This weekend, I attended one day of a three-day symposium on the works of philosophical novelist Aldous Huxley at The Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA. This was the fourth such symposium arranged by the Aldous Huxley Society; previous events were held in Germany (’94), Singapore (2000) and Latvia (’04). This year, scholars from around the globe gathered near Huxley’s second home – the city of Los Angeles (which Huxley dubbed “the City of Dreadful Joy” on his first visit). The author spent the last thirty years of his life in L.A., and his widow remained here until her death in 2007. According to symposium organizers, southern California is also the location of a “major revival of interest” in Huxley’s work dating back to the 1960s, so it was a natural place to celebrate the author’s life and work.
The Aldous Huxley Society has two stated goals: (1) to promote the academic study of Huxley’s work through critical editions, commentaries and interpretations, and (2) to acquaint a wider public with that work. The former is perhaps necessary because many of Huxley’s private writings were destroyed in a California wildfire in 1961. UCLA houses many of the unpublished works that survive, and is likely to inherit more soon from the estate of Huxley’s widow. Still, without a wealth of source materials to draw from, academics (who take great pride in ferreting out obscure details) may not be as inclined to study Huxley’s work. The latter goal is, in my opinion, even more worthwhile because it seems to me that an author and his work are dead except insofar as they live on in the thoughts and deeds of later generations – and I believe that Huxley’s work deserves that kind of life.
I was not surprised to see a fellow McFarland writer on the schedule this past weekend, since McFarland authors are often hot on the trends. David Garrett Izzo (a professor at American Public University) is the author of 14 books, including the recent Huxley’s “Brave New World”: Essays and the forthcoming The Influence of Mysticism on 20th Century British and American Literature. He presented a chapter from the second book, describing how Huxley’s thematic concerns as a novelist evolved from Crome Yellow (1921) to Time Must Have a Stop (1944). In the process, he outlined the thrust of the author’s formative years. In the novels of the twenties, Izzo says, Huxley’s characters “wallow in the philosophy of meaningless, with sarcasm as their defense.” From there, his protagonists “evolve as either upward seekers of the Perennial Philosophy of mysticism, or they devolve downward into an even greater disaffected nihilism.”
I expected much of the symposium to focus on The Perennial Philosophy (1945), Huxley’s “anthology with commentary,” which offers the most comprehensive encapsulation of his philosophical beliefs. This work was examined most notably in Dr. Lothar Fietz’s paper comparing Huxley’s beliefs with those of quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger (with particular reference to Schrodinger’s 1944 book What is Life?): “Both of them arrived at a juncture at which they started to reason about the necessity of giving up the premises of dualism and diversity in favor of a monistic outlook upon reality. Huxley’s and Schroedinger’s trains of thoughts, however different they might be in origin, overlapped in the acknowledgment of an ultimate non-dualistic reality model characteristic of every mysticism and, probably, most elaborately set forth in Vedanta philosophy.”
One presenter, Robin Hull, held a series of meditation “workshops” designed to introduce attendees to the practical exercises described in The Perennial Philosophy. Surprisingly, these sessions (or at least the one that I attended) were met with some resistance from attendees who made a very sharp distinction between contemplation and prayer and wondered aloud whether the recommended form of meditation could be justifiably compared to either. The consensus seemed to be that contemplation must be contemplation OF something, while prayer involves praying TO something. Each has a specific object, while silent meditation has no object. (The issue at hand, I think, is whether or not one believes that it is possible to seek without knowing beforehand what you are seeking… this is a knowledge paradox that dates back to the dialogues of Plato.) I note that even the symposium’s written program conveyed skepticism about the meditation workshop: “In order not to yield to this morass too readily during the conference this tripartite workshop will try to explore some of the exercises suggested in The Perennial Philosophy to see whether they might be of use to those of us who share a more practical interest.”
“More practical,” from what I can tell, means more formalized, more rational, more scholarly. (Morass means “a tract of low, soft, wet ground.”) This somewhat dismissive tone surprised me… because I was under the impression that one of the main goals of Huxley’s writing, if not his life, was to popularize a non-Western (which is to say, non-dualistic and, at times, inherently paradoxical) philosophy of life. The third day of the symposium was defined by scholars emphasizing the evolution of Huxley’s beliefs toward Eastern ideas: Professor Jerome Meckier (of the University of Kentucky) spoke about the influence of D.H. Lawrence’s “blood philosophy” on the young Huxley, and explained how Huxley gradually came to regard the physical world as illusory; Professor A.A. Mutalki-Desai (of the Indian Institute of Technology) spoke about Huxley’s transforming trip to India and his discovery of the Vedanta philosophy; Professor Bernfried Nugel (of the University of Munster, Germany) spoke about Huxley’s use of a sacred Buddhist text – the Old Raja’s “Notes on What’s What” – in the manuscript for his final novel Island (1962).
One paper that seemed, on the surface, to be at odds with the general thrust of the symposium was Professor Guin Nance’s “Biblical Interpolations in Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.” Dr. Nance argued that traditional Christianity and the Bible are pervasive, though often unacknowledged, influences on Huxley’s key work of non-fiction. Her conclusion is that the perennial philosophy is not as much at odds with traditional Christianity as Huxley himself seemed to believe (and would have us believe); however, based on the way Huxley presents it, the perennial philosophy is unacceptable to Christian traditionalists. This presentation was refreshing in its willingness to confront Huxley, and it really got me thinking about all the differences in perspective on the author’s work.
The symposium, while bringing together a group of scholars and visitors under a single umbrella (Huxley’s name), could not bring them together under one (perennial) philosophy. Rather, the presenters seemed divided by separate political, religious and academic agendas. In such an environment, an attempt at groupthink – the meditation workshops – was necessarily unfocused because many of the participants were so firm in their beliefs and practices. Probably, this shouldn’t have surprised me… I suppose I was expecting more of a college seminar, where one well-informed professor introduces new ideas to a group of receptive students. Instead, it was a seminar full of professors. Some of those professors think of themselves as perennial students, but others seemed so accustomed to teaching their own perspective on Huxley that they had difficulty receiving the perspectives of others.
What would Huxley have said to that? Maybe “Words, words, words! They shut one off from the universe. Three quarters of the time one’s never in contact with things, only with the beastly words that stand for them.” Words allow us to feel secure in our beliefs… but perhaps that’s only helpful up to a point…? Words focus our thinking, but they also limit our thoughts and separate us from each other. No two people mean exactly the same thing by any single word, so words are potentially very divisive.
For me, the most worthwhile moments of the symposium – the moments that seemed truest to the spirit of Huxley’s work – were moments of assimilation rather than ideological conflict. One of my favorite presentations was given by Dr. Janko Andrijasevik (University of Montenegro), who asked audience members to share their personal experiences of discovering Huxley’s work. The goal, I think, was to determine what it was that brought us all together, and what we had in common despite our differences. A handful of people discussed Huxley as a spiritual (rather than simply intellectual) mentor. This, I think, was the common thread. Huxley influenced the way that each of us view the world and our place in it.
Like many students brought up in the American education system, I discovered Aldous Huxley in high school, via his distopian novel Brave New World (1932). I remember being particularly interested the character of Mustapha Mond, the ultimate enforcer of Utilitarian philosophy. In order to save humanity, he destroyed those things that make it most beautiful – using science and technology to replace individuality and art. MIT professor Bernard Trout discussed the novel in his presentation, arguing that many modern nations are currently undergoing a similar transformation: “Governments focus on science and technology as means of economic growth and power, and the lives of everyone are dominated by the products of science and technology during almost every minute. The tremendous success of modern science, however, must be contrasted with its utter inability to say anything of significance about what are most important things to human beings, love, justice, happiness, etc.”
Professor Ron Zigler (of Penn State, Abington) applied the discussion of Brave New World to the American education system, identifying the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as a precursor to the kind of distopia Huxley envisioned. Zigler identifies the test as a “science of human differences which enables a society to assign individuals to his or her ‘proper place’ in the social and economic hierarchy.” Ideally, the study of Huxley’s most famous novel would make American students more aware (and fearful) of such possibilities. Certainly, everyone involved with the symposium this weekend would rather see the future of their children and grandchildren turn out like Huxley’s utopia in Island than like the distopia of his Brave New World.
But Huxley didn’t advocate any particular organization or system of education to prevent the horrors he foresaw. In his philosophical essays, he called for a revolution in the heart and mind of the individual, saying that significant global change must start there and radiate out. That’s why Huxley’s nonfiction has had a much greater impact on me than his fiction.
When I was a senior in high school, one of my teachers recommended that I read The Doors of Perception (1954), Huxley’s account of his first and only experiment with LSD. That experiment reinforced a major belief that the author had explained ten years earlier in The Perennial Philosophy – the belief that human consciousness is capable of a much higher awareness of the world we live in. He writes: “Reflecting on my own experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C.D. Broad, ‘that we would do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. This suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, but shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.’”
This book presented me with the words to explain a philosophy that I already intuitively believed – a philosophy about the potential of human being: “To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness – to be aware of it and yet to remain in a condition to survive as an animal, to think and feel as a human being, to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be.”