The Enlightenment of Aldous Huxley: An Interview

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

Interview Excerpt of Aldous Huxley, The Art of Fiction No. 24

Interviewed by Raymond Fraser, George Wickes for the Paris Review

INTERVIEWER

How did you happen to start writing? Do you remember?

HUXLEY

I started writing when I was seventeen, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it. I’ve no idea what’s become of it; I’d be curious to see it now, but it’s lost. My aunt, Mrs. Humphry Ward, was a kind of literary godmother to me. I used to have long talks with her about writing; she gave me no end of sound advice. She was a very sound writer herself, rolled off her plots like sections of macadamized road. She had a curious practice: every time she started work on a new novel, she read Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau. It seemed to act as a kind of trigger or release mechanism. Then later, during the war and after, I met a great many writers through Lady Ottoline Morrell. She used to invite all kinds of people out to her country house. I met Katherine Mansfield there, and Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, and all the Bloomsburies. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Roger Fry. Listening to his talk about the arts was a liberal education. At Oxford I began writing verse. I had several volumes of verse published before I turned to writing stories. I was very lucky; I never had any difficulty getting published. After the war, when I came down from Oxford, I had to make my living. I had a job on the Athenaeum, but that paid very little, not enough to live on; so in spare moments I worked for the Condé Nast publications. I worked for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and for House and Garden. I used to turn out articles on everything from decorative plaster to Persian rugs. And that wasn’t all. I did dramatic criticism for the Westminster Gazette. Why—would you believe it?—I even did music criticism. I heartily recommend this sort of journalism as an apprenticeship. It forces you to write on everything under the sun, it develops your facility, it teaches you to master your material quickly, and it makes you look at things. Fortunately, though, I didn’t have to keep at it very long. After Crome Yellow—that was 1921—I didn’t have to worry so much about making a living. I was already married, and we were then able to live on the Continent—in Italy until the Fascists made life unpleasant, then in France. We had a little house outside Paris, where I could write without being disturbed. We’d be in London part of every year, but there was always too much going on; I couldn’t get much writing done there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that certain occupations are more conducive to creative writing than others? In other words, does the work you do or the company you keep affect your writing?

HUXLEY

I don’t believe there is an ideal occupation for the writer. He could write under almost any circumstance, even in complete isolation. Why, look at Balzac, locked up in a secret room in Paris, hiding from his creditors, and producing La comedie humaine. Or think of Proust in his cork-lined room (although of course he had plenty of visitors). I suppose the best occupation is just meeting a great many different kinds of people and seeing what interests them. That’s one of the disadvantages of getting older; you’re inclined to make intimate contacts with fewer people.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say makes the writer different from other people?

HUXLEY

Well, one has the urge, first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning to life; and along with that goes the love of words for their own sake and a desire to manipulate them. It’s not a matter of intelligence; some very intelligent and original people don’t have the love of words or the knack to use them effectively. On the verbal level they express themselves very badly.

INTERVIEWER

What about creativeness in general?

HUXLEY

Yes, what about it? Why is it that in most children education seems to destroy the creative urge? Why do so many boys and girls leave school with blunted perceptions and a closed mind? A majority of young people seem to develop mental arteriosclerosis forty years before they get the physical kind. Another question: why do some people remain open and elastic into extreme old age, whereas others become rigid and unproductive before they’re fifty? It’s a problem in biochemistry and adult education.

INTERVIEWER

Some psychologists have claimed that the creative urge is a kind of neurosis. Would you agree?

HUXLEY

Most emphatically not. I don’t believe for a moment that creativity is a neurotic symptom. On the contrary, the neurotic who succeeds as an artist has had to overcome a tremendous handicap. He creates in spite of his neurosis, not because of it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve never had much use for Freud, have you?

HUXLEY

The trouble with Freudian psychology is that it is based exclusively on a study of the sick. Freud never met a healthy human being—only patients and other psychoanalysts. Then too, Freudian psychology is only concerned with the past. Other systems of psychology, that concern themselves with the present state of the subject or his future potentialities, seem to me to be more realistic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see any relation between the creative process and the use of such drugs as lysergic acid?

HUXLEY

I don’t think there is any generalization one can make on this. Experience has shown that there’s an enormous variation in the way people respond to lysergic acid. Some people probably could get direct aesthetic inspiration for painting or poetry out of it. Others I don’t think could. For most people it’s an extremely significant experience, and I suppose in an indirect way it could help the creative process. But I don’t think one can sit down and say, “I want to write a magnificent poem, and so I’m going to take lysergic acid.” I don’t think it’s by any means certain that you would get the result you wanted—you might get almost any result.

INTERVIEWER

Would the drug give more help to the lyric poet than the novelist?

HUXLEY

Well, the poet would certainly get an extraordinary view of life which he wouldn’t have had in any other way, and this might help him a great deal. But, you see (and this is the most significant thing about the experience), during the experience you’re really not interested in doing anything practical—even writing lyric poetry. If you were making love to a woman, would you be interested in writing about it? Of course not. And during the experience you’re not particularly interested in words, because the experience transcends words and is quite inexpressible in terms of words. So the whole notion of conceptualizing what is happening seems very silly. After the event, it seems to me quite possible that it might be of great assistance; people would see the universe around them in a very different way and would be inspired, possibly, to write something about it.

INTERVIEWER

But is there much carryover from the experience?

HUXLEY

Well, there’s always a complete memory of the experience. You remember something extraordinary having happened. And to some extent you can relive the experience, particularly the transformation of the outside world. You get hints of this, you see the world in this transfigured way now and then—not to the same pitch of intensity, but something of the kind. It does help you to look at the world in a new way. And you come to understand very clearly the way that certain specially gifted people have seen the world. You are actually introduced into the kind of world that Van Gogh lived in, or the kind of world that Blake lived in. You begin to have a direct experience of this kind of world while you’re under the drug, and afterwards you can remember and to some slight extent recapture this kind of world, which certain privileged people have moved in and out of, as Blake obviously did all the time.

INTERVIEWER

But the artist’s talents won’t be any different from what they were before he took the drug?

HUXLEY

I don’t see why they should be different. Some experiments have been made to see what painters can do under the influence of the drug, but most of the examples I have seen are very uninteresting. You could never hope to reproduce to the full extent the quite incredible intensity of color that you get under the influence of the drug. Most of the things I have seen are just rather tiresome bits of expressionism, which correspond hardly at all, I would think, to the actual experience. Maybe an immensely gifted artist—someone like Odilon Redon (who probably saw the world like this all the time, anyhow)—maybe such a man could profit by the lysergic-acid experience, could use his visions as models, could reproduce on canvas the external world as it is transfigured by the drug.

INTERVIEWER

Here this afternoon, as in your book, The Doors of Perception, you’ve been talking chiefly about the visual experience under the drug, and about painting. Is there any similar gain in psychological insight?

HUXLEY

Yes, I think there is. While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one’s own life. Many people get tremendous recalls of buried material. A process which may take six years of psychoanalysis happens in an hour—and considerably cheaper! And the experience can be very liberating and widening in other ways. It shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it’s healthy that people should have this experience.

INTERVIEWER

Could such psychological insight be helpful to the fiction writer?

HUXLEY

I doubt it. After all, fiction is the fruit of sustained effort. The lysergic-acid experience is a revelation of something outside of time and the social order. To write fiction, one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in an actual environment, and then a whole lot of hard work on the basis of those inspirations.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any resemblance between lysergic acid, or mescaline, and the “soma” of your Brave New World?

HUXLEY

None whatever. Soma is an imaginary drug, with three different effects—euphoric, hallucinant, or sedative—an impossible combination. Mescaline is the active principle of the peyote cactus, which has been used for a long time by the Indians of the Southwest in their religious rites. It is now synthesized. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) is a chemical compound with effects similar to mescaline; it was developed about twelve years ago, and it is only being used experimentally at present. Mescaline and lysergic acid transfigure the external world and in some cases produce visions. Most people have the sort of positive and enlightening experience I’ve described; but the visions may be infernal as well as celestial. These drugs are physiologically innocuous, except to people with liver damage. They leave most people with no hangover, and they are not habit-forming. Psychiatrists have found that, skillfully used, they can be very helpful in the treatment of certain kinds of neuroses.

INTERVIEWER

How did you happen to get involved in experiments with mescaline and lysergic acid?

HUXLEY

Well, I’d been interested in it for some years, and I had been in correspondence with Humphrey Osmond, a very gifted young British psychiatrist working in Canada. When he started testing its effects on different kinds of people, I became one of his guinea pigs. I’ve described all this in The Doors of Perception.

INTERVIEWER

To return to writing, in Point Counter Point you have Philip Quarles say, “I am not a congenital novelist.” Would you say the same of yourself?

HUXLEY

I don’t think of myself as a congenital novelist—no. For example, I have great difficulty in inventing plots. Some people are born with an amazing gift for storytelling; it’s a gift which I’ve never had at all. One reads, for example, Stevenson’s accounts of how all the plots for his stories were provided in dreams by his subconscious mind (what he calls the “Brownies” working for him), and that all he had to do was to work up the material they had provided. I’ve never had any Brownies. The great difficulty for me has always been creating situations.

INTERVIEWER

Developing character has been easier for you than creating plots?

HUXLEY

Yes, but even then I’m not very good at creating people; I don’t have a very wide repertory of characters. These are difficult things for me. I suppose it’s largely a question of temperament. I don’t happen to have the right kind of temperament.

INTERVIEWER

By the phrase “congenital novelist” we thought you meant one who is only interested in writing novels.

HUXLEY

I suppose this is another way of saying the same thing. The congenital novelist doesn’t have other interests. Fiction for him is an absorbing thing which fills up his mind and takes all his time and energy, whereas someone else with a different kind of mind has these other, extracurricular activities going on.

INTERVIEWER

As you look back on your novels, which are you most happy with?

HUXLEY

I personally think the most successful was Time Must Have a Stop. I don’t know, but it seemed to me that I integrated what may be called the essay element with the fictional element better there than in other novels. Maybe this is not the case. It just happens to be the one that I like best, because I feel that it came off best.

INTERVIEWER

As you see it, then, the novelist’s problem is to fuse the “essay element” with the story?

HUXLEY

Well, there are lots of excellent storytellers who are simply storytellers, and I think it’s a wonderful gift, after all. I suppose the extreme example is Dumas: that extraordinary old gentleman, who sat down and thought nothing of writing six volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo in a few months. And my God, Monte Cristo is damned good! But it isn’t the last word. When you can find storytelling which carries at the same time a kind of parable-like meaning (such as you get, say, in Dostoyevsky or in the best of Tolstoy), this is something extraordinary, I feel. I’m always flabbergasted when I reread some of the short things of Tolstoy, like The Death of Ivan Ilyich. What an astounding work that is! Or some of the short things of Dostoyevsky, like Notes from Underground.

From Wikipedia:

Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel writing, film stories and scripts. Huxley spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death.

Aldous Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist, and he was latterly interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism. He is also well known for advocating and taking psychedelics.

By the end of his life Huxley was widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time.

 

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