Brave New World

By Aldous Huxley


Aldous Huxley was born in 1894 and educated at Eton and then Oxford University, where he gained a first class degree in English Language and Literature. Though unfit for military service during the First World War due to defective eyesight, his ability as a writer was immediately obvious with the publication of poetry, short stories and, in 1921, the novel Crome Yellow which established his literary reputation. This was followed by Antic Hay (1923) and Those Barren Leaves (1925). All three novels are satires on contemporary society: Huxley said of Antic Hay that it was intended to reflect 'the life and opinions of an age which has seen the violent disruption of almost all the standard, conventions and values current in the previous epoch.' As well as much praise and admiration, his books also attracted controversy from those who disapproved of his (relative) sexual frankness and radical streak. He was to see his books variously burned (Antic Hay in Cairo), censured or censored throughout his life. Beneath the surface of the astute observations of his early work is also a preoccupation with the inner world of the spirit, and more explicitly in Those Barren Leaves of mysticism - a subject that was to absorb him for much of the later part of his life.

1928 saw the publication of Point Counter Point, Huxley's first 'novel of ideas', but the most famous and enduring of these was 1932's Brave New World (its title is a quotation from Shakespeare's The Tempest). He once explained that his aim as a novelist was "to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay", something that Brave New World certainly approaches. Meanwhile, he continued to write essays, short stories, travel writing, and in 1936 Eyeless in Gaza (title taken from Milton's Samson Agonistes on this occasion) - a novel with many autobiographical elements that explored a man's search for mystical wholeness.

Huxley had already visited America before writing Brave New World, and in 1937 he went to live in California. He worked briefly, and less than successfully, as a screenwriter in Hollywood (Walt Disney is said to have rejected Huxley's treatment for Alice in Wonderland on the basis that he "could only understand every third word"). By this point his writing had shifted towards an attempt to uncover the deeper meaning of existence that was to pre-occupy him for much of the rest of his life. It was in part his pacifism that had driven him to America, and his rejection of conventional politics is evident in Ends and Means (1937) in which he tried "to relate the problems of domestic and international politics, of war and economics, of education, religion and ethics, to a theory of the ultimate nature of reality."

Despite the material excesses of the United States that Huxley disliked, he remained in America for the rest of his life where he continued to explore the inner-self through mysticism and, more notoriously, hallucinogenic drugs. These experiences are most famously documented in the two essays "The Doors of Perception" (1954) and "Heaven and Hell" (1956), which were to become seminal texts for the beat generation and psychedelic Sixties. Jim Morrison named his band The Doors after the former essay, and Huxley even managed an appearance of the sleeve of The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" album.

Huxley returned to external utopianism (rather than his ideas of creating the perfect world within oneself) with his last novel, Island (1962). It is the tale of a seemingly perfect society on the fictional island of Pala (also the name of a small town in Huxley's resident state of California) that falls victim to the menaces of material progress and territorial expansion. It has been seen as both an optimistic and pessimistic work - optimistic for the reason that Pala is indeed a utopia, and pessimistic for its fragility and the threat posed by the outside world.

Huxley's last work Literature and Science (1963) is a plea for the reconciliation of the two disciplines (Huxley had intended to specialise in the sciences before his eyesight was damaged), and he died on 22 November 1963, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated.