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Although the stark imagery of Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World may seem difficult to match with reality, it is not surprising that the inspirations for this dark, bitter work were bred in the author’s own life and times. Born on July 26, 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was thrust into the world of the British intelligentsia, a world that would eventually form the framework for the totalitarian government of Brave New World, especially in its scientific aspect. Aldous was the grandson renowned biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the scientists who had helped to develop the theory of evolution, and his aunt was already an established novelist by the time young Huxley was born. It was in this climate that Aldous Huxley was raised, reaping the benefits of an intellectual upbringing while struggling to cope with the pressures of belonging to such an affluent family.
One event that left a permanent mark on Huxley’s mind was the death of his mother when he was 14. This, he said later, gave him a sense of the “transience of human happiness,” and a sense of loss that can be clearly detected in Brave New World. This is one particular instance where the more ambivalent side of Huxley’s nature is made clear through his writings. In the World State described in Brave New World, the leaders go to extremes to deny the unpleasantness of death in their quest for infinite happiness. Naturally, Huxley would have wanted to reduce the sadness of death in his own mind, so as to protect himself from the trauma of losing his mother. However, in his writings, he also explores the other side of the argument – the view of death as a natural part of life, a requirement, in fact, for humans to experience deeper and more joyous emotions. The Savages, on their filthy reservation, stand in contrast to the utopians. They are subject to misery, sickness, and death, but also capable of a state of being that, while still transient, is much more substantial than that “enjoyed” by the inhabitants of London and the World State.
By the age of 16, Aldous Huxley was prolifically studying medicine, only to have his dream of a medical career shattered by a detrimental eye ailment that almost left him blind. Unable to continue with his scientific studies, Huxley turned to literature, producing two successful volumes of poetry by the time he left Oxford University. In 1919, he married a Belgian by the name of Maria Nys, and began dividing his time between London and Italy, becoming something of a world traveler and making lengthy visits to India and the United States. In 1921, he published his first full novel, Crome Yellow, a witty satire about intellectual pretensions, which were prevalent at the time. In 1931, after only four months of writing, Huxley produced the book that would come to be known as his masterpiece, Brave New World. Without a doubt Huxley’s own childhood was one of the first causes of his ambivalent attitude towards assumed authority, as was observed by his friend Gerald Heard, who remarked that Huxley’s background “brought down on him a weight of intellectual authority and a momentum of moral obligations.”
Huxley’s life was a study in confusion; at points almost contradictory in his attitudes and actions. During his youth he experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, but not for the reasons must contemporary readers would understand – in fact, his reasoning was that he saw the world as “spiritually bankrupt,” and thus used hallucination as a means of “spiritual enlightenment.” Despite this side of Huxley’s nature, his writings contain a well-written, consistent series of themes that only the most perceptive and exacting mind could be capable of creating. One of these themes, seen clearly in Brave New World, is the feeling of separation, of being somehow “not of this world.” As a child, Huxley stood apart from most others of his class because of his keen alertness, wit, and what his brother referred to as “uperiority.” These traits earned him respect and love – not hatred – but he used them later in his life as the template for the characters of Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson in Brave New World, who face serious problems because they are unique from their peers. The Savage, too, represents this idea, as a human completely maladapted to the “utopian” society – much as the typical reader would be if placed in such a climate.
Stemming from his inherent individuality, as well as his interest in biology, Huxley firmly believed that heredity made each person unique, and that the resulting individual was essential to the survival freedom. These views were largely inspired by the scientific discoveries taking place in the fields of genetics and evolution, but also stood in contrast to concrete fact, taking an approach more spiritual than scientific. Because of this, Huxley found the introduction of Marxism, the October Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Communism unbearable, seeing it as a subjugation of mankind’s natural state as a blend of separate and unique people. Huxley’s firsthand experiences in fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini also provided material for his fictional dystopia.
In Brave New World, Huxley plays on these themes while writing to a presumably bourgeois audience, while also criticizing ideas like eugenetics and behavioral conditioning. While figures like Marx and Lenin were promising national prosperity to their Communist peoples, Huxley wrote against the idea of universal happiness, arguing that such a “happiness” excluded time honored traditions like family, love, and personal choice. Huxley’s dystopic world holds a rigid class structure similar to that of most dictatorships, although stronger because it is a genetically engineered class system. The “alphas” are not always villains, in a traditional sense; rather, they are leaders who genuinely believe that they have the right to make the entire world “happy” by denying the populace the emotional stimuli that may produce results contrary to their narrow view of “happiness.”The motto of the World State makes this point most clearly – “community, identity, stability”- but at what price?
Although Brave New World is often compared with George Orwell’s 1984, it is important to remember that Huxley created his masterpiece before the rise of Hitler in Germany and before Stalin instituted the purges that would kill millions in the Soviet Union. This is why tyranny and violence are featured so little in the government of Brave New World. Reflecting on this issue, Huxley later said: “the future dictatorship of my imaginary world was a good deal less brutal than the future dictatorship so brilliantly portrayed by Orwell.”
By 1946, however, Huxley’s views had changed a bit, and in a forward to his Brave New World he discussed how he no longer wished to make “social sanity” a complete impossibility. In the same year, he published his book The Perennial Philosophy, in which he described spiritual and mystical approaches to living a sane life in a sane society – clearly, the events of World War II had altered Huxley’s world view from one of cynicism to one of genuine concern. This growing compassion for the real world culminated in his 1958 work Brave New World Revisited, a nonfiction piece in which Huxley dealt with contemporary issues like overpopulation, psychology, and government.
Contrary to his growing social concern, however, Aldous Huxley became quite famous in the 1950s for his interest in “mind-expanding”drugs such as mescaline and LSD, which he purportedly used twelve times during his life. He chronicled his drug experiences in his books Heaven and Hell and The Doors of Perception, but also warned that these books were not meant to encourage readers to freely experiment with hallucinogens. This drug use, coupled with a changing world view, gave birth to Huxley’s final novel, Island. Island is an antithesis of Brave New World in that it describes a positive utopia, an isolated society where people have achieved a state of true spiritual happiness. However, it also reflects the darker side of Huxley’s personality, in that the inhabitants of the island religiously use a perfected form of LSD.
During his lifetime, Aldous Huxley produced 47 books, garnering praise from critics all over the globe. British literary critic Anthony Burgess said that Huxley “equipped the novel with a brain,” although other critics argued that the “brain”aspect sometimes stood in the way of the writing, since the ideas and philosophies formed the core of all of Huxley’s writings. Huxley’s merit was solidified in 1959, when The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the prestigious Award of Merit for the Novel, a prize given every five years and held by towering literary figures like Ernest Hemingway.
Aldous Huxley remained nearly blind all of his life, but the visions of his mind are clear on every page of every book he wrote. On November 22, 1963, he died of natural causes – in a twist of poetic irony, on the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Huxley was cremated, and his ashes placed at his parents’ grave in England. Despite the changes in the political climates of the world since that time, Huxley’s writings provide a truly revolutionary view of life, equal only to the revolutionary author and the era in which he lived.
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