Aldous Huxley is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern thought and his dystopian novel Brave New World was one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century.
Huxley’s themes and his experimentation with hallucinogens gained a considerable following in the late 1960s and reintroduced the English writer to a whole new generation. Today, there is a resurgence in interest in his work as the themes of his work become important to a whole new generation.
Aldous Huxley came from a prominent family of writers and intellectuals. His grandfather, Thomas Huxley was a prominent scientist and supporter of Charles Darwin. His mother was Julia Arnold, niece of prominent writer Matthew Arnold and his father a writer of minor note. His two brothers Julian and Andrew also became famous biologists.
Huxley was born in Surrey, England in 1894 and studied with his parents until old enough to attend Eton school. At age 17 Huxley was struck by keratitis punctata which left blind for three years. The lingering effects of that illness precluded him from joining up when World War I began in 1914. Instead, Huxley attended Balliol College, Oxford and studied English literature. He graduated in 1916 but to pay off his debts he took a job at Eton as a teacher. Although he was widely viewed as a terrible teacher, he had a profound effect on one of his students, one Eric Blair who would go onto become better known as George Orwell.
Huxley became a farm labourer for Lady Otterline Morrell at her estate, near Oxford. Morrell entertained many members of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, famous writers such as DH Lawrence and Bertrand Russell and became friends with many of them.
Huxley had begun to write at 17 but met with little success. In 1920 he took a job at a chemical factory in Teeside. The experiences at the cold, impersonal, advanced industrial plant would inform his most famous novel Brave New World. Huxley also met and married Maria Nye, a Belgian woman and had their first child.
In 1921, Huxley and his family moved to Italy to live near Lawrence. He also published the novel Chrome Yellow, which fictionalized life around Morrell’s estate and attacked Victorian and Edwardian attitudes that existed before the Great War. Huxley’s second novel, Antic Hay, published in 1923 continued with the themes of disenchantment with society after the war. Its frank depiction of sex ensured its notoriety and inevitable banning in certain markets.
It was another five years before the release of Point Counter Point, which Huxley described as his first novel of ideas. The book follows a number of characters through 1920s London, characters who are empty and directionless, some expounding ideas that are eerily predict the rise of fascism while others lose themselves in sexual encounters and affairs.
After a visit to the US, Huxley moved to France in 1930 and began work on his most famous work. Influenced by DH Lawrence, HG Wells and Yvgeny Zamyatin, Huxley wanted to satirize the futuristic fantasies of science fiction writers and the sort of modern inhuman industrial society he had experienced working in England. He also wanted to attack growing consumerism and the “Americanization” of Europe. The book was a success upon its publication in 1932.
In 1937 Huxley moved to the United States settling in California and spending time in Taos, New Mexico with Lawrence. He also became introduced to eastern mysticism, vegetarianism and meditation. Huxley wrote on these spiritual values and ideas in The Perennial Philosophy, which introduced to a wider audience the teachings of renowned mystics from around the world.
To pay the bills Huxley accepted work with MGM studios in Hollywood. He was contracted to work on the script of the movie Madam Currie. He also worked on scripts for Hollywood versions of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. However, he proved to be unsuited to movie work and his scripts were rejected for being to complex and intellectual. In 1940, Huxley moved from Hollywood to Llano on the edge of the Mojave Desert.
In the early 1950s Huxley began to dabble in psychedelic drugs. Back in 1930, noted occultist Alistair Crowley had introduced Huxley to peyote during a dinner in Berlin and the idea of using drugs to become enlightened remained with him. In 1953, he tried mescaline and LSD for the first time. These experiences led him the write The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. He quickly became a hero of the growing counter culture that would erupt in the 1960s.
In 1960, Huxley was diagnosed with cancer and he completed a final utopian novel Island. Three years later on his deathbed, Huxley took a last hit of LSD and died in Los Angeles on the same day as the assassination of John F Kennedy.
Brave New World
Brave New World is set in London in AD2540 although the themes and issues are very much those of the early 20th Century. Industrial production, new technologies and the consumer society meant that the western world was changing rapidly leading to widespread anxiety about the future. People feared the loss of individual identity as sinister mass political movements were afoot in the world. People feared the speed of change and Europeans especially feared the consumerism and greed that had come from the US and driven the world into depression.
Huxley satirized the culture of youth and sexual promiscuity that seemed to epitomize America in the minds of many. In the novel "feelies" were his response to American "talkies" motion pictures, and that most American of props chewing gum in the novel comes laced with aphrodisiacs.
The novel is also a rejection of the sort of utopias posited by many British writers before the First World War. The novel is often linked with Yvgeny Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 as three examples of dystopian worlds that could easily come if people are not vigilant.