Aldous Huxley: A Biography
by Sybille Bedford
Knopf/Harper and Row, 769 pp., $15.00
The British reception of Mrs. Bedford’s biography reveals that late 1930s’ attitudes toward Aldous Huxley have scarcely changed. He is still the clever novelist gone preachy and dull, the scion of England’s best-bred intellectual family run off to live on the wrong side of the cultural tracks, one of the brightest minds of the Realm defected from respectable agnosticism to bizarre religions and pseudo sciences. For one old-friend critic, Raymond Mortimer, the mere mention of Huxley’s residence in Southern California is enough to explain his downfall. The new account of the life might at least have been expected to change that perspective. Yet despite Mrs. Bedford’s intentions of fair-mindedness, she does not wholly succeed in escaping the same insularity.
For better or worse, how differently a less traditional biography might have treated the same material! Apart from concentrating on the “psychodynamics” of the life, rather than on its external events, this hypothetical history would address an audience possessing values the very opposite of Mrs. Bedford’s, one that reveres the prophet Huxley rather than the litterateur, the moral and sociological visionary rather than the paragon of the classical education, the explorer of unorthodox approaches to the understanding of cosmic laws instead of the high priest of “hard” science. As for Huxley the pacifist, still not forgiven by older critics, a new generation acclaims him as one of the first nonconquering heroes in its braver new world. His formerly suspect interests, moreover—ESP, acupuncture, yoga, and the many others—are no longer cultist pursuits on California’s wilder shores of experiment but accredited studies on reputable campuses. In all of this, of course, Huxley left his Litt.D. critics far behind, yet few even of his disciples have been prepared to follow him the whole way.
Huxley’s development as a writer is generally regarded as a decline from the romans à clef of the Twenties about ego-eccentrics of the British intelligentsia to the homilies of the Forties and Fifties on the evils of overpopulation and assorted disasters of the modern world. And it is widely agreed that after the early period his fiction includes nothing to equal Antic Hay and a few of the stories—”Young Archimedes,” for one, in which he manages to construct an absorbing tale around a demonstration that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Yet of all his books, Brave New World (1932) is the most assured of a place in history, if not literature, and, arguably, his narrative skills increased in some of the later nonfiction, in Gray Eminence, for instance, and in the essay on Maine de Biran.
At the same time, Huxley’s development as a person can be looked upon as an ascent from mere brilliance into wisdom, from superiority into humility, from the satirist of individuals to the philosophical activist for the human condition. The question, then, is whether literary …