The Forgotten Political Legacy of Aldous Huxley
November 22, 1963, we are often reminded, was the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated and an entire generation lost its innocence. Unfortunately, Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets inadvertently claimed another victim. Later that same day, in a hospital in California, the writer Aldous Huxley passed away after three years battling throat cancer.
Due to the events in Dallas, Huxley did not receive the obituary or remembrance he deserved. History, however, has shown that his impact on American politics and culture far outweighed and outlasted even JFK's legacy.
Huxley was born in Britain in 1894 and, by the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to live out the latter half of his life, he had already achieved literary greatness.
In 1932, his dystopian novel Brave New World was published. The novel was a smashing success. Its prediction of a society lolled into complacent servility by material consumption, endless amusements, the illusion of choice, and artificial happiness tugs at Americans’ consciousness to this day.
The book is widely listed as required reading in American high schools and is often read together with George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).
While Brave New World remains his most widely read novel, the full measure of Huxley’s impact on American culture and politics must include what he wrote after his move to Southern California, particularly The Doors of Perception (1953). It, in addition to the writings that followed, served as the intellectual starting block of the counterculture of the 1960s -- the political impact of which is felt to this day.
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Huxley was introduced to Eastern philosophy, including variations of Hinduism and Buddhism. Ideas of meditation, enlightenment, self-realization, and other transcendental tenets of Eastern thought permeated the rest of his life’s work.
Huxley was simultaneously introduced to hallucinogenic substances like mescaline and, later, lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD).
Huxley was introduced to mescaline in 1953 by Dr. Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist who was researching it. On May 5 of that year, he invited Osmond to his home where he was administered a small dosage of mescaline and proceeded to embark on an 8-hour “trip.”
A few months later, Huxley finished The Doors of Perception, a first-person account of his experience. What made the book a sensation in literary, scientific and cultural circles was not only Huxley’s account of his “trip,” but also his explicit endorsement of mescaline’s use:
“I am not so foolish as to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin or of any other drug, prepared or in the future preparable, with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call ‘a gratuitous grace,’ not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the 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.”
Theologians, both Christian and Eastern, criticized Huxley's endorsement, but others, including scientists and psychiatrists, supported his conclusions. The book, more importantly, kicked off a series of events that would help lay the foundation of the counterculture of the 1960s.
Huxley immediately became a centerpiece of a network of scholars that researched and advocated for the use of hallucinogens. He kept a correspondence with Humphry Osmond who, in one of his letters to Huxley, wrote, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
Psychedelic quickly became the adopted word for the experience induced by mescaline and LSD, and would become a popular term among San Franciscans during the 1967 Summer of Love.
In 1960, Dr. Timothy Leary befriended Huxley after reading The Doors of Perception. Leary would later be the country’s foremost advocate of LSD and invited the country to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Two years after Huxley’s death, a UCLA student by the name of Jim Morrison read The Doors of Perception and, inspired, his newly formed band began billing themselves as The Doors.
To be sure, Huxley would have disagreed with Leary’s attitude toward LSD. Huxley envisioned the use of psychedelics as supplemental support for a learned individual's journey to enlightenment and accessing “the Mind at Large,” not as a means for dropping out of consciousness. Though Huxley would inspire them, he was no hippie.
Huxley continued to write on Eastern thought and psychedelics, refining and clarifying his views along the way. His thinking culminated in his last novel, Island (1962), a utopian response to Brave New World.
Huxley describes a fictional Southeast Asian island called Pala that operates on a fusion of Buddhism and Western Enlightenment thought. The residents place an emphasis on meditation (once in a while supplementing it with a hallucinogenic substance called moksha, a fictionalized version of LSD), being “fully human,” and living in harmony with nature.
The society is non-hierarchical, pacific, and communal. Island would help serve as a blueprint for the founders and organizers of communes and intentional communities, some of which remain in operation today.
In all, many of the ideas and even terminology of the American counterculture originate in Aldous Huxley’s writings. His musings on Eastern thought, ecology, non-hierarchical societies, and psychedelic drugs made him a one-man vanguard of the counterculture, the political impact of which defines much of today’s political landscape.
Today’s ideas of sustainable living and production, environmentalism, and cooperative living are progenies of Huxley’s thinking. Surely there is one more man we should be commemorating every November.