An English Intellectual

By Nicholas Murray

Thomas Dunne. 496 pp. $29.95

Aldous Huxley died while tripping on acid. On Nov. 22, 1963 (the day President Kennedy was assassinated), mortally ill with cancer, unable to speak, he wrote out a request for an injection of LSD, a drug he had taken several times before. His doctor consented. Huxley's second wife administered the injection and, two hours later, a second one. In keeping with the principles of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, she encouraged him to let go. When it was time, he did.

LSD was nothing new to the dying man -- he had been using and writing about hallucinogens and their effects for years. Counterculture enthusiasts tend to sensationalize this aspect of his career, while moralists are quick to dismiss the drug-taking Huxley as an embarrassment to literature. A nonpartisan interest in how and why Huxley used drugs informs Nicholas Murray's sleek new biography of one of the 20th century's most protean writers: British and American, skeptic and believer, classicist in style and iconoclast in temperament.

He was born in 1894 into a family of impeccable intellectual pedigree -- he was a grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the most eloquent early champion of Darwin's theories; a great-grandson of Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School (and one of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians); and a great-nephew of Matthew Arnold, the poet and critic. Aldous's parents were teachers. His brother Julian became a noted biologist.

After an inflammation of the eye scotched his ambition to be a doctor, Huxley studied literature. While still at Oxford, he was swept up into the world of Garsington, the estate of the talent-spotting Lady Ottoline Morrell. With his height (6 foot 4), his extraordinary "milky" eye and his brainy fluency as a talker, he exhibited an early -- and lasting -- knack for getting noticed. He even came to the attention of Marcel Proust, who incorporated a Huxley sighting into In Search of Lost Time.

After graduation, Huxley taught prep school for a short time and began to write poetry, essays and fiction. He achieved rapid success with a spate of novels-of-ideas, notably the brilliant and cynical Antic Hay (1923). In Point Counter Point (1928), his most ambitious novel, he tried to approximate in fiction the effect of polyphonic music by orchestrating the thoughts and actions of a great many characters related by blood, marriage, friendship and business. He achieved prophet status with his dystopian novel Brave New World (1932).

As Murray points out, one of Huxley's most charming attributes was his keen self-knowledge, coupled with a willingness to broadcast same. Frequently Murray will point out a flaw in Huxley's work only to add that Huxley himself had already "called" it. For example, his novels are often tendentious, stronger on intellectual content than on character development, but he was aware of this and often admitted as much. "By profession I am an essayist who sometimes writes novels," he told an interviewer. (For my money, of Huxley's 11 novels only Eyeless in Gaza (1936) is a complete artistic success.)

Yet Huxley framed his ideas so skillfully that you hardly mind when stick figures articulate them. Here, for example, is the fifth marquess of Gattenden, from Point Counter Point, talking with his brother on the phone. The topic is the fifth marquess's latest stab at a mathematical proof of God's existence: "About God. You know the formula: m over nought equals infinity, m being any positive number? Well, why not reduce the equation to a simpler form by multiplying both sides by nought? In which case you have m equals infinity times nought. That is to say that a positive number is the product of zero and infinity. Doesn't that demonstrate the creation of the universe by an infinite power out of nothing? Doesn't it?" When his brother hesitates, the marquess realizes he has failed again. The omniscient narrator quips, "The absolute's tail was still unsalted."

This is scintillating stuff, both witty and poignant. Like the marquess and other characters in his novels, Huxley himself went chasing after the absolute. But owing to his heritage, certain paths were barred to him. His grandfather Huxley had famously out-debated Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, who opposed Darwin's theories on biblical grounds; and his grand-uncle Matthew had written "Dover Beach," the definitive agnostic lyric. For Aldous to have embraced orthodox religion would have been tantamount to backsliding. Instead, he pursued direct apprehension of Oneness (the term he preferred to God) by meditating and reading extensively in the mystical literature of all faiths.

Among the fruits of these labors were three books on religious themes: The Perennial Philosophy (1945), an anthology, with extensive commentary, of writings on what Huxley called the "Highest Common Factor" of the world's faiths; Grey Eminence (1941), a biography of Father Joseph, a contemplative who became Cardinal Richelieu's chief aide and in that capacity worked sedulously to prolong the Thirty Years' War because he identified the advancement of France with the will of God; and The Devils of Loudun (1952), a bawdy account of religious fanaticism in 17th-century France.

In the meantime, Huxley and his wife and son had emigrated to California. It wasn't supposed to be a permanent relocation. But the war came, they fell in with the Los Angeles colony of transplanted European intellectuals, the warmth and sunshine were seductive, he wrote screenplays for Hollywood studios, and the family stayed. The notorious California receptiveness to the far-out undoubtedly affected Huxley, but there is no getting around the sincerity and tirelessness of his religious quest. The problem was that he knew from his reading that true mystics reach an all but indescribable rapport with Oneness that he himself seemed unable to effect. His breakthrough came after he began using hallucinogens -- first mescaline and then acid (both of which were unregulated at the time).

Murray calls The Doors of Perception (1954), in which Huxley accounted for his drug use (and a copy of which eventually fell into the hands of an aspiring rock musician named Jim Morrison), "a rather sad book for it is the story of an attempt to reach by artificial means what Huxley could not find by the route of artistic perception alone." But the biographer goes on to note that, as usual, Huxley had dealt with this very objection. "I am not so foolish," he wrote, "as to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin . . . with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: the Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call 'a gratuitous grace,' not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available." He also reminded his detractors that transporting oneself into an altered state -- such as by fasting or going without sleep or mortifying the flesh -- has long been commonplace among mystical seekers, and it seemed hypocritical to scorn a faster and more direct means to the same end. Ultimately, Huxley called himself an agnostic because he couldn't answer the question that seemed to matter most to orthodox believers: Does the Divine Reality act to influence daily affairs? His greatest achievement as a writer may not be his novels but his contributions to the psychology of religion.

Nicholas Murray has written in the shadow of the estimable Sybille Bedford, whose 800-page biography of Huxley came out in 1974. Bedford knew Huxley, and her book is strengthened by that connection. Murray has uncovered evidence that Huxley's first wife was bisexual, and that detail fleshes out his portrait of their marriage. It would be hard to choose between the two books if it weren't that Murray has written at about half the length of Bedford and still managed to salt Huxley's tail. *

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

Aldous Huxley