Sunday, September 6, 1998 Home Edition Section: Book Review Page: 7

The Treatment; JACOB’S HANDS.
By Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood (St. Martin’s: 138 pp., $14.95);

By: KATHERINE BUCKNELL Katherine Bucknell edited Christopher Isherwood’s “Diaries Volume 1, 1939-1960" and is preparing further volumes

The English-born writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood emigrated separately to the United States—Huxley in 1937 with his small family and with the Irish writer and broadcaster Gerald Heard and another friend, and Isherwood in 1939 with the poet W. H. Auden. Huxley settled in Hollywood as if by chance. He arrived with the hope of selling a film scenario he had written, failed in that hope, fell ill with pneumonia and then convalesced for so long that he decided to stay. Isherwood’s arrival was, by comparison, fated. He was a childhood movie addict, and he had already worked on two film scripts in London. Also, he was following Huxley and Heard because he wanted to find out about their new lives in California.

All three men were pacifists, and they spent the war years in a contemplative vigil: studying Eastern religions, Christian mysticism and the lives of the saints; meditating with a guru they briefly shared; and discussing the forms of religious and secular love. So there is a certain spiritual grandeur to the preoccupations behind “Jacob’s Hands,” which Huxley and Isherwood wrote in the spring of 1944 as World War II was nearing its close. Some of these preoccupations are documented in Huxley’s 1946 book “The Perennial Philosophy,” a selection from theological texts weaved together with explanatory commentary.

Jacob is based on a hired man who had a gift for healing animals and who lived near the Huxleys at Llano, in the Mojave Desert, where the story opens. Huxley had been nearly blind since a severe illness as an adolescent, and his sight deteriorated until after his arrival in California, when he began practicing the eye exercises developed by W.H. Bates. In Llano, he experienced a quasi-miraculous cure. The clear desert light, home-grown food, outdoor work and few visitors all contributed to the completion of his American convalescence and to a partial recovery of his sight. He even learned how to drive.

Isherwood sometimes stayed with the Huxleys in Llano, and the story was devised there as a screenplay. The two writers shared a lifelong fascination with the subtle relationship linking physical, mental and spiritual health. Huxley and his first wife, Maria, explored nonconventional medical treatments, hypnosis and parapsychology; Isherwood shared their Viennese, vegetarian-diet-prescribing doctor, and he met at their various Los Angeles houses the hypnotists and mediums they befriended. Later, in the early 1950s, Isherwood emulated Huxley’s experiments with mescaline (made famous by “The Doors of Perception”), though he never shared Huxley’s belief in the visionary properties of psychedelic drugs.

Jacob’s gift for healing is first presented as an innocent force of nature, an unself-conscious animal expression of physical love. Jacob is utterly without sexual magnetism (perhaps necessary for the censors) and without possessive will. Reluctantly, he is persuaded to lay his healing hands on the girl he adores, Sharon, a cripple. Once made whole, Sharon is off to Los Angeles to seek stardom as a singer.

Possibly Huxley worked on the treatment first and then sent it to Isherwood. The opening scenes have metaphysical purpose but seem schematic, and they are followed by a rather cliche-ridden join, as if neither writer took responsibility for the transition to the big, bad city where Jacob finds Sharon again. The Los Angeles lowlife scenes evoke Isherwood’s affinity for the bars and brothels of the continental demimonde about which he wrote during the 1930s, both in his novels—such as “Goodbye to Berlin” and “The Last of Mr. Norris”—and in “The Dog Beneath the Skin,” a vaguely Brechtian play on which he collaborated with Auden. Also, some features of “Jacob’s Hands” resemble the fictional film script at the center of “Prater Violet,” the novel that Isherwood was writing simultaneously during 1944 and that is itself about collaborating on a film script. But ideas that are probably Huxley’s stiffly protrude from the treatment.

Jacob and Sharon achieve not stardom but dreary exploited employment among small-time “theatrical” promoters and quack doctors who talk like characters in a bad gangster movie. For love of Sharon, Jacob abandons the little church that first offers him haven in Los Angeles and agrees to sell his gift. In “The Perennial Philosophy,” Huxley points out that psychic healing is associated in the Gospel with forgiveness of sins. The holy safely heal because they know who can accept forgiveness—grace being far more important than the side miracle of bodily cure. Once Jacob leaves the church, he can be recognized as merely possessing what Huxley calls an inborn knack for healing, without any spiritual insight. He lacks the power to forgive or even to understand the psychological basis of forgiveness, so he leaves the soul empty and vulnerable to worse devils than the illness he casts out. In effect, Jacob renounces his saintliness for Sharon’s sake (in a scene that could be heartbreaking if better developed). When he is faced with curing Earl, a spoiled young millionaire, he is suddenly uncertain whether he should or can, for he has forsaken the spiritual stature that might have enabled him to tell whether Earl is ready to be forgiven.

This third section of the story is more compelling, and a practical skepticism characteristic of Isherwood takes over. Jacob’s unexplainable power—vaguely sourced in the purity of desert life—is given a convincing psychological basis: Healing comes from within and is a result of psychological release. Isherwood’s version of Jacob owes something to Homer Lane, the American psychologist and juvenile educator with whose theories Isherwood and Auden became obsessed at the end of the 1920s when Auden first moved to Berlin. Lane’s gift for the release of unconscious guilt had cured a Berlin friend of physical paralysis resulting from inner conflict over his homosexuality. Lane’s success was rooted in Christian forgiveness informed by psychological understanding, and the discovery of his approach helped to release Auden and Isherwood, both homosexuals, toward the healing freedom of loving guiltlessly whom they chose.

Earl’s doctors have diagnosed him as having a weak heart, but he is obviously emotionally bullied by his possessive, domineering mother. He imagines a dark shadow lying in wait for him at the window. Jacob’s touch helps him to let go of the shadow, which, as Jacob leads him to recognize, hovers there in answer to his own need, just as his mother does. Freed from guilt over his wish to defy his mother, Earl leaps from his bed to seek, like Sharon, all the wrong things in life. As explained in “The Perennial Philosophy,” his soul, like hers, is left vulnerable by the miracle Jacob can achieve but which he cannot understand. After a few happy, misspent hours, Earl dies, and the demon-mother figure familiar from Isherwood’s works of the 1930s triumphs perversely in his death. Then, in a resoundingly misogynistic conclusion, the female characters take possession of the millions and of the baby son and heir, next in line to be cosseted and destroyed.

True freedom—which the story identifies as the basis for emotional and spiritual health—is freedom from worldly appetite and ambition. It is available only to those who can walk away, as Jacob finally does, from the possibility of making millions and from the emotional entanglements of needy love. Both before and after “Jacob’s Hands,” Huxley and Isherwood each wrote to order for major film studios, mostly adapting literary classics at large weekly salaries. Around this time, for instance, Huxley worked on “Jane Eyre” and Isherwood on Somerset Maugham’s “The Hour Before Dawn” and “Up at the Villa.” Yet there was no conflict for them between spiritual aspiration and earning a living. Film—flickering, ephemeral—by analogy reveals all life as passing show, a mirage, maya. They wrote “Jacob’s Hands” expressly to make money, though their ambitions for it were only partially fulfilled. They never sold it as a screenplay because the studios feared offending the medical establishment.

Roughly a decade later, “Jacob’s Hands” was adapted for radio, and Huxley and Isherwood did achieve a small windfall. And Ernest Borgnine expressed interest in the story. Just a few years after writing “Jacob’s Hands,” Isherwood collaborated with another friend, Lesser Samuels, on a story called “Judgment Day in Pittsburgh” (released as “Adventure in Baltimore”), for which he received half of a then-fantastic $50,000 fee. And in 1949, there was another speculative effort with Huxley, “Below the Equator,” about Latin America. Over the years both Huxley and Isherwood made enough money from studio work to enable them to write many novels, which was their real artistic aim.

But St. Martin’s Press has confused the two kinds of work. They, too, are keen to make money off “Jacob’s Hands”—at least one assumes this is why they have falsely packaged it as a novel. It displays few of the justly celebrated novel-writing skills of its authors, because it simply is not a novel. It is not even a full-fledged screenplay, it is only a treatment—the film equivalent of a rough draft. Jacob’s simplicity, so promising as a subject for film, is unsuited to the psychological introspection for which Huxley and especially Isherwood used the novel form. As it is, the characterization is too broad and the dramatic interaction too abrupt for a novel. The plot seems underdeveloped and predictable, and the dialogue is dated. Still, the labeling ruse is unnecessary, for nowadays readers are sufficiently experienced at watching movies to appreciate the genre in its embryo, pre-camera form. And what fun to cast it oneself.

PHOTO: Christopher Isherwood (1979), by Don Bachardy Type of Material: Book Review

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