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California Dreaming

ISSUE:  Winter 1991
Huxley in Hollywood. By David King Dunaway. Harper & Row. $24.95.

In trying to differentiate between the writer of caustic fiction and the congenial friend of his later years, D.H. Lawrence said of Aldous Huxley that the “Aldous that writes these novels is only one little Aldous among others— probably much nicer—that don’t write novels.” During Huxley’s lifetime, the Aldous that lived outside his work was little known to his readers. This was likely due in part to Huxley’s reticence about self-revelation. He would say, when asked for autobiographical details, that his life had been uneventful and would describe himself generally as an intellectual with a bent towards literary art.

Huxley’s privacy was also probably shielded by the perception among biographers that he was too intellectual to traffic much in the mundane world and that the most important thing about him was what he thought rather than what he did. Huxley encouraged this view by giving priority to “being and becoming” over “doing and happening” when he spoke of his own life and by focusing on intellectual history when he wrote about the lives of others. Therefore, with few exceptions, the tendency has been to treat Huxley’s life essentially as a mental odyssey—a journey of the mind down such different philosophical roads as nihilism and mysticism.

The first book to depict one of the “nicer” Aldouses in any anecdotal way was the memorial volume that his brother, biologist Julian Huxley, published as a tribute to him in 1965. An intentional panegyric, it offered a few personal glimpses of Huxley but failed to flesh out the flattering sketch. The work of presenting a more rounded picture was left to Sybille Bedford, whose two-volume biography of the mid-1970’s offers the most detailed portrait to date. Her account of Huxley’s life has both the authenticity of a biographer who was an intimate of her subject and the deference of one who was an admirer. Although Bedford’s admiration may have at times tempered her candor, hers remains the standard biography against which others inevitably will be measured.

David King Dunaway’s Huxley in Hollywood draws slightly on the Bedford book, but it has its own distinct flavor and focus. Bedford wrote from a European perspective as a friend and contemporary of Huxley’s; Dunaway writes from the viewpoint of an American who grew up during the sixties, when a new generation discovered Huxley and thought he was “hip.” Like their predecessors in the 1920’s, for whom poet Stephen Spender says Huxley “seemed to represent the kind of freedom which might be termed freedom from,” this new generation of the 1960’s found in Huxley an anti-establishment spokesman and symbol. His last novel, Island, which Dunaway rather aptly calls Huxley’s “protohippie” book, was appreciated by the student activists of the sixties (if not by the critics) for its denunciation of the military-industrial complex and its proffering as Utopian a society structured around sex and drugs. Further, Huxley was himself one of the earliest experimenters with hallucinogenic drugs, having first taken mescaline in 1953 and recorded the experience in The Doors of Perception. Ironically, the writer whom many had written off after Brave New World became something of a cult figure on another continent and 40 years after his early success in Britain as a postwar iconoclast. As one who can trace his own discovery of Huxley through this period of renewed interest in the man and his work, Dunaway speaks with particular authority of the cultural context into which the later Huxley fits.

The focus of Dunaway’s book is the slightly more than a quarter of a century, 1937—1963, during which Huxley lived and wrote in America. His narrative begins, however, with the autumn of 1934, when Aldous and Maria Huxley had returned to London after their trip to the West Indies and Central America that furnished material for Beyond the Mexique Bay. Huxley was at work on Eyeless in Gaza, his sixth and most autobiographical novel. As his letters reveal, he was also at an impasse—artistically, psychologically, and philosophically. Dunaway’s assessment of the problem—that Huxley was “fleeing his own lack of faith”—is astute. After having thrown out the notion of morality in favor of a doctrine of meaninglessness and pushed agnosticism to its limits, Huxley found himself facing a void.

That Dunaway elects to begin the story of Huxley’s American period at this point, which he sees as the nadir of Huxley’s career, signals something of his perspective about the work from the mid-1930’s forward. The prevalent critical opinion has been that Huxley’s power as a writer diminished as his piety grew. Readers on both sides of the Atlantic have observed with regret that Huxley’s taking on the role of lay moralist, first assumed with Eyeless in Gaza, meant the end of the kind of corrosive fiction for which he seemed especially suited. Dunaway does not mourn the early Huxley, the “dark jester to the postwar generation,” in his depiction of the later, mystical Huxley who became a guru to the Vietnam War generation. Rather, he intends his book as a corrective to the notion that the American stage of Huxley’s career was a “retreat into obscurantism.” He views Huxley’s struggle to find a basis for belief and his becoming a “born-again pacifist,” recounted fictionally in Eyeless in Gaza, as a phoenix-like experience out of which the new Huxley of the American years emerged.

In tracing the development of the reborn writer who immigrated to the United States in the spring of 1937, Dunaway necessarily comments on Huxley’s evolving philosophical ideas: his notion of nonattachment as freedom from materialism, ego, and time; his belief in the possibilities of transcendence through meditation and what he called the “gratuitous grace” of drugs. Like all of us who have read Huxley’s theories and followed his quest for spiritual enlightenment, Dunaway asks but cannot answer definitely the basic question about Huxley’s mysticism: was it merely theoretical or was transcendence something he ever experienced? According to Huxley’s son Matthew, who considered this question during a 1985 interview with Dunaway, Aldous may have had “some kind of contact,” some sort of mystical connection, but probably lost it somewhere along the way.

Although Dunaway is unable to shed much light on this central mystery of Huxley’s spiritual life, he does turn up one bit of information that illuminates the writer’s domestic life. The Bedford biography made it apparent that Aldous and Maria had what now would be regarded as an open marriage, with Maria’s going so far as to arrange liaisons for her husband with other women. Bedford explained Maria’s liberalism in terms of an “aristocratic view of sex.” Dunaway discovered through conversations with Maria’s family that she was a lesbian and that she and Aldous shared an appreciation for beautiful women. Working from this new perspective on the Huxleys’ marital arrangements, Dunaway proceeds to place Maria within the Hollywood “Sewing Circles”—the underground lesbian community that included women such as Mercedes De Acosta, Greta Garbo’s companion. He suggests that Maria particularly enjoyed the swinging Hollywood lifestyle during the thirties; and to indicate something of the milieu of the times, he takes a side trip or two to look at the Hollywood homosexual community, which, apparently included not only famous film stars but also two of Huxley’s best friends, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood.

There is a fair amount of this kind of interest in the sex lives of the rich and famous in Huxley in Hollywood—enough to raise the suspicion that the use of the word “Hollywood” in the title is a calculated inducement to garner a special readership. As if not to disappoint those attracted to the book for the promise of news about the stars of Hollywood’s golden era (or news of the spiritual and sexual lives of “moviedom’s famed denizens,” as the book jacket says), Dunaway regularly brings in stories of Huxley’s movie star friends—Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Greta Garbo, and others. At times, these stories seem tangential to the main narrative of Huxley’s life. Yet, despite the sense one occasionally has of going off the track down an interesting but secondary road, Dunaway’s depiction of the film industry during a period when the Hollywood studios employed not only Huxley but also other prominent writers, such as Fitzgerald and Faulkner, highlights the world of big money and bought talent in which Huxley lived and worked during his first few years in America.

Aldous Huxley first visited the United States in 1926. By that time he had published 13 books (three of them novels), and his rise to fame was being touted as meteoric. When he returned to America in 1937, it was as an established writer forging a new phase of his career and searching for spiritual enlightenment. His critics would call his quest for insight through mysticism and mescaline, as Angus Wilson did, “the adolescent dream that gradually turned into a yogi trance.” His defenders would point to his being in the vanguard of the vast social changes of the sixties. David King Dunaway’s book offers a balanced look at Huxley during that period of his life when the writer was most obviously what he liked to call a “multiple amphibian”—one who lived in several different universes at once and tried to make sense of them all.


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