Happy birthday, Aldous Huxley!
“You shall know the truth,” Aldous Huxley once said, “and the truth shall make you mad.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a quote more emblematic of the late English author, who was born 122 years ago today. Best known for his dystopian novel “Brave New World,” Huxley predicted some of the most frightening aspects of modern society years before they came to pass.
Huxley was born in Godalming, England, to a well-known family — his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a biologist and Darwinist who coined the word “agnostic.”
Aldous Huxley’s brothers would become distinguished thinkers as well, although in different fields — Julian Huxley was a biologist who served as the first director of UNESCO, and Andrew Huxley was a physiologist who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1963.
Huxley fell ill as a teenager with an eye condition called keratitis; he would struggle with his eyesight for decades afterward. Huxley rarely wrote or spoke about his condition, but many speculate he was near-blind for most of his life.
He burst onto the literary scene in 1921 with his novel “Crome Yellow,” a satirical novel that takes place at a manor house party. It introduced the world to Huxley’s acid brand of cynicism.
A few other novels followed, including his 1928 book “Point Counter Point,” a complex satire that raised eyebrows at the time for its racy sexual content.
The book wasn’t any less pessimistic than his previous works. “Everybody strains after happiness, and the result is that nobody’s happy,” one character notes.
But it was “Brave New World,” published in 1931, that cemented Huxley’s place in the pantheon of literature. The novel takes place in a dystopian, nightmare version of London, in which the populace is drugged and human beings are born in incubators.
The novel is considered one of the best of the 20th century; the title has become a shorthand for ominous technological advances and futuristic controls. The book is frequently banned, and still makes regular appearances on the American Library Assn.'s list of most challenged books.
Huxley moved to Southern California in 1937, where he found work as a screenwriter. His scripts include the critically acclaimed movie version of “Pride and Prejudice,” which was released in 1940, and a 1943 film adaptation of “Jane Eyre.”
It was in California that Huxley had a kind of spiritual awakening, joining the Vedanta Society of Southern California, where he learned meditation. (His friend Christopher Isherwood did, too.)
Not long after, Huxley had his first experience with a psychedelic drug (many more would follow). His experience with mescaline would form the basis of his 1954 essay “The Doors of Perception.”
“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception,” Huxley wrote in the essay, “to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large — this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”
The essay was published in a book, and inspired musician Jim Morrison to name his band the Doors. Huxley would continue to take mescaline and LSD until — literally — the day he died.
That was on Nov. 22, 1963. Suffering for laryngeal cancer, he asked his wife to inject him with a psychedelic drug. He died not long after he was given the dose.
Not many people heard about his death at the time, however. Huxley (as well as C.S. Lewis) happened to die on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Huxley is buried in England, and years after his death, writers and philosophers still look to his unusual career for inspiration.
“Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body,” Huxley wrote. “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life.The only completely consistent people are the dead.”
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