Aldous Huxley in California

An English writer who became an American citizen in 1946, CHRISTOPHER ISUERWOOD has done scripts for film studios in hath countries and collaborated with W. H. Auden in the writing of three plays. He became a resident student of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, where he worked in making translations from the Sanskrit, and during these years he was in close touch with Aldous Huxley.

I FIRST met Aldous Huxley in California, during the early summer of 1939. The Huxleys, Gerald Heard, and another close friend, named Christopher Wood, had moved out there from Europe to settle two years previously. They formed a group which had expanded to include some very different kinds of people: Charlie Chaplin, for example, and Krishnamurti, Anita Loos, Paulette Goddard, Edwin Hubble, Greta Garbo. One didn’t think of Maria Huxley as being what is usually meant by a “great" hostess: yet, in her charmingly haphazard way — by accident, almost —she created some historic parties. At that period, the Huxleys lived in Santa Monica, not far from the beach, in an extraordinarily sinister house which was built and furnished in a style that I can best describe as logcabin decadent. The place was so dimly illuminated that a lady to whom I had just been introduced once said to me, “Will you light my cigarette so I can see your face?” Its art treasures included a painting of a giant ape carrying off a virgin in torn veils, and several fetishistic pictures of “cruel” high-booted ladies, probably German in origin. Neither Maria nor Aldous seemed to have made any attempt to alter the decor, which had been dreamed up by their fun-loving landlord; their own lives were quite without relation to it, and they showed you around with civilized humor, as though they themselves were merely houseguests.

Aldous’ physical appearance took me by surprise. 1 had expected somebody resembling the skinny, thickly bespectacled, spiderlike intellectual of the early photographs. (Or had I made my private image of the young author of Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, and Point Counter Point to match my opinion of the books themselves? I am one of those who maintain that nearly all of Huxley’s best work was done in the latter, American half of his life.) In any case, the Aldous in his middle forties whom I now met in the flesh was slender but not at all skinny, and the insect look I had discovered in his photographs seemed to me to be more of a bird look, benevolent and quick with interest in his surroundings. He no longer wore spectacles. When he talked, his beautifully sensitive features seemed literally to shine with enthusiasm. He was interested in so many subjects that he could talk to anybody — anybody, that is, who was also interested. Thus he could thoroughly enjoy the company of children and teen-agers, scientists, ranchers, actresses, priests, and professors. It was only in the presence of the indifferent, the insincere, and the double-talker that he became uncomfortable and aloof.

Aldous’ clothes were usually informal. But he wore everything well, and when he put on a suit, he looked marvelously distinguished. It was not in his character to be consciously dressy; but he was never careless, and I think he must have had a certain affection for some of the things he wore. For instance, he had kept a tie from Paris for more than twenty years and would remark that it was ‘’like an early Rouault.”

Aldous had given up using spectacles because he had become a convert to the Bates Method of Visual Reeducation; he describes it in The Art of Seeing. I have neither the authority nor the inclination to express a personal opinion on this subject; I merely record that I have seen people who were discussing it become enraged to the point of incoherence, and I can well believe that it has sometimes been the cause of fistfights. And the Bates battle was mild in comparison with the battle over mescaline and lysergic acid which broke out about fifteen years later, after Aldous had published The Doors of Perceptionand still rages. Indeed, Aldous was the most “engaged” of writers; he was always getting involved in controversies, from conscientious objection to the Chessman case. He never hesitated to play an active part in them either; he joined his son Matthew in a picket line outside a movie studio on one occasion, and went up to Sacramento on several others to bring pressure to bear on the state legislature. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, he never seemed fanatical or even particularly excited. Courteous in argument and calmly assured, he maintained an air of objectivity which nevertheless wasn’t in the least superior. Only, when confronted by some truly awful instance of stupidity or prejudice, he would sometimes utter a wild little laugh, raising his arms and letting them fall again to his sides in a gesture of amused despair.

Not unnaturally, people who knew Aldous tended to judge the whole Bates Method by the condition of his eyesight; some claimed that the method had improved it, others passionately denied this. To me, one of the most mysterious things about Aldous was what he could see and what he couldn’t, and how, exactly, he saw what he saw. How much did he actually see and how much did he cognize by some kind of built-in radar? You watched him cross a street. You didn’t want to embarrass him by taking his arm, and yet you were tense with anxiety, for he seemed like a blind man. Then, to your astonished relief, he would put his foot firmly onto the opposite sidewalk, which you would have sworn he hadn’t seen. I remember once standing with him outside his house at Llano in the Mojave Desert and being surprised when he remarked on the beauty of the sierras which rose far away along the horizon. And once, while we were out driving, he called to Maria to stop the car because there was a clump of mariposa lilies, at least a hundred yards from the highway. I hadn’t even noticed them. On the other hand, it must be recorded that he had one serious fall, while walking on a hillside road, which could not have happened to a man with normal vision.

ALDOUS and Maria both loved the desert. Indeed, Aldous was attached to California by a love for the terrain itself; this was perhaps his strongest reason for remaining there in later years. But life at Llano had its problems. The irrigation water was owned by a rancher who lived higher up the mountain; it was released into the garden along a system of ditches on certain days only, between certain hours. The Huxleys had their own gasoline engine for generating electric light. (To eliminate the fire hazard, it was sunk in a pit in the middle of the yard and covered by a trapdoor. On this trapdoor, Maria had placed an otherwise unwanted terra-cotta bust of Gerald Heard by way of ornament, and the pit was therefore known as “Gerald’s Tomb.”) Maria would beg you to use a candle if you wanted to read during the night. One night I forgot and flipped the light switch; the engine started with a clatter like a motorbike’s and woke everybody else up.

Then there were the coyotes, who would send their bitches to lure away the male ranch dogs and then set on them and kill them. (A few ranch dogs were said to have been so big and strong that they killed their attackers and thereafter ran wild as leaders of the pack.) And there were the rattlesnakes; Aldous would go for long walks, and Maria was always afraid that one of them would lash out at him from underneath a mesquite bush. But the danger to which Aldous finally fell a victim was less apparent. One day, Maria found a pretty flower which had been washed down the hillside by a rainstorm. She planted it outside Aldous’ study window. It proved to be a species of ragweed, and it gave him an allergic rash all over his body. This, I believe, was one of the several mishaps which made the Huxleys decide to give up the Llano house and return to live in Los Angeles.

Aldous was an exceptionally sensitive human instrument, and his health was correspondingly variable. One week he would look fresh and healthy and even robust; the next, wan, shattered, almost spectral. He suffered from all kinds of ailments, but they seemed to interest him quite as much as they distressed him. He would talk about them at length, objectively and without complaining. “I feel curiously deconstellated,” he told me once, after being given a new type of shot. Both he and Maria were great connoisseurs of doctors; it sometimes seemed to their friends that they were prepared to consult absolutely anyone, at least once, in a spirit of disinterested experimentation.

Actually, this fearless curiosity was one of Aldous’ noblest characteristics, a function of his greatness as a human being. Little people are so afraid of what the neighbors will say if they ask Life unconventional questions. Aldous questioned unceasingly, and it never occurred to him to bother about the neighbors. They laughed at him for consulting unlicensed healers and investigating psychic phenomena, and it was true that many of the healers proved to be wrong and many of the mediums frauds. That was unimportant from Aldous’ point of view. For his researches also brought into his hands some very odd and precious pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Truth, pieces that may not be officially fitted into the main pattern and recognized as scientifically respectable for many years to come.

Not long before my arrival in California, Heard and Huxley had met Swami Prabhavananda, a Hindu monk of the Ramakrishna Order, who had founded a center in Hollywood for the study and practice of Vedanta philosophy. Later, Heard introduced me to him. This was a contact which had far-reaching effects on the lives of all three of us. In Huxley’s case, it was widely represented as the selling out of a once brilliant intellect. Huxley was alleged to have undergone a failure of nerve, to have relapsed into woolly-minded mysticism and embraced oriental mumbo jumbo. Well, that is old history now, and nothing to get heated about. At least it cannot be denied that Huxley’s preoccupation with Vedanta inspired some of his best books.

In September, 1942, I heard Aldous make a personal statement to a small group of people on the relation between his concern with mystical religion and his art. I wrote down some of it verbatim, and i think it is well worth repeating here; the very artlessness of its expression, so unlike the lucidity and polish of Aldous’ written work, seems to me to convey something of his live personality.

I came to this thing in a rather curious way, as a reductio ad absurdum. I have mainly lived in the world of intellectual life and art. But the world of knowing about tilings is unsatisfactory. It’s no good knowing about the taste of strawberries out of a book. The more I think of art I realize that though artists do establish some contact with spiritual reality, they establish it unconsciously. Beauty is imprisoned, as it were, within the white spaces between the lines of a poem, between the notes of music, in the apertures between groups of sculpture. This function or talent is unconscious. They throw a net and catch something, though the net is trivial. . . . But one wants to go further. One wants to have a conscious taste of these holes between the strings of the net. . . . Now, obviously, one could never possibly give it up.

That last sentence has the ring of an emotional intensity which Aldous very seldom displayed — to me, at any rate. In a world of backslappers and soul-barers, he avoided superfluous physical contacts and unasked-for confessions. When he was suffering the pain of Life most keenly, he said the least — during the worst days of the war, for example, or during Maria’s slow death from cancer, or in the loss of his house and papers by fire.

I got the impression that Aldous regarded the art of the novel as a necessary nuisance. He had things to say in fictional form, but the weaving of the fiction bored him. He would often hold forth on the futility of literature in general. The great masters expressed themselves marvelously, of course, but what was the point of it all? What was it all about? One night, he was talking to me like this at a party and thoroughly enjoying himself: Homer was terribly overrated, Dante was hopelessly limited, Shakespeare was such a stupid man, Goethe was such a bore, Tolstoy was so silly. Suddenly, a look of uneasiness came over his face, “You know, I must confess, I’ve never read Lope de Vega — ”

“I have,” I told Aldous.

“And what about him? Is he any good?”

Eager to play my part in the game and not be a spoilsport, I answered, “He stinks.”

And Aldous exclaimed with unfeigned relief, “Oh, I am glad to hear you say that!”

It is hardly necessary to add that this kind of talk was no more than a reaction, and a most healthy one, against the official idolatry of the arts, which (Aldous was fond of saying) is one of our modern substitutes for religion. He could be amusingly perceptive about academic art-jargon. Describing how some professors had been talking to him about D. H. Lawrence and how he hadn’t been able to understand a single word they said, he added, “They’ve invented their own absolutely unintelligible technical language because they feel they have to justify their existence by pretending that literature is a branch of science.”

He seldom talked to me specifically about his own work. A note in my diary, January 9, 1940, reveals that Aldous was then already considering the subject matter of what was to be, twenty-two years later, his last novel, Island. There is also a reference to another project he described, a novel which “explores the problem of the meaning of words and the utter inadequacy of all existing language.” In January, 1944, I was taking him to see a typist I had recommended to type Time Must Have a Stop. I asked him what the new novel was about. He thought carefully before replying, “It’s a curiously trivial story, told in great detail, with a certain amount of squalor.''

ALDOUS and Maria had seemed an inseparable couple. We all dreaded the long-term effects of bereavement on Aldous and were relieved when he married again. He seemed very happy as he told me about the wedding, which took place at a drivein chapel at Yuma, Arizona, in March, 1956, with what Aldous described as “a broken-down cowboy” for a witness. “Really” he exclaimed, “there are so many delightful and intelligent and unusual people in the world!” Then —how characteristically— he added, “And so many unspeakably awful ones!”

In 1961, the house into which Aldous and Laura had moved after their marriage was destroyed by a brush fire. Driven by veering winds, the flames darted about the hillside with fiendish caprice; the house immediately behind the Huxleys’ was unharmed. Certain journalists, with the unmotivated falsehood which sometimes makes their trade seem purely evil, wrote that Aldous had shed tears and had had to be restrained from rushing into the flames to rescue his archives. Aldous was naturally indignant about this. As a matter of fact, both Aldous and Laura behaved with a self-discipline worthy of an Asian philosopher; when they saw that the fire was out of control and that nothing more could be done, they got into their car and drove quietly away. Aldous told me, with ironical relish, that the television trucks arrived at least twenty minutes before the fire engines.

My final memories, except for the last one, are happy. After the fire, Aldous and Laura spent much of their time at the home of their friend Virginia Pfeiffer. She, too, had lost her house in the same fire and had moved, with magnificent assurance, into another quite nearby. Aldous went for walks around the Hollywood reservoir, with its wooded islands, which he had always loved; he was constantly busy on various literary projects; he had fun with Virginia’s delightful adopted children; he and Laura traveled widely and returned to tell us stories of Brazil and India and Europe at pleasant supper parties. We heard rumors that he had had cancer of the tongue and been cured. I didn’t inquire further because I didn’t want to think about it. Then, on November 5, 1963, I visited him at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where he had been taken for a few days of tests or treatment. just before I went into his room, the surgeon told me that his condition was hopeless; the cancer was spreading rapidly.

Aldous looked like a withered old man, grayfaced, with dull blank eyes. He spoke in a low hoarse voice which was hard to understand. I had to sit directly facing him because it hurt him to turn his head. And vet, seeing what I saw and knowing what I knew, I could still almost forget about his condition while we talked, because his mind was functioning so well. I was nervous at first and talked at random. I mentioned Africa, and Aldous said that all the new African nations would soon be governed by their armies. I mentioned V. V. Rozanov’s Solitaria, which I had just been reading. Aldous promptly quoted a passage from it, in which Rozanov says that “the private life is above everything . . . just sitting at home and even picking your nose, and looking at the sunset.” I told him a silly story—not at all the kind of story I would normally have told him — about Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin playing golf. He laughed at it, quite heartily.

Laura had told me that Aldous did not realize how sick he was. But now he began to speak about old age, and I couldn’t help suspecting that this was a kind of metaphor, a way of referring to his own death. He spoke of it almost with petulance, as a wretched hindrance which prevented you from working. He told me that he did not think he would ever write another novel. “I feel more and more out of touch with people.” And he added that when one is old, one is absolutely cut off from the outside world. I told him, quite sincerely, that I have the impression that as I grow older my character gets worse and worse. This made him laugh a lot - not, I think, because he disbelieved me, but because he found the statement somehow reassuring. We parted almost cheerfully. I had hoped to see him at least once or twice again, but even the surgeon’s prognosis was an overestimate. Aldous died that same month, on the twenty-second, not knowing that Kennedy had been shot that morning. It is good that he was no longer in the hospital but back in Virginia’s home, with Laura by his side. And one of his fears, at least, was unfounded. He was able to work right up to the day before the end, dictating the last part of an article on Shakespeare. He was not accustomed to dictation, yet the flow of thought was as clear as always; only a couple of small corrections were necessary before it could be published.