The Devils of LoudunAldous Huxley
Table of Contents
About the Author
Also by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
The Devils of Loudun
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Epub ISBN: 9781409079507
Published by Vintage 2005
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Copyright © Mrs Laura Huxley 1952
Biographical introduction copyright © David Bradshaw 1994
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First published in Great Britain in 1952 by Chatto & Windus
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About the Author
* * *
Aldous Huxley was born on 26 July 1894 near Godalming, Surrey. He began writing poetry and short stories in his early twenties, but it was his first novel Crome Yellow (1921), which established his literary reputation. This was swiftly followed by Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925) and Point Counter Point (1928) – bright, brilliant satires of contemporary society. For most of the 1920s Huxley lived in Italy but in the 1930s he moved to Sanary, near Toulon.
In the years leading up to the Second World War, Huxley’s work took on a more sombre tone in response to the confusion of a society which he felt to be spinning dangerously out of control. His great novels of ideas, including his most famous work Brave New World (published in 1932 this warned against the dehumanising aspects of scientific and material ‘progress’) and the pacifist novel Eyeless in Gaza (1936) were accompanied by a series of wise and brilliant essays, collected in volume form under such titles as Music at Night (1931) and Ends and Means (1937).
In 1937, at the height of his fame, Huxley left Europe to live in California, working for a time as a screenwriter in Hollywood. As the West braced itself for war, Huxley came increasingly to believe that the key to solving the world’s problems lay in changing the individual through mystical enlightenment. The exploration of the inner life through mysticism and hallucinogenic drugs was to dominate his work for the rest of his life. His beliefs found expression in both fiction (Time Must Have a Stop, 1944 and Island, 1962) and non-fiction (The Perennial Philosophy, 1945, Grey Eminence, 1941 and the famous account of his first mescalin experience, The Doors of Perception, 1954).
Huxley died in California on 22 November 1963.
ALSO BY ALDOUS HUXLEY
Those Barren Leaves
Point Counter Point
Brave New World
Eyeless in Gaza
After Many a Summer
Time Must Have a Stop
Ape and Essence
The Genius and the Goddess
Two or Three Graces
The Gioconda Smile
(Collected Short Stories)
Along the Road
Beyond the Mexique Bay
Poetry and Drama
The Burning Wheel
The Defeat of Youth
Verses and a Comedy
The Gioconda Smile
Essays and Belles Lettres
On the Margin
Do What You Will
Music at Night
Texts and Pretexts
The Olive Tree
Ends and Means
The Art of Seeing
The Perennial Philosophy
Science, Liberty and Peace
Themes and Variations
The Doors of Perception
Adonis and the Alphabet
Heaven and Hell
Brave New World Revisited
Literature and Science
The Human Situation
The Crows of Pearblossom
ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894–1963)
ON 26 JULY 1894, near Godalming in Surrey, Aldous Leonard Huxley was born into a family which had only recently become synonymous with the intellectual aristocracy. Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, had earned notoriety as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and fame as a populariser of science, just as his own probing and controversial works were destined to outrage and exhilarate readers and non-readers alike in the following century. Aldous Huxley’s mother was a niece of the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold, and he was a nephew of the redoubtable Mrs Humphry Ward, doyenne of late-Victorian novelists. This inheritance, combining the scientific and the literary in a blend which was to become characteristic of his vision as a writer, was both a source of great pride and a burden to Huxley in his formative years. Much was expected of him.
Three traumatic events left their mark on the young Huxley. In 1908 his mother died of cancer, and this led to the effective break-up of the family home. Two years later, while a schoolboy at Eton, Huxley contracted an eye infection which made him almost completely blind for a time and severely impaired his vision for the rest of his life. The suicide of his brother Trevenen in August 1914 robbed Huxley of the person to whom he felt closest. Over twenty years later, in Eyeless in Gaza (1936), Huxley’s treatment of the death of the main character’s mother and his embodiment of ‘Trev’ in the novel as the vulnerable Brian Foxe give some indication of the indelible pain which these tr
agic occurrences left in their wake. To a considerable degree, they account for the darkness, pungency and cynicism which feature so prominently in Huxley’s work throughout the inter-war period.
Within months of achieving a First in English Language and Literature at Balliol College, Oxford in 1916, Huxley published The Burning Wheel. Huxley’s first collection of verse, and the three which followed it, Jonah (1917), The Defeat of Youth (1918) and Leda (1920), reveal his indebtedness to French symbolism and fin de siècle aestheticism. Also discernible, however, beneath the poetry’s triste and ironic patina, is a concern with the inward world of the spirit which anticipates Huxley’s later absorption in mysticism. These volumes of poetry were the first of over fifty separate works of fiction, drama, verse, criticism, biography, travel and speculative writing which Huxley was to produce during the course of his life.
Unfit for military service, Huxley worked as a farm labourer at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor after he left Oxford. Here he met not only D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell, Mark Gertler and other Bloomsbury figures, but also a Belgian refugee, Maria Nys, whom he married in 1919. By then Huxley was working for the Athenaeum magazine under the adroit editorship of Middleton Murry. Soon after he became the first British editor of House and Garden, worked for Vogue and contributed musical criticism to the Weekly Westminster Gazette in the early 1920s.
Limbo (1920), a collection of short stories, preceded the appearance of Crome Yellow in 1921, the novel with which Huxley first made his name as a writer. Inspired by, among others, Thomas Love Peacock, Norman Douglas and Anatole France, Huxley’s first novel incorporated many incidents from his sojourn at Garsington as well as mischievous portraits of its chatelaine and his fellow guests. More blatantly still, Crome Yellow is an iconoclastic tilt at the Victorian and Edwardian mores which had resulted in the First World War and its terrible aftermath. For all its comic bravura, which won acclaim from writers such as Scott Fitzgerald and Max Beerbohm, Crome Yellow may be read, along with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and Huxley’s second novel Antic Hay (1923), as an expression of the pervasive mood of disenchantment in the early 1920s. Huxley told his father that Antic Hay was ‘written by a member of what I may call the war-generation for others of his kind’. He went on to say that it was intended to reflect ‘the life and opinions of an age which has seen the violent disruption of almost all the standards, conventions and values current in the previous epoch’.
Even as a schoolboy Huxley had been an avid browser among the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it did not take long for him to acquire a reputation for arcane eclecticism. Moreover, as his prestige as a debunker and an emancipator grew, so Huxley was condemned more roundly by critics of the old guard, such as James Douglas of the Daily Express, who denounced the explicit discussion of sex and free thought in his fiction. Antic Hay was burned in Cairo, and in the ensuing years many of Huxley’s books were censured, censored or banned at one time or another. Conversely, it was the openness, wit, effortless learning and apparent insouciance of Huxley’s early work which proved such an appetising concoction for novelists as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner, Anthony Powell and Barbara Pym. Angus Wilson called Huxley ‘the god of my adolescence’.
From 1923 onwards Huxley lived abroad more or less permanently, first near Florence and then, between 1930 and 1937, at Sanary on the Côte d’Azur. In Along the Road (1925), subtitled ‘Notes and Essays of a Tourist’, Huxley offered a lively and engaging account of the places and works of art he had taken in since his arrival in Italy, and both the title story of his third collection of tales, Little Mexican (1924), and his third novel, Those Barren Leaves (1925), are set in that country. According to Huxley, the theme of Those Barren Leaves is ‘the undercutting of everything by a sort of despairing scepticism and then the undercutting of that by mysticism’. For W.B. Yeats, Those Barren Leaves heralded the return of philosophy to the English novel, but it was with his fourth novel, Point Counter Point (1928), that Huxley cemented his reputation with the reading public as a thought-provoking writer of fiction. Point Counter Point is Huxley’s first true ‘novel of ideas’, the type of fiction with which he has become most closely identified. He once explained that his aim as a novelist was ‘to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay’, arguing that the novel should be like a holdall, bursting with opinion and arresting ideas. This privileging of content over form was one of the many things he had in common with H.G. Wells; it was anathema to the likes of Virginia Woolf. Huxley was fascinated by the fact that ‘the same person is simultaneously a mass of atoms, a physiology, a mind, an object with a shape that can be painted, a cog in the economic machine, a voter, a lover etc’, and one of his key aims in Point Counter Point was to offer this multi-faceted view of his principal characters.
Huxley’s more sombre mood in the late 1920s was epitomised by Proper Studies (1927), the most important of the four volumes of essays he published during the decade, and the one in which he first set himself unequivocally against what he regarded as the vulgarity and perversity of mass civilisation. Between September 1925 and June 1926 Huxley had travelled via India to the United States, and it was this visit to America which made him so pessimistic about the cultural future of Europe. He recounted his experiences in Jesting Pilate (1926). ‘The thing which is happening in America is a revaluation of values,’ Huxley wrote, ‘a radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards’, and it was soon after visiting the United States that Huxley conceived the idea of writing a satire on what he had encountered. Brave New World (1932) may be read as Huxley’s contribution to the widespread fear of Americanisation which had been current in Europe since the mid-nineteenth century, but this humorous, disturbing and curiously ambivalent novel offers much more than straightforward travesty. Similarly, although Brave New World has become, with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the twin pillars of the anti-utopian tradition in literature and a byword for all that is most repellent and ‘nightmarish’ in the world to come, it was written with Huxley’s gaze very much on the crisis-torn present of Britain in 1931. When placed alongside Brief Candles (1930), a well-received collection of short stories, Music at Night (1931), a typically energetic and wide-ranging volume of essays, and Texts and Pretexts (1932), a verse anthology with commentaries designed to show that even in the highly-charged political atmosphere of the early 1930s ‘they also serve who only bother their heads about art’, Huxley’s polygonal appeal as a novelist, thinker and pundit is brought home. In 1934 he published Beyond the Mexique Bay, an account of his travels in the Caribbean and Central America, and in 1936, Eyeless in Gaza. Stimulated by his conversion to pacifism in November 1935, Huxley’s sixth novel imbricates the fears, foibles, prejudices and dissensions of the age with a fictionalisation of his own history. A commitment to questions which are essentially religious, rather than political or philosophical, is evident in Huxley’s work for the first time.
When Huxley left Europe for the United States in April 1937 he was at the height of his fame as a novelist and the Peace Pledge Union’s leading celebrity. Ironically, he was by now far more concerned with the virtues of non-attachment, anarchism, decentralisation and mystical salvation than with the failings of contemporary society, the role of pacifism in national politics or the art of fiction. If Huxley had been intent on exposing the meaninglessness of life in the 1920s, from the mid-1930s he was preoccupied with seeking the meaning of existence. Ends and Means (1937), in which Huxley tried ‘to relate the problems of domestic and international politics, of war and economics, of education, religion and ethics, to a theory of the ultimate nature of reality’, signalled his departure for the higher ground of mystical enlightenment where he would remain encamped for the rest of his life.
It was to lecture on the issues which dominate Ends and Means that Huxley and his friend and guru Gerald Heard had travelled to the United States. Huxley had every intention of returning
to Europe, but his wife’s need to live in a hot, dry climate on health grounds and the lucrative prospect of writing for the movies contrived to keep the Huxleys in America until it was too unsafe to return. Huxley’s reaction to Hollywood and its cult of youth finds mordant expression in After Many a Summer (1939), the story of a Citizen Kane-like character’s life of grandiose illusion. The materialist excesses of Jo Stoyte are counterpointed by the ascetic convictions of Propter, a modern-day anchorite modelled on Heard. Huxley and Hollywood were not compatible, and his failure to write a popular play in the inter-war year was mirrored in his largely unsuccessful efforts to write for the movies. Walt Disney’s widely reported rejection of Huxley’s synopsis of Alice in Wonderland on the grounds that he ‘could only understand every third word’ was symptomatic of Huxley’s problem. His natural bent was for the leisurely and allusive development of an idea; above all else the movie moguls demanded pacey dialogue. His disenchantment with the world of the film studios is evident in the opening pages of Ape and Essence (1948), Huxley’s ghastly and graphic projection of Los Angeles as a ruinous, sprawling ossuary in the aftermath of the atomic Third World War. While the threat of global nuclear conflict has receded for the present, Huxley’s discussion of the rapid deforestation, pollution and other acts of ecological ‘imbecility’ which preceded the self-inflicted apocalypse he describes in the novel, is still chillingly topical.
Huxley spent most of the war years in a small house at Llano in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. In 1926 he had dismissed meditation as ‘the doze’s first cousin’, but it was to a life of quietistic contemplation that Huxley now devoted himself. This phrase of his career resulted in the excellent Grey Eminence (1941), a biography of Father Joseph, adviser to Cardinal Richelieu; Time Must Have a Stop (1944), a novel set in Florence in 1929 in which, to borrow Huxley’s words, ‘a piece of the Comédie Humaine . . . modulates into a vision of the Divina Commedia’; and The Perennial Philosophy (1945), a profoundly influential anthology of excerpts and commentaries illustrating what Huxley called ‘the highest common factor of all the higher religions’. He went on to say with typical humour and humility, ‘The greatest merit of the book is that about forty per cent of it is not by me, but by a lot of saints, many of whom were also men of genius.’ The Devils of Loudun, a compelling psychological study of sexual hysteria in seventeenth-century France, which was subsequently turned into a successful film, appeared in 1952. In the same way that Huxley’s astringent social satires caught the mood of the 1920s, so, in the years during and following the Second World War and the enormity of the Jewish Holocaust, his personal concern with spiritual and ethical matters and his consternation at the accelerating arms race reflected both the tone and unease of the zeitgeist.