Aldous Huxley's Quest for Values

Citation metadata

Author: Milton Birnbaum
Date: 1971
From: Aldous Huxley's Quest for Values
Publisher: University of Tennessee Press
Reprint In: Contemporary Literary Criticism(Vol. 4. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,276 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

[(essay date 1971) Birnbaum, a Polish-born American educator and critic, has stated: “Aldous Huxley has been my special interest because of his classical temper, his encyclopedic interests, and because his writing has always been concerned with trying to infuse life with greater meaning.” In the following excerpt, Birnbaum discusses the values and philosophy evinced in Huxley's works.]

Whether Aldous Huxley has been a force for good or evil, whether he is an artist more noted for his contributions to the novel of ideas or for the ideas themselves, whether he is chiefly a romantic or a neoclassicist—on these questions, critics have not agreed. He has been called a frustrated romantic by [David Daiches in The Novel and the Modern World]; he has been attacked because he has joined Freud, Jung, Adler, and Lawrence “to sow distrust of reason, and to represent it as a mere tool of the unconscious” [by C. E. M. Joad in Return to Philosophy]. His view of life has been characterized as “essential sterility” [by Millett, Manly and Rickert in Contemporary British Literature], and his embracing of mysticism has been called “the rationalist's substitute for suicide” [by Edwin Berry Burgum in The Novel and the World's Dilemma]. But Huxley has had his defenders, too. His description of the modern world has been hailed as “far more honest and decent than the early Victorian age depicted in Bulwer Lytton's Pelham” [by Morris R. Cohen in The Faith of a Liberal]. Similarly, “despite the temptations which beset a successful author,” he never “seriously compromised with his intellectual integrity” [Jocelyn Brooke in Aldous Huxley]....

Wherein then lies the value in giving serious consideration to Huxley? Precisely in his being able to articulate the intellectual and moral conflicts being fought in the collective soul of the twentieth century. D. H. Lawrence would express his reactions viscerally but failed to look through a microscope, as Huxley reminds us. James Joyce could disentangle himself from the nets in which he felt caught, but he did not seem aware of the oases to be found in Eastern meditative systems. E. M. Forster knew of passages to other cultures but preferred to regard art as self-sufficient rather than as catalytic. Virginia Woolf knew the agony of private torment but did not realize the healing that can emerge from societal involvement. It was Huxley of all these twentieth-century English writers who best reflected and coordinated the divisions of the modern world; he best expressed its Weltanschauung in its most universal sense. Thomas Henry Huxley, Aldous Huxley's grandfather, was called “Darwin's bulldog” because he so tenaciously clung to and advocated Darwin's theories; similarly, Aldous Huxley may become best known for being both an observer of and a contributor to the shifting values of our world.

That Huxley's works have always demonstrated a search for values can be shown by an analysis of his works from the very beginning. The novels published in the 1920's (Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point) were all concerned with showing how some of the traditional sources of value—religion, love, family life—were absent from the postwar generation. Most readers thought these books to be cynically entertaining and did not see their essentially moral undercurrent....

He attacks the growing preoccupation with hedonism, materialism, technology, and false intellectualism in Brave New World (1932), Eyeless in Gaza (1936), After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), Time Must Have a Stop (1944), and Ape and Essence (1948). He considers alternatives to materialism: mysticism (The Perennial Philosophy, 1946), an intelligent application of science (Science, Liberty and Peace, 1947), and a fusion of mysticism and science (Island, 1962). Occasionally, as in The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), he endorses the use of hallucinogenic drugs as a means of heightening one's spiritual and aesthetic awareness. Brave New World Revisited (1948) considers “the subject of freedom and its enemies.” Even in books that are purportedly biographical, there is evident concern with moral directions; when he writes about the life of Father Joseph, adviser to Cardinal Richelieu, he deplores the evil mingling of spiritual and material values—saying, in effect, that Caesar and God cannot be served simultaneously. Similarly, in The Devils of Loudun (1952), he impregnates the biography of a seventeenth-century monk with meaning for this century. The life of Maine de Biran, the eighteenth-century French philosopher, occupies about half of Themes and Variations, but here again, as with the other subjects found in this 1950 volume, Huxley's observations are tinged with moral implications....

Huxley... prefers to consider his characters as states of being rather than what E. M. Forster would call “round characters.” It is no wonder then that his characters can be classified under so many “humors.” First, there is the intellectual who has developed his mentality but pathetically neglected the emotional and physical sides of life—people like Philip Quarles (Point Counter Point), Denis Stone (Crome Yellow), Bernard Marx (Brave New World), Shearwater (Antic Hay), Anthony Beavis (Eyeless in Gaza). Then there is the sardonic cynic—people like Spandrell (Point Counter Point) and Mark Staithes (Eyeless in Gaza). There is the promiscuous female—characters like Mary Thriplow (Those Barren Leaves), Mrs. Viveash (Antic Hay), Lucy Tantamount (Point Counter Point), Lenina Crowne (Brave New World), and Virginia Maunciple (After Many a Summer Dies the Swan). The mystic began to appear in the novels of the 1930's—characters like Mr. Propter (After Many A Summer Dies the Swan), Dr. Miller (Eyeless in Gaza), and Bruno Rontini (Time Must Have a Stop). Other characters of humors could be listed to make the point that most of Huxley's characters are used to illustrate the values (or more often, the lack of values) of certain ways of life....

Despite his inclusion of a mystic character in all his novels beginning with Eyeless in Gaza, it is revealing that the characters who most closely resembled Huxley in those novels (people like Anthony Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza and Sebastian Barnack in Time Must Have a Stop) were not the mystics but those Hamlet-like individuals who were frozen into inaction by their excessive cerebration. The mystic characters, it would seem, typified the person whom Huxley would have liked to emulate. He still remained the person who found conflict between his ideals and reality; who preferred to detach himself from the torrent of life's paradoxes....

Basic to any interpretation of Huxley's quest for values is an understanding of Huxley's conception of reality, for therein lie the causes for his seeming inconsistencies, his sardonic irony, his rejection of many of the traditional sources of meaning in life, his plunge from the fetters of self, time, and space into self-transcendent mysticism, and finally, his attempt in his last novel (Island) to attain heaven on earth by embracing the knowledge of science along with the wisdom of religion....

Huxley's search for reality assumed three seemingly different directions. Until the 1930's, Huxley's books (both fiction and nonfiction) examined a world in which the traditional sources of value (Judeo-Christian religion, patriotism, the conventional frameworks of private and public morality, the “progress” concept derived from the findings of science) were either replaced by a moral vacuum or else privately violated while publicly espoused. Such books as Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, and Point Counter Point indicate Huxley's disillusionment with Western society. In the second stage, approximately from the publication of his Eyeless in Gaza (1936) through The Perennial Philosophy (1945), Huxley tried to embrace the reality offered by mysticism, especially that preached by Buddhism. Then, in the last decade and a half of his life, Huxley tried to incorporate Buddhism within the framework of science....

Let us briefly review the path Huxley took before he embarked on the road to the ultimate reality as revealed by mysticism. He first found objective reality (the world of matter as measured and interpreted by science) both ugly and incomplete. Subjective reality (as explained by most philosophies of the Western World) he found equally objectionable because in most instances these philosophies were merely rationalizations of basic ugliness and selfishness. On the question of teleology, he found little to write about. On the problem of causality, he felt that hereditary and environmental forces are influential; at the same time, he believed, or at least hoped, that an assertion of will can do much to combat the determinism of heredity and environment. Looking at history, he found that the mistakes of the past tend to be repeated. This concept of reality led Huxley first to a kind of bitter cynicism.... Even the mystics found in Huxley's early works are somewhat cynical. Mr. Propter, in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, tells Pete: “Most of the things that we're all taught to respect and reverence—they don't deserve anything but cynicism.” It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the vacillations from despair to hope, from hope to cynicism again, vacillations which both objective and subjective reality engendered in Huxley, should yield to an attempt to find an absolute reality. This absolute reality Huxley found synonymous with the divine reality, or the divine Godhead. “Ultimate reality is at once transcendent and immanent. God is the creator and sustainer of the world; yet the kingdom of God is also within us...” (Grey Eminence). It is characterized by self-transcendence, that is, by anegation of the world of the ego, of animal desires, or carnal and material aspirations. The philosophy of this absolute reality is the perennial philosophy....

This self-transcendence and loss of personality is the only effective cure for a world suffering from idolatry, stupidity, and cruelty. In the ultimate reality, we can find true salvation. This attainment of the divine Godhead, Huxley felt, can be facilitated by a strong determination to do so....

Selfhood, time, space—these are the obstacles to attainment of self- transcendence. And yet, unless we achieve this state, Huxley warned us in Themes and Variations, we are slaves to sorrow, wars, barbarism, futility....

Huxley did not believe that very many people are capable of achieving this self-transcendence, although there has always been yearning for self-transcendence because human beings are tired of themselves, their dreary lives, and their responsibilities....

Despite Huxley's passionate belief that the divine reality is the only reality that can bring salvation, he was sufficiently pragmatic to recognize the limited appeal of such a philosophy of reality for most people. With the exception of the people in Island, all the mystics in his novels are, significantly enough, either old or else completely without any family responsibility....

Possibly because Huxley realized that the life of self-transcendence could not be attained by very many people if will power were the only means utilized, Huxley began experimenting with certain drugs like mescalin. He found that the mystic euphoria could be reached not merely by a saintly self-transcendence, but by the taking of these drugs as well. Consequently, the books he wrote during the last decade of his life (The Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell, Brave New World Revisited, Island, and Literature and Science) show an increasing respect for science as a means of ordering the chaos of reality into a sane existence. In the utopian society of Pala that he created in his last novel, Island, chemistry, physics, physiology, and other sciences are no longer satirized as they were in Brave New World. There is still, however, an occasional cynical echo from Huxley's early period....

It should be fairly obvious, however, that Huxley's return to science and religion does not mean that he finally succeeded in his quest for truth....

Huxley began by trying to attain “Shanti.” He ended by embracing the hallucinatory bliss of ”moksha-medicine.” On his pilgrimage to reach the shrine of understanding the ultimate reality, he ended by embracing not reality but an escape from it....

Although Huxley has offered many suggestions to effect an ideal government and the establishment of peace, what underlies all his statements for reform is a current of pessimism about the ultimate efficiency of any attempt to ameliorate the evils of our society. This undercurrent of pessimism is perhaps responsible for the paradoxical juxtaposition of offering a cure in one book, and then satirizing it in the next. For example, although he will advocate the creation of bridge- builders to bring about a better understanding of the various countries and philosophies in the world, he will satirize such a bridge-builder as De Vries in Time Must Have a Stop. Similarly, although he mildly favors the establishment of a world government, he will say, in The Perennial Philosophy, that what is needed is more decentralization....

Despite the lack of finality and absolute certitude in the reforms he suggests, the impression that clearly emerges from the reading of his works written prior to Island is that government per se cannot possibly serve as a source of permanent value....

Little wonder that Huxley tried to resolve the mess of human problems by detaching himself from them; consequently, his penultimate solution for the problem which a consideration of government, war, and peace engenders is a life of mystical nonattachment and a striving for a unitive knowledge and love of God....

Whatever else Aldous Huxley may have been, he was not a romantic, at least not a dedicated one. The romantic preoccupation with love and Nature is manifestly absent from his writings....

From his earliest novel, Crome Yellow, to his last, Island (in spite of his attempts there to preach the yoga of love), sexual relationships are never considered a source of value. His comments about love in his nonfiction works likewise treat physical love disparagingly. With the exception of several artifically delineated happy marriages in Island, there is not a single love affair in all of Huxley's novels that is successfully and satisfyingly consummated; the marital and extramarital relationships all lead to pain or frustration....

Up to the time that he embraced mysticism as a way of life, Huxley had been grappling with the problem of sex and love and had come up with no satisfying solution....

In Huxley's novels, Nature is almost completely absent; to this extent, he might be called an urban novelist. He is primarily concerned with the life in the cities, the sophisticated conversations held in drawing rooms. Nearly all his characters are members of the upper classes and of the genteel professions. There are no laborers or rustics in his works; his dialogue never has the Hardy earthiness; his characters speak aphoristically. The forces of Nature play no significant role either in the setting or the characterization of his novels. And yet, in a sense, Huxley does analyze Nature as a source of value: he first attacks the romantic conception of Nature which seeks to find in Nature the source of wisdom and beneficence; he also warns us that if we are to continue the callous exploitation of Nature's resources, then we are faced with a far graver crisis than the political struggle of opposing ideologies....

Huxley's objections to the encroachment of applied science upon our lives are twofold: first, applied science, he argues, has intensified standardized mediocrity and the loss of attention to intellectual and spiritual values; second, the technology of the scientist has contributed to the destructiveness of war and to the diminishing of individual freedom....

Has science, then, no value for man? Huxley tries to work out a kind of conciliatory compromise which would maintain the contributions of science in helping to solve man's ecological problems while it would also tend to eliminate some of the evils that an uncontrolled technology would create. He wants scientists to be more actively responsible for the technological improvements they help to bring into existence; in other words, he wants them to be morally responsible for their actions or, as has been the case in the past, for their lack of active protests against producing more destructive weapons of mass annihilation. He also wants people to recognize the fact that the advantages of technology also bring with them disadvantages....

In his evaluation of science as a source of value, Huxley assigns to science the same function he did to the arts: facilitating the apprehension of the nature of ultimate reality. Science, like the arts, should never become an end in itself; both science and the arts should not be worshiped as ultimately divine entities. Science and technology, unless carefully controlled, can cause many evils: increased mediocrity, rising unemployment, and the barbarisms of warfare and totalitarianism; science and technology can, however, help man wisely use the earth's natural resources and can even aid him in achieving “the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision” (Doors of Perception)....

His search for ultimate answers led him, in his examination of religion, into all kinds of paradoxical complexities which were not resolved very clearly in his works and into all kinds of generalizations which have little meaning when subjected to detailed scrutiny. For example, he will sometimes speak of Christianity or Judaism as if they were monolithic entities. Furthermore, when he talks of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or Mohammedanism, he does not consider the evolutionary changes that have been incorporated into these beliefs so that when he makes criticisms about them, one is not sure, for example, whether he is castigating the Mohammedanism of the late Middle Ages or the Mohammedanism of today....

There are other difficulties besides trying to find specific meaning in the welter of generalizations one finds in Huxley's comments on religion. There is the difficulty in trying to grasp Huxley's attempts to reconcile religion with philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, and government. There is also the problem of endeavoring to find a relationship between religion considered as a metaphysical concept and religion considered as ritual and as a practical guide to mundane problems....

He found little to admire in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He blamed Judaism for narrowness of vision and excessive preoccupation with material success; he castigated Christianity for its cruel oppression of heresy, its occasional hypocrisy, its failure to object to the existence of wars; he criticized Islam for its pessimism and fatalism. It should be remembered, however, that what he was specifically rejecting in these three religions was the nonmystical element; wherever he found elements of mysticism, as he did in the Book of Ecclesiastes; in the writings of such mystic Christians as St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Walter Hilton, William Law, St. Francois de Sales, Thomas Traherne, and others; in the Sufi books of Islam, he accepted their teachings of contemplation, renunciation of worldly preoccupation, and the practice of love. It is, therefore, not so much religion itself that he was rejecting but what he felt was the perversion of the religious essence....

Essentially, then, Huxley's religious quest has been paradoxical and tortuous. He began by mocking and rejecting the Judeo-Christian tradition (though accepting its occasional manifestations of mysticism), flirted temporarily with the Lawrentian doctrine of instinctive living and “blood consciousness,” changed to contemplative investigation, turned to the East for further illumination, and died in the West trying to balance, in an uneasy syncretism, the Caliban of Western science with the Ariel of Buddhist mysticism. One is saddened to observe that the religious syncretism turned out to be a synthetic product, that his metaphysical quest ended with a pharmacological solution....

[Since] man lives in many compartments, Huxley also compartmentalized

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100001353