Aldous Huxley’s Strange Passage to the West

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January 1, 2019 · Posted in Commentary 

First edition of Literary L.A., 1981.

[From the first edition of Lionel’s Literary L.A. (Chronicle Books, 1981).]


ONCE WHEN A reporter asked Aldous Huxley why he had lived the last third of his life in the Los Angeles area, the famous English writer replied he had merely stopped here on his way to India and ended up staying because of “inertia and apathy.”

Whatever the reason, I counted myself lucky to be an L.A. resident the day I shook hands with the great man not too long before Huxley’s death in November of 1963. On that same occasion I also met Laura Archera, Huxley’s second wife, not supposing that nearly two decades later, she would again cause me to remember and contemplate the ghost of that tall willowy man.

On the second occasion when I met her, I had been instructed by my Uncle Yehudi to “put myself in the good hands of Laura Huxley.” Yehudi played the Bach Chaconne at the December 17,1963, memorial gathering for Aldous in London. Yehudi had been very close to both Aldous and Laura, and it was because of Yehudi that I had gotten to shake Huxley’s hand.

Yehudi remained on close terms with Laura. Both had been prodigy violinists. Also, Laura had dedicated her life to carrying out the mystical prescriptions by which her husband wanted ultimately to be remembered. Hence my instructions from my uncle to put my life in Laura’s hands: supposedly she would mold me according to Huxleyan principles.

It was not just coincidence, I’m sure, that a few weeks before Yehudi entrusted me to the care of Aldous Huxley’s widow, Huxley himself had been the topic of a curious discussion. It started early one evening and ran well into the next morning in the Denny’s coffeeshop on Highway 14, where the Mojave Desert starts, just past the last outpost of Saugus.

Huxley lived in the high desert throughout most of World War II. Although the landscape north of the San Gabriel Mountains is quite different from the city south of the mountain range, both are in Los Angeles County. Usually one does not think of L.A.’s cultural history as coming from the area north of the basin, but at the end of World War II Huxley wrote Ape & Essence, a novel about Los Angeles in the year 2018. It was far grimmer than his more famous novel, Brave New World.

At the Denny’s on the edge of the desert we (meaning in those days my wife Nigey and I) joined Don Van Vliet, best known as the rock ‘n’ roll cult hero Captain Beefheart. What we heard was his story about Huxley. We had been discussing drugs, the sixties and the high desert. Beefheart was talking about how people who live in this area are often far more eccentric than those who live on the L.A. side of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Once, as a young lad growing up in the desert, Beefheart had a part-time job selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners in Pearblossom, which was not very far from Llano and Wrightwood, the desert and mountain communities where Huxley lived. Beefheart explained it was well known that the author lived in the desert, so when a tall, gangly customer came into the store where Beefheart was working, Beefheart recognized him immediately.

Van Vliet remembered being impressed by how down-to-earth Huxley was. Huxley explained that his wife Maria (for Huxley’s first wife lived into the mid-fifties) had sent him out to look for a vacuum cleaner. Huxley asked Van Vliet if he could recommend one. Since Beefheart was selling them, it was, of course, an Electrolux that Huxley purchased. Then they talked a bit.

It is quite likely that this occurred while Huxley was writing Ape & Essence, in which case he must have been under the spell of some darkly powerful ruminations there in the high desert. During the conversation at Denny’s, Beefheart recalled that Huxley had seemed to him a man who was looking for something, that he was an eccentric among the eccentrics who inhabited the area. It is no doubt significant that Huxley described L.A. in that gloomy work as “the world’s largest oasis,” for that perspective of Los Angeles from the high desert is very much present.

The first time Huxley saw Los Angeles was on a quick trip in 1926. At the time, he dismissed the place as hopelessly uncivilized. Six years later, Huxley published his famous Brave New World, the first of three Utopian novels he would write. Brave New World was published in England in 1932, but Huxley’s two other Utopian novels, Ape & Essence and Island were written during his twenty-four years in the Southland.

Although Huxley wrote scores of novels and books of essays, these three books show quite clearly the logic of his life. Brave New World was written at the end of his first period, while Huxley established himself as a writer of great intelligence and graceful style. His earlier works, such as Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, had a tone of amused bewilderment with the human condition; the release of the writer’s pain produced an outrageous, almost scatological, sense of humor. But his disillusionment with technology in Brave New World was the last of his good-natured, British works. Ape & Essence would mark the end of Huxley’’ second period, for its pessimism was extreme. It made Brave New World (and George Orwell’s 1984), seem mild by comparison.

Aldous was from the most famous literary and scientific family in England. He and his brother, Sir Julian, were grandsons of Thomas Henry Huxley, the famed agnostic and scientific colleague of Charles Darwin. Yet Aldous began showing a mystical, if not a religious bent, as early as 1936, in his Eyeless in Gaza. The next year, Huxley took Maria and their son Matthew and left Europe. As he became more and more a part of the Southern California landscape – especially after the Ape & Essence period—he became increasingly mystical, with results that added controversy to his reputation.

Later in life it was almost as if he were disavowing his past. In the post-Victorian period in England, Huxley had become one of the bright, cynical, witty, and properly rational young literary figures. But as the drift in world events seemed to point inevitably in the direction of yet another, terrible world war, he became more and more the hopeless pacifist.

Huxley’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer came out of his Olympian view of things. Few of Huxley’s characters ever seem to hold nine-to-five jobs or worry about ordinary matters like money. They are mostly successful in their careers. Perhaps this was to be expected from a member of such an intellectually elite family. But perhaps some of his aloofness may also have been traceable to his near blindness. He had lost much of his eyesight in 1910, at the age of sixteen, possibly because of inadequate, if not incompetent, medical care in school. He had enormous enthusiasm later in life for such unorthodox medical treatments as homeopathy, as well as the Bates Method, which claimed that eyesight could be improved through exercise, without the use of glasses.

There was always some speculation about how well Huxley could see. His most strident and uncritical admirers told many stories showing that he really could see quite well. Others were less convinced that Huxley had solved his vision problems as well as he thought he had. My own impression was that he was practically blind. Yet one of the reasons he loved the high desert and lived there for much of the Second World War was that he could still exercise his incredible eye for detail of flora and fauna. And he was even able to drive on back dirt roads without known mishap. His wide knowledge of nature stood him in good stead during his many hikes and drives in the desert.

His growing mysticism, no doubt, also drew him to the desert. He was partial to the Eastern, as opposed to the Western, religious view of nature. Huxley felt that when a man tries to dominate nature it tolerates the intrusion only for so long before it rebels. You might remember that this was a view held by Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

In Europe, Huxley had not been known as a man who had any great attachment to one place. He may have been fond of Italy, but mostly he liked to travel, and he was a fine travel writer. Still, when Huxley left Europe with his family there was little reason to believe he might be going for good.

The primary reason for Huxley’s visit to the United States was to see Frieda Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico. She was the widow of D.H. Lawrence, and Lawrence and Huxley had been closely allied at different points of their lives. There was something of the British gentleman in the additional reasons Huxley gave for his visit to America. He said, for instance, that he wanted to find a good college for his son in the United States. He was also interested in the unusual educational and psychological experimentation then going on in the U.S., which was not available in Europe.

The Huxleys stayed with Frieda in Taos for a few months while Huxley finished Ends & Means there. Although the New Mexico landscape was astonishing and beautiful to Huxley, he said he did not enjoy it. He found the landscape alien and somehow “hostile to man.” He is not known to have had that reaction to the Mojave—if he did, it may have been on the subconscious level. Maybe it contributed to the extreme pessimism of Ape & Essence.

The next stop after New Mexico was Los Angeles. Huxley apparently wasn’t planning to stay when he rented an apartment here in 1937. But soon there was a whirl of things to keep him here. For one, there was his good friend from England, Gerald Heard, the mystic. Huxley and Heard hit the lecture circuit together. Huxley also made it clear that he was willing to entertain fantastic offers from Hollywood, which did, in fact, start coming his way.

During his first years in the Southland, Huxley moved around, from West Hollywood to the Pacific Palisades to Beverly Hills. But he fell in with good and entertaining company—people who would do crazy things, such as having picnics on the bottom of the (dry) Los Angeles River or outdoor parties at Farmer’s Market.

Some of his friends and acquaintances included authors Christopher Isherwood and Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Edwin Hubble, the Mt. Wilson astronomer who proposed the expanding universe theory, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. Upton Sinclair was sometimes part of the circle, and the composer Igor Stravinsky was also very close to Huxley.

Huxley accomplished some good work in the movie studios, for which he was indeed well paid. He adapted such classics as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre.” He wrote the script for “Madam Curie.” And the movie “A Woman’s Vengeance” was made from his own short story, “The Gioconda Smile.”

Huxley’s relationship to Los Angeles was curious. On the one hand he was appalled by the vacuity on the faces of the natives he saw riding on a department store escalator; on the other hand, he was genuinely attracted by the cheap, fantastic, glittering lifestyle of the area. He lived for a while in a house in the Pacific Palisades, rented from a man who had painted tasteless orgy scenes on the walls, which seemed to amuse Huxley. He was appalled, however, when he saw his first small towns in the Southland on the drive in from New Mexico. What bothered him was that so few of the towns had monuments or outdoor cafes with terraces.

He discovered that the research library at UCLA was second to none. The late Lawrence Clark Powell, the former UCLA librarian who lived until March 2001, remembered Huxley as a courageous, distinctive, curious and amiable man, often stopping his labors at the card catalog to sign an autograph for a student.

In 1939, Huxley published the first of two novels he wrote that had a Southern California setting. After Many A Summer Dies the Swan was a good novel, but that year also saw the publication of some other great California novels, Powell pointed out, including The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Sleep and The Day of the Locust.

After Many A Summer Dies the Swan was modeled on California’s then most famous citizen, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It will be recalled that a young filmmaker-actor named Orson Welles was making his immortal “Citizen Kane,” also based on Hearst, in that same year. The movie plot revolved around Kane’s desire for immortality; while Huxley’s book was full of satire on Hollywood and included in its scenery a castle like Hearst’s San Simeon —only instead of being located in California’s midcoastal region, it was set in the San Fernando Valley.

Huxley spent three or four good years on the West Side, near the Pacific Ocean, before moving to the high desert behind the San Gabriel Mountains. Even in those prewar days, there were hints of the smog that was to come to Los Angeles, and part of the reason the Huxleys first thought of living in the desert was that the air was clean and dry there. They thought this would be good for Huxley’s eyesight as well as for Maria’s lung troubles.

They moved to the Mojave Desert in 1942, to a place on the site of the old Utopian colony, Llano del Rio (See Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, of which Rolfe is one of the co-authors). The heat in the summer was unbearable. Water shortages were regular events, and electricity was far from reliable. The “shack” the Huxleys purchased was constantly being worked on, and was makeshift at best. Huxley’s study had a canvas ceiling propped up by a pole, for instance. When Christopher Isherwood came visiting, he remembered Maria Huxley asking him to read by candlelight because if he turned on the electric light it would start up the noisy gas-engine generator outside.

Much of the grimness of Ape & Essence may have come from the fact that life on the high desert was sometimes too secluded, too limited to the joys of nature. It was during wartime, Huxley’s royalty checks from England were gone, and gas, tires and spare parts were hard to come by. Eventually he would have to abandon the desert because he was deriving more and more of his income from the studios. Certainly, no city ever had a more gloomy prophecy created for it than the one Huxley wrote in Ape & Essence.

Yet Huxley loved the desert. He loved the Joshua trees, the wildflowers and the rattlesnakes. In 1945 the Huxleys moved from Llano to Wrightwood, further up the mountains, on the north side of the San Gabriels. Huxley turned out to be very allergic to the landscape of pinewood and sagebrush. A raccoon adopted Huxley, and it would come out of the hills every night to be fed. Huxley even reported meeting a bear on one of his walks at Wrightwood.

The Huxleys moved to Wrightwood the year the atom bomb was tested and subsequently dropped on two Japanese cities. After the horrors of the second World War in Europe, where Huxley still had many friends and family members, the Nuclear Age thoroughly horrified him. In 1945 he wrote a friend, “Thank God we are to have peace soon,” but went on to say that he thought it would be a disquieting peace at best, since “atomic bombs would be hanging overhead.”

“National states armed by science with superhuman military powers always remind me of Swift’s description of Gulliver being carried up onto the roof of the King of Brobdingnag’s palace by a gigantic monkey; reason, human decency and spirituality, which are strictly individual matters, find themselves in the clutches of the collective will, which has the mentality of a delinquent boy of fourteen in conjunction with the physical powers of God,” he wrote.

The terrible pessimism that began to clutch Huxley from the late forties until he discovered psychedelics in the fifties dates from the advent of the atom bomb. He began Ape & Essence in 1947 in Wrightwood. The idea for the book was to be that of a “post-atomic-war society in which the chief effect of the gamma radiation had been to produce a race of men and women who don’t make love all the year around, but have a brief mating season. The effect of this on politics, religion, ethics, would be something very interesting and amusing to work out,” Huxley told Anita Loos.

Ape & Essence is not an easy novel to call amusing, unless, of course, one is entertained by torture, brutality, degradation, and other unspeakable horrors. Huxley wrote Ape & Essence with his considerable wit and satire, however, so it is not totally without humor.

On the 22nd of February, 1948, Huxley walked into the kitchen at Wrightwood and told his wife he thought he had finished the book. The survivors in the book were mutants. The   original inhabitants of L.A. had been killed long ago, in “those three bright summer days” of the Third World War. The physical city still stood; the wars had not yet scored a direct hit on L.A., but the radiation had destroyed most of the crops as well as finishing off the human population. Thus, the handful of mutants, a few thousand at best, lived in and among various familiar Southern California landmarks—the County Museum and Coliseum in Exposition Park, Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel across the way, USC and UCLA, and so on. The outlying neighborhoods were still there, too, only they were not inhabited. The gas stations were rusting.

The community center of the mutant survivors of L.A. was in Pershing Square. The mutants were oddly dressed, because their clothes came from corpses dug up from nearby graveyards. They drank from the skulls of the corpses, which had been fashioned into cups. Heat for the communal baking ovens was provided by burning the books from the nearby public library. Water was carried in goatskins to be stored in earthenware jars. Between “two rusty posts hung the carcass of a newly slaughtered ox, and in a cloud of flies a man was cleaning out the entrails.”

Across the way from this disturbing scene in Pershing Square was the mutants’ temple—in the old Biltmore Hotel. In the book, the clergy lived there, chief of whom was “His Eminence the Arch-Vicar of Belial, Lord of the Earth, Primate of California, Servant of the Proletariat, Bishop of Hollywood.” His aides included the “Patriarch of Pasadena” and the “Three-Horned Inquisitor.”

The main event of the year, which was held in the Biltmore Hotel, was a two-week period of wild, enforced, orgiastic copulating, for sex was outlawed the rest of the year. The women wore flaps over strategic parts of their bodies that had the word “No” emblazoned on them. Nine months after the orgy there was a corollary event: Belial Day, a mass, sacrificial slaughter of the deformed offspring born from the main event. Women were called vessels to signify their uncleanness. In the book, most of the children the vessels had were offered to the sacrificial fires of Belial Day.

Unlike other Europeans who lived in L.A., Huxley did not leave the Southland after World War II. But in 1949, he did abandon the desert and mountains and moved to 740 North Kings Road in West Hollywood. No doubt the fact of his proximity helped direct the attention of young intellectuals to his work. Ape & Essence was an especially popular book on local university and college campuses during the early fifties. In 1952 The Devils of Loudon was published, from which Ken Russell would later make the movie, “The Devils.” Not long afterward, Huxley began dabbling with psychedelics because he found the chemical substances gave life to his mystical ideas. His Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell in the mid-fifties made Huxley a major influence with the psychedelic set in his adopted town during the next decade.

Huxley also participated with Christopher Isherwood and his friend Gerald Heard in the Vedanta Society of Southern California. But it was the psychedelics that seemed to make Huxley a somewhat happier man than he might otherwise have been during the last years of his life.

After the death of his first wife Maria, in 1955, Huxley did not produce much writing of lasting value. He seems to have become much less pessimistic, however; and his life with his new wife Laura saw him veer more and more toward mystical directions. His last novel, Island, the manuscript of which was saved from the clutches of a fire which destroyed one of his homes in the Hollywood Hills, is his most optimistic work. Here he attempted to show how human life could be ideally lived. Unfortunately, many reviewers and readers found it rather dull, because in it, Huxley’s customary critical facility seemed to have been suspended.

Although Huxley gave the city some fine literary presents, topped by Ape & Essence, he remained ever the Englishman. It is fitting to note that he himself when hearing a recording of his voice, commented on how terribly English-sounding he had remained, despite living in the physical and intellectual desert around Los Angeles.


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