Thursday, March 14, 2019

Visiting Aldous Huxley in Llano, California

Aldous Huxley
There are a handful of writers that I find myself coming back to again and again.  Aldous Huxley is one of them—but not so much Huxley the British satirist as Huxley the American proto-hippie.

Like most people, I discovered Aldous Huxley in high school via the 1932 novel BRAVE NEW WORLD.  But that was not the book that hooked me.  Around the same time, one of my teachers pointed me toward THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION.  A bold move, introducing an impressionable teenager to a book about mind-expanding drugsFor the record, I have never taken any psychedelic drugs but I still have an abiding faith in the idea of “doors of perception.”  And for my 18-year-old self, Huxley’s book provided a mission statement: “To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness—to be aware of it and yet remain in a condition to survive as an animal. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be.”

A few years out of college, I read Huxley’s 1921 novel CROME YELLOW back to back with THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY, his 1945 treatise on mysticism.   A few years after that, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I read AFTER MANY A SUMMER DIES THE SWAN and attended a Huxley symposium at The Huntington Library.  I could not reconcile Huxley the satirical novelist with Huxley the pseudo-mystic, so I kept avoiding a deeper dive into the author's work—although I continued to be drawn to anthologies like MOKSHA: WRITINGS ON PSYCHEDELICS AND THE VISIONARY EXPERIENCE and THE DIVINE WITHIN: SELECTED WRITINGS ON ENLIGHTENMENT, as well as Allene Symons’ 2015 book ALDOUS HUXLEY’S HANDS: HIS QUEST FOR PERCEPTION AND THE ORIGIN AND RETURN OF PSYCHEDELIC SCIENCE.  This most recent book made me more aware of Huxley’s time in southern California. 

For years, I had known that Huxley wrote THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY in house in the “Mojave desert.”  What I didn’t know was that “Mojave desert,” in this case, meant Antelope Valley, roughly an hour away from my current home.  A quick google search turned up an address for the Pearblossom Picture Ranch in Llano, California.  When I reached out to owners Anne Barry and Jim Karow, they kindly invited me to pay them a visit at Huxley’s old home.  (Actually, if I’m being honest, I invited myself… but they kindly agreed…) 

In preparation for my visit—and because I am a research geek—I read David King Dunaway’s biography HUXLEY IN HOLLYWOOD.  This book solidified my sense of two Huxleys, defined by Dunaway as the “descriptive cynic” and the “prescriptive mystic.”  Dunaway's book is entirely focused on the latter, the American Huxley.  This "other" Huxley was born around 1934, when the author was 40 years old and living in England during the lacuna between world wars, and suffering from debilitating depression. 

In 1936, Huxley corresponded with his friend and esteemed peer T.S. Eliot about his attempts to revitalize his life through meditation and the study of mysticism.  An agnostic descended from a strong line of agnostics (his grandfather invented the term), Huxley approached the “art of mental prayer” as a matter of discipline.  Meditation did not come easy to him, but Huxley worked to develop a steady practice—much as Eliot had done a few years earlier, when he converted to Anglo-Catholicism.  Eliot advised him that one needs a specific “metaphysic” (i.e. religion) in order to achieve what some mystics call enlightenment.  Huxley agreed with this idea in principle, but unlike Eliot he had not yet embraced a specific metaphysic.    

At the time, both writers were deeply concerned about contemporary nationalistic ideologies—namely Fascism and Communism—creating chaos in Western civilization by masquerading as religions, but their solutions to the problem were different.  Huxley made some preliminary conclusions in his 1937 book ENDS AND MEANS, while Eliot proposed his solution in the 1948 book THE IDEA OF A CHRISTIAN SOCIETY.  Eliot thought that rebuilding a cohesive Christian culture was the answer, but Huxley did not share Eliot’s faith in organized religion; he believed that the world had to change at a more basic level, one person at a time—and he started by trying to change himself.

In 1938, Aldous and his wife Maria and their 17-year-old son Matthew went to the U.S. for a vacation and wound up settling permanently in Los Angeles.  Many of Huxley’s British peers (including Eliot, an American expat who had consciously decided not to return to America in the mid-30s) accused Huxley of a wartime defection.   Huxley wouldn’t have been much help in a fight—he was a middle-aged pacifist, and practically blind—but he was a symbolic figure, and British nationalists attacked him as a symbol of abandoning the fight for the future of Western civilization. 

From his own perspective, Huxley didn’t abandon the fight; he chose to fight in a different way: by envisioning the world without war—or, perhaps more to the point, the world without warmongers.  In THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY, he wrote, “The politics of those whose goal is beyond time are always pacific; it is the idolaters of past and future, of reactionary memory and Utopian dream, who do the persecuting and make the wars.”  In his 1944 novel TIME MUST HAVE A STOP, he clarified, “One can either go on listening to the news—and of course the news is always bad, even when it sounds good.  Or alternatively one can make up one’s mind to listen to something else.”  Huxley opted to listen to the desert.

In November 1941, one month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and Maria and Matthew moved to the high desert community of Llano.  Nearly three decades earlier, Llano had been the site of a secular socialist colony with several hundred members, but disputes over groundwater rights had long since driven the settlers away.  All that remained in 1941 was the stone foundations of a rather large ghost town.  The Huxleys settled in a ranch house near the ruins.

A few weeks ago, I drove out to the house via the Route 14 freeway, and tried to imagine what the drive must have been like for the Huxleys in the early 1940s.  Route 14 didn’t exist at that time, and there weren’t any reliable roads through the Angeles National Forest.  Biographer David Dunaway suggests that the Huxleys somehow traveled over the San Gabriel Mountains by way of Mill Creek Summit, but that doesn’t seem right to me.  I assume they must have gone north through the Newhall Pass and then followed the Sierra Highway east to Antelope Valley.   It probably took them several hours. 

What did they see when they got there?  Dunaway describes a simple one-story ranch house, to which the couple eventually added an extra floor and a hexagonal “apartment.”  They also built a separate housedesigned by Aldous himselfnext door.

Front of the renovated house
Back of the renovated house (Aldous Huxley's office was the upstairs loft)
The house the Huxleys built (or designed, anyway...)
View from the backyard, looking south toward the San Gabriel Mountains
The now-abandoned Huxley swimming pool
Dunaway writes that tall trees and an irrigation ditch “marked the oasis for miles.”  The couple reportedly had an orchard and a garden, where they grew apples, almonds, grapes, pears, radishes and potatoes.  They also had a goat named Spike, who had to be kept out of the garden.  Their daily routine consisted of hard work and reflection: “breakfast at ten, work through the morning, lunch and siesta, with the afternoon for hiking and painting, followed by reading aloud in the evening.”  Maria read her nearly-blind husband the biographies of several saints and mystics, which prepared him to write THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY.

Many of those famous saints and mystics experienced ecstatic visions in the desert, and the Huxleys might have had some comparable experiences.  In a 1956 essay entitled “The Desert,” Aldous writes about divine grace, declaring that “the desert and silence and the desert emptiness are the most expressive symbols” of it.  Although the author never claimed he had a mystical experience at Llano, he said that his wife Maria did.  According to Laura Archera Huxley’s book THIS TIMELESS MOMENT, Aldous reported that Maria lived at Llano “with an abiding sense of divine immanence, of Reality totally present, moment by moment in every object, person and event.”  He seems to have learned from her example, and spent the rest of his life trying to realize the same state of mind.

Maria Huxley
While at Llano, Aldous also wrote his pivotal novel TIME MUST HAVE A STOP and a little-known essay called the THE ART OF SEEING, as well as the screenplay JACOB’S HANDS and the children’s fable THE CROWS OF PEARBLOSSOM.  THE ART OF SEEING is, on the surface, an account of his experience with a controversial treatment for failing vision—but, really, it’s a book about meditation, discipline, balance, and Self-realization.  I'm going to quote the book at length because it's relatively unknown and currently out of print.  Huxley writes:

“Whatever the art you may wish to learn… there is one thing that every good teacher will always say: Learn to combine relaxation with activity; learn to do what you have to do without strain; work hard, but never under tension.  To speak of combining activity with relaxation may seem paradoxical; but in fact it is not.  For relaxation is of two kinds, passive and dynamic.  Passive relaxation is achieved in a state of complete repose, by a process of consciously ‘letting go’… Dynamic relaxation is that state of the body and mind which is associated with normal and natural functioning.”

“Mal-functioning and strain tend to appear whenever the conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use, either by trying too hard to do well, or by feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes. In the building up of any psycho-physical skill the conscious ‘I’ must give orders, but not too many orders—must supervise the forming of habits of proper functioning, but without fuss and in a modest, self-denying way.  The great truth discovered on the spiritual level by the masters of prayer, that ‘the more there is of the I, the less there is of God,’ has been discovered again and again on the physiological level by the masters of the various arts and skills.  The more there is of the ‘I,’ the less there is of Nature—of the right and normal functioning of the organism.”

“We all tend to be greedy ‘end-gainers,’ paying no attention to our ‘means-whereby.’  And yet it must be obvious to anyone who will give the subject a moment’s thought, that the nature of the means employed will always determine the nature of the end attained.  In the case of the eyes and the mind controlling them, means that involve unrelieved strain result in lowered vision and general physical and mental fatigue.  By allowing ourselves intervals of the right sort of relaxation, we can improve the means-whereby and so arrive more easily at our end, which is, proximately, good vision and, ultimately, the accomplishment of tasks for which good vision is necessary.  ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all the rest shall be added.’  This saying is as profoundly true on the planes of spirituality, ethics and politics.  By seeking first relaxed visual functioning of the kind that Nature intended us to have, we shall find that all the rest will be added to us...”

TIME MUST HAVE A STOP, written around the same time, articulates Huxley’s philosophy of action and non-action, and advocates for religion-by-research, the individual maintenance of an ever-evolving metaphysic that is both deeply personal and trans-personal.  Do the work, the author suggests, and you can help the whole world escape mental and emotional enslavement to past and future.  This is the essential message of Huxley's later work: Be Here Now.

Visiting Llano in 2019, I was awed by the space and silence surrounding the author’s one-time home…. although there is much less today than there would have been in the early 1940s.   Anne and Jim graciously took me on a short walk to the nearby silo that highlights the ruins of Llano del Rio, a place Huxley himself called “Ozymandius.” 

It’s hard to visit a place like this and not think about the ravages of time.  People come and go.  What was here before us and what will be here when we’re gone?  

More than half a century ago, Aldous Huxley looked through the walls of the silo and saw “a heap of tin cans, some waste paper and half a dozen empty bottles of Pepsi-Cola.”  Nevertheless, he was awed by an “almost supernatural silence” in the place.  He wrote that it reminded him of “the natural silence” of his “own real self—a thousand thunders which have their source in silence and in some inexpressible way are identical with silence.”  

He wasn’t running away from the world; he was running to it.

Inside the silo at Llano del Rio
Beside the abandoned concrete pool behind the old Huxley house
Health problems eventually drove Aldous and Maria away from Llano, but for the rest of his life Aldous kept returning (or trying to return) to that desert in his mind.  When Maria died in 1955, he held her in his arms and regaled her with vivid descriptions of the place where they had been so happy together.   

After Maria's death, Aldous followed the writings of philosophers William James and Henri Bergson to the idea that mystical experiences can be chemically induced—and to his own variation on T.S. Eliot’s desire to move “beyond words.”  There is much to be said about Huxley’s later years and experiments, but for now I’m going to end with something he wrote in 1961, two years before his own death.  To me, it seems like a good way to sum up the influence of this important man of letters...

“Self-knowledge is always an awareness of first-order experiences—of events below the level of words; of the mysteries of existence before we have conceptualized them into a specious intelligibility.  But if this is the case, why bother with literature, why go to the endless trouble of hunting out the right, the uniquely perfect form of verbal expression?  The paradoxical answer to this question is that it is through words that we are made aware of the subtler forms of nonverbal experience.  We do not need a novelist or a lyric poet to tell us what it feels like to have a tooth-ache or to be afraid of an oncoming tiger.  But wherever more complex, less obvious experiences are concerned, good poets and novelists can be enormously helpful. […] Good literature presents the reader with the results of an honest investigation into what is, and so encourages him to break out of the role he happens to be playing and to discover for himself the realities of perception, thought, and feeling that lie behind his assumed mask and have been eclipsed by it.”

For me, this is the value of Huxley’s work.  He has helped me to re-discover, at various times in my life, that I am where I am meant to be.

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