind to act in my favour. Instead, he brushed me off by sending me a polite and carefully worded letter saying that it was very difficult to get support for this subject, and that the subject was not fashionable. He did not offer support himself. That was the last I heard from him.

I was told that, as Huxley was dying, his wife recited soothing words, as previously arranged with him, about how he ought to ‘let go beautifully’ and so forth, a method presumably informed by his ideas about consciousness and dying. Curiously, various senior members of the SPR, when discussing him after his death (I believe one or two senior BBC people were also present), were somewhat patronising about ‘poor Aldous’ and his concerns. They, unlike him – the implication seemed to be – were psychologically advanced, and hence not afraid of death or anxious about the meaning of life.

A propos the upper-class act of treating people of lower social standing with deference, and the way this was applied to me: although Huxley treated me in this manner, as did a number of other upper-class men I knew, at times it seemed that the rule broke down in relation to me, and the upper-class person (particularly if it was a female person) instead tried to convey that I was of no importance whatsoever. I noticed, for example, senior staff at the BBC giving an impression of tremendous interest in people of a lower social class than their own, while figuratively elbowing me aside, on several occasions when I was asked to take part in a programme.

Rosalind Heywood once criticised the way I talked to people, as not giving sufficient impression of being interested in them, in the upper-class fashion. She contrasted my approach unfavourably with that of Yehudi Menuhin, who apparently had a social act similar to that of Old Etonians. I do not think her complaint was meaningful, except as indicating her hostility towards me. In any case, I did not have the social prestige of a Huxley or a Menuhin to confer on others.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.