Review Provided by SNDA Online.
In a 1952 interview with the New York Herald Tribune, Aldous Huxley described himself as “an essayist who sometimes writes novels and biographies.”
“I know how to deal with abstract ideas,” he said, “but not people.” The same thing can be said of Aldous Huxley, a new biography by Nicholas Murray.
Huxley led a life of letters, providing a remarkable and lucrative contribution to English literature: he authored 11 novels, 23 volumes of essays and letters, six short-story collections, six books of verse, three works of drama, three travel books, and two biographies, not to mention myriad other writings. Though he purported to “abhor work,” his ethic was relentless.
Today, Huxley is best known for his fiction, and while his characters are sometimes little more than mouthpieces for a dissertation by the author – bearing out his own claim that he was above all an essayist – it is impossible to ignore the erudition behind the prose and amazing prescience of its concepts. That prescience is most notable in the scientific deliberations on aging, death, and the corrosive effects of advertising and mass media in Huxley’s 1939 work, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (perhaps his finest novel), and in the eugenics and chilling utopia of 1932’s Brave New World (certainly his most well-known). As Murray writes, Huxley “the wide-ranging intellectual … made the world his province, and … did it with consummate clarity and grace.”
He also did it with impaired vision: an infection called keratitis punctata, contracted at age 16 while at Eton, rendered him nearly blind for life. Murray, however, has taken pains to avoid overstating the relevance of Huxley’s poor eyesight. (Meanwhile, though, he seems positively giddy to be uncovering the more lascivious details of Huxley’s private life, bragging that he “reveals for the first time the extraordinary story of the ménage á trois” between Aldous, his wife Maria, and “the Bloomsbury siren” Mary Hutchinson.) Having quoted Huxley in the Herald Tribune interview as saying “I have always felt a powerful craving for light,” Murray elects to focus on “the wider metaphor,” casting aside the literal idea that Huxley was perpetually attempting to fill a void left by his lack of eyesight, in favor of the interpretation that Huxley was engaged in an eternal quest for (to invoke a familiar phrase) light and truth.
The book is the weaker for the relative exclusion of Huxley’s literal meaning. How could Murray overstate a handicap that so obviously affected Huxley’s manner of living? The affliction may well have saved Huxley’s life – he was all but laughed at when he applied for armed service just prior to World War I. It undoubtedly contributed to his fervent interest in the medical sciences and likely formed his appetite for travel. It also opened his eyes, if you will, to hallucinogenic drugs: during the latter stages of his life, Huxley was an enthusiastic guinea pig in experiments with mescaline and LSD. Huxley simply wanted to see everything he could, whether real or not.
Huxley was indeed a man of dichotomies, and in examining his legacy as a whole, a picture emerges of two separate men: the inquisitive agnostic as a young man in Europe, and the older mystical and religious moralist during his time in the United States.
In the essay collection Do What You Will (1929), Huxley eloquently states his secular approach to life: “[My] fundamental assumption is that life on this planet is valuable in itself, without any reference to hypothetical higher worlds, eternities, future existences … that the purpose of living is to live … Without contrast and diversity life is inconceivable … [I] will have nothing to do with a perfection that is annihilation.”
Sixteen years later, in The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley, whose interest in Eastern philosophy had fully flowered, explained: “The Perennial Philosophy is primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds.”
At the same time, the premise of eugenics proved to have a certain appeal to the author of Brave New World, who rejected “the [American] democratic hypothesis in its extreme and most popular form … that all men are equal and that I am just as good as you are.” The New Statesman critic C.E.M. Joad was only one of many who lamented the wholesale change that less than two decades had wrought on Huxley, the man who had once considered himself “a worshipper of life who accepts all the conflicting facts of existence.” “The trouble with Huxley is and always has been intellectual whole-hoggery,” Joad wrote. “Ideas will go to his head.”
The most interesting sections of Murray’s biography are those in which Huxley’s critics are allowed their say. The book’s depiction of the intimate friendship between Huxley and D.H. Lawrence is particularly engrossing because the two men were such opposites: when Huxley would talk of science and knowledge, Lawrence would point to his own heart and protest, “But I don’t feel it here.” Unfortunately, such portions are scant, and Murray immediately erects an impenetrable wall of defense against other people’s legitimate objections to Huxley, as though a writer of his caliber and stature would conceivably crumble under the weight of valid criticism.
Part of the biography’s strength lies in Murray’s own lucid style, as well as his extensive research of mostly unpublished correspondences and personal writings (though he owes Virginia Woolf a nod for keeping such meticulous diaries). But the breadth of that research may also be a weakness: in trying to keep up with the frenetic pace at which Huxley lived his life (he was always, it seems, picking up and moving to another country, or beginning work on another book), Murray often waives his opportunity to reflect on the salient details of Huxley’s life. Biography drags when it becomes preoccupied with the minutes of its subject’s days. It is for the diarist to be meticulous, and the biographer to prune some details while expanding upon others. In reading this account of Aldous Huxley’s life, one can’t help but wish that Murray had heeded a relevant passage in Woolf’s Orlando, a novel that she subtitled “A Biography”: “For that was the way his mind worked now, in violent see-saw from life to death, stopping at nothing in between, so that the biographer must not stop either, but must fly as fast as he can and so keep pace.”