Monday, 1 December 2014

Prophet of our present - Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley was uncannily prophetic, a more astute guide to the future than any other 20th- century novelist. Even his casual asides have a surprising relevance to our own times. During the first world war, after America's entry, he warned: "I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the result of it all...Europe will no longer be Europe." His sentiment is widely echoed today, though too late for us to do anything about it. The worst fate for a prophet is for his predictions to come true, when everyone resents him for being so clear-eyed.
Huxley's greatest novel, Brave New World , is a far shrewder guess at the likely shape of a future tyranny than Orwell's vision of Stalinist terror in Nineteen Eighty-Four . Huxley's dystopia, with its test-tube babies and recreational drugs, its "feelies" that anticipate virtual reality, differs in one vital way from Orwell's vision of a boot stamping for ever on a human face. Huxley's victims welcome their own enslavement, revealing the same strains of passivity that lie beneath today's entertainment culture. Nineteen Eighty-Four has never really arrived, but Brave New World is around us everywhere.
For all his prescience, Huxley's star has dimmed since his death in 1963, on the same day that John F Kennedy was shot. The president's assassination overshadowed everything else on that grimmest of November days. A random psychotic act had endangered the world and refuted Huxley's vision of a sane and calculating tyranny. A single deranged man with a mail-order rifle was a more sinister threat than Big Brother, whether in jackboots or a white lab coat.
Another factor in Huxley's decline was his close association with the Bloomsbury Group, that bloodless set who haunt English letters like a coterie of haemophiliac royals. Huxley's novels of the 1920s, from Antic Hay to Point Counter Point , were ruthlessly witty satires on the middle class of his day, but have rather lost their sting in the far weirder era of Iris and Delia. But as Nicholas Murray makes clear in his generous and intelligent biography, Huxley soon escaped the Bloomsburies. He had far deeper roots in the Victorian age, with a rich mix of high- mindedness and a secure moral compass that we find baffling in our culture of soundbite philosophy and focus-group wisdom.
In many ways, Huxley was the last of the great Victorian novelists. He was born in 1894, a grandson of the biologist T H Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog". Matthew Arnold was his great-uncle, and his aunt was the novelist Mrs Humphry Ward. Secure in this intellectual aristocracy, he might have rebelled and become a great mid-century English eccentric, a liberally minded chairman of the board of film censors, or the first openly agnostic Archbishop of Canterbury.
However, at the age of 16, while an Eton schoolboy, he caught a serious eye infection that left him blind for a year and may have forced him into a more interior vision of himself. With his one good eye, he read English at Oxford, perhaps the best perspective to take on this dubious subject. He was immensely tall, six feet four-and-a-half inches. Christopher Isherwood said that he was "too tall. I felt an enormous zoological separation from him." Huxley, curiously, disliked male homosexuality but had many homosexual friends, Isherwood among them.
The young Huxley must have had immense charm. He soon found himself at Garsington Manor, near Oxford, the legendary home of the literary hostess, Lady Ottoline Morrell, where he met Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and D H Lawrence. Years later, in the south of France, Lawrence died in the arms of Huxley's wife. In the final minutes before his death, Lawrence suddenly panicked and cried out to Maria Huxley, begging her to keep him alive. She embraced him, and he died peacefully as her husband watched.
Maria was a wartime Belgian refugee whom Huxley met at Garsington and married in 1919. Murray describes their marriage as intensely close and happy, although Maria was an active bisexual. Huxley seems to have taken quickly to their special version of open marriage. They pursued the same lovers together, like a pair of sexual confidence tricksters: Maria encouraging Aldous, introducing him to the beautiful women he admired, preparing the amatory ground and saving him the fatigue of prolonged courtship. Jealousy and possessiveness, which so handicap the rest of us, seemed never to have touched Huxley, an emotional deficit that some readers have noticed in his novels. In the late 1930s, when they moved to Los Angeles, Maria became a member of the "sewing circle", a club of prominent Hollywood lesbians reputed to include Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
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