Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 3: Aldous Huxley and the Questions of Modernity June 22, 2014

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs’s yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run. To understand how this is so, we must first consider some theoretical issues concerning the nature of historical change.

 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” (1989)



In previous lectures, I have bounced around historically with the foundations of liberalism and its relationship to religion, modern subjectivity, and aesthetics. I have made the broad claim that one cannot understand psychedelic aesthetics without understanding these roots. I contrasted the temporality of Romantic aesthetics and their tendency toward paganism as a critique of Christian temporality, which is based on a second coming or parousia. I invoked the medieval concept of the King’s Two Bodies as a way to introduce the notion of sovereignty. While sovereignty certainly works differently in constitutional democracies like the United States, these concepts at the roots of liberalism will help us discursively when talking about liberal crises, which, as I argued in lecture one, tend to erupt increasingly in the 21st century.

Last week, we looked at texts from Baudelaire and Nietzsche. In particular, Nietzsche had tried to overcome the hold of Romanticism by reading the birth of Greek Tragedy not as heralding a new Golden Age, but as the dusk of better days. Nietzsche sees Apollonian form as emerging from the earlier Dionysian ek-static, which is similar to Freud’s unconscious. Dreams, Nietzche says, produce figures and those figures themselves are the Apollonian. Both forces exist in nature before they are apprehended by humans, and for that reason all human art remains essentially mimetic for Nietzsche. In his praising of the Dionysian, however, he inadvertently performs a kind of modern nostalgia. As Nietzsche himself points out in his “attempt at self criticism,” he was not able to transcend Romantic aesthetics in The Birth of Tragedy; he merely exacerbated them with a more radical nostalgia. I have presented nostalgia as indicative of a modern condition where an increasing emphasis is placed on the idea of an individual person or “subject” as a bearer of rights. This idea is fundamental to emerging liberalism as an economic system and to the European imaginary’s fascination with the concept of freedom.

Romanticism, I argued, arises as a critique of this European imaginary insofar as it embraces nostalgia. This move relies on the tendency of the European imaginary to situate humans developmentally: first by way of cultural binding and religion and then by way of science (Darwin) and technology (Industrial Revolution). The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by increasing wealth and middle classes in the western world that helped produce a sense of progress. Max Weber’s 1905 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argues in its final chapter that a Protestant and particularly Puritan mode of being, “favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important part, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life.  It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man” (117).  From this he argues that one of the most fundamental aspects of “ the spirit of modern capitalism” and modern culture is “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, [which] was born […] from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (122-123).  He ends his book, not with a precise definition of “spirit,” but by lamenting “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” saying, “this order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born in this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (123).  The technical rationality, or to use the term of his critical theorist descendants, instrumental reason, out-reasons the modern rational subject.

Building from a long tradition of German historical and philosophical thought, the twentieth century saw numerous political attempts to fulfill the “end” of history. Hegel had argued through his Master-Slave dialectic that history moved toward something that looked like providence. We are well aware in the United States of the term Manifest Destiny, but Hegel’s student, Karl Marx, built on Hegel’s the emphasis on historical materialism, famously saying in the Communist Manifesto that all history is a history of class struggle and predicting that capitalism would lead to first a great accumulation of wealth and then to a revolution that toppled oppressive authority. While narratives of 20th century communism often end with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s Soviet Union in the early 1990s, we saw with The Coming Insurrection in week one that Marxist rhetorical is still in use to predict the future. Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche worked to produce a hermeneutics of suspicion, which amount to non-theological accounts of invisible forces that shape social reality – historical materialism, the unconscious, and the Uber mensch or “Overman” or “Superman.”   Attempts to overcome history in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century were one of the root causes of the most devastating massacres of the twentieth century. We are all familiar with scenes of Nazis burning books, their importation of American eugenics, the transplantation of Nazi scientists to the United States to continue scientific experimentation on unwitting American subjects in the newly formed C.I.A.’s Project MK-ULTRA and the burgeoning space program after WWII. We can see in even popular depictions of the 1950s an attempt to construct a sense of normalcy and to weed-out and pathologies of the abnormal with psychoanalysis. This is the stage for the psychedelic movement.

Aldous Huxley, I will argue, is perhaps the grand theorist for the psychedelic movement, and there are numerous situations in which Huxley seems to causally shape history. This is true especially in his influence on Timothy Leary’s adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead reformulated as a manual for self-discovery in The Psychedelic Experience. Scholars have too easily write off Huxley’s influences because there is not enough serious attention given to aesthetics. He is read as a “science-fiction” author and public intellectual. In the United States, Brave New World is often assigned as high-school reading material, thus shaping a population that regards the writer’s work as immature (if they read him at all, it is likely when they themselves were immature). Occasionally scholars have written concerning bio-politics and Brave New World, but with no account of his later psychedelic work. He is thus often regarded as an “armchair” intellectual from a simpler time when being a generalist was acceptable. In literary study, Huxley has been artistically outshined by his high-modernist peers like Eliot and Joyce, whose attention to language and philology Huxley satirized as archaic and limited. As an attempt to rethink Huxley’s influence, I cast him as not only a theorist of the psychedelic but as a political theologian.

My focus on Huxley aim here will be to show a writer whose work reveals an inter-textual reworking and development of a social philosopher who built his theories, not through armchair speculation, but through truly erudite readings of European and Asian religious and political histories. If his later work is written off as too contrived or merely as “self-help,” it is because his audience lacks the scope worthy of seeing what research he based his opinions on. Huxley is ahead of the discussion with regard to Political Theology and a re-imagination of Enlightenment subjectivity, the same way he was ahead of the game with regard to the notion of human standardization and pharmaceutically-enhanced social-norming and bio-politics in Brave New World. It should go without saying that theories are distorted and must be rethought in practice. Huxley’s theories, like those of his contemporaries such as Herbert Marcuse and predecessors such as Nietzsche – were not necessarily understood by the people they influenced.

It was in a letter in 1957 to Aldous Huxley that the term “psychedelic” was first coined by Humphry Osmond. Following Huxley’s own positive experiences with the Vedantic society and his personal experimentation with drugs, first with mescaline and later with LSD 25, which provided the grounds for The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), Huxley came to see the potential social benefits of drug-use for intentionally expanding consciousness. In their correspondence, Huxley and Osmond tried to find a less pejorative name than the term “psychotomimetic” for the drugs, implying an artificial production of a state of psychosis. This term largely derived from the development of psychoactive drug research into finding a “truth serum” to use on enemy soldiers during World War II in concert with the Office of Strategic Services, which after the war became the CIA. The central theory of psychotomimetic drugs was established in a paper by Dr. Paul Hoch, which “reported that the symptoms produced by LSD, mescaline and related drugs were similar to those of schizophrenia: intensity of color perception, hallucinations, depersonalization, intense anxiety, paranoia, and in some cases catatonic manifestations” (Lee and Shlain 20). Just a year before The Doors of Perception was published, “Allen Dulles, director of CIA, lectured at Princeton that the Soviets had started a ‘sinister’ battle for “men’s minds.” To deal with the problem in the emerging Cold War, Dulles authorized MK-ULTRA, (although it was Richard Helms’s idea) (27). MK-ULTRA became the umbrella project that provided funding for widespread behavioral modification research, often involving unwitting subjects (and sometimes unwitting researchers), surreptitiously tested on all demographics of United States citizens. One cannot explore the psychedelic without excursions into State bio-politics, both at the philosophical and material-historical level.

The term “psychotomimetic” aligns with the research development goals for the State. The CIA was so paranoid about the Soviets developing mind-control techniques before the United States that it “authorized the purchase of 10 kilos of LSD in 1953 for $240,000 from Sandoz Laboratories because ‘a CIA contact in Switzerland mistook a kilogram for a milligram’” (24). Despite the hilarious mistake which probably had a significant role in production and distribution of LSD 25, this reveals CIA’s interest in keeping the drug in their control, which of course did not work. Huxley and Osmond had different research goals.

Although Huxley’s Brave New World had presented a dark view of a drug-induced society in the early 1930s, a view that seems to be explored implicitly by MK-ULTRA, Huxley had changed his mind about the drugs’ potential for social liberation by the early 1950s, as one can read in his 1958 essay “Brave New World Revisited.” Even so, Huxley’s characteristically sardonic take on consumerism remained intact throughout both periods. For example, employing his propaganda slogans made famous in Brave New World in the 1930s, Huxley suggested to Osmond the verb ‘phaneroein’ “to make the visible manifest” compounded with “thymos” for soul as a replacement for psychotomimetic (Moksha 107). Huxley ends his letter: “Phanerothyme – substantive. Phanerothymic – adjective. To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gramme of phanerothyme.” Eventually, Huxley and Osmond settled on “psychedelic,” literally mind-manifesting, as a replacement. And while psychedelic was a less pejorative term, Huxley’s rhetorical agenda was also based on his aesthetic sensibilities.

Huxley saw his role as a “literary man” (he had wanted to become a doctor but his problems with his eyesight prevented it) as being able to keep scientific specialists aware of the ethical concerns surrounding their work. While the bioethical concerns are clear in Brave New World, he also lectured heavily at conferences on psychology and parapsychology, as well as at the Vedanta Center. Ultimately, Huxley believed that giving public access to psychedelics with entheogenic properties could help bring in a new stage of human civilization by giving people the opportunity control their own minds. In this, Huxley is the premiere theorist of psychedelic experience and its political-theological ramifications.

Huxley built his agenda out of scientific, philosophical and psychological thought current at the time. In 1953, trying to obtain the mescaline with which he planned to experiment on himself, Huxley wrote to Osmond:

It looks as though the most satisfactory working hypothesis about the human mind must follow, to some extent, the Bergsonian model, in which the brain with its associated normal self, acts as a utilitarian device for limiting, and making selections from, the enormous possible world of consciousness, and for canalizing experience into biologically profitable channels. Disease, mescaline, emotional shock, aesthetic experience and mystical enlightenment have the power, each in its different way to varying degrees, to inhibit the functions of the normal self and its ordinary brain activity, thus permitting the “other world” to rise to consciousness. The basic problem of education is, How to make the best of both worlds – the world of biological utility and common sense, and the world of unlimited experience underlying. I suspect that the complete solution to the problem can only come to those who have learned to establish themselves in the third and ultimate world of ‘the spirit’, the world which subtends and interpenetrates both of the other worlds. (Moksha 29-30)

Huxley presents a good glimpse at his metaphysics here. Humans, by the nature of their limited consciousness, have limited access to reality. Through a myriad of ways, both good and bad, the limits can be expanded, at least temporarily. However, what is “outside” the limit is not necessarily “more real” than the inside. The “other world” in this passage seems to account for both the physical world and the unconscious. The “ultimate world of ‘the spirit’ fuses both. Optimistically, humans can learn “to establish themselves” in this world. This, it seems, would require a certain degree of self-control, however. One must consider this view of spirit in tandem with the cosmology presented in The Perennial Philosophy.

Huxley’s letter goes on to lament the poor state of learning in the world and especially the United States, where Huxley believes education destroys “openness to inspiration” outside of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue “which constitutes the conventionally ‘real’ world” (Moksha 30). In order for human society to progress in such a state, Huxley believes that people’s minds must be opened, even if by artificial means. Although it was a decade before Herbert Marcuse would publish One Dimensional Man, Huxley, one might say that Huxley thought of drugs as a potential way out of one-dimensional society. He goes on:

In such a system of education it may be that mescaline or some other chemical substance may play a part by making it possible for young people to ‘taste and see’ what they have learned about at second hand, or directly at a lower level of intensity, in the writings of the religious, or the works of poets, painters, or musicians. (Moksha 30)

Young people, students, are particularly situated to benefit from drug use here, but they benefit from aesthetic enhancement that helps them better understand art. For Huxley, consciousness may be expanded both intentionally and unintentionally, internally through self-reflection and externally through drugs, but not to infinity and not for long periods of time. Consciousness is a non-static form, but it is still a form, and the process of limiting it is necessary to survival. Embodiment is necessity because form coincides with the ability to perceive form. A theory of psychedelic experience begins to take shape proceeding from the notion that consciousness is dynamic and expandable, but at the same time a limiting shape of consciousness heuristically establishes itself. It is not necessarily through the willed-act of the individual that consciousness takes shape – that seems to be a ‘natural’ ordering property of the brain – but the will can have an affect on the size and shape of consciousness.

Although Huxley seems optimistic about the will and self-determination in relation to consciousness, he is simultaneously deeply critical of subjectivity. One of the benefits of drugs is the ability to transcend selfish solipsism. In Huxley’s 1958 essay, “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds,” an article commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post (Horowitz 146), he claims that human society is moving closer to the one he described in Brave New World,faster than he ever could have imagined. Like many other thinkers at the time, Huxley begins by lamenting the trap of modern subjectivity, going on to say,

Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence. It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises, and yoga – to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction. (9)

Huxley is echoing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience here, in which James argues that

the sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. (387)

Later in the article, Huxley takes his discussion to the level of the State, particularly addressing Cold War issues and Russia. He predicts the availability of drugs to help men find happiness and the complex relationship between drugs and personal liberty. He says, “it may soon be for us to do something better in the way of chemical self-transcendence than what we have been doing so ineptly for the last seventy or eighty centuries” (10).   As his burgeoning theory suggests, Huxley’s concerns rest on an evolutionary anthropology in which humans move toward “spirit” as the realm into which an individual may situate him or herself to find a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, where objectivity includes both the physical world and the latent unconscious.   This accounts for Huxley’s interest both in physical science and the paranormal, and he was not alone in this interest.

Although more sinister in both agenda and execution of their agenda, CIA was also experimenting across the board during the 1950s, and it was keeping tabs on Huxley too. Admiral Stansfield Turner’s (then Director of CIA) testimony before the Senate Subcommittees on Intelligence, Health, and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources explaining project MK-ULTRA, Turner mentions research on hypnosis, as well as

aspects of magicians’ art useful in covert operations . . . developing, testing, and maintaining biological agents for use against humans as well as against animals and crops . . . electro-shock, harassment techniques for offensive use, analysis of extrasensory perception, and four subprojects involving crop and material sabatoge. (Project MKULTRA 11-12).

CIA was interested in enchantment at all levels. The paranoia was so great that the American government was willing to transplant and hire many Nazi scientists to break the Nuremberg Treaty it helped set up that prohibited testing on human subjects without consent.

The surreptitious testing by CIA had a direct impact on the dissemination of psychedelic drugs in the three largest artistic centers in the United States during the 1950s: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Lee and Schlain note in Acid Dreams:

George Hunter White “rented an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, and, with funds supplied by the CIA he transformed it into a safehouse complete with two-way mirrors, surveillance equipment and the like. Posing as an artist and a seaman, White lured people back to his pad and slipped them drugs.” Transferred to San Francisco in 1955, White opened two more safehouses and initiated project Midnight Climax, where drug-addicted prostitutes were given $100 a night to bring johns back, have sex with them and drug them while CIA agents secretly observed. (32-33)

There is simply no way to extract the cultural aesthetic developing out of the use of psychedelics from the CIA’s involvement in disseminating and testing the drugs. Science, the paranormal and magician’s art were all areas of exploring enchantment. Further, one cannot extract these scientific and aesthetic studies from Huxley’s inherently political-theological critique of the State from his interest in Vedanta. Huxley himself was being watched by the C.I.A.

In CIA research, agents were at times dosed with drugs so that they could be aware of the effects if captured by an enemy. In addition to testing the effects of drugs on people without their knowing, it was a practice among CIA agents in competing projects within the agency – all of which ultimately came to fall under the MK-ULTRA umbrella – to surreptitiously drug each other. Agents were expected to develop knowledge of the symptoms of having been drugged so they could recognize the symptoms early on and hopefully avoid giving over information to enemies. Some agents, such as Captain Al Hubbard, the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD,” had mystical experiences.

Recent scholarly work in Political Theology has opened a discursive frame for receiving Huxley – and literature in general – in new ways. Scholarship that does connect the political-theological overtones in Huxley’s work instead tends to focus on his more well-known fiction books like Brave New World. For example, Peter Manly Scott in Future Perfect? God, Medicine and Humanity connects Agamben’s Homo Sacer to Brave New World (77) but neglects to account for the ways Huxley updated the ideas in Brave New World in his last novel, Island. Similarly, according to David William Martinez, “The Placeless in No Place: The Deconstructive Identity of Homo Sacer in Brave New World.” Both works point to the importance Huxley had on discussions of biopolitics, but there is less direct discussion about his emerging spirituality that informed his later work. Having explored the implications of psychedelic aesthetics for citizenship in my previous chapter, we can now work backwards into Huxley’s large body of works to explore political-theological questions.

In Neuropsychedelia, Nicolas Langlitznotes that important members of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, the physician Leon Kass and the political economist Francis Fukuyama, “emphasized the analogies between this historical diagnosis and the dystopian future envisaged in Huxley’s Brave New World” (Kindle Locations 147-150). Langlitz writes of the “peculiarities” of their reading of Huxley within a frame critiquing technological and scientific advances over the religious view that, especially with the developments in anti-depressants over the last half-century, further alienated “modern man” from the conditions of “being.” This leads them to follow philosopher Michael Sandel’s advocating for

the development of a “religious sensibility” resonating “beyond religion” and acknowledging the giftedness of life. “Respect for a being created in God’s image means respecting everything about him, not just his freedom or his reason but also his blood,” Kass . . . wrote. Any attempt to overcome the limits and burdens imposed on the individual by God or nature was supposed to entail a loss of humanity and human dignity. Human nature was to be protected against its biotechnological transgression and deformation. (in Langlitz Kindle Locations 165-169)

Langlitz correctly points out that both Kass and Fukuyama have neglected to account for Huxley’s final novel, Island. Kass and Fukuyama are plain evidence that literary interpretation, wrong or right, has direct political consequences. Kass, Fukuyama, and Sandel believe that a critique of modernity’s extreme alienation of humans from nature should entail a return to the pre-modern of religious enchantment. In this view, neo-conservatives erringly locate their return to a version of transcendent, state-based religion, rather than going back to the anthropological foundations of religion. A return to the perennial, in other words, is not a chance to time travel where you can pick and choose the moment of human history you nostalgically long for to determine the value of human life. What they are correct about, however, is the undeniability of religious enchantment in the post-secular world. A fuller look at Huxley as psychedelic theorist and political theologian helps qualify these views.

Huxley’s scope was wide indeed, and his knowledge of continental and English political history was deep. He constantly presents tongue-in-cheek observations. As early as 1930, in a slight nod to Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” Huxley writes in The Evening Standard:

Human standardisation will become a political necessity . . . ‘Advanced’ people propose that the family system should be abolished altogether and that the professional educator, paid by the State, should take control from earliest infancy. Indeed, this view threatens to become the orthodoxy of the modern democratic State. (“Babies – State Property” 49)

During the mid 1930s, he also predicts serious environmental concerns and wryly mentions a coming “generation war” due to the necessity to embrace new kinds of socialism (“The Next 25 Years” 174). Despite political ramifications, however, Huxley has been received as “anti-political.” In his introduction to a 2012 edition of Ends and Means, sociologist Howard Schneiderman’s descriptions of Huxley’s work on pacifism are particularly backhanded:

Huxley seems to define pacifism either in terms of what it is not, or in terms of what it stands against. Thus, pacifism is not politics, indeed it is anti-politics; it is not nationalism; it is obviously not militarism; it is not imperialism; and it is not about competing for international prestige, wealth and power. On the contrary, Huxley’s pacifism is about brotherly love, reform, peace, cooperation, social justice, and more than less it is about socialism and a leavening of wealth and power. In a word, it is anti-political. It is also, at least in large part, anti-sociological. (Ends and Means xvii)

Schneiderman even goes on to compare Huxley to Max Weber with respect to Huxley calling twentieth-century politics “primitive”: “We might well take this as the utopian atavism of an otherwise brilliant and progressive mind at work. Weber was undoubtedly the more clear-minded and realistic thinker about politics” (xviii). This is because, “the state determines the nature of politics, and for Weber, the state is defined by its aims, which differ from state to state, but always by the means specific to it, namely physical force” (xviii). Schneiderman points George Orwell’s claim against Huxley during the Second World War that “Pacifism is objectively fascist” (xxi). Despite Huxley’s ability to “arouse interest” among current “social scientist intellectuals,” Schneiderman’s indictment of Huxley is clear: “the fact that [Huxley] extolled the virtues of pacifism, in spite of its consequences for the Jews, shows his utopian thinking as an ethic of conviction that is morally and politically distasteful” (xxii). Huxley’s pacifism thus continues to be characterized as anti-political and irresponsible today. Schneiderman has nothing to say about Huxley and religion with reference to his apparent moral vacancy, nor does he have anything to say about the much more politically exigent place that international and even supra-national politics and economic forces have in 2012. If we look at Huxley as a perhaps unwitting political-theologian, citing his influence on psychedelic aesthetics as evidence of real political action, Huxley appears as anything but atavistic. However, this requires a much broader reading of Huxley’s vast amount of work.

Besides Huxley’s overtly political non-fiction, it is important to focus on how Huxley’s fiction, and literature in general, might contribute to discussions concerning Political Theology. In a recent paper by William M. Curtis on Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island,Curtis argues that it should be read alongside Brave New World, the bookRichard Rorty has referred to as “the best introduction to political philosophy” (in Curtis 91). Rorty, as Curtis discusses, is interested in an idea of liberal utopia as “an imaginative extension of our best liberal democratic ideals” where malleability of human nature maintains a kind of optimism. Huxley’s work presents and critiques such utopias.

When we look at Huxley’s politics and their influence on the psychedelic movement, a different conception emerges. The work of Aldous Huxley presents one example of the politically useful nature of literature – an underlying social value of art that psychedelic aesthetics inherit – but this requires that we read Huxley as literature and not merely as philosophy coded in the literary, which is how he is often read, especially in reductive readings of Brave New World. It is necessary to conceive of “the literary” as a discursive space where simultaneous meaning provides an economic way to communicate. Literary trends in the United States over the past fifty years emphasized an intense relationship to the performance of language to convey the dynamic nature of philosophical ideas. This linguistic focus is an extreme pushing of a kind of high-modernism, present in a writer like James Joyce, who Huxley says, “seemed to think words were omnipotent” and had “a magic view of words” (“Huxley Interviewed: Part 1”[1]). Such a linguistic approach is itself indicative of a trend toward material immanence, but Huxley has an altogether different conception of literature. As a writer, Huxley theorizes through the hypothetical space of the literary. He employs many qualities of psychedelic aesthetics, but unlike later psychedelic literature he does not overtly point out the performance of them. Because of this his language is more austere and less radical, which, in the post psychedelic, poststructural world has made him seem less interesting and even snobbish as a writer.

Rather than relying on extraordinary uses of language, Huxley tells one interviewer with his characteristic anaphora:

What interests me in writing, in expression, in thought, is the attempt to coordinate different fields; the attempt to say many things at the same time; the attempt to bring together in a single and coherent meaningful whole a great many disparate events and data. (“Huxley Interviewed”)

Huxley’s works cannot be summed-up as merely thinly disguised philosophical dialogues because of his layering techniques, and if one removes his literary qualities, one misses many of his points. Huxley should rather be read allegorically because his sense of the literary is bound with the idea of figural blending of characters, plot and theme with genre, themes and historical context. While he claims to be uninterested in “bare, bald classical style” which he regards as too simple, for him art should impose “order on a complex number of formal, literary, and emotional elements in the widest sense.” Unsurprisingly then, Huxley regarded New Criticism as “boring,” “trivial,” and “barren,” claiming “elaborate linguistic work is probably useful but to regard it as the be all and end all of criticism seems to me absolutely absurd.” As opposed to scientific, legal, and political language – the kind of fixed meaning Thomas Hobbes longs for in the early chapters of Leviathan – Huxley uses straightforward language to communicate through complex arrays of characters and ideas, performing a kind of “practical mysticism.” He associates elaborate philological attempts with nineteenth-century aesthetics. Yet Huxley’s approach seems both pragmatically useful and allegorically rich. He, like Spinoza, writes simultaneously for philosophers and the vulgar. In Eyeless in Gaza, the character Anthony Beavis claims:

Man, according to Blake (and, after him, according to Proust, according to Lawrence), is simply a succession of states. Good and evil can be predicted only of states, not of individuals, who in fact don’t exist, except as the places where the states occur. It is the end of personality in the old sense of the word. (Parenthetically – for this is quite outside the domain of sociology – is it the beginning of a new type of personality? That of the total man, unbowdlerized, unselected, uncanalized, to change the metaphor, down any one particular drain pipe of Weltenschauung – of the man, in a word, who actually is what he may be. Such a man is the antithesis of any of the variants on the fundamental Christian man of our history. And yet in a certain sense he is also the realization of that ideal personality conceived by the Jesus of the Gospel. (107)

Huxley’s work ought also to be read as a succession of states.

In Brave New World, written just a few years before Eyeless, lacks this emergent intentional behavior modification. Brave New World describes a future where the happiness of civilization is controlled by ingesting soma, the fictional drug that Huxley invents by invoking the substance described in the Rig Veda. Unhappy with his place in the “World State,” Bernard Marx searches for self-determination by limiting his soma intake and exploring “primitive” life on a southwestern Indian reservation. Marx and his friend Helmholtz’s dissatisfaction with a “doped-up” existence eventually results in their choosing to be banished from society. They choose the authenticity of an existence that includes unhappiness and pain. In Brave New World, the banishment of intellectuals like Marx and Helmholtz helps maintain a society of status quo individuals anaesthetized by soma. The World State determines and maintains moral authority, yet banishment is certainly not death.

Soma ingestion in Brave New World, says Huxley, performs an inversion of Karl Marx’s oft quoted remark about religion being the “opiate of the masses,” thus solving the problem of modern humanity’s alienation from meaningful labor. Yet Soma also marks Huxley’s use of mythological figuring in his texts, because soma comes from his studying of Sanskrit and The Rig Veda. Operating like the figure of Polycrates in Heodotus to link historical and mystical time, the reference to soma signifies a return to ancients’ religious ritual in society’s future. This perennial state unites east and west while overcoming history. The darkness of Brave New World comes more from the unification of religion and technology in “Fordism” as a blend of totalitarianism and state religion. The social ingestion of the drug makes soma the sacrament of the World State.

While this imagined future is scary for liberalism, it is as much a critique of liberalism as it is totalitarianism. Huxley’s use of soma somewhat ironically creates the space later mythological scholars explore unity beyond nation-states altogether – a unity that does not work with a notion like a ‘world state.’ Later scholarship in mythology and ethnobotany, as we shall see, develops through an awareness of the structure of ritual sacrifice that informs the study of Greek culture. But it often also continues to try to fulfill a kind of European Universalism, an end to history. In order to understand how this works, in the following lectures I will trace (insofar as possible) the concept of soma as it enters Greek and ultimately “western” culture.  Do these Fukuyama’s words from the fall of the Iron curtain still ring try in 2014? Is there yet a third way, like the one Huxley later said he would give John Savage if he could write the book again?

But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: no to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.





[1] The documentation of this source is flawed on YouTube. It is not Watts interviewing Huxley. I cite is because it is electronically available, easily accessible and clearly Huxley himself speaking.



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You are currently reading Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 3: Aldous Huxley and the Questions of Modernity June 22, 2014 at


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