The first biography in decades of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, Doors of Perception and other classics.
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Thomas Dunne Books
March 02, 2003
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Excerpt from Aldous Huxley by Nicholas Murray
'Born into the rain,' Aldous Huxley told the New York Herald Tribune in 1952, 'I have always felt a powerful craving for light.' Huxley had in mind his lifelong struggle with defective eyesight, which sent him first to the Mediterranean and then to Southern California. But the wider metaphor is irresistible. His life was a constant search for light, for understanding, of himself and his fellow men and women in the twentieth century. This intellectual ambition -- not unknown but rare in English novelists -- sent him far beyond the confines of prose fiction into history, philosophy, science, politics, mysticism, psychic exploration. He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: aun aprendo. I am still learning. Grandson of the great Victorian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley -- 'Darwin's bulldog' -- he had a lifelong passion for truth, artistic and scientific. His field of interest, declared Isaiah Berlin after his death, was nothing less than 'the condition of men in the twentieth century'.
Like an eighteenth century philosophe, a modern Voltaire -- though in truth he found that historical epoch lacking in depth and resonance -- he took the whole world as his province, and like those urbane thinkers he did it with consummate clarity and grace, was frequently iconoclastic, and struck many of his contemporaries in the early decades of the twentieth century as a liberator and a herald of the modern age of secular enlightenment and scientific progress. He was also an often disturbingly accurate prophet who became steadily more disillusioned with the uses to which science was being put in his time. His was an early voice in the ecological movement, which gathered pace after his death. He warned against the dangers of nuclear weapons, overpopulation, exhaustion of the world's natural resources, militarism and destructive nationalism. His subtler messages -- about the corrosive effects of modern consumer capitalism and brainwashing by advertising, about the slow surrender of freedom -- have made his most famous work, Brave New World, in many ways a more accurate prophecy than Orwell's 1984. From a certain point of view, it is true, Huxley's brand of high amateurism might look a little anachronistic in an era of intense academic specialisation -- he loved to mock 'the professors' (not least when he became a 'Visiting Professor of Nothing in Particular' himself) and considered no subject, however abstruse, alien to him. The wide-ranging intellectual, acknowledging no disciplinary barriers, nor feeling the need to kow-tow to the appointed custodians of this or that area of knowledge, if not extinct is certainly an endangered species. The example of Huxley -- who constituted what Rosamund Lehmann called 'a luminous intelligence incarnate' -- serves as a reminder of what might be at stake were the species to disappear for good.
But Huxley was never -- in spite of his prodigious intellectual gifts -- a mere desiccated calculating machine. It is true that he confessed to 'a fear of the responsibilities of relationships'. And he admitted: 'I know how to deal with abstract ideas but not people'. In spite of his exceptional intelligence and his frequent impatience with human stupidity (expressed more at a theoretical than at a personal level) Huxley was a surprisingly modest and self-effacing man. He showed an exceptionally acute perception of his own shortcomings as a man and as a writer. In the 1940s, Huxley was smitten by the classification of human types drawn up by Dr William Sheldon in The Varieties of Human Physique and The Varieties of Temperament. In this scheme, Huxley was a 'cerebrotonic', a term that would crop up regularly in his later works. In an article which appeared in Harper's Magazine in November 1944, with droll illustrations by James Thurber, Huxley explained the characteristics of his own type: