Remembering Aldous Huxley

<i> Smith is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Syracuse University and</i> ,<i> this semester, Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. </i>

There was a moment in the 1950s when there was talk of pooling the talents of Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky and Martha Graham to turn “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” into a ballet with “Greek” chorus.

That moment passed, but when Aldous Huxley died a quarter-century ago this week, it was the words of that Tibetan manual that were read into his ear by his prior request: “Now there is approaching that clear white light of the Void. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid . It is your friend. Go fearlessly into that Light of the Void” (abridged).

It was likewise of the Void that Huxley spoke most during my first meeting with him in 1947. He and his wife, Maria, were at their cabin hide-away in the Mojave Desert, and Aldous took me for a long walk through its barren stretches.

He loved the desert, he told me, for its symbolic power. Its emptiness emptied his mind. “The boundlessness of its sands (I paraphrase) spreads a mantle of sameness--hence unity--over the world’s multiplicity in something of the way snow does. The Nothingness to which the Desert Fathers were drawn is not a blank negation. It is a no-thing-ness in which everything is so interfused that divisions are transcended. Pure light contains all the frequencies of the rainbow, but undemarcated. The Void is the vacuum-plenum complex, grasped by its vacuum pole.”


Years later, when I helped to bring Huxley to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the 1960 fall semester, the audience for his public lectures grew until by mid-point in the series, the Boston Police Department had to augment its staff on Wednesday evenings to handle the traffic jams that stretched from Cambridge all the way across the Charles River. When I alluded to this as a tribute, Huxley disclaimed it characteristically. “It’s because I’ve been around so long,” he said. “I’ve become like Queen Anne’s Cottage. If I live to be a hundred, I shall be like Stonehenge.”

He didn’t live to be a hundred, and the world was poorer for his (by current reckoning) relatively early death at age 69. Most obviously, it lost an encyclopedic intelligence. That adjective is overworked these days, but in his case, it comes close to being accurate. When a leading newspaper felt that the Encyclopedia Britannica should itself be brought under review in its 14th Edition, no one was surprised when Huxley was asked to do the job. (He found it inferior to the 11th Edition.)

More impressive than the range of the man’s mind, however, was its sympathy and interest. Few major intelligences since William James have been as open. Huxley’s regard for mysticism was well known by dint of being so nearly notorious. What some overlooked was his equal interest in the workaday world and its exigencies: peace, the population explosion and conservation of our natural resources. To those who, greedy for transcendence, deprecated the mundane, he advised that we “make the best of both worlds.” To their opposites, the positivists, his message was the same, but worded differently: “Fair enough: one world at a time. But not half a world!”

His wit was incisive. Alan Watts happened to pass through Cambridge during Huxley’s MIT term, and when I discovered that these two articulate Californians had not met, I arranged a supper to introduce them. Alan had to leave early for a lecture somewhere, and when Huxley and I resumed our seats, there was a pause during which I could almost hear him sorting things out. Then his verdict. “What a curious man. Half monk, and half race-track operator.” (When I reported this assessment to Alan some months later he loved it, and acknowledged its accuracy.)

It wasn’t Huxley’s wit alone, of course, that powered his talk--he was a master conversationalist generally. His imposing height, magnificent profile and sonorous voice all contributed, but it was the way he used words to shape ideas that accounted for the magic. I have been in restaurants where surrounding tables fell silent as their occupants strained to overhear Huxley’s words. I seldom left his presence without feeling recharged, as if some new corner of the world--if not new vistas of being--had opened before me.

Accepting the fact that “truth lies at the bottom of a very muddy well,” he descended: to ESP and LSD, to “sight without glasses” and Vedanta. But never as embattled renegade--there wasn’t a grain of “Invictus” in him. If toward the end he lost his reputation among highbrows, it was not for his omnivorous interests, but because he wasn’t content simply to do what he could do well. His competence bored him. So the master of words moved on to what eludes words, remarking over his shoulder that “language is a device for taking the mystery out of reality.” Not needing triumph, adulation or disciples, he could bypass them for truth.

He could bypass them because he had so little egoism. A supreme unpretentiousness characterized him to the end, which came on the same day when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “It’s rather embarrassing,” he said, “to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find that one has little more to offer by way of advice than, “ ‘Try to be a little kinder.’ ” If, as he had earlier observed, the central technique for man to learn is “the art of obtaining freedom from the fundamental human disability of egoism,” Huxley achieved that freedom.

But that was not his supreme achievement, for his personal problem was not pride but pessimism. “Did anything more than usually disastrous happen last night,” he asked one morning as he approached the breakfast table where I was glancing at the paper. And underlying the world’s disasters was its vanity, the seeming meaninglessness of it all--"tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” His final victory, therefore, lay not in emerging selfless but in winning through to equanimity--an evenness of spirit and generalized good cheer. Thereby the line he used to close his best novel, “Brave New World,” became the appropriate epitaph for his own life’s journey: “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Said this time without sarcasm.