English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote nearly fifty books throughout the course of his lifetime, including his most famous novel, Brave New World, which painted a nightmarish vision of a dystopian future, and The Perennial Philosophy, the apex of his exploration of philosophical mysticism.
After graduating from Balliol College, Oxford with an undergraduate degree in English literature, Huxley published a number of short stories and essays before publishing his first work of social satire: Crome Yellow in 1921, which was soon followed by Antic Hay in 1923.
Much like Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises, Huxley’s second book, Antic Hay, followed the social lives of a diverse cast of characters in bohemian, artistic and intellectual circles in post WWI London.
In a style that ranged from the lyrical to the absurd, and with characters whose identities shifted and changed as often as their names and appearances, the work bristled with life and energy, what the New York Times called “a delirium of sense enjoyment!”
First published in London by Chatto & Windus in 1928, Huxley’s fourth novel, Point Counter Point, was his longest novel, and notably more complex and serious that his earlier works. A roman à clef, many of the characters featured in the intertwining story lines were based on real people, most of whom Huxley knew personally, such as D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Oswald Mosley, Nancy Cunard, and John Middleton Murry.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Point Counter Point 44th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
First published in 1932, Huxley’s fifth novel which is widely regarded as his masterpiece, Brave New World, was written largely in response to H.G. Wells’ Utopian novels of the early 20th century. Set in London in the year 2540, the novel anticipated future developments in psychological manipulation and reproductive technology which created a profound shift in the character of society.
“After the success of his first three novels, Huxley abandoned the fictional milieu of literary London and directed his satire toward an imagined future. He admitted that the original idea of Brave New World was to challenge H.G. Wells’ Utopian vision… The novel also marks Huxley’s increasing disenchantment with the world, which was to result in his leaving England for California in 1937 in search of a more spiritual life. The book was immediately successful” (Parker & Kermode, 161-62).
Upon publication, Rebecca West praised Brave New World as “The most accomplished novel Huxley has yet written”, Joseph Needham lauded it as “Mr. Huxley’s remarkable book”, and Bertrand Russell also praised it, stating, “Mr. Aldous Huxley has shown his usual masterly skill in Brave New World.”
In a letter to George Orwell regarding his comparable work of dystopian science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley proclaimed: “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
In 1937, Huxley moved to Hollywood, California his wife Maria, son Matthew Huxley, and friend Gerald Heard where he would remain until his death and developed an interest in philosophical mysticism. Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta (Upanishad-centered philosophy), meditation, and vegetarianism through the principle of ahimsa and in 1938, Huxley befriended Jiddu Krishnamurti, whose teachings he greatly admired.
During this period, Huxley earned a substantial income as a Hollywood screenwriter, much of which he used to help Jewish and left-wing writers and artists escape and travel from Hitler’s Germany to the United States.
He soon published The Perennial Philosophy, which discussed the teachings of the greatest mystics throughout the course of history. The book affirmed the sensibility that there are realities beyond the generally accepted “five senses” and that there is genuine meaning for humans beyond both sensual satisfactions and sentimentalities.
In the spring of 1953, Huxley had his first experience with the psychedelic drug mescaline which he would recount in The Doors of Perception, published a year later in 1954. In the work, Huxley recalled he insights he experienced during his psychedelic experience which he ultimately assessed to be a valuable facilitator of mystical insight with great potential benefits for science, art, and religion.
This provoked a variety of reactions from the literary community and played a large role on the evolution of Huxley’s writing up until his death in 1963. The work took its title from from a phrase in William Blake’s 1793 poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Further expounding on the opening of the doors of perception, Huxley’s Heaven and Hell, published in 1956, further explored the mystical experience, suggesting the inherent duality in its nature which translates into daily life. In it, he used the term antipodes to describe the “regions of the mind” that one can reach via meditation, vitamin deficiencies, self-flagellation, fasting, sleep deprivation, or (most effectively, he says) with the aid of certain chemical substances like LSD or mescaline.
Huxley was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times and was elected Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1962. His entire body of work explored the total expanse of the human experience: science, literature, music, religion, art, love, sex, speculative thinking and simple being.