Sunday, November 22, 1992 Home Edition Section: Book Review Page: 9

‘Diseclipsing’ the Light; HUXLEY AND GOD: Essays on Mysticism and Spirituality, By Aldous Huxley Edited by Jacqueline Bridgeman (Harper San Francisco: $13; 285 pp.);

By: Charles Marowitz Marowitz is a director and writer who lives in Los Angeles. His most recent publications are “Recycling Shakespeare” (Applause Books) and “Burnt Bridges” (Hodder & Stoughton)

It is ironic that Aldous Huxley and John F. Kennedy both died on the same day—Nov. 22, 1963—for while the President espoused a “new frontier,” it was Huxley who to a large extent discovered one.

Rarely has there been an essayist-novelist-sage who, from the vantage point of the 1920s and ’30s, prophesied the events of our contemporary world so accurately. Huxley, grandson of scientist T. H. Huxley and great-nephew of classicist Mathew Arnold, was deeply embroiled in our modern agenda: overpopulation, birth-control, polluted oceans, dwindling forests, the absorption of human values by an all-engulfing science and technology. He predicted the invention of surface-to-air missiles, genetic engineering, pharmacological highs and the insidious colonization of society by media and advertising interests.

After writing a brace of biting social satires (“Crome Yellow” and “Antic Hay”), he produced his Utopian nightmare “Brave New World,” which did for the 1930s what George Orwell’s “1984" was to do for the postwar generation. Throughout, he wrote essays, religious tracts, political analyses, newspaper articles, even drama criticism.

Then, much to the chagrin of his earliest supporters, in his later years he wandered into the murky grottoes of religious mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism, Vedanta, the paranormal) and—what was even more horrifying—personally experimented with mescaline and LSD. “The Doors of Perception,” Huxley’s 1954 account of his experiences with these hallucinogens, was, in many ways, the opening shot of the ’60s; to that generation he became a culture-hero, and his book a kind of psychedelic Baedeker.

Although he first made his mark as a novelist, he was never very comfortable in the genre. He viewed novel-writing, according to his friend Christopher Isherwood, “as a necessary nuisance.” The actual weaving of fiction “bored him.” But in his essays, that multifaceted intelligence that could juggle science and history, religion and art, psychology and politics shone with a luciferous light. In “Huxley and God,” editor Jacqueline Bridgeman has culled together 26 pieces that convey Huxley’s fascination with the impenetrable and the unknowable.

The essays range from microscopic analyses of things like the Lord’s Prayer and a speech from “Henry V” to weighty discourses on subjects such as time, progress, contemplation, knowledge and understanding. One or two are cribbed from larger works such as “Time Must Have a Stop,” “The Perennial Philosophy” and “Grey Eminence,” but most are little-known pieces originally published by the Vedanta Society. The most accessible, and in many ways the most arresting, are the texts of lectures delivered to that society in the ’50s and ’60s. Whatever the subject, Huxley’s theme of “diseclipsing” the light that stands between ourselves and true enlightenment runs through the pages like an ominous seismological crack.

Through a weird kind of synchronicity that often brings the right man into the right milieu, Huxley settled in California in 1937. His mystical predisposition and pre-New Age predilections fitted in perfectly with his adopted home. Although his reasons for moving here were the terrain and the clear and abundant southwestern light, there was also, as it turned out, an affinity for cults and spiritual disciplines which, then as now, made him a kindred spirit in Los Angeles. (There is even a kind of odd relevance in this book being published by a San Francisco publishing house.)

Huxley’s fascination with spirituality was in large part an extension of the intellectual’s fascination with tantalizing abstractions. “True philosophy,” he told Andre Maurois, “is religion or else it is art, which is simply another form of religion.” Every self-contained system of thought holds out the promise that it will reveal the secrets of “ultimate reality,” a phrase that crawls endlessly through these pages like an elusive caterpillar through high grass. One feels that what constantly eludes Huxley, and what he is most intent on capturing, is not so much the State of Grace or some higher degree of karma, but a most finite articulation of what these spiritual states consist of. It is their definition that excites him, not necessarily their realization in his own nature.

And yet throughout these essays, Huxley is propounding the paradox of language obstructing the route to higher consciousness. He reminds us of St. Paul who talked about “the newness of spirit” and the “oldness of the letter” and how “the letter killeth” and “the spirit giveth life.” The search for Buddhahood fails because one is too consciously striving for it; by overvaluing words, we mistake the thing described for the thing itself; the conscious mind tries to hold truth in its grasp, but like water, it trickles through our fingers.

This fascination with the transcendental is often most intense in the mind of a voracious intellectual like Huxley, who has already digested the secrets of science and technology, psychology and religion, art and literature. For such people mysticism, like space-travel for the astronomers, represents the unconquered universe—the last hold-out against verifiable human knowledge.

When he is following his hunches and soaring on the wings of speculation, we experience a dazzling flight through vast and unexpected landscapes, but sometimes his zeal grounds him and then it is a little like being buttonholed by a Hare Krishna loony in an airport lounge. In chapters like “Distraction,” Huxley exhorts us to abandon the trivial and the inconsequential, which, in his view, diverts us from the jollies of the higher consciousness. In such moments, it is as if he is denying God a “happy hour” or a Sunday morning goof-off with the funny papers. In his earnest quest for deeper in sights, there is a distinct tendency to undervalue ordinary human existence, which is understandable in a man whose inner circle contained scientists, physicians, mystics and philosophers, but deplorable in that it prevented him from enjoying the distinctive pleasures of junk food, junk ideas and junk people. Which also explains somewhat his deficiency as a novelist for, as Chesterton pointed out, “A great novelist must above all be vulgar because life is vulgar and men are vulgar and because it is the novelist’s object to reproduce life.” As a writer and as a man, Huxley was a patrician whereas the greatest novelists were always, at base, plebs.

When he was a young man at Eton, a streptococcus infection attacked his eyes, and he was virtually blind for a year. Throughout his life, he had partial sight in only one eye and, given this impediment, the volume and breadth of his reading is staggering. Like Beethoven, who entered an even more plangent world of sound when he was deaf, Huxley experienced his greatest insights when his vision was most impaired.

It is that enforced introversion perhaps that accounts for his mystical tendencies. In a way very different from you or me, Huxley inhabited an “inner world” and, despite publicly held positions on a wide variety of social and political issues, it was in that interior world that he conducted his most painstaking research. Although in his last years he immersed himself completely, the preoccupation with mysticism was apparent from his earliest works, even in “Crome Yellow.” It is a mistake to see it as the aberration of a writer fading into his twilight years. It is much more the logical conclusion of the intellectual quest that began during his first years in Oxford. There was, from the very first, an ongoing relationship between Huxley and God.

The urbanity and literary sophistication that Huxley brings to subjects that could so easily become soupily spiritual or turgidly transcendental is what gives this collection its special tang and makes it intensely readable even when the author is vainly trying to define the ineffable.

PHOTO: Aldous Huxley in 1938 Type of Material: Book Review

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