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Civilization and its Discontents

The Talented Mr Huxley

As you may know, I’m researching a book about Aldous Huxley and his friends Alan Watts, Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, and how these four posh Brits moved to California and helped to invent the modern culture of ‘spiritual but not religious’.

Of the four, Huxley is my greatest inspiration. My last book, The Art of Losing Control, owes him a profound debt. Writing a biography of someone is a bit like moving in with them – you start to notice all their annoying habits. Huxley definitely has some but, having now read pretty much everything he’s written, I can still say he’s a truly great thinker.

He’s clearly not a great novelist. When he died on November 1963, on the same day as JFK and CS Lewis, his contemporaries thought he would be remembered principally as the scabrous and shockingly irreverent comedic novelist of the 1920s and 1930s. His peers felt he’d lost his edge when he’d moved to California and become a hippy guru.

In fact, the opposite is true. His early satirical novels like Antic Hay or Point Counter Point, when read today, aren’t at all shocking, or funny. They’re just second-rate, and the snobbish elitism of early Huxley is all too apparent – the references to squalid little people, the calls for eugenics and an end to liberal democracy.

Brave New World, written in 1932, is easily the best of his novels. It’s inspired every great utopian and dystopian novelist since, from JG Ballard to Anthony Burgess to Margaret Atwood to Michel Houllebeq. It predicted the extent to which advances in chemistry and biology would alter our ideas of self, sexuality, family and politics. Huxley, the grand-son of TH Huxley, was an early prophet of biochemical self-fashioning.

But Huxley was also the grand-nephew of Matthew Arnold, the great humanist and author of Culture and Anarchy. Like his grand-uncle, he sought to know how culture and education could help us find our centre within the bewildering changes of modernity.

He was interested in mysticism even at school, although he tended to mock it in his earliest writings. But he started treating it more and more seriously from the mid-1920s on, until it becomes the central focus of his attention from the mid-1930s. Having been celebrated as a ‘prophet of meaninglessness’, he suddenly – in Ends and Means (1937) – declares that the ultimate goal of the individual and society is the realization of the divine. Everything else should be geared towards that end.

I think his greatest claim to fame is his analysis of humans’ urge to self-transcendence. I’ve read a lot of people on this topic – William James, Ken Wilber, Emile Durkheim, the great mystics. Huxley is the greatest analyst I know of this central domain of human experience.

He took from William James and his friend FWH Myers the idea that the conscious ego is just an island on top of a much larger ocean of human personality. There is also a ‘subliminal self’ which we carry around with us, which occasionally intervenes into our awareness. There’s all kinds of junk down there but – as Myers was the first to claim – there are also latent powers of healing and inspiration. At the deepest level, Myers suggested (and James and Huxley agreed), the not-self of the subliminal mind merges into the Atman, super-consciousness, Mind-at-large.

Huxley insisted – decades before Abraham Maslow – that humans have a ‘basic drive to self-transcendence’. We exist in our small, conditioned, utilitarian egos, cut off from our deeper selves, but it’s boring and claustrophobic in there, and we long for a holiday. Maybe the soul in us yearns to get out of the cocoon and unfold our wings.

Huxley’s genius was to appreciate all the different ways humans seek these holidays from the self: alcohol, drugs, dancing, art, reading, hobbies, sex, crowds, rallies, war. Having tried to cover this enormous terrain myself, I can tell you that no one else comes close in terms of having a bird’s eye view of the landscape. James, for example, only analysed ‘religious experiences’, which he defines as man’s solitary encounters with the divine. This is just a tiny corner of the field that Huxley covers – it doesn’t even take account of collective religious experiences, let alone all the transcendent experiences that humans have which don’t explicitly involve God.

Huxley also brought an acute historical analysis to the topic. He was an early pioneer of the history of the emotions, and the history of medicine (I could make a case that he actually invents the history of the emotions, with his essay on accidie in 1923). He suggested that, while humans have basic drives, such as the drive to self-transcendence, those drives may take different forms depending on a person’s temperament, physique and culture.

He argued – and this was one of the principal themes of my book The Art of Losing Control – that mystical transcendence had been marginalized and pathologized in western culture, starting from around the Reformation. It became embarrassing and ridiculous to admit to the sorts of mystical experiences which were highly valued in medieval culture. ‘We keep them to ourselves for fear of being sent to the psychoanalyst’, he said.

Lacking in role models or institutions for genuine mystical transcendence, western culture instead offers us what Huxley called ‘ersatz spirituality’ – package holidays from the self, such as consumerism, gadget-idolatry, booze, casual sex, and nationalism, which Huxley thought was the dominant religion of the 19th and 20th centuries (it’s returned with a vengeance in the 21st century).

What’s the solution? Rather than preaching a return to Christian orthodoxy, as TS Eliot, WH Auden or CS Lewis did, Huxley beat out a new path, which has proved much more influential in western culture: learn spiritual practices from the world’s religious traditions, test them out using empirical psychology, and find the ones that work for you.

He outlined this approach in his 1946 anthology, The Perennial Philosophy. I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager (I still have the copy I stole from the school library). It first introduced me to the likes of Rumi, Traherne, Chuang Tzu, Hakuin and Meister Eckhart, and helped me realize how much the world’s wisdom traditions share. But now I can see its flaws.

This was a book born out of historical despair. Huxley had played a central role in the British anti-war movement, and then abruptly abandoned it in 1937 to move to the US, ending up living with his wife in a hut in the Mojave desert. He thought western civilization was heading for destruction, and that literally our only hope was for a handful of people to dedicate themselves to mysticism at the margins of the general awfulness, like the Essenes seeking gnosis in the desert.

The only hope was if the Perennial Philosophy became generally recognized and embraced by humanity. He insisted the world’s great mystics all agreed on all the core points. But this was an argument born more of political despair than calm scholarship. It over-emphasized the extent to which mystics of different traditions agreed. And it ended up ranking mystical experience – only emotionless encounters with a formless, imageless divine are ‘true mysticism’, while any encounters with the divine in a particular form are considered second-rate.

You can understand how this is important to Huxley’s political dreams (humans fight over particular forms of the divine, so it’s better if we all meet in the Clear Light). But it’s pretty outrageous for him, a new convert to mysticism with hardly any practical experience, to lay down the law as to what is or isn’t a genuine encounter with the divine. How the hell does he know?

There’s an obvious anti-Abrahamic and pro-Hindu/Buddhist bias in his vision. He hates any religions that are time-based (ie with a historical vision), and thinks Buddhism and Hinduism are more tolerant because they’re more focused on the ‘eternal now’. Odd to argue for Hindu tolerance at the precise moment millions of Hindus and Muslims were massacring each other during the Partition.

But in more practical terms, it’s a very lonely, intellectual and bookish sort of spirituality that he offers (that must be why it appealed to me). There’s no mention of the role of community, or elders, or collective rituals. Just the intellectual and his books in the desert. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’.

And it’s a hard path. Huxley, in effect, says that the only possible route for humanity is straight up a sheer cliff face. Anyone can be a mystic, he says. You just need to be completely detached from all worldly things and totally focused on the divine. No biggie.

It turned out to be very difficult. He suffered several hard years of failure and self-disgust, during which he wrote Ape and Essence, his most horrible and despairing book. He admitted at the end of his life that he’d never had a mystical experience. God will not be rushed.

But by the 1950s, he’d relaxed, and moved into his mature spirituality. Rather than insisting on the sheer cliff face of ascetic mysticism as the only route to salvation, Huxley accepted there were lots of practices one could do here in this world to make yourself healthier and happier on your long, multi-life journey to enlightenment.

He understood more and more the importance of the body to well-being and realization, and was an early supporter of gestalt therapy, the Alexander technique and hatha yoga. He finally found a place for sex in his spirituality – Island includes elements of Tantric practice. He also found a new appreciation for ecstatic dance – notice the children in his utopia, Island, practice ecstatic dance to ease themselves of anxiety. This was a decade before Gabrielle Roth developed 5Rhythms at Esalen. It’s a pity we never got to hear his thoughts on Beatlemania – they were certainly into him, and put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s.

He was also a big fan of hypnosis, and taught himself to be a hypnotist (his friend Igor Stravinsky claimed Huxley was a healer, and had cured him of insomnia). And, of course, he discovered that psychedelics offered a short-cut to temporary ego-dissolution. Those were the only times he ever really got a glimpse of the divine – when he was high.

It was tremendously shocking that this great English man of letters should preach the chemical path to liberation. But Huxley quite rightly pointed out that humans have been using psycho-active plants for religious rituals for several millennia. Other spiritual exercises rely on alterations in body chemistry, such as chanting, fasting or flagellation. That an alteration in body-chemistry is the means to a spiritual experience doesn’t mean that experience is only bio-chemical.

In the last decade of his life, the disgusted prophet of the desert became an unlikely hit on American campuses, lecturing to thousands of students at a time on visionary experience and integral education. This is his second great claim-to-fame. He had a vision that universities could offer an integral education which avoided over-specialization and over-intellectualization, and which instead educated the whole person – their body, their subliminal mind, their intellect, their social and political self, their relationship to nature, and their higher consciousness.

That vision of education proved hugely popular with baby-boomers, and yet somehow – such is the inertia of the university system – it’s had very little impact on what universities offer in the sixty years since then. They still offer the same over-specialized and totally intellectual learning experiences to undergrads, alas. His vision was, however, a defining influence on alternative colleges like Esalen, the Garrison Institute, CIIS and Schumacher College.

Today, we are all Huxley’s children. The ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic is the fastest growing in the US. Contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation. We are all influenced by ‘empirical spirituality’ like the science of mindfulness. Most westerners say they’ve had a mystical experience. And the psychedelic renaissance that Huxley called for 60 years ago may finally be happening.

Huxley wrote that, as a result of psychedelics,

What was once the spiritual privilege of the few will be made available to the many… My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. That famous ‘revival of religion’, about which so many people have been talking for so long, will not come about as the result of evangelistic mass meetings or the television appearances of photogenic clergymen. It will come about as the result of biochemical discoveries that will make it possible for large numbers of men and women to achieve a radical self-transcendence and a deeper understanding of the nature of things.

We shall see!

I’m doing a talk on Huxley at QMUL in London on the evening of January 23rd. Tickets available here. 

If you want to support my research on Huxley and the other mystical expats, please get in touch. I need to spend several months in Los Angeles at the UCLA and Huntington archives, and will make all my research publicly available in book form and possibly a podcast too. I need about £30,000 to get it done. You can also make a monthly contribution to my blog on Patreon

Rage against the dying of the light

I was walking to the Extinction Rebellion protest last weekend, and I suddenly started crying.

I hardly ever cry, and I have certainly never cried for the ‘environment’, or nature, or baby seals.

It just suddenly felt real.

It was like I was going to a doctor’s appointment that I’d been putting off for months, knowing in the back of my mind that I was really, really ill. And now I was facing up to the possibility of death, and I was frightened and sad.

The numbness that I had carried around with me subconsciously, for years, was beginning to melt.

I headed for Southwark Bridge. My friend Charlie was in one of the ER ‘affinity groups’ and he’d told me to meet at Southwark for 9.30am, in order to blockade the bridge at 10.

The plan was to blockade five bridges in London, and then march to Parliament Square for a rally.

Extinction Rebellion had only been going for a month or so.

It’s a movement of civil disobedience, inspired by three environmentalists recently given jail sentences for protesting against fracking.

The sentences were later quashed, but their willingness to risk prison to protect nature galvanized the environmentalist movement, particularly after the latest warnings from the IPCC that human civilization has around a decade left to halt catastrophic warming of the ecosystem.

Climate change is visible now – in the heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the rapid extinctions of 60% of wildlife species in the last 50 years. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the acidification of the ocean and death of half the coral around the world – including a fifth of it in the last three years.

The ecocide has already begun for other species, now it’s heading for us. And we’re sleepwalking towards it.

But what can I do about it? Is it worth even thinking about, if there’s nothing to be done? Just try and carry on as normal, until the end.

But the more we live in denial of the real, the more our civilization feels psychotic.

I got to Southwark Bridge at 9.20. It was a cold, bright day, the City was deserted, and the bridge was completely empty, apart from six or seven police. I smiled at them innocently and walked across the bridge.

On the other side, I saw my friend Charlie, who lives in Dorset, wearing a tweed jacket and photographing the river. He looked like a German spy.

‘Charlie!’ I said, but he carried on photographing. Maybe he didn’t want to break his cover.

I chuckled and walked down the steps off the bridge. Charlie followed me.

‘Dude!’

He led me to a nearby Starbucks, which was apparently the headquarters for the ramshackle rebellion, or at least the Southwark Bridge contingent of it.

There were about 20 people there. They all seemed to be from the West Country – Devon, Cornwall, Somerset. They were quite green and hairy.

By 10am we still hadn’t left the café.

At 11, we congregated outside, and one of the leaders – Dave – gave us a briefing.

‘OK, here’s the plan. We walk to one side of the bridge, and Phil and his group walk to the other. When Phil radios me, we immediately block both sides of the bridge.’

‘But how will the rest of us know?’

‘Good point. OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise my hand.’

‘Maybe raise both hands?’

‘OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise both hands. Then we move out the bollards.’

‘But they can move the bollards.’

‘OK. Then we just lie down. And roll out the banner. Where are the legal observers?’

‘Present, Dave.’

‘Hands up if you’re an arrestable.’

I considered briefly if I was arrestable. It was unlikely anyone would be charged, the police have better things to do. But if I was it would stymie travelling to the US. In addition, I was meant to be playing tennis that evening. I decided I was non-arrestable.

About eight people volunteered to be arrestable.

‘That’s not many Dave.’

‘Is this all of us?’ one lady asked despairingly.

‘There’s a bus coming from Cornwall. It’s late. Won’t get here til 12.’

It felt like the rebellion at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, shortly before they get their arses kicked.

I thought it would all be over in ten minutes, we’d be cleared off the bridge, some people would be arrested for a few hours, but we’d have made our point. Pointless, in a way, but a start.

‘Dave, there’s a bloke in a van watching us.’

There was a white van opposite us, which said Auberon Steaks. The driver was watching us very intently.

‘Alright, let’s move’ said Dave. We moved about 20 metres down the street.

‘The arrestables may want to give their phones to a friend, as the police can get all your data out of it. Has everyone got the legal info?’

We were all given cards with solicitors’ numbers on them, and advice on how to engage with the police. Basically, say ‘no comment’.

‘Ready? Let’s go.’

We walked onto the bridge. There were perhaps another 50 people milling about on the bridge, obviously protestors, and a lot of police with large truncheons.

I wondered why ER hadn’t publicized the blockade better, so thousands of people were on the bridge, rather than 100. They seemed to have a secretive, direct-action mentality, when surely this had to become a public mass movement to have any success, like Gandhi’s Quit India movement.

Suddenly, I saw a large group moving up the other end of the bridge, holding a green ER banner.

I looked round, and our small group was attempting to block off our side of the bridge. There was a group of 20 or so, but they were clumped on one side of the road. The left-hand lane was exposed and could easily be re-opened by the police. All that stood in the way were two old ladies sitting on fold-out deckchairs.

‘Please move to the pavement’, a young policeman said to them. ‘You’ve made your point, now move, or I will be forced to arrest you under the Highway Obstruction Act. You will then be charged, and unable to travel to many countries. Why not just move?’

‘I’m not moving’, said the old lady. ‘The planet is dying and the government’s not doing anything. I’m not moving until they start taking climate change seriously.’

A cheer went up. Dave was getting arrested. He was holding a rose. ‘Do you mind if I give my bag to someone?’ He seemed pliant, close to tears, like he was being led quietly away to execution. They handcuffed him and he walked off, while everyone applauded him. A noble death.

Another woman was arrested. She started screaming. She wasn’t one of the ‘arrestables’ and seemed genuinely shocked as she was handcuffed behind her back. ‘Don’t worry’, I felt like telling her. ‘Nothing’s actually going to happen to you.’

A young woman called Rachel stood next to me. Her stepfather had been one of the people arrested. ‘Is he going to be OK?’ she asked. ‘He’s going to be totally fine’, I said.

The other side of the bridge was now completely blocked off, by 100 people or so. I heard one of the police say: ‘We don’t have the numbers, there’s nothing we can do.’

As I watched someone else get arrested and be led off, followed by a legal observer, I suddenly thought, ‘why don’t I get arrested?’

I imagined myself being led away to cheers, my face nobly Stoic. In the news, the headline: ‘Heroic philosopher risks all for climate change.’

Our group backed up to join the other group. We were now around 200 people, and weren’t going anywhere. We had taken the bridge!

The sun came out. A funk band appeared, with amps and a drum kit, and we danced in the sun while our banners fluttered. Word went through the crowd that ER had taken five bridges in London – Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth. A wave of joy ran through us.

 

People danced, passed around cupcakes, fruit and biscuits. They gave leaflets to passers-by, and engaged the cops in earnest political discussion. The cops relaxed too. No one was resisting arrest, no one was giving them grief. To be honest, no car was even trying to cross the bridge – this was the City on the weekend, it was empty.

There were some talks and slightly lame folk singing about protecting the Earth. The movement needs better anthems. The crowd was very West Country, and had a slightly twee feel to it – pan-pipes, witches, placards mourning the tawny owl. The cynical outsider journalist in me started to take the piss.

A West-country witch puts a spell on the cops

But this was not the time, anymore, to observe from the sidelines and make wisecracks. Who cared if the protestors were slightly fairy-folksy? Blockading a few bridges was the least we could do.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who gave their life in the fight against fascism. Humanity is now facing a much graver threat. Getting arrested for a few hours traffic-blocking was a tiny sacrifice. I’m surprised people aren’t doing far more. We’re frozen, and we need someone to scream to break the ice.

After a few hours, one of the ER organizers told us we were going to march to Parliament Square, picking up the other protestors on the bridges in between. People were welcome to stay on the bridge, if they wanted to get arrested.

We marched down Embankment, cheering. There were only 200 of us, or so, but it felt great.

Then we joined the crowd at Lambeth Bridge and milled around there for a long time. I heard one of the organizers say ‘to be honest this is a lot bigger than we expected it to be’.

George Monbiot on Lambeth Bridge

I was getting cold so decided to walk down and see the other bridges. Rachel came with me. We both felt exhilarated and hopeful. It’s an amazing feeling, when a crowd of strangers congregate and become friends. The streets become a festival.

‘I felt so moved when my stepfather got arrested’, she said.

‘Me too’, I said. It’s a small sacrifice, but martyrdom pushes an ancient button.’ I thought about the Latin etymology of sacrifice – sacer facio, to make sacred.

We finally reached Parliament, and I said goodbye to Rachel. She went to the police station to meet her step-father.

I headed to my parents for dinner. My Dad did not approve, my aunt said it had taken her hours to cross London by bus.

‘I apologise for the disruption but it’s important.’

It was the first act of civil disobedience I’d ever taken. That was true for most of us – academics, civil servants, scientists. We weren’t hardened activists by any means. We were nervous.

The idea behind ER is that continued acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance will disrupt the functioning of the state and the economy until the government and people have to take notice of the issue.

ER then wants the government to stop using fossil fuels by 2025, and start a ‘citizens assembly’ to work out a proper response to the crisis.

I don’t know if I agree with this last aim. Don’t we have a ‘citizen’s assembly’ already? It’s called parliament. Unfortunately, many people, perhaps most people, do not yet feel in danger from climate change.

Nigel Farage called the campaign ‘economic terrorism‘. Well, he should know.

This week, ER has stepped up its campaign by organizing ‘swarms’ – groups that block off roads for seven minutes, then step back to let traffic pass, then do it again. It’s causing huge traffic jams throughout London, and leading to angry confrontations with drivers. You can watch it on Facebook Live.

‘What’s the point of this?’ one motorcyclist shouted this morning. ‘It’s totally pointless!’

‘We want the government to listen,’ explained the slightly posh nice lady filming the protest.

‘Is the government here now? Show me! All you’re doing is making everyone late, so they’ll drive faster and there’ll be more accidents, you twats.’

‘We’re sorry but it’s important’.

The motorbiker drove angrily up to the protestors, as if he wanted to run them down – this was because he was being made five minutes late. He was led back by the cops.

The policeman advised the young woman filming the protest: ‘Don’t get too close, they might punch at you.’

‘OK Thank you’, said the protester. ‘I feel so honoured to be with these brave people protesting’, she said to the camera.

‘Sorry for the delay!’ she says to another van driver.

‘This the third time today’, he says, arms folded wearily.

‘Well…thanks for not calling us scum!’ she says cheerily.


The same day as the bridge blockade, very similar tactics were used in France, for a completely different cause – to protest high fuel prices. The street blockades led to furious altercations with motorists, and one drove into the protesters and killed one of them.

It’s not a good sign when groups give up on the democratic process and break the law to make their point.

And it may all be pointless. Catastrophic climate change may already be unstoppable, with feedback loops leading to the melting of the arctic icecap and the release of methane gas, which causes far worse global warming than carbon dioxide.

Still, I can’t do nothing. I’m not going to sleepwalk into extinction. Even if it just means I can look my maker in the eyes after death.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

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