Thursday, 21 November 2013

Aldous Huxley --- Utopian Visionary

 Why is Aldous Huxley popping up on the Cottarton Blog? It’s because, unlike with JFK and C.S. Lewis,  the 50th anniversary of his death, is about to pass unnoticed. At least in the British press. Also, because when I was 18, I read just about everything he wrote, novels, essays, non-fiction and biographies. More than any writer at the time he shook up my youthful idealism, forced me to question my assumptions about the way things are. The book that burst upon me like an explosion was not “Brave New World”. Everyone reads that in high school and comes away convinced that the world is even more fu**ed up than they'd supposed. No, it was “After Many a Summer dies the Swan”.

On the outside, it’s a science fiction yarn set in California, about a rich man who resembles William Randolf Hearst, living in his castle, and scared of death. His doctor is trying to solve this problem, at least find the cure to aging and death. Unexpectedly they discover that a British Earl may have already solved the problem a couple of centuries earlier. That he might even be still alive! Laced throughout the book are conversations with an elderly chap, loosely modelled after the philosopher J. Krishnamurti, a long-time friend of Huxley, who asks – what’s the point of living longer? People don’t improve with age. In fact, time itself may be our worst enemy. Time, idealism, human suffering are all rooted in the human ego. The worst people are not the uneducated yobs. Those who inflict the greatest harm, enslave nations, lead wars are the idealists, the patriots, those who are convinced they’re doing good. In fact, their “God” is no more than a projection of their ego.

The next book I picked up was “Island”, Huxley’s last novel. It’s set on an island in the Indian Ocean where a utopian society has developed. Not because of a change in a political system, or by any outside imposition, but as a result of a spiritual transformation. It begins with education --- the right sort of education that is rooted in an understanding of the human being, both the physical, psychological and spiritual nature. There’s no religion and no dogma on the island. Most people take occasionally a hallucinogenic such as LSD, not as a recreational drug, but as part of a journey of self discovery. Huxley held that the use of hallucinogenics, taken after proper preparation, could open up a person to experience states of consciousness that we all naturally have but for whatever reason cannot usually access at will. However not everyone needs such an initiation. Some people are naturally high, or can slip into such a state through meditation. Such a religious experience can transform a person by showing them new perspectives, new vistas.

As with all utopian novels, “Island” suffers a little from being dull. A typical novel is usually driven by the conflict of the characters. It is not the best medium to explore a world where the characters don't experience conflict. Huxley was attempting an impossible task, which he largely pulled off. These days, dystopian visions abound and form the backbone of the science fiction genre: movies, novels and video games. A general feeling pervades our society, and our media that the world is going to sh**. The reason for this plethora of dark material is not because such is to be our destiny. I suspect that it springs from an overall feeling of alienation, a feeling of being alone in a universe that doesn’t give a damn for us. That message is regularly reinforced by luminaries such as Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and other science profs.

To see things differently takes vision and imagination. Huxley was a man of great vision which is why, despite Brave New World, he could see the possibilities for a better world. One where things could go right. He wasn’t naïve or Pollyanish about it. He knew that the solution lay not in any political, social or idealistic solution but in the transformation of the human being. Not a trivial task.

1 comment:

  1. I understand Huxley wrote a non-fiction book about his own experiences with Mescalin (a crude form of LSD) ? I think the title was 'Doors of Perception' and was a Penguin p.b. (It was a long time ago so I may have got the exact title wrong)As a young student I remember being impressed by this bold venture by such an eminent person - as well as the descriptive images whilst in his drug-induced hypnotic state. I suppose if an author attempted to do anything like that these days he'd be paid a visit by the drug squad very quickly - but it might produce quite an 'interesting' day in court!)