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Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World



Aldous Huxley was born in Surrey, in 1894. His grandfather was the noted biologist and naturalist T. H. Huxley, an early proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. His father, Leonard, was a teacher and a writer. His mother, Julia, was a descendant of the English poet Matthew Arnold. Huxley’s two older brothers went on to become accomplished biologists, and Huxley himself envisioned a career in science from an early age.


But it was not to be. Having lost his mother to cancer when he was fourteen, two years later at Eton, he suffered an illness that left him almost completely blind. A blind man couldn’t be a scientist. He couldn’t be a soldier either, so he stayed home while his peers went off to fight in the WW1. Although Huxley did regain some of his sight, he would remain partially blind for the rest of his life.


Abandoning his dreams of a life in science, he decided to focus on a literary career. He studied English literature at Oxford, reading with the aid of a magnifying glass. During this period, Huxley spent a good deal of time at Garsington Manor, a gathering place for intellectuals and writers such as Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, T S Elliot, and D H Lawrence, with whom Huxley developed a lasting friendship.


His first novel Crome Yellow was published in 1921. A parody of the intelligentsia based on his experiences at Garsington, it angered many of his acquaintances, but established Huxley as an important writer. Huxley produced three more commercially successful novels, Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925) and Point Counter Point (1928), all of which, like Crome, were satires of contemporary society and conventional morality. Huxley’s greatest work, however, was still to come.


In 1931, he began work on Brave New World, the book that marked the apogee of his abilities as a satirist. He intended the book, at least initially, to be a light look at what the future might hold. But the narrative ended up in a darker place than he'd planned.


The book is set in London in the year 2540, a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford's assembly lines. People are genetically engineered and mass-produced in hatcheries. They're fed a steady diet of antidepressants, amusements, and sex to keep them complacent. It’s a disturbing look at the future where humans are used and manipulated by a system that takes advantage of our materialism and our endless pursuit of pleasure which can become an end in itself. This is a vision of humanity which does not aspire to anything higher than pleasure in the moment. The book was clearly informed by Huxley’s growing anxieties about the direction of political, social, and scientific progress.


When George Orwell's dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four came out sixteen years later, there were comparisons and arguments about which bleak future was more likely to happen. Huxley defended his vision, saying that it would be easier to control people through pleasure than through fear.


Brave New World is an astonishingly prescient novel, foretelling advances in several areas that were as much as half a century away. Now, ninety-two years after the novel’s publication, some of its prophecies that have come to pass are in vitro fertilization, genetic cloning, virtual reality, antidepressants, and the rise of dictatorial governments. The novel proved to be a massive critical and commercial success, cementing Huxley’s place as one of the most important writers of his era.

Huxley followed Brave New World with Eyeless in Gaza, published in 1936. This book was the first intimation of his growing interest in Eastern philosophy and mysticism. This interest in mysticism also led Huxley to experiment with the hallucinogen ‘mescaline’, which he wrote about in his collection of essays The Doors of Perception. This title was later appropriated by Jim Morrison as the name of his legendary rock group, The Doors.


In 1958, Huxley published a collection of essays titled Brave New World Revisited, in which he took stock of the present day, and said that it was alarming to see the many ways in which it resembled the future he’d envisioned twenty-six years earlier.


In 1960, Huxley was diagnosed with cancer. He dedicated his final years to what I consider his most important work. Island, published in 1962, was his last book. It is, interestingly, a vision of a utopia, of a society that is intentionally designed to maximise happiness, community, connection and awareness of self and the universe. A starkly different vision of humanity than the one he presented in Brave New World, this was not just a more hopeful and positive vision, but an idealistic one, of what might be possible for us if we valued happiness, peace of mind and fulfilment over materialism and the endless pursuit of pleasure.


Aldous Huxley died on November 22, 1963, at the age of sixty-nine. Despite his immense literary stature, his passing went largely unnoticed at the time, occurring as it did on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

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