Monday, July 3, 2017

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“ALDOUS HUXLEY – AN ENGLISH INTELLECTUAL” by Nicholas Murray (first published 2002)

            As you will know from this blog (see the postings The Toil of Biography and Why Write a New Biography?), I am very exercised by the subject of biography, and often wonder how it can be possible for different biographers to say something new about lives that have already been well documented. I am also interested in how biographers are able to come up with diametrically opposed views on the same person’s life (see, for eample, the posting Rosebud, which compares different biographies of Orson Welles).

            As you are probably also aware, because I noted it in earlier posts, for some reason I sat down a few years ago and read my way, in the order they were written, through the collected novels and short stories of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). That is why I have already inflicted on you posts about Huxley’s Mortal Coils and Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza and After Many a Summer.

After I had read Huxley’s fictional oeuvre (I have not yet cracked all his non-fiction), I then sought out a biography of him to read – which brings me to the subject of this week’s “Something Old”. In a second-hand bookshop I found, at a very reasonable price and in well-preserved hardback form, the two volumes of Sybille Bedford’s Aldous Huxley – A Biography, published in 1973 and 1974, just ten years after Huxley died. I ploughed my way through it (a bit over 700 pages all up). I found it informative. I found it filled with interesting documented detail. But I also found it rather bland. Dedicated to Huxley’s son Matthew, it read like an official “authorised” biography, which it may well have been (I do not know its publishing history). The biographer simply assumed that Huxley was a great man and sage, and then proceeded to – very scrupulously – document the fact.

Huxley was not such a obsession of mine that I immediately sought out another biography of him (apparently there have been four or five). But a few years after this, when I had what passes for a spare moment, I borrowed from a university library Nicholas Murray’s Aldous Huxley – An English Intellectual, first published in 2002. It was much shorter (300-plus pages) and much brisker than Sybille Bedford’s effort, and less afraid to make negative judments on Huxley. Perhaps more time had passed since Huxley’s death to get the man into perspective. Perhaps Murray was better attuned to the biographic form than the (esteemed novelist) Bedford. Murray has also written biographies of Andrew Marvell, Matthew Arnold, Bruce Chatwin and  Franz Kafka among others.

Murray wants to celebrate Huxley as a genuine intellectual who was constantly searching for ultimate truths. Inevitably much of the book is a chronicle of places visited, other intellectuals whom Huxley knew, speeches given, publishers’ contracts sgned and deadlines met. In one sense, it is a curiously external book, given that Huxley is best known for his fiction. (The “general reader” probably knows Aldous Huxley only as the author of Brave New World.) There are only perfunctory comments on the novels, with little real analysis; and the commonsensical conclusion that Huxley was a better polemicist and essayist than he was a writer of fiction.

As Murray makes quite clear a number of times, it is likely that the house fire in 1961, which destroyed most of Huxley’s personal and most intimate unpulished papers, deprived Murray (and any other biographer) of much personal detail on the author’s writing methods and the links between his fiction and his lived experience.

Given that Murray wants to celebrate Huxley as a bona fide Seeker for Truth, the tone of this biography is sometimes a little defensive.

Murray sets himself up as the defender of Huxley’s reputation on two grounds:

Huxley’s private life: Murray is clearly irked by the common and widespread view that Aldous Huxley’s marriage to Maria Nys (which lasted from 1919 to Maria’s death in 1955) was merely a marriage of convenience, because Maria Nys was a lesbian and Aldous Huxley had very many casual affairs with other women in the 1920s and 1930s. Murray asserts that not only was it a true and loving marriage (producing a son, Matthew), but that Aldous and Maria were mutually dependent, she was devoted to him, and despite her affairs with women, she was never part of the lesbian “sewing circles” of southern California, where they spent the last 20 years or so of their marriage. Murray has much good evidence for these assertions, including his chronicle of their largely stay-at-home life when they weren’t travelling, the fact that Maria was obviously the practical organiser of the couple’s domestic and social lives, and the fact that Huxley was devastated by her death (from cancer). On the other hand, he does admit that the Huxley-Nys marriage amounted to a menage-a-trois in the 1920s, when Mary Hutchinson was Maria’s live-in lover; and he is aware that much of the couple’s personal story cannot be accessed because of that 1961 fire. Murray also defends the American Laura Archera (Huxley’s second wife, whom he married in 1956) from the common perception that she was a flaky gold-digger, by noting that most of Huxley’s circle of friends were accepting of her – though I wonder sceptically if this does not simply mean that they were a tolerant bunch. It is interesting, by the way, that Christopher Isherwood (who, like Huxley, sometimes sold his soul to Hollywood scriptwriting) was close friends with Huxley in the 1950s, as was the bogus visionary Gerald Heard and the talented scriptwriter Anita Loos. This friendship with Isherwood is interesting because (despite his first wife’s proclivities), Huxley had a lifelong dislike of male homosexuals. (Murray occasionally describes him as “homophobic”).

Huxley’s literary reputation: Murray is aware that Huxley is largely seen as the Bright Young Satirist of the 1920s who became the flaky, mystic mescalin-and-LSD-taking California sage from the late 1940s to his death in 1963. He aims to contest this view by showing that there was a consistent moral underpinning even to his earliest satire, and that he was always a seeker after truth and essential values, moving from hedonism to pacifism to his final mystical sense of the Oneness of All. Additionally, Murray wishes to show that Huxley was correct in many of his views of the social, political and especially ecological issues of his time, and that he was very well-informed on scientific matters.

In these respects, however, Murray has his work cut out for him, and in the end he often confirms the very perspectives he seeks to reject.

(i.) He himself argues that Huxley’s later attempts at fiction, including his woeful last novel Island, are really tracts. Huxley had long since ceased to be somebody who read much new fiction, so that his style and manner became increasingly ossified and old-fashioned. Repeatedly and unsuccessfully, Huxley attempted to become a successful playwright, trying to earn a better income. But he was out of synch. with his times and was still fixed in the Shavian tradition of brittle, intellectual, middle-class dialogue in which Big Issues were neatly spelled out. By the 1950s he was disparaging the plays of Arthur Miller for their crudity and condemning the “brainlessness” of Tennessee Williams’ characters. In other words, he was incapable of connecting with both credible stage dialogue and the lower orders, and was stuck in the mode of intellectual debate on stage rather than the exploration of the emotional life. Understandably, his plays remained unproduced.

(ii.) Murray chronicles Huxley’s pursuit of an income in journalism and in writing articles for magazines. In doing so, he shows a man who picked up and dropped enthusiasms almost yearly. There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind, but much of this amounts to serial faddism.

(iii.) Finally, Murray has a hard time controlling his own distaste for many of the views of Huxley in his later years. He is aware that the eye-exercises Huxley promoted to cure his blindness were medically worthless and in no way resulted in better sight. He is very suspicious of the influence on Huxley of his guru and friend Gerald Heard, whom he had known since he joined the pacifist movement in the 1930s. He is equally suspicious of Huxley’s assumed mysticism. Above all, he is repelled by Huxley’s drug-taking in the 1950s and the destructive cult it helped kick off in the 1960s via Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. (The former tract gave its name to The Doors, one of the many talentless druggie rock groups of the era.) For this reader at least, it was very funny to read the passages in which Huxley and Heard (who invented the term “psychedelic”) attempted to argue that their drug-induced mystical experiences were genuine truth-seeking and were superior to other people’s drug experiences, which were mere hedonism and self-indulgence. Thus do intellectuals often delude themselves. Heard’s and Huxley’s critique sounded to me (between laughs) as alarmingly similar to D.H.Lawrence’s view that his own sexual experiences were uplifting religious epiphanies, whereas the sexual activity of all those unenlightened bourgeois people was merely sordid and dirty.

All of which brings me to another impulse that Murray has difficulty disguising. This is his awareness of the intellectual snobbery in Huxley, in some ways typical of the Bloomsbury circle. In his introduction, Murray takes issue with John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses (first published in 1991), which argued that Bloomsberries, including Huxley, were basically contemptuous of ordinary (working class and middle class) people. Carey pushed his argument to extremes, but did make some valid points. But the evidence of Murray’s own account often confirms some of Carey’s views. Sometimes it does so in horrifying detail. Like his biologist brother Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley subscribed to the view that the “mentally unfit” should be forcibly sterilised to prevent a population of “half-wits”, and that intelligent and educated people should be given financial rewards to have more children. Murray has a hard time justifying Huxley’s hard-core eugenics (pp.274-276), having to fall back lamely on the statement that “he was not alone amongst ‘progressive’ thinkers of his time in playing with this concept” and telling us that, after all, his intention was humanitarian. Often Murray uses of Huxley the term “cerebrotonic”, meaning one who is cerebral to the point of valuing ideas, books and intellectualising more than he/she values real people. This is consistent with both Huxley’s eugenics, his self-absorbed drug-taking which he mistook for an expansion of consciousness, and his contempt for stage dialogue which actually sounded like real people.

I finished reading Murray’s book, then, with the sense that the author was what is now called gracelessly “conflicted”. He wanted to admire Huxley unconditionally, but was too honest to ignore the negative side of the man. Hence the book’s often defensive tone. It is still, however, a better read than Sybille Bedford’s double-decker.

Silly footnotes: Quite apart from the silliness of Huxley and Heard about their drug-taking, there were other moments in this biography that made me laugh out loud.

* Huxley’s first venture into print was a precious collection of poems published in a series of what the publisher called “Young Poets Unknown to Fame”. Apparently the best blurb the publishers could find for the series was a quotation from a newspaper review saying “The get up of the series is very attractive. Type, paper and the shape of the pages are all good, and the poems are printed with a nice regard for margins.” Nicholas Murray adds dryly that the newspaper “was silent on the actual merits of the poems that positioned themselves so prettily between these margins.” (p.77)

* Murray notes that by the end of the 1920s, having himself been a book reviewer for some years, Huxley  concluded “The art of reviewing books appears to consist in variations of the formula, ‘This book is on the one hand good and on the other hand at the same time bad’ ”. Quite so.

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