The English author Aldous Huxley was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of the theory of evolution.
Huxley published four novels in the late 1920s satirizing English literary society and was fairly well known. But most readers know him for his fifth book, Brave New World in 1932.
Huxley said he started out to write a parody of the 1923 Utopian novel Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells (an author I loved as a kid, but who has fallen off the list as I find out more about his politics), but Huxley’s growing distrust of politics and technology led him to a serious blend of science and fiction and a disturbing vision of a future that looks the assembly lines in Henry Ford’s automobile factories that were so praised in Huxley’s time for their efficiency and uniformity. Brave New World is set in London in a time we would call AD 2540, but is marked as 632 A.F. – “After Ford.”
Every few months, as we sicken over our own times, someone will compare our society to those in Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley was writing after World War I, but Orwell was writing during World War II (his 1984 reversed the 1948 that it was published). Orwell had seen and heard more that disturbed him, but it is hard to say which book is a more disturbing dystopian future.
In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compare the two visions in this way:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Whose vision of the future seems closest to our present?
Is it Orwell’s fear of fear, or more like Huxley fear that our desires will destroy us?
I side with Aldous Huxley these days. His mass-produced culture full of trivial and empty amusements seems closer to what I see around me. A society full of people taking antidepressants like Huxley’s “soma” so that you are oblivious to anything unpleasant or negative also seems closer to our times.
Perhaps if I lived in an even more totalitarian country (see Middle East, Africa and South America), Orwell might resonate louder in my ears.
Huxley followed up on Brave New World with a reassessment (not a sequel) in his essay, “Brave New World Revisited” in 1958.
His final novel, Island, published in 1962, updates his thoughts on society.
In Island, the protagonist, a cynical journalist, is shipwrecked on the fictional island of Pala. If Brave New World is dystopian, then Island is his Utopian counterpart. When he updated the foreword to Brave New World in 1946, he said: “If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the Utopian and primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity.”
I think I have read all of Huxley’s books, but I need to reread at least some of them. I’m pretty sure that the 15 or 16 year old me that read The Doors of Perception or Brave New World was not able to grasp all that was contained in those pages. They definitely left an impression with me, but the times and my place in the world has altered so much that almost every book I read in my youth could qualify as a new book now.
Huxley died on November 23, 1963 in the City of Angels. This observer of the world and explorer of inner worlds, wrote a request to his wife (he was unable to speak) for “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular”. His wife’s account of his death in her memoir This Timeless Moment, says she followed his wishes. Not so much a request for a “soma” to dull death, but for something to open him up to whatever was coming next.
You’re not missing much that would be worth writing about, Al.
Mike Wallace interviews Aldous Huxley (May 1958)
Huxley’s other books include the novels Eyeless in Gaza, and The Genius and the God, and critically acclaimed nonfiction works as The Devils of Loudun, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, and The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West.