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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

Perennialism and fascism

Aldous Huxley and Rene Guenon

While I was in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute. It’s a cross between a spiritual retreat centre and an adult education college, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur next to some hot springs. It’s been very influential on transpersonal psychology and American spirituality.

Murphy and I discussed the cultural influence of the ‘mystical expats’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – on the vision of Esalen and on American culture in general. They helped to popularise the idea of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – the idea there is a common core of wisdom at the heart of all the great religious traditions, and one can use spiritual practices from various traditions. That idea is now at the centre of American culture – being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fastest-growing demographic in American religion.

It was a treat to hear Mike’s fond reminiscences about them – how he and Esalen co-founder Dick Price were turned on by hearing Huxley lecture on ‘human potentialities’, how they went to meet Gerald Heard in LA and came away mesmerized and burning with the desire to found Esalen, how Huxley and his wife Laura came to meet them in Big Sur and insisted on seeing the local butterflies, how they first dropped acid with Laura, how Alan Watts was the greatest spontaneous speaker Murphy ever heard.

I was particularly interested to hear Murphy make the connection between the San Francisco Renaissance – the cultural movement ranging from the Beats to the Hippies and arguably still ongoing in Silicon Valley – to the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural flowering involving creative thinking in politics, science, the arts and religion. One of its chief ideas was the perennial philosophy.  One finds perennialism in the religious movement called ‘Brahmoism’, which was started by the great Bengali thinker and reformer Ram Mohan Roy in around 1850, and which suggests that all religions are partial formulations of the transcendent divinity within us. One also finds perennialism in the teachings of Vivekananda, dashing Bengali prophet of Vedanta, who caused a sensation when he visited the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared that all religions are true.

I often encountered the same cheerful perennialism while travelling in India last year – in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Chennai (which has temples to all the major religions), in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent two weeks in a Zen / Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, where we bowed to both Christ and the Buddha. This perennialism was a breath of fresh air after a period of desperately trying to be a Proper Christian.

Murphy pointed out to me that the ‘mystical expats’ helped to transmit the perennialist fire from Bengal to California. Heard, Huxley and Isherwood popularised Vedanta, the Hindu mysticism brought to the West by Vivekananda; while the evolutionary spirituality of Sri Aurobindo was transmitted into the Bay Area through the American Academy of Asian Studies – a small college that Alan Watts helped to found, which evolved into the California Institute of Integral Studies (Murphy was a student there). Watts also helped to transmit Zen and Daoist thinking into San Francisco, inspiring everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Cage. The perennialist spark caught fire in American culture, and now it’s widely accepted.

Perennialism and renaissances

It’s interesting that the ‘perennial philosophy’ was transmitted from one famous cultural renaissance to another. It got me thinking about perennialism and renaissances. If one looks back at the ‘American Renaissance’ – the sudden flowering of American literature led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others – one also encounters the perennial philosophy, particularly in Emerson and Thoreau. The stern Puritan soul of America suddenly relaxes, expands, and sees its smiling reflection in other cultures – in Platonism, in Hinduism, in a blade of grass.

One also finds the hot spring of the perennial philosophy bubbling up in the Romantic era, in Coleridge and Blake (‘all religions are one’) and, earlier, in the Italian Renaissance, at the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, and sought to find a harmony between Christianity, Greek philosophy and Kabbalah. The optimism and creativity of this movement sings in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ of Pico della Mirandola, and shines in the radiance of Botticelli and Raphael.

The perennialist stream bubbles up yet again in the Islamic Renaissance (more usually known as the Islamic Golden Age), which is usually connected by scholars to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars translated the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists.  One can trace the connection between the perennial philosophy and cultural flowerings all the way back to the Athenian Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when again, the human soul looks up from narrow tribalism, and smiles. Socrates declares: ‘I am a citizen of the universe’, leading the Stoics to suggest that all humans have a spark of the divine logos within them.

These are important moments of collective epiphany and cultural evolution in the story of homo sapiens. What they seem to have in common is a strong sense of cultural self-confidence – ‘we are Indians!’, ‘we are Americans!’, ‘we are Athenians!’ etc – with an openness to other cultures and the best they have to teach. And there’s a sense of optimism in progress, a sense of humans rising up and realizing their inner divinity – you see this in Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration, in Emerson’s great sermon on self-reliance, in Huxley’s lectures on human potential.

The varieties of Perennialism

But then I thought, perennialism isn’t always optimistic and hopeful. While researching the perennial philosophy, you can’t help but come across a movement called Traditionalism. It was started by a French thinker called René Guénon in around 1920. Like the mystical expats, he was initially inspired by Vedanta, then he flirted with Catholicism, got into Taoism, before moving to Egypt and becoming initiated into a Sufi order. He inspired other traditionalists including Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola and Mircea Eliade.

There’s a lot of similarities between Huxley et al’s Perennial Philosophy, and Guénon et al’s Traditionalism – they share the idea that western civilization has lost its soul in mechanical materialism, and that only a return to the core of wisdom at the heart of the great religious traditions will save civilization from collapse.

And yet Traditionalism is a much more pessimistic movement. Guénon and his successors, like the followers of Gurdjieff, thought wisdom could only ever be esoteric, reserved for the initiated elite. The masses would never get it. Traditionalists were constantly joining or creating esoteric secret societies, like the Gnostic Church, the Masons, the Maryamiya, the ‘Fraternity of the Cavalier of the Divine Paraclete’, or the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’.

They typically despaired of democratic politics, and flirted with the far-right – in Julius Evola’s case, this flirtation was quite explicit, as he tried to ingratiate himself first with Italian fascism and then with the Nazis. Mircea Eliade also had connections to the Romanian far-right. Where Huxley et al became cheery prophets of human potential, the Traditionalists were doom-mongers of the Apocalypse – they insisted we’re in Kali Yuga, a Hindu dark age of conflict and spiritual mediocrity. Humans aren’t ascending, we’re on the down-elevator, so the elite should withdraw and prepare for the deluge, or possibly seize power.

Reading about the Traditionalists yesterday, it struck me how human destinies can flow in such different directions from similar plateaus. I can well imagine Huxley et al becoming authoritarian Traditionalists. Huxley, like many modernists of his generation, was an aristocratic elitist – whenever he writes about bourgeois or proletarian mass culture, he invariably uses the word ‘squalid’. He and Gerald Heard often wondered if the perennial philosophy was suitable for the many, or just the initiated few. They pondered this in the 1950s and 60s with regard to psychedelics (Huxley decided they should just be for the intelligentsia). Heard, who in his last years became a guru to wealthy libertarian CEOs, suggested that spiritual education should focus on an elite – whom he called the ‘neo-brahmins’ – who could then rise to power. Particularly during World War 2, one finds the same note of deep cultural pessimism in Huxley and Heard’s writings as one finds in Guénon and Evola.

Why, then, did the mystical expats not become gloomy quasi-fascist Traditionalists? One reason is surely California. While Guénon was fulminating in a Cairo bedsit, Huxley and his gang were picnicking with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood Hills. They were living in gorgeous pads in Santa Monica. They were having too much fun to be fascist. Maybe the LA weather made them cheerier. Or maybe they found a culture more hospitable to their ideas – they were on the radio, on TV, lecturing away on campuses and at places like Esalen. Perhaps that gave them an optimism in human potential.

Another reason is Huxley and Heard had more faith in scientific progress than Guénon, who thought the urge to quantify everything was a symptom of the Kali Yuga. Huxley and Heard thought psychology could shed new light on the human psyche, that new psycho-spiritual methods could be discovered and disseminated, new drugs discovered. They may be right, although quantified spirituality has all kinds of risks – both Huxley and Heard can be over-credulous in their faith in new research.

Whatever the many causes, their lives ran in a different direction, and they took a bet on democratic mysticism – mysticism for the many, not the few.

Today, more and more of us are perennialists – a quarter of adult Americans are ‘spiritual but not religious’, and 35% of American millennials. Yet we can still see how many different directions a tide can break. We can see that Bay Area spirituality can easily become elitist – we the 1% are the spiritual supermen, the rest of society is screwed, let’s move to New Zealand, or space. We see that the perennial philosophy can still become deeply pessimistic and quasi-fascist – Steve Bannon and other alt-righters sing the praises of Julius Evola (my dark namesake) and argue that western civilization needs to re-embrace spiritual wisdom before it is over-run by immigrants.

I feel a strain of cultural pessimism in me too. Are we in an age of cultural ascent, or cultural decline? I’d probably go with Guénon and say we’re in the Kali Yuga. Thanks to people like Watts and Huxley, we have a very wide spirituality, with more and more people practicing wisdom techniques from Stoicism / Buddhism / Hinduism etc. But the width of participation seems to come at the cost of the height of attainment – where are the saints? Where are the masters? Every guru turns out to be a sex-pest. And, like Huxley, I worry about over-population and the damage we are doing to the ecosystem. It seems more likely to me that this century will be one of cultural collapse than spiritual ascent.

Clearly, I need to move to California and cheer up. Anyway, width of participation in spirituality is probably more important than height of practice. If several million people learn a bit of wisdom and suffer a bit less, that seems good to me. The ascent of humanity is very slow, but we’re getting there, together.