Born on July 26, 1894 near Godalming, Surrey, Aldous Leonard Huxley belonged to a family distinguished in both science and the world of letters. Aldous Huxley, then, was always expected to distinguish himself. He had hoped to become a doctor. However, after contracting keratitis in 1911, he abandoned his hopes for a medical career and instead turned his attention to literature. While he maintained a lifelong interest in science, nonetheless, it was as a writer that he would make his name. Here are five must-read works by Huxley.
1. Brave New World (1932)
Arguably the novel for which Huxley is most famous, Brave New World is a dystopian often cited alongside George Orwell’s 1984 as defining texts of the genre. Published in 1932, it is set in the futuristic World State city of London, in which society is hierarchically stratified according to intelligence. Among those classed as belonging to the upper echelons of the most intelligent are scientists working in labs to genetically engineer the state’s citizens in artificial wombs. It is in such a lab as this that the story begins, and the reader is introduced to Lenina Crowne, an attractive hatchery worker.
Lenina agrees to go on a holiday expedition with Bernard Marx, a psychologist whose short stature distinguishes him from other members of their society’s upper class. They journey to a Savage Reservation in New Mexico, where they encounter a woman named Linda, who was originally from the World State but was left stranded in the Reservation while pregnant with her son, John, now an adult. She did not attempt to return to the World State, as her pregnancy would be a source of shame there. Having been brought up on tales of the World State (as well as the works of Shakespeare), John and Linda are keen to journey back with Lenina and Bernard.
Once in “civilized” society, however, things are not as John imagined. The aging Linda takes soma (a dopamine-producing drug) and passes away in soma-fuelled oblivion. John and Lenina, meanwhile, are attracted to each other, but John’s Shakespearean education on matters of the heart proves incompatible with Lenina’s more indulgent attitude to sex. Increasingly jaded with the World State, John reacts with violence and retreats to an abandoned lighthouse – but even here, it seems, he cannot keep the so-called civilized world at bay…
2. Eyeless in Gaza (1936)
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Though he may be best known as the writer of Brave New World, Eyeless in Gaza is widely considered among literary critics (including the journalist Simon Heffer) to be Huxley’s most accomplished work of fiction. First published in 1936, Eyeless in Gaza borrows its title from a line in John Milton’s poetic tragic closet drama Samson Agonistes, which Huxley includes as the novel’s epigraph: “Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves.” Milton’s poetic drama, in turn, is based on the biblical story of the life of Samson.
Eschewing chronological narration, Eyeless in Gaza focuses on the life of socialite (and sociologist) Anthony Beavis from his childhood in the 1890s to 1936. Haunted by his role in the death of his best friend, Brian, Anthony both recoils from and cannot escape his past – a dynamic that is mirrored in the novel’s non-chronological structure.
Following his ill-fated affair with the older Mary Amberley and Brian’s tragic suicide, he cultivates a conscious detachment from the world and those around him. When he falls in love with Mary’s daughter, Helen, however, he is forced to rethink his approach to life. Helen, however, is disenchanted with the casual nature of their relationship and falls in love with Ekki Giesebrecht, a German communist refugee.
In the meantime, then, he sets off on an expedition with another old school friend of his, Mark Staithes. During this fateful trip, he learns of pacifism and mysticism through a fortuitous encounter with Dr. James Miller and so discovers a new way to live.
Eyeless in Gaza is perhaps Huxley’s most accomplished attempt to unite storytelling, satire, and philosophy, as well as being a formally audacious work. While it is less widely known (and read) than some of Huxley’s other works, it remains his crowning novelistic achievement.
3. The Doors of Perception (1954)
First published in 1954, The Doors of Perception is an autobiographical work of non-fiction in which Huxley details his experiences while taking the psychedelic drug mescaline in the May of the previous year. These experiences, he claimed, included what he called “sacramental visions,” which Huxley argued were of philosophical and psychological importance.
Though his poor eyesight had dashed his dreams of a medical career, Huxley maintained a lifelong interest in medicine and science more broadly. He first learned of mescaline after reading a paper written by Humphry Osmond, a psychiatrist at Weyburn Mental Hospital, Saskatchewan, in 1952, in which Osmond detailed his experiments treating schizophrenia with mescaline. Huxley then wrote to Osmond on Thursday, April 10, 1952, offering himself as a test subject in the hope of thereby accessing a higher plane of consciousness.
The book’s title is derived from William Blake’s 1790 work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake writes: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” According to Huxley, mescaline provides the key to Blake’s doors of perception.
Affording him a heightened appreciation for the world allowed him, he claimed, to understand the Hindu concept of Satchitananda, as well as Plato’s idea of “Being” and Meister Eckhart’s “Istigkeit.” This was thanks, he argued, to how mescaline heightens visual stimulation without impeding one’s capacity for rational thought.
The Doors of Perception had a major influence on the counterculture of the decade following its publication. And, just as Huxley borrowed his title from Blake, his book, in turn, went on to inspire Jim Morrison to name his band The Doors in 1965.
4. Island (1962)
Published in 1962 (just one year before Huxley’s death), Island outlines Huxley’s vision for a utopian society, offering a counterpoint to his more famous fictional dystopia in Brave New World. As such, the plot largely serves to elucidate the novel’s wider thematic and philosophical preoccupations.
Will Farnaby, a British journalist in the employ of immensely wealthy oil baron Lord Joseph “Joe” Aldehyde, finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of the island of Pala, where society is a unique fusion of Eastern philosophy and Western science. While here, Farnaby’s task is to convince Pala’s reigning queen (the Rani) to sell the exclusive rights to Pala’s as-yet untapped oil assets to Aldehyde.
Having injured his leg in the shipwreck, however, he is cared for by Dr. Robert MacPhail and other Palanese islanders. In the process, Farnaby learns more about the spiritualism underpinning Palanese society. Fusing Mahayana Buddhism with Western science (and even, in the latter’s case, improving upon it), Palanese society is marked by intellectualism, spiritualism, and peace, having no military.
By way of contrast, the Rani and her son, Murugan, who is set to become the Raja in just a few days’ time, are more westernized in their outlook. While the Rani couches some of her criticisms of Palanese culture in religious terms (she believes Palanese Buddhist spiritualism is blasphemous), Murugan is more naked in his materialist, consumerist designs.
Moreover, Murugan is also in a relationship with Colonel Dipa, the military dictator of the neighboring country Rendang-Lobo, which places Pala’s sovereignty in grave danger. While the people of Pala expect imminent invasion, they remain steadfast in their commitment to pacifism. Farnaby interprets this as further proof that the utopian society achieved in Pala is doomed to fall, thus allowing him to overlook his own instrumentality in such a downfall.
5. Literature and Science (1963)
As previously stated, Huxley had hoped to pursue a medical career before keratitis thwarted his ambitions. Instead, he went on to study English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class degree in 1916. Throughout his education and his writing, then, he was committed to combining literature and science rather than pitting them against each other. Literature and Science – Huxley’s last book, published just two months before his death from cancer in 1963 – is his final, and perhaps greatest, iteration of that desire for synthesis and integration.
According to Huxley, that which divides the two can also be the key to uniting them: language. While he accepts that literary and scientific writers must use language to achieve different ends, he argues that greater communication between the two spheres would be mutually beneficial.
Though he recognizes that it would be impractical to expect the literary writer to match the knowledge of the scientific expert, Huxley criticizes the disregard shown by his contemporary writers for science, describing it as “literary cowardice.” T. S. Eliot comes under fire for rehashing “the traditional raw material of English poetical feeling and poetical expression” in his description of nature in “The Waste Land,” ignoring the radical changes wrought on the natural world by the early twentieth century.
Huxley stands as a singular figure in twentieth-century English literature. He was a man of letters, equally fascinated by modern science and such philosophical doctrines as mysticism and pacifism. He sought to combine all these in his work, synthesizing groundbreaking ideas and compelling storytelling in his works of fiction. His oeuvre is therefore as rich and varied as it is copious. And, with many of his concerns becoming more pressing than ever, there is, as Duncan Campbell states, no “better time to be reading Huxley.”