Thursday, May 21, 2009

Photograph: Aldous Huxley; Maria Huxley (née Nys); Matthew Huxley; Mimi Gielgud, by Lady Ottoline Morrell (died 1938).

Aldous Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963)

Aldous Huxley: Good Guy or Bad Guy?

Or just another guy stuck in the middle of it all?
(A collection of notes.)

Discussion with Keith Hansen, the artist formerly, and perhaps currently, known as Vyzygoth at Think Or Be Eaten Radio:

Aldous Huxley was a tall, striking, eloquent Englishman who abandoned his land for Hollywood, like so many others. He similarly and eventually adopted a transcendent view (the perennial philosophy) that naturally and ultimately brings one to abandon his humanity and personality for something more. He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley the great autodidact biologist known as “Darwin's Bulldog”. His granduncle was Matthew Arnold, conservative critic and poet of the Victorian Age whose most famous work was "Dover Beach".

The Huxleys were upper middle class, scholarly people. Their erudition certainly and obviously gave them access to the British ruling class. T.H. Huxley believed in inductive reasoning. That is, in relying on strictly observable facts. Aldous, as a mystic, would later challenge strict inductive reasoning. T.H. Huxley later was famous as a reformer of education, opposing learning by rote, and favoring aesthetic education for all, domestic economy for girls, and, famously, teaching the Bible, not necessarily because he believed in it, but because (perhaps cynically) he “was seriously perplexed to know by what practical measure the religious feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up, in the present utterly chaotic state of opinion in these matters, without its use.” He also called it “the most democratic book in the world.” T.H. Huxley popularized the term 'agnostic' (defined as subordination of belief to evidence and reason) to describe his theology.

Aldous Huxley said he would have preferred to become a medical researcher if his eyesight hadn't be so compromised by disease. He admitted he would have been a poor personal physician because his people skills in youth were a bit lacking. So he took to writing, which came easily and became associated for a time with the Bloomsbury Group, comprised of intellectuals such as Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey. Huxley's first novels were satirical critiques of British middle class society, which perhaps estranged him from certain members of the Bloomsbury Group. I admit that reading these works long ago inoculated me against Anglophilia, for which I am grateful. He moved permanently to the United States partly for his health and partly because of the stultifying effect of British class structure, and partly for the lure of California and Hollywood, where he found work writing screenplays, especially adaptations of "classic" novels. He loved his freedom and marveled at the strange mixture of freedom and puritanical inhibition he found in the USA. Huxley enjoyed the company of women and it is said that his first wife, bisexual Maria Nys, procured partners for the both of them to spare him the problem of the finding suitable lovers with his poor eyesight and awkward social skills.

Brave New World

"O brave new world, that hath such people in it." Miranda, The Tempest, Shakespeare

Huxley called it (and Orwell's 1984) a parable (a fiction to illustrate a moral attitude or a religious principle).

"Oh, she's a splendid girl. Wonderfully pneumatic.”- AH Brave New World

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
- T.S. Eliot, Whispers of Immortality

"At sixty our powers and tastes are what they were at seventeen. Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking. Now - such is progress - the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure." - Brave New World

"And that," put in the Director sententiously, "that is the secret of happiness and virtue-liking what you've got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny."-Brave New World, Chapter 1, pg. 16 -(This is the book in a nutshell.)

Huxley's science in Brave New World may have been inaccurate in the details, but the effects he envisioned have in many ways come true or are very possible. The genetic manipulation of embryos can and no doubt will happen. The somewhat sketchy environmental methods of altering a fetus (a bit reminiscent of Lysenko) in the book are doubtless ineffective. The mass use of mind altering drugs to make us more 'productive' and satisfied with our position is an obvious prophecy fulfilled. Mind control techniques abound. Euthanasia may be on the way. Political correctness, the list of taboo subjects for public discussion is here now. Huxley's BNW depicts a sexist world. But we must remember that Huxley characterized this world as a dystopia, not a utopia. There is no doubt he would enjoy some aspects of his creation, he was making it pleasurable and desirable to pacify the masses after all, but BNW's goal of limiting human freedom nullified the pleasing aspects. He would love the frequent sex but he would have also found making a routine of it would eliminate the excitement and lessen the release of tension which is necessary to good sex. At the time of the writing of BNW Huxley was concerned about the negative effects of drugs as a limiter of human freedom. Later (ironically) he would discover and embrace their potential for expanding it.

Brave New World would have been a different book if that dystopia, or kakotopia, had developed physical immortality. The Alphas would then, much more vigorously, defend their prerogative.
When science cures aging and death will it be a good thing? Who will get the cure? And it is a depressing thought to know that the same bastards running the world today will always run the world unless they are killed. The grim reaper is sometimes a welcome guest.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

More quotes and notes:

"Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead."-‘Do What You Will’ (1929) ‘Wordsworth in the Tropics’

"Several excuses are always less convincing than one." Point Counterpoint

“In a world inhabited by what the theologians call unregenerate, or natural men, church and state can probably never become appreciably better than the best of the states and churches, of which the past has left us record. Society can never be greatly improved until such time as most of its members choose to become theocentric saints.”- Aldous Huxley essay 'Salt of the Earth'

“To this odd shrine (so characteristic, in its excessive unpretentiousness, of that nook-shotten isle of Albion) I paid my visit of curiosity in company with one of the most extraordinary, one of the most admirable men of our time, Albert Schweitzer. Many years have passed since then; but I remember very clearly the expression of affectionate amusement that appeared on Schweitzer’s face, as he looked at the mummy. “Dear Bentham!” he said at last. “I like him so much better than Hegel. He was responsible for so much less harm.” And of course Schweitzer was perfectly right. The German philosopher was proud of being tief, but lacked the humility which is the necessary condition of the ultimate profundity. That was why he ended up as the idolater of the Prussian state, as the spiritual father of those Marxian dogmas of history, in terms of which it is possible to justify every atrocity on the part of true believers, and to condemn every good or reasonable act performed by infidels. Bentham, on the contrary, had no pretensions to tiefness. Shallow with the kindly, sensible shallowness of the eighteenth century, he thought of individuals as real people, not as trivial bubbles on the surface of the river of History, not as mere cells in the brawn and bone of a social organism, whose soul is the State. From Hegel’s depths have sprung tyranny, war and persecution; from the shallows of Bentham, a host of unpretentious but real benefits—the repeal of antiquated laws, the introduction of sewage systems, the reform of municipal government, almost everything sensible and humane in the civilisation of the nineteenth century.”-Aldous Huxley, Piranesi's Prisons

No comments: