In her memoir Kiss Hollywood Goodbye Anita Loos recalls her friend Aldous Huxley’s ‘childish love for picnics’. One excursion he organised ‘might have taken place in Alice in Wonderland’. Huxley had gathered a choice selection of his Californian friends: Charlie Chaplin and his wife, Paulette Goddard, dressed ‘in a Mexican peasant outfit’; Greta Garbo, wearing a ‘sloppy pair of men’s trousers and a battered hat with a brim that hid her face’; the visiting Bertrand Russell; Christopher Isherwood; and Huxley’s favourite mystic, Krishnamurti, accompanied by a retinue of Theosophists and vegetarian catering ladies in saris. While his guests looked like pixies ‘on a spree’, according to Loos, Huxley himself resembled a ‘giant from some second-rate circus’. He had indulged his taste for the seedy parts of the city by choosing ‘the dusty bottom of the Los Angeles River, drier than a desert and strewn with rusty cans and pop bottles’, as an anti-pastoral setting for the picnic.
The Indian delegation set about to boil their rice but while we were unpacking the other picnic fare, we were rudely shocked by a gruff voice demanding, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ There hove into view a sheriff … with a gun in his hand.
‘Doesn’t anybody in this gang know how to read?’ he asked Aldous. Aldous meekly allowed he could read but still he didn’t understand the man until he pointed out a sign we hadn’t noticed. It read ‘No Trespassing.’
When Huxley’s promise to clean up the riverbed was met with continued hostility, he played his trump card, proudly introducing his world famous movie star friends. But ‘the sheriff squinted his measly little eyes at them. “Don’t give me that!” he snarled. “I seen them stars in the movies and none of ’em belong in this outfit. Get out of here, you tramps, or I’ll arrest the whole slew of you.”’
Like many British writers in the 1930s, Huxley had been lured to Hollywood by the easy money supposedly on offer from the studios, which liked to parade a certain literary pedigree. A month after Huxley’s arrival in 1937, P.G. Wodehouse left, but J.B. Priestley, Hugh Walpole and Anthony Powell were all hawking their wares with varying degrees of success (Powell was hindered by the fact that his agent had dropped dead on Hollywood Boulevard a few days before his visit). Unlike Huxley, these other English writers found Los Angeles unappealing: ‘No wars, no politics, no deaths make any effect here. We are all on a raft together in the middle of the cinema sea! Nothing is real here but the salaries,’ Walpole wrote.
A decade earlier, during his first trip to the US in 1926, Huxley had formed an incongruous friendship with Loos (at 4’11” she matched Huxley’s height sitting down; he said he’d like to keep her as a pet). On that visit Huxley had found America distasteful. In his volume of essays Proper Studies, published in 1927, he wrote that, in the US, ‘all the resources of science are applied in order that imbecility may flourish and vulgarity cover the whole earth.’ Early Huxley, the satirist who delighted in admonishing the world, displayed an aversion to most forms of 20th-century popular culture. Jazz was ‘brassy guffaw and caterwauling’; movies banal, empty titillation. He argued that the ‘effortless pleasures’ provided by mass entertainment existed ‘merely to fill a gap of leisure, to kill time and prevent thought, to deaden and diffuse emotion’. ‘Of all the various poisons which modern civilisation by a process of auto-intoxication, brews quietly up within its own bowels,’ Huxley wrote, ‘few, it seems to me, are more deadly (while none appears more harmless) than that curious and appalling thing which is technically known as “pleasure”.’ Huxley recoiled from America’s embrace of manufactured pleasure. He believed that ‘ready-made distractions’, incessantly marketed at the working class with manipulative advertising, meant that ‘our leisures are now as highly mechanised as our labours … [in] the sphere of play no less than the sphere of work, creation has become the privilege of a fortunate few. The common man has always had to suffer from lack of money; he is now condemned to psychological poverty as well.’
Huxley singled out Henry Ford as the figurehead of this mass-produced society, attacking his belief that workers should be trained not to think creatively in order to keep them subservient. Huxley’s understanding of the logic of Fordism underpins Brave New World, which takes place in the year 632 AF – that is, after Ford invented the Model T. An unthinking proletariat is lulled into unmindfulness by popular culture, drugs and sex – as Lenina sings in the shower:
Hug me till you drug me, honey;
Kiss me till I’m in a coma,
Hug me honey, snuggly bunny;
Love’s as good as Soma.
Hollywood itself was viewed by Huxley as providing a kind of sexual narcotic for the masses. He claimed in an essay from 1936 that it was more than likely that moviegoers ‘have an insufficient and/or unromantic sex life; are married and wish they weren’t, or unmarried and wish they were; are too old or too young, in a word are themselves and not somebody else. Hence those Don Juans, those melting beauties, those innocent young kittens, those beautifully brutal boys, those luscious adventuresses. Hence Hollywood.’ Throughout his fiction there’s a puritan unease about the emasculating effect of sex. Sybille Bedford, Huxley’s first biographer, notes his distaste for promiscuity, ‘which spends itself purposely, without producing love or even, in the long run, amusement’. After Many a Summer, Time Must Have a Stop and The Genius and the Goddess all centre on a coercive or unbalanced sexual relationship, which leads to death or else to a deadening of the mind.
Given the satiric disgust that America provoked in Huxley, it might appear perverse that he not only chose to move to California in 1937 but spent the rest of his life there, dying in Los Angeles in 1963. In fact America was perfect for Huxley, its very confusion of values allowing him to shift away from a European sensibility bound up with history, politics and nature. Instead Huxley started to search for a more timeless and ‘disembodied’ self. The gap between Huxley and his garish new world seems to have made this transition possible.
Huxley opens After Many a Summer, the first novel he wrote in California, with a description of the sprawling landscape of Beverly Hills, seen through the bewildered eyes of Jeremy Pordage, a repressed English literary pedant. The disparate architectural styles, all thrown together, disturb him.
Jeremy saw the façades of houses, all new, almost all in good taste – elegant and witty pastiches of Lutyens manor houses, of Little Trianons, of Monticellos; light-hearted parodies of Le Corbusier’s solemn machines-for-living-in; fantastic adaptations of Mexican haciendas and New England farms. The houses succeeded one another, like pavilions at some endless international exhibition. Gloucestershire followed Andalusia and gave place in turn to Touraine and Oaxaca, Düsseldorf and Massachusetts.
For Pordage this jumbling up challenges his European self. Jo Stoyte, whose collection of books Pordage has come to archive, is a William Randolph Hearst-style Hollywood tycoon who owns ‘BEVERLEY PANTHEON, The Personality Cemetery’, a vast graveyard landscaped as a country estate which contains replicas of famous buildings from all over the world: of the Tower of Pisa (‘only this one didn’t lean’), the Taj Mahal and Shakespeare’s chapel in Stratford.
Stoyte, desperate to achieve immortality, finances the scientist Obispo’s quest to find the formula for eternal life. California is, of course, the perfect setting for a satire concerned with the obsessive search for unending physical gratification and the equally obsessive fear of death. In Stoyte’s mortuary, liberated from time-bound decrepitude by skilled morticians, the corpses become athletes, forever playing golf or tennis in an afterlife that’s a facsimile of the Beverly Hills Country Club. Rigor mortis is simply an opportunity for a perfect, fixed smile.
But although Huxley mocks California’s death denial, he shares the longing to escape time. Propter, the first true mystic in his fiction, lives a simple, Emersonian life of self-reliance and, like his old schoolfriend Stoyte, is a seeker after eternity. The character of Propter is based partly on Gerald Heard, Huxley’s friend and Isherwood’s guru and yoga instructor. But, with his earnest spirituality, Propter is also a satiric self-portrait, balancing that of Pordage, the desiccated, cynical historian. Propter’s mystical ruminations on eternity are anathema to Pordage, who seeks to hold on to a traditional English sense of order and self:
His fears had been justified; the old boy was launching out into the worst kind of theology. Eternity, timeless experience of good, time as the substance of evil – it was bad enough, God knew, in books; but fired at you like this, point blank, by somebody who really took it seriously, why it was really frightful. Why on earth couldn’t people live their lives in a rational, civilised way? Why couldn’t they take things as they came? Breakfast at nine, lunch at one thirty, tea at five.
The title of After Many a Summer comes from Tennyson’s ‘Tithonus’:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms
Its irony is underlined when Huxley ends the novel by returning to satire. The fifth Earl of Gonister is revealed to have miraculously survived from the 18th century by eating fish guts. But rather than a beautiful youth, the earl is a ‘foetal ape’ imprisoned in a cage, who repeatedly rapes his centuries-old housekeeper.
After Many a Summer both suffers and benefits from the unresolved tension between the demands of satire and mysticism. The novel reuses the ‘country house’ form that allowed Huxley, in early novels such as Crome Yellow and These Barren Leaves, to assemble a menagerie of types and viewpoints for satiric effect. Propter, with his long, quasi-philosophical monologues, dominates and deadens the narrative, but other characters resemble those from the early satires. The weird Hollywood mix of trashy sensuality and vulgar confidence is embodied in Virginia, Stoyte’s pneumatic mistress. Her character and story parallels that of Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst’s lover, while her physical attributes recall Paulette Goddard (with whom, according to Loos, both Huxley and his son were taken). Virginia is a wild child who likes to go shopping dressed in a swimsuit and a fur coat. Her mental vacuity could also almost be seen as a kind of spirituality.
Huxley the English satirist is amused by the way blankness can appear to be a blissful, meditative state. Huxley the Californian transcendentalist wants to achieve the same unmindfulness, what Propter defines as ‘a state of impersonal mind, a mode of un-individualised consciousness’. The young women who loiter outside LA drugstores share this blankness. To Pordage’s European eyes, they ‘seemed to be absorbed in silent prayer; but he supposed, on second thought, it was only gum that they were thus incessantly ruminating. Gum, not God.’ Are the gum-chewers mystics or morons? This is the paradox California sets up for Huxley. One answer lies in the duality of cinema. We can project ourselves beyond our bodies and exist with the stars in a dreamlike state at the same time as we sit munching popcorn and watching commercials. California is a vast enterprise, founded to cater for the dreams of successive waves of immigrants. Huxley knew that Hollywood not only represents our unconsciousness but also manufactures it. His first attempt at a film script, Success, was a fable about the power of American advertising, which could turn a humble sausage-maker into a national figure. It was so bad his agent refused to show it to anyone (it’s hard to get away with satirising success in the States). He suggested to Harpo Marx one evening that they make a picture about the real Marx brothers. Groucho could play Karl, Harpo would be Engels, Chico Bakunin. Harpo replied: ‘They don’t do films like that here, Aldous.’ Thanks to Loos’s connections, Huxley landed a well-paid assignment, a screenplay about Marie Curie for MGM. When asked later what had happened to Huxley’s version, the producer confessed he had never found time to read it, but had given it to his secretary, ‘who told him it stinks’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald was employed on one of the many rewrites). Huxley summed up his feelings about the movie business in a letter to his brother, Julian. Producers had the ‘minds of chimpanzees, agitated and infinitely distractable’.
As a prospective screenwriter, Huxley was hindered by having to sit no more than twenty feet away from the cinema screen in order to see the picture. His lifelong struggle with his eyesight was another reason he stayed in California: its clear, constant sunlight helped him to see. Once, during another picnic, Huxley was strolling along Santa Monica beach with his wife, Maria, and Thomas and Katia Mann, when Maria pointed out some long white shapes moving in a vaguely suggestive fashion. Aldous saw them as flowers, blowing in the wind. Maria realised that they were condoms, thousands of them, spread across the deserted beach. Gas, escaping from the outflow of a sewage pipe, had caused some of them to appear to be standing to attention. (In his novel Ape and Essence Huxley wrote of the freight of condoms whitening ‘this lonely beach with a galaxy as of windflowers/Or summer daisies’).
Huxley’s faulty vision, for Loos, merely meant that ‘he appeared to be looking at things above and beyond what other people saw.’ It’s easier to move beyond satiric disgust towards mystical enlightenment if you distrust appearances, resist the claims of the physical world and focus inwards. Like Albus in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, who only starts to perceive the reality of colours after he becomes blind, Huxley strove for a psychic experience that would allow him to remake the visual; he wanted ‘the visionary effect of an intense preternatural colour and light’, something he believed movies could bring. In his treatise Heaven and Hell gemstones promise a land ‘of curved reflections, of softly lustrous glazes, of sleek and smooth surfaces. In a word, the beauty transports the beholder, because it reminds him, obscurely or explicitly, of the preternatural lights and colour of the Other World.’
In Huxley’s next novel, Time Must Have a Stop, he allocates the ‘mystical experience’ to Eustace Barnack, a cynical English aesthete, who lives a debauched existence in 1920s Florence. Eustace has undertaken to help finish the education of his handsome young nephew Sebastian, an aspiring poet, and plans to teach him the ways of the world. But rather than following the pattern of a traditional éducation sentimentale the novel takes a sharp turn when Eustace drops dead, a victim of his hedonistic lifestyle.
The part of the novel that really engages Huxley deals with the dead Eustace who, trapped in a purgatorial spirit realm, is forced to confront the evasions and limitations of his former physical existence. Progression is regression, Huxley implies, as the dead – yet still somehow present – Eustace learns acceptance in a replayed and magnified moment of childhood innocence:
There was an abrupt displacement of awareness, and he was discovering another fragment of himself … lying in the long grass beside the cricket field at school. Looking up sleepily, through closed eyelids, at the hazy, almost tangible blueness of an English summer afternoon. And as he looked something extraordinary happened … it was as though something like a curtain had been drawn back … everything was suddenly different, everything had fallen to bits … Something had broken through the crust of customary appearance. A lava gush, from some other, more real order of existence.
Huxley also gives Eustace the ability to see beyond his own time-bound existence. He experiences the events of the Second World War, including the deaths of family members who were alive at the time of his own death in 1929. Huxley plays with the narrative’s chronology to try and embody an escape from the linearity of time, but it’s laboured. The abbreviated ending of Time Must Have a Stop, which shows an older Sebastian embracing the life of the spirit, is slack and unaffecting. Character and narrative mattered less and less to Huxley. Propter dismisses literature as ‘just an accumulation of facts and anecdotes unenlightened by a co-ordinating philosophy’. For him, to be liberated from time is to be freed from ‘all the magnified projections of our personalities which we call our policies, our ideals’. If the idea behind Eustace’s out-of-body, out-of-time searching is to reach this unindividualised consciousness, then the novel defeats itself.
Auden, interviewed in the Paris Review, commented that he didn’t think ‘the mystical experience can be verbalised. When the ego disappears, so does power over language.’ Huxley started to experiment with mescaline in the 1950s to induce this transpersonal consciousness, and his subsequent work alternates between semi-mystical studies such as The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell and essays extolling the benefits of American technological and scientific advances (his earlier critique of Fordism is quietly shelved). Literature becomes an irrelevant distraction.
The Genius and the Goddess, a slight novella Huxley wrote in 1955, opens with a sweeping dismissal of literature:
The trouble with fiction … is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither. In the raw, existence is always one damned thing after another, and each of the damned things is simultaneously Thurber and Michelangelo, simultaneously Mickey Spillane and Thomas à Kempis. The criterion of reality is its intrinsic irrelevance.
The plot has its origins in the research Huxley did for the Marie Curie screenplay. He had become fascinated by the way Curie combined an intense involvement in her husband’s scientific work with a promiscuous sexuality. He even found a photograph of the bedroom where she brought her lover, and ‘over the headboard there hung a large framed portrait of her husband.’ In The Genius and the Goddess Huxley ascribes this combination of intellectual respect and sexual unfaithfulness to Katy, the wife of Henry Maartens, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. As in Time Must Have a Stop, where Sebastian has an affair with a widow, physical relationships between an older woman and a younger man are seen as undesirable. Katy feeds on the narrator, John Rivers, a young lab assistant, who, thirty years later, is still obsessed with their relationship. Huxley doesn’t portray any of the examples of sexual attraction in the book in a positive light. Katy’s pubescent daughter, Ruth, has a crush on Rivers. Huxley reduces her feelings to a ‘psycho-physical soup’ that produces ‘events in the nerve endings, the skin, the mucous membranes, the glandular and erectile tissues … The thrill-solution is enriched by a new kind of sensibility that radiates from the nipples.’
Several years before his death, Huxley gave a series of lectures in Santa Barbara, summing up his philosophy (later published as The Human Situation). His embrace of mysticism, he told his student audience, gave him ‘a sense of being boxed into a world where everything has a suffocating feeling of humanity, instead of being other than humanity’.
In Heaven and Hell he wrote about how ‘contemplatives worked systematically to modify their body chemistry with a view to creating the internal conditions favourable to spiritual insight. When they were not starving themselves into low blood sugar and vitamin deficiency … they were cultivating insomnia and praying for long periods in uncomfortable positions in order to create the psycho-physical conditions of stress.’
After such self-abnegation what is left to renounce? One’s own past, perhaps. A year after Maria’s death Aldous married a spiritual healer called Laura Archera and moved to a house in the Hollywood Hills. Loos recounted how their house was destroyed in ‘one of those hellish Southern California brush fires. He and Laura scarcely escaped with their own lives. Aldous’s manuscripts, Maria’s diaries with their record of the eventful years they spent together, Aldous’s priceless collection of letters from great people of his day and a library that had taken years to assemble, were all reduced to ashes.’ As soon as she heard the news, Loos phoned from New York to offer Huxley her sympathy. Reflecting on the experience, Aldous told her: ‘It did make me feel extraordinarily clean.’