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Huxley at Home

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 criteria are applicable to the later works. After all, the best of them are admittedly didactic, and while some, including Ape and Essence and Island, employ fictional forms, these neglect even the minimal requirements of the novel. Huxley himself rejected literary criticism as “pharisaical” and useless as a paradigm for the criticism of life.

The new biography contains the first full account of the latter half of Huxley’s productive years, and if only for this reason the corresponding portions of the book are the most interesting. But having had access to family records Mrs. Bedford was also able to cover the pre-California period more thoroughly than her predecessors, devoting more space to the young novelist’s amorous encounters, for example, as well as to that symptom of personal crisis, the prolonged attack of “writer’s cramp” at the time of Eyeless in Gaza. Unfortunately she does not offer convincing explanations either for the “understanding” complicity of Huxley’s wife in the love affairs or for the impending emotional collapse.

Surely Mrs. Bedford attaches too much significance to an episode in an inn somewhere beyond the Mexique Bay when a berserk drunkard threatened Huxley with a gun. At any rate, it is hard to accept her suggestion that he was more ashamed of his “cowardice” in concealing himself from the would-be assailant than proud of his simple good sense in doing so. But even if her interpretation were true, this ridiculous incident can be no more than superficially related to Huxley’s subsequent fits of depression and self-doubt. Mrs. Bedford rarely speculates about underlying emotional causes, however, and she may well have sacrificed a private theory to her high standards of good taste.

The documentation of Huxley’s thirty-five-year marriage is so compendious and contains so much about his wife that the book might almost have been titled “Maria Huxley and Her Husband Aldous.” But this material leads to some surprising and inescapable conclusions about the relationship. In fact it becomes more, rather than less, difficult to understand why he chose to marry Maria Nys, the Belgian girl he had met at Garsington. A priggish letter reveals his disapproval of her as she was and his condescending wish that she be made over, as well as his utter incapability of feeling:

I have tried to persuade Maria to … centre her life on thought rather than sensation, to adopt some fixed intellectual occupation … and not merely to live on the aesthetic sensations of the moment. She is educating herself … and the process gives her a solid foundation for her existence….(May 1918)

The mystery of the decision to marry is compounded since it was not precipitate and not the result of external pressure on either side; furthermore, since the two were living in different countries, Huxley could have withdrawn without causing embarrassment. The reasons why he proceeded with the engagement, therefore, can only be related to the traumas of his youth: his mother’s death by cancer, the suicide of a brother, the keratitis punctata which left him almost totally blind.1 These agonizing and disabling experiences of his adolescence must have numbed him to such an extent that he could no longer trust any love relationship. Less important, but also to be considered, is the likelihood that he may have felt physically inferior and self-conscious because of his semiblindness and his abnormal height. And, though far from reality as it is, he could have had a sense of intellectual inferiority, for he suffered from doubts about his abilities, a clue to which was in his lifelong depreciation of his own work. Finally, he regarded himself as something of a misfit in Society, as a letter written years later acknowledges:

I am distressed to hear that I can be so paralyzing to people, a defect attributable to a certain shyness and difficulty in personal communication.

On Maria’s side of the ledger was an apprehension about the compatibility between her fiancé and herself, a sense of alienation in his world, and a realization that she would have to repudiate her Catholicism and suppress her essentially intuitive nature. What might have overcome her misgivings was the challenge of helping him to lead a comparatively normal life, caring for him physically, supporting his selfesteem, and exercising her genius for friendship. She was to select many of his associates for him and to sustain his relations with them. Without her, in fact, he might have disappeared into the library stacks, and, in a kind of Gregor Samsa metamorphosis, turned into a species of talking bookworm. In any case, and in lieu of some evidence of all-consuming passions, these are at least possible explanations for the alliance of such a temperamentally and educationally unsuited pair.

Wise as Maria could be about people, she was not at ease with her husband’s intellectuality. And although immersed in the worlds of science, literature, and the arts, she enjoyed them only in relation to him—except with music, so important to her husband, where her dislike was too strong to be concealed. Yet in spite of these limitations, Huxley increasingly relied on her judgment of his work. He may have been clutching at straws, since he needed approval and was hypersensitive to criticism—of which, to borrow a word that helped to make his second wife famous, he was more and more the “target.”

The very abundance of Maria’s letters—the main substance of the biography’s more than 700 pages—as well as the extent to which she reveals herself in them, indicates that all was not well at home. She writes about her loneliness, her fatigue and chronic ill-health, her nostalgias for Europe and family, these last not shared to anything like the same degree by her husband, for whom life in Southern California seemed to renew its fascination. But the recurring theme is that of protectiveness toward him, a protectiveness that can be justifiably interpreted as a symptom of hostility. Certainly Maria had reason to feel hostile as far back as her husband’s extramarital affairs. Then, too, he was more demanding than he realized, restless in body as well as in mind, forever traveling and changing residences, even moving about the room while he talked. When making plans, he rarely seems to have considered his wife’s health or feelings, callously disregarding them, it would appear, while on a mule-back safari in a remote region of Mexico, though Mrs. Bedford sees the conduct with which this unnecessary expedition was carried out as exemplary of Huxleyan pluck and determination.

Maria also drove herself, however, as she did her automobiles, in in almost demonic way, even in her last years chauffeuring her husband through the wilderness areas of the western states so that, Goethe-like, he could contemplate a rare weed, an unusual rock formation, the mating habits of Gila monsters. But she resented having to do so and sometimes expressed her anguish to friends. All of this, of course, is the reverse of the usual report, which pities Huxley in his blindness and admires him for persisting in his insatiable quests for knowledge of obscure places and things. Yet even in Mrs. Bedford’s very different interpretation, it would appear that another of his handicaps may have been his inability to see the person closest to him.

Maria’s protectiveness and self-sacrifice toward her husband were also shown by the way she spared him her worries and complaints and never added her burdens to his. But this forbearance was carried to pathological extremes. Even when she learned that her cancer was terminal, she did not disclose this to her husband, although confiding in friends. Incredibly, less than a month before her death he was still referring to the illness as “lumbago”—and seeming to believe it. But can it be possible that Huxley, with his encyclopedic knowledge of medicine, could not have understood his wife’s true condition? Did no physical contact exist between them? Is it conceivable that the usual block against recognizing and accepting manifestations of cancer extended to so perceptive a diagnostician? And, finally, even if he were afraid to admit the truth, why could he not see it?2

That he did not this reviewer can testify, having been present when, less than a week before Maria’s death, Huxley, in a state of shock and despair, telephoned to Gerald Heard to relay the news. (Heard, who already knew it, later reacted with ecstatic exclamations to the prospect of still another mortal being able, as he said, to “tear off the mask.”) With respect to all of this, Mrs. Bedford regards Maria’s behavior as that of saintly devotion and courage. But is it not something less romantic? And, in truth, are not the circumstances of her death really a final subconscious act of rejection and punishment? And does this not place the entire marriage in a much altered light?

The two great formative friendships of [Huxley’s] maturer years [were] D.H. Lawrence and Gerald Heard,” Mrs. Bedford writes (omitting some grammatically necessary words). It was Maria who fostered the connection with Lawrence, sharing a natural affinity with the man who possessed so many of the qualities that her husband lacked. When Lawrence died Huxley lost a friend, a writer whom he admired, and a critical voice which he respected. Shortly afterward he was to debunk the philosophy of The Plumed Serpent but not the humanity of its author, whom he portrayed as a symbolic figure of his time in a horrendous utopia. The effect of Lawrence’s death on Maria was more profound, and until the end of her life she continued to recall his final hours, which moved her with the force of a religious or mystical experience.

But considering Mrs. Bedford’s acknowledgment of Heard’s pre-eminence in Huxley’s life, her skimpy treatment of this extraordinary figure is perplexing. She has overlooked the main sources. True, when she began the biography Heard was partially paralyzed and unable to communicate. But Michael Barry, his constant companion and a long-time observer of Heard’s relationship with Huxley, is mentioned only once, while Christopher Wood, who toured with Heard during his initial joint lectures with Huxley in America in 1937, is not even directly quoted. As for the third witness, Christopher Isherwood, the impressions of this subtle “camera” are doubtless awaiting development in his own darkroom. But Huxley’s deference to Heard in their early years is a conundrum that Mrs. Bedford has not solved.

Could it be that Heard’s “charisma” had captivated even Aldous Huxley? To watch the two of them in conversation, at any rate, was to be convinced that Huxley enjoyed the companionship of this scintillating crackpot more than that of anyone else. And in California, at least, Heard was the only man with whom Huxley could match wits, verbal dexterity and parure, information and mad-scientist ideas. And when the two of them were together, everyone, including Maria, was relegated to the foot of the table—which she did not mind, though by this time (the early 1950s) her husband’s partnership with Heard was over and the latter’s schedule of mortifications had begun to exacerbate her. But so did Heard’s homosexuality, and, unusual as it may seem to find such a prejudice in an intellectual circle like this one, antipathy to homosexuals was strongly pronounced in Huxley himself. Finally, whatever the causes, the two men saw each other less frequently in the later years, and this in spite of their many mutual friends among the swamis, hypnotists, mediums, chiromancers, scientologists, organic nutritionists, and drug experimenters.

Huxley’s second marriage contrasts with his first in almost every respect. For one thing, the cast of characters has changed, with not only a different woman but also a different man. The blow of Maria’s death catapulted him into a radical awareness of his emotional deficiencies and of the emptiness of an existence in which intellectual values overshadow all others. The letters he now addresses to his son, for instance, expose a belated realization of his former remoteness as a parent, while the letters to friends, with expressions of sympathy and insights into their problems, are scarcely recognizable as having been written by the author of Point Counter Point. Lawrence had described the emotion of that novel to Huxley as no more than “an attempt at intellectual sympathy,” and, whatever his reaction to this criticism at the time, it is hard to believe that thirty years later he would have disagreed with it. Near the end of his life Huxley wrote:

I keep asking myself what I ought to do…in the probably not very long future that is left me. How to be more loving, more aware….

And, to a question about his ultimate philosophy, his reply was: “Try to be a little kinder.”

Obviously Laura Huxley further inspired her husband’s fundamental alteration of values, at least at the beginning of the marriage. Moreover, she was a psychologist who believed in promoting his independence, insisting that he could see, was able to do things by himself, did not require a system of defenses from the world. She was as “under” solicitous, in sum, as Maria was “over,” thereby predictably appalling many friends of the first marriage. But Laura proved to be right; Huxley soon began to lead a less shielded life than ever before. Laura was a career woman, however, for whom the marriage involved other goals besides that of her husband’s self-sufficiency. She had been a concert violinist, then became a psychotherapist, and was later to expand into a best-selling “Self-Help” “How To” author. Both she and her husband understood that, inevitably, the marriage must be regarded as simply another phase of her vocational life. But for Huxley it meant more than that. He was in love with her, as the tenderness and affection in his letters reveal:

In spite of this stupid little flu, I love you…. Goodbye, my darling. Ti voglio bene…. Be well, my sweetheart, and let us try to be happy and peaceful…because of one another.

This, for a while, they seemed to be, and his interest in her profession led him to suggest that they might work as a team:

I believe we can do quite a lot, you complementing me, I complementing you.

For her part, she borrowed ideas from him, pursuing them further and more zealously than he did, since he never lost his congenital skepticism and inbred sense of balance. Slowly, recognition must have come that they were seeking different satisfactions from the marriage, a large part of whose purpose seems to have been fulfilled for Laura when she proved her skill as his therapist. Then the exigencies of her career began to separate them and to leave Aldous both alone and lonely.

This much, at any rate, is almost an unavoidable deduction from his letters. In one of them, written from Berkeley a year and a half before his death from a cancer that they both knew about, the reader learns that Laura had accompanied him there but stayed only long enough to help him find an apartment. Only a little more than a year before his death, he was informed that a new operation was necessary and “wrote to Laura, who happened to be in Italy: … ‘because death seems to have taken a step nearer, everything seems more and more beautiful.”’ Finally, a mere three months before the end, “Aldous set out for Belgium on his own. (Laura was too busy trying to meet the deadline of her book….)” (Italics added.) Yet it must be said that by this time Huxley was almost constantly traveling to lectures and conferences, as if trying to run away from the cancer, and that Laura may have found this exhausting. But even apart from that, who could criticize her, since she was the practitioner of a psychology one of whose tenets is that everyone should “do his own thing.”

The totally documented biography, reconstructed from all the recorded trivia of the daily life, has become one of the most effective means of obliterating its subject’s personality. Shortcuts result in slanted views, but may be preferable to unselective and less biased ones, for which, in any case, the future will always have room. Mrs. Bedford never exceeds the point beyond which detail begins to obscure rather than to illuminate.

But neither does Mrs. Bedford attempt to assess Huxley’s proper place in the Pantheon. To some extent this may be because of her own involvement with the Huxley family, the considerable role that she plays in the book, and the imprimatur implied by its dedication to the widow and son. Perhaps, too, Mrs. Bedford considered that her task, and it must have been a formidable one, was simply to present a comprehensive selection of the material. But above all, and along with almost everyone else who knew Aldous Huxley, she may well feel that the man, Aldous ipsissimus, rather than the shelves of his too-quickly-begotten books, will prove to be the subject of more lasting interest.

  1. 1

    Concerning Huxley’s eyesight, the testimony of witnesses differs, some reporting that he was unable to see at all, others that his powers of vision were subject to considerable change according to his emotional state. In any case, the reader should be constantly reminded of the affliction, whereas Mrs. Bedford, who knew Huxley and took it for granted, seems to assume that others are able to do the same. Some readers, perhaps remembering Henry Green’s Blindness, will regret that so accomplished a novelist as Mrs. Bedford did not offer at least one view of the world through Huxley’s reduced vision, and, so to speak, ab intra. Incidentally, the biography does not mention the celluloid goggles with pinholes to prevent staring and to force the eyes to exercise that Huxley used for much of his reading and writing in the early 1950s.

  2. 2

    The outcome of Maria’s illness had been certain since the summer of 1952, but emotionally Aldous had rejected the prognosis. Maria, several times, had said to the Kiskaddens: ‘Aldous doesn’t know; he doesn’t want to know.”’ (Grover Smith, ed., Letters of Aldous Huxley, Harper and Row, 1970, p. 731.)

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