The prescient, secular saint: Aldous Huxley
Though usually resistant to the charms of long biographies, I will happily make an exception for Sybille Bedford's two volume biography of her friend, Aldous Huxley, both for its subject matter and its accomplishment. Since Bedford know Huxley well, at critical moments she can enliven the text with her own direct memory and because she was a friend of Maria and Laura, Huxley's wives, she can sympathetically see him from the perspective of the two people, especially Maria, who was the closest to him. As a novelist in her own right, she gives her book a narrative flow that is admirable most especially when it weaves judicious quotation from both the work and letters to and fro. In spite of (or because of) her friendship, she maintains an admirable objectivity, serving her subject's striving after truthfulness with her own. Unlike many apparent biographers, she has a lively interest in what her subject believed as well as did, in his ideas and their expression.
It confirmed for me three essential things about Huxley.
The first is that he was a good man and that his goodness grew as he aged. If one of his themes is how might we reach after, and nurture, our deepest human potential as compassionate, thoughtful, active beings, his experiment after these truths began with himself. What is wonderful in the life is that you can see it emerging, being recognised by others if never by his self-deprecating self, even as shadows remain. Bedford very lightly evokes the word 'saintly' at points and yes, you can see that it is a word not out of place as long as one imagines holy rather than perfect. It was a holiness fashioned as a couple with Maria, his first wife, playing a fundamental humanising role and interestingly being the most susceptible of the two to mystical experience.
Second that not only was he a myriad minded man at home, in both the sciences and the arts, he was a consistently prescient one. This prescience even extends to that area which gives Bedford the most unease (she is writing in the seventies) that of Huxley's quiet and sophisticated championing of drugs in both spiritual and therapeutic contexts. Bedford wants to exculpate Huxley from triggering the bewildering and painful deluge of indiscriminate drug taking that the Sixties represented (though a reanimation of such, after quieter decades, might be more accurate). Huxley would have been quietly appalled but, as now is becoming clearer, psychedelic drugs taken appropriately in the right context may have much to offer therapy for a range of conditions including addiction precisely the use that Huxley thought merited thorough exploration. More widely, however, again and again, you find Huxley ahead of the curve whether on the environment, the risks of advertising and media manipulation (and you cannot help think of what he would have thought of our social media conundrums) or the importance of early child development.
Third that this 'mystical agnostic' with his alert sense of the potentials and perils of technology and science yet constantly remained an explorer of both past and potential futures, sifting what was of the good and of the bad regardless of any perceived (or actual) authority. In religion, for example, there was good to be found and bad to be condemned and the division lay not betwixt traditions but passing through the heart of each. Bad ideas, whether metaphysical, religious or scientific, can kill and must be consistently identified and weeded out. What is good for the community as a whole is the lodestone of his sifting, what nurtures human happiness inclusively.
Would we be successful gardeners - this remarkable species - only time could tell and Huxley lived a striking balance between 'hope' - because we could turn what we know to a pursuit of the good; and, expectation - because history though it affords examples of this coming to be is probably more weighted on the darker side of the balance.
I love too his admirable assessment of his own gifts - not inconsiderable, deployed to humanising, ennobling effect - but he was his own severest critic. Of the novels, for example, that always remain, with possibly one exception, guided by their ideas rather than an embodying narrative. Yet his core work - over fifty years after his death - remains in print, available and widely read not only for the ideas themselves many of which remain lively, current and significant but for his manner of approach - an embracing openness of mind, of including myriad patterns of thought from varied disciplines and because of their challenge to the reader to think through themselves what it might mean to become truly and fully human as a person and as a society.
He modestly suggested that if he could sum his advice in one phrase it would be 'try and be a little bit kinder'. In that undoubtedly he was, and did every day, try to be more. It is the simplicity at the heart of a complex man and mind.