Huxley was a Mystic and pacifist, but was also latterly interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism. He was also well known for advocating and taking hallucinogens and is considered by many to be the "spiritual father" of the hippie movement.
By the end of his life Huxley was considered, in some academic circles, a leader of modern thought and an intellectual of the highest rank.
Aldous Huxley was born in Godalming, Surrey, England in 1894. He was the third son of the writer and school-master Leonard Huxley and first wife, Julia Arnold who founded Prior's Field School. Julia was the niece of Matthew Arnold and the sister of Mrs. Humphrey Ward. Aldous was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the zoologist, agnostic and controversialist ("Darwin's Bulldog"). His brother Julian Huxley and half-brother Andrew Huxley also became outstanding biologists. Huxley had another brother Trevelyan (1891-1914) who committed suicide after a period of clinical depression.
Huxley began his learning in his father's well-equipped botanical laboratory, then continued in a school named Hillside. His teacher was his mother who supervised him for several years until she became terminally ill. After Hillside, he was educated at Eton College. Huxley's mother died in 1908, when he was fourteen. Three years later he suffered an illness (keratitis punctata) which "left [him] practically blind for two to three years". Aldous's near-blindness disqualified him from service in World War I. Once his eyesight recovered sufficiently, he was able to study English literature at Balliol College, Oxford. He graduated in 1916 with first class honours.
Following his education at Balliol, Huxley was financially indebted to his father and had to earn a living. He taught French for a year at Eton, where Eric Blair (later known by the pen name George Orwell) and Stephen Runciman were among his pupils, but was remembered by another as an incompetent and hopeless teacher who couldn’t keep discipline. Nevertheless, Blair and others were impressed by his use of words. For a short while in 1918, he was employed acquiring provisions at the Air Ministry.
Significantly, Huxley also worked for a time in the 1920s at the technologically-advanced Brunner and Mond chemical plant in Billingham, Teesside, and the most recent introduction to his famous science fiction novel Brave New World (1932) states that this experience of "an ordered universe in a world of planless incoherence" was one source for the novel. Mustapha Mond is a character in the book.
Huxley completed his first (unpublished) novel at the age of seventeen and began writing seriously in his early twenties. His earlier work includes important novels on the dehumanizing aspects of scientific progress, most famously Brave New World, and on pacifist themes (for example, Eyeless in Gaza). In Brave New World Huxley portrays a society operating on the principles of mass production and Pavlovian conditioning. Huxley was strongly influenced by F. Matthias Alexander and included him as a character in Eyeless in Gaza.
During World War I, Huxley spent much of his time at Garsington Manor, home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, working as a farm labourer. Here he met several Bloomsbury figures including D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Clive Bell. Later, in Crome Yellow (1921) he caricatured the Garsington lifestyle. In 1919 he married Maria Nys (10 September 1898 - 12 February 1955), a Belgian woman he had met at Garsington. They had one child, Matthew Huxley (19 April 1920 - 10 February 2005), who had a career as an epidemiologist. The family lived in Italy part of the time in the 1920s, where Huxley would visit his friend D. H. Lawrence. Following Lawrence's death in 1930, he edited his letters (1933).
In 1937, Huxley moved to Hollywood, California with his wife Maria, son Matthew, and friend Gerald Heard. He lived in the U.S., mainly in southern California, till his death, but also for a time in Taos, New Mexico, where he wrote Ends and Means (published in 1937). In this work he examines the fact that although most people in modern civilization agree that they want a world of "liberty, peace, justice, and brotherly love", they have not been able to agree on how to achieve it.
Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta, meditation, and vegetarianism through the principle of ahimsa. In 1938 Huxley befriended J. Krishnamurti, whose teachings he greatly admired. He also became a Vedantist in the circle of Swami Prabhavananda, and introduced Christopher Isherwood to this circle. Not long after, Huxley wrote his book on widely held spiritual values and ideas, The Perennial Philosophy, which discussed the teachings of renowned mystics of the world.
Huxley became a close friend of Remsen Bird, president of Occidental College. He spent much time at the college, which is in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. The college appears as "Tarzana College" in his satirical novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939). The novel won Huxley that year's James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Huxley also incorporated Bird into the novel.
During this period Huxley earned some Hollywood income as a writer. In March 1938, his friend Anita Loos, a novelist and screenwriter, put him in touch with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer which hired Huxley for Madame Curie which was originally to star Greta Garbo and be directed by George Cukor. (The film was eventually filmed by MGM in 1943 with a different director and stars.) Huxley got screen credit for Pride and Prejudice (1940) and was paid for his work on a number of other films, including Jane Eyre (1944).
However, his experience in Hollywood was not a success. When he wrote a synopsis of Alice in Wonderland, Walt Disney rejected it on the grounds that "he could only understand every third word". Huxley's leisurely development of ideas, it seemed, was not suitable for the movie moguls, who demanded fast, dynamic dialogue above all else.
With respect to details about the true quality of Huxley’s eyesight at specific points in his life, there are differing accounts. Around 1939, Huxley encountered the Bates Method for better eyesight, and a teacher, Margaret Corbett, who was able to teach him in the method. In 1940, Huxley relocated from Hollywood to a forty-acre ranchito in the high desert hamlet of Llano, California, in northernmost Los Angeles County. Huxley then said that his sight improved dramatically with the Bates Method and the extreme and pure natural lighting of the southwestern American desert. He reported that for the first time in over 25 years, he was able to read without glasses and without strain. He even tried driving a car along the dirt road beside the ranch. He wrote a book about his successes with the Bates Method, The Art of Seeing which was published in 1942 (US), 1943 (UK). It was from this period, with the publication of the generally disputed theories contained in the latter book, that a growing degree of popular controversy arose over the subject of Huxley’s eyesight.
It was—and, to a noticeable extent, still is—widely held that, for most of his life, since the illness in his teens which left Huxley nearly blind, his eyesight was exceedingly poor (despite the partial recovery which had enabled him to study at Oxford). For instance, some ten years after publication of The Art of Seeing, in 1952, Bennett Cerf was present when Huxley spoke at a Hollywood banquet, wearing no glasses and apparently reading his paper from the lectern without difficulty:
"Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn't reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn't read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonizing moment."
On the other hand, Huxley’s second wife, Laura Archera Huxley, would later emphasize in her biographical account, This Timeless Moment, “One of the great achievements of his life: that of having regained his sight.” Here, she portrays the accomplishment as both metaphorical and considerably physiological in nature, attributing that which she cites J. Krishnamurti as naming the spirit of “freedom from the known,” which she suggests that Huxley applied, nonexhaustively, in writing The Art of Seeing and utilizing the Bates Method. After revealing a letter she wrote to the Los Angeles Times disclaiming the label of Huxley as a “poor fellow who can hardly see” by Walter C. Alvarez, she tempers her more abstract claims with the admission:
“...Although I feel it was an injustice to treat Aldous as though he were blind, it is true there were many indications of his impaired vision. For instance, although Aldous did not wear glasses, he would quite often use a magnifying lens…”
She proceeds to elaborate a few nuances of inconsistency peculiar to Huxley’s vision. Her account, in this respect, is discernibly congruent with the following sample of Huxley’s own words from The Art of Seeing:
"The most characteristic fact about the functioning of the total organism, or any part of the organism, is that it is not constant, but highly variable."
Nevertheless, the topic of Huxley’s eyesight continues to endure similar, significant controversy, regardless of how trivial a subject matter it might initially appear.
On 21 October 1949 Huxley wrote to George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, congratulating Orwell on "how fine and how profoundly important the book is." In his letter to Orwell, he predicted that "Within the next generation I believe that the world's leaders 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 them and kicking them into obedience."
In October 1930 the Mystic Aleister Crowley dined with Huxley in Berlin, and to this day rumours persist that Crowley introduced Huxley to peyote on that occasion. He was introduced to mescaline by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1953. On 24 December 1955 Huxley took his first dose of LSD. Indeed, Huxley was a pioneer of self-directed psychedelic drug use "in a search for enlightenment", famously taking 100 micrograms of LSD as he lay dying. His psychedelic drug experiences are described in the essays The Doors of Perception (the title deriving from some lines in the book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake), and Heaven and Hell. Some of his writings on psychedelics became frequent reading among early hippies. While living in Los Angeles, Huxley was a friend of Ray Bradbury. According to Sam Weller's biography of Bradbury, the latter was dissatisfied with Huxley, especially after Huxley encouraged Bradbury to take psychedelic drugs.
In 1955 Huxley's wife, Maria, died of breast cancer. In 1956 he married Laura Archera (1911-2007), also an author. She wrote a biography of Huxley. In 1960 Huxley himself was diagnosed with cancer, and in the years that followed, with his health deteriorating, he wrote the Utopian novel Island, and gave lectures on "Human Potentialities" at the Esalen institute, which were fundamental to the forming of the Human Potential Movement. On his deathbed, unable to speak, Huxley made a written request to his wife for "LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.". According to her account of his death (in her book This Timeless Moment), she obliged with an injection at 11:45 am and another a couple of hours later. He died at 5:21 pm on 22 November 1963, aged 69. Media coverage of his death was overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on the same day, as was the death of the Irish author C. S. Lewis. Huxley's ashes were interred in the family grave at the Watts Cemetery, Compton, Guildford, Surrey, England.
Huxley's only child, Matthew, was also an author, as well as an educator, anthropologist, and prominent epidemiologist. His work ranged from promoting universal health care to establishing standards of care for nursing home patients and the mentally ill to investigating the question of what is a socially sanctionable drug. Matthew's first marriage, in April 1950, was to documentary filmmaker Ellen Hovde, and ended in divorce in 1961. His second wife, author and Washington Post food columnist Judith Wallet Bordage, whom he married on 22 March 1963, died in 1983. He was survived by his third wife, Franziska Reed Huxley, and two children from his first marriage, Trevenen Huxley (b. 20 October 1951) and Tessa Huxley (b. October 1953).
Huxley's reputation for iconoclasm and emancipation grew. He was condemned for his explicit discussion of sex and free thought in his fiction. Antic Hay, for example, was burned in Cairo and in the years that followed many of Huxley's books were received with disapproval or banned at one time or another. The exclusion of Brave New World, Point Counter Point and Island from Time magazine's all-time 100 novels list created an uproar.
Huxley, however, said that a novel should be full of interesting opinions and arresting ideas, describing his aim as a novelist as being 'to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay'; and with Point Counter Point (1928), Huxley wrote his first true 'novel of ideas', the type of thought-provoking fiction with which he is now associated.
One of his main ideas was pessimism about the cultural future of society, a pessimism which sprang largely from his visit to the United States between September 1925 and June 1926. He recounted his experiences in Jesting Pilate (1926): "The thing which is happening in America is a reevaluation of values, a radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards", and it was soon after this visit that he conceived the idea of writing a satire of what he had encountered.
Brave New World (1932) as well as Island (1962) form the cornerstone of Huxley's damning indictment of commercialism based upon goods generally manufactured from other countries. Indeed also, a Brave New World (along with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Yevgeni Zamyatin's We) helped form the anti-utopian or dystopian tradition in literature and has become synonymous with a future world in which the human spirit is subject to conditioning and control. Island acts as an antonym to Brave New World; it is described as "one of the truly great philosophical novels".
He devoted his time at his small house at Llano in the Mojave Desert to a life of contemplation, mysticism, and experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs. His suggestions in The Doors of Perception (1954) that mescaline and lysergic acid were 'drugs of unique distinction' which should be exploited for the 'supernaturally brilliant' visionary experience they offered provoked even more outrage than his passionate defense of the Bates method in The Art of Seeing (1942). However, the book went on to become a cult text in the psychedelic 1960s, and inspire the name of the rock band The Doors. Huxley also appears on the sleeve of the Beatles' landmark 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Director Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, was adapted from Huxley's The Devils of Loudun. A made-for-television adaptation of Brave New World was made in 1990.