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Frederic Myers

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

Kanye West and the five elements of creative genius

I went to see a publisher the other day, who said they had a project for me. The project turned out to be a series called ‘Great Philosophers’. Could I suggest any great living philosophers to write about, other than myself obviously? ‘How about a book about Kanye West?’ They laughed. Pause. ‘No, really. Make a series of little books about great cultural influencers. I’ll do one on Kanye West.’

They didn’t go for it, naturally. Apparently he’s writing his own philosophy book in any case. But it was a genuine impulse. This may sound weird coming from a white, middle-class philosophy-blogger, but West has been a creative inspiration for me over the last decade or so, more than anyone else our generation. I often listened to his music while writing books, because it got me going, made me believe I could complete the creative task I’d set myself, in an era where artists don’t get paid and we’re all over-saturated with media.

I’ve been into West since I first heard the explosive optimism of Touch The Sky in 2005. But I only really got into him in 2010, when I was writing my first book.

Back then, West was in a bad place – his mother had died, he’d split up with his girlfriend, he’d made an electronic break-up album which didn’t sell very well (it’s now considered a classic). Then he’d interrupted Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at the MTV Awards, and been labelled a jack-ass by president Obama. He was a global laughing-stock.

For a while he apparently thought about quitting music. But instead he relocated to Hawaii, block-booked a suite of recording studios,  then invited his favourite artists to come, stay, and make music – everyone from RZA and Q-Tip to Nicki Minaj and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Every day, they gathered for breakfast meetings, then played basketball, then in the afternoon hit the studio and stayed until the early hours. It was an extraordinary burst of creativity for West – he’d be at the studio all night, switching between different studios and songs, sleeping for a couple of hours in a chair, then starting again.

That led to My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy in November 2010, for many critics the greatest album of that decade.  He was so on fire, he and his collaborators were turning out classic tracks that West just gave away on the internet for free, every Friday – tracks like Chains Heavy, or Joy, or his remix of Justin Bieber’s Runaway Love – one of my favourite tracks of that year (yeah, that’s right, a Bieber remix was my favourite track of the year).

That was when I thought, shit, maybe Kanye’s right…maybe he is a genius!

Genius is an unfashionable term these days, in an era when scientific breakthroughs occur via big data analysis and teams of hundreds. But I think psychologists like Frederic Myers and William James were right when they argued certain individuals can rightly be called geniuses, because they possess certain capacities.

As I wrote about David Bowie, a creative genius needs five attributes. First, they need to be able to open up to their subconscious, which means being able to switch off their critical fire-wall and dive in to uncensored imagination (often this goes hand in hand with mental instability, with a tendency to bipolar or schizoid personality disorder, as it did with Bowie and West).

Second, just as important, they need a conscious power of discrimination, to sort the gold from the dross that pours out of the subconscious. Third, they need to be able to collaborate with other artists, get their ego out of the way, and bring out the best in others. Fourth, they need incredible self-belief to follow their vision and do something new, when the market wants them to repeat the last trick over and over (think Dylan leaving his folk social criticism to go electric).

Finally, and most importantly, they need to have that particular daemonic power in their subconscious, that livewire connection to the Main Source, and to maintain a relationship to that daemon without being fried by it. That’s very rare – a lot of creative geniuses, like Amy Winehouse, get fried by the Main Source before they’re able to create much.

Kanye and the angel / daemon of creative inspiration, from the movie for Runaway

West, like Bowie, has this proximity to the Main Source, the fiery creative daemon within him. The creativity just pours out of him – he’ll create a killer hook, and then change direction mid-song, just because. On the first song of Yeezus, the abrasively electronic On Sight, he declares ‘How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.’ And the song turns on a dime into this soaring gospel choir-song. The choir sings ‘He’ll give you what you need, it may not be what you want’… and then it’s back to the in-your-face electronics. It’s like Prince – just a ridiculous bounty of creative talent, an excess of it, a table groaning with dishes. Other artists will take a five-second clip of one of his songs and turn it into a hit – like Sigma taking the break from Bound and turning it into their hit, Nobody to Love.

Quite often, West’s songs seem like they’re winding up, and then suddenly they swell back even harder, like a thunderstorm. It’s nature’s bounty, the excess of it. It’s Shakespeare putting in a scene with a gravedigger because why the fuck not.

At the end of Devil In A New Dress from MBTDF – my favourite song of his – the song starts to wind down after three minutes, and you think that’s the natural end, then a guitar starts to wail, the storm starts to build, then Rick Ross comes in with an amazing last verse. It’s a revelling in natural power, a dancing in the storm.

This is the last three minutes of Devil in a New Dress (the video is dumb):

 

With that creative power, that ‘dragon energy’, comes arrogance, ego-inflation and mania. The artist as prophet, the artist as superman, the artist as god. Both West and David Bowie flirted with the ideas of Aleister Crowley, the black magician of the early 20th century, who declared there would be a new era of superhumans who would do what they wanted while the pathetic masses worshipped them. This is the theme of Power, the big hit on MBTDF, the video for which shows West wearing a massive Crowley necklace at the centre of a pagan mass. Both West and Bowie have also flirted with fascism (or, at least, with Donald Trump in West’s case). And both have often fallen for their own myth and pretty much gone crazy.

‘I am a God’ – Crowley, Bowie and West

 

But he somehow hasn’t destroyed himself, yet, partly through a capacity to face his shadow and make art from it. He rapped in Touch the Sky: ‘I try to right my wrongs but it’s funny the same wrongs helped me write this song’. That’s what makes MBTDF so amazing – the ability to hold steady and transmute all the darkness into one of the great albums, as Bowie did on Station-to-Station.

West wasn’t just confronting his own shadow, he was confronting the shadow of being a black male superstar. You get to the top by being a well-behaved performer, like Obama. You do not interrupt Taylor Swift at the MTV awards. You do not expose all your sexual peccadillos, your porn addiction, your kink for white girls. You do not support Donald Trump. You hide that darkness, create a polite persona and a monster in the shadows, as Michael Jackson did, or OJ Simpson, or Tiger Woods, or Bill Cosby. West confronted that monster and made art out of it. He put a painting of him fucking a white girl on the cover (or a white…angel?). ‘Let’s have a toast to the douchebags’, he sings on Runaway. That self-exposure takes guts. Who else doesn’t just admit he’s bipolar, but celebrates it?

Celebrating the shadow – the covers for MBTDF (left) and Ye (right)

And he has an ability to get on his knees before God, as Bowie did in the dark heart of Station-to-Station. He gets really close to the edge of mania and darkness and self-destruction, and he surrenders to God. There’s a powerful bipolarity in African-American music, between God and the ego / flesh / Devil. The church and the juke joint. White music sometimes lacks that energy because white middle-class hipsters don’t believe in God or the Devil anymore, so the stakes are lower. West taps into that bipolarity, consciously. Take ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ from Life of Pablo – it’s a beautiful gospel track which begins with a preacher singing ‘You’re the only power’ and Kanye wailing ‘I just wanna be liberated’ and then goes into a rap about a girl bleaching her asshole. The last line of his excellent new album with Kid Cudi has him singing ‘Lord shine your light on me, save me please’, like Bowie singing ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing’ on Station-to-Station.

Then there are the other superpowers of the creative genius. The ability to discriminate, sort the gold from the shit, to be a perfectionist and not stop until it’s right – it reminds me of the story Jimmy Iovine tells of producing Born to Run for Springsteen, when Springsteen made him work on one snare drum sound for days.

And there’s the ability to collaborate. Like Bowie, Kanye West is amazing at finding collaborators and getting ego out of the way to bring the best out of them and him. That’s how he made MBTDF – gather the people he most admires, and crowd-source it. When he was stumped for the lyrics for Power, he went round the room asking everyone what power meant to them. So when he raps ‘no one man should have all this power’ – that song was, ironically, a group effort. This is what Brian Eno calls ‘scenius’ – not the solitary genius, but the ability to network and collaborate. He lifts artists to another level with his intensity – just like Bowie and Eno could.

Many of the greatest moments in his music feature other artists leading – Nicki Minaj’s rap on Monster, Chance the Rapper at the end of Ultralight Beam, Lupe Fiasco’s rap on Touch the Sky, 070’s amazing last verse on new song Ghost Town, or Kid Cudi’s amazing performance on new song Reborn. That’s generous and ego-effacing, to let others take centre stage. Check out how much he enjoys the other artists’ performance in this killer live performance of UltraLight Beam on SNL:

 

 

And, of course, he’s also a douchebag, a loud-mouth, a narcissist, a fool, a personification of the vain male ego. But for a decade or so, now, he’s been chanelling the Main Source of creative energy, and that is exhausting and destructive – it almost killed Bob Dylan, it almost killed Bowie, it has almost killed West. The masses look to them as prophets but as Plato said of poets, they don’t really know what’s coming through them – it’s not wisdom, it’s sheer creative power. Don’t expect ethical or political wisdom from them.

Then the electricity shifts and finds someone else in the network to fry, and they’re out there in the cold for a while, everyone saying they’ve lost it, Dylan’s gone evangelical, Bowie’s making Tin Machine, Paul McCartney’s gone vegan, West’s gone alt-right. He’s a douchebag. You feel let down by his latest doucherie? He’s always been a douchebag. But listen to the new album Kids See Ghosts. Or listen to this Spotify playlist I made of some of his finest moments. Here comes the rain again.