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Tue, November 19 2013

Aldous Huxley: The Other Great Man Who Died This Week

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This week, many of us from the Baby Boom generation are remembering one of the epochal events of our youth—the tragic November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

I’m writing this blog one week before that 50th anniversary, on November 15, which just happens to be my sixtieth birthday. I was approaching my tenth birthday when the man who symbolized the youthful vigor and hope of the early 1960s was gunned down in Dallas, but I retain vivid memories of that day.

Most people, including myself, didn’t realize at the time that another great man died on that same day, someone who laid the groundwork for the spiritual revolution of the 1960s.

Aldous Huxley, the great English writer and visionary, was on his deathbed in his home in Los Angeles when the news of the JFK assassination rocked the nation. As per his instructions, Aldous’ wife, Laura, injected him with a 100-microgram dose of LSD just before his death, then lovingly encouraged him to follow the light into the great beyond.

Within the next few years, millions of us—including many inspired by Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception —would begin a spiritual journey that was at least in part inspired by insights we would have on psychedelic drugs.

Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of the popular 1932 novel Brave New World , was born on a small country estate southeast of London in the summer of 1894.

Early in his literary career he was known as a somewhat cynical social satirist, part of the so-called “Lost Generation, young adults who responded to the horrors of WW I by embracing a philosophy of meaninglessness. But in the 1930s and 1940s he became increasingly interested in philosophy, spiritualism, and Eastern mysticism. One of his most important—and least accessible—books, The Perennial Philosophy , seeks to find the common spiritual truth running through all of the great world religions.

My last book, Distilled Spirits , was, among other things, a biography of Aldous Huxley. In doing research at the Huxley archive at UCLA, I found a little note that Huxley wrote to himself on June 25, 1962 at his home on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles:

I remain an agnostic who aspires to be a gnostic, but a gnostic only on the mystical level, a gnostic without symbols—experimentally and with proper skepticism. Perhaps... one should cultivate a traditional superstition for the sake of the psychological results. I am old dog but perhaps not too old to learn a new trick or two.

As I enter my seventh decade, all I can say to that is “Amen, Aldous!”

What is Huxley—the famous English novelist and essayist—talking about when he says he’s an “agnostic who aspires to be gnostic?” An agnostic, of course, is someone who doesn’t claim to know anything about the existence of God. A gnostic is someone who knows at a deep mystical level that there is more to life than what we see on the material plane. The gnostic experiences a knowledge that goes beyond belief in any particular religious doctrine or dogma.

Aldous Huxley helped inspire the spiritual revolution of 1960s and 1970s—a revolution that changed the way millions of Americans practice their faith and live their lives, forging a new American spirituality that is experiential, anti-authoritarian, eclectic, utilitarian, and therapeutic. It is less about believing in God and more about experiencing divine power and grace. This new American spirituality shows a deep distrust of religious hierarchies. It draws wisdom from all of the world’s religions. It’s practical, not pious. It’s about finding new connections between body, mind, and spirit.            

So much of Aldous Huxley’s life and work boils down to an internal debate he was having between his own skepticism and his own spiritual longing. And that’s one of the things that draws me to his work. I’ve spent most of my life with one foot firmly planted in each of those two camps. I worked for nearly 30 years in San Francisco as a secular newspaper reporter writing about religion. Newspaper reporters are—almost by definition—skeptical. Those of us on “the religion beat” are supposed to write about faith, but stick to the facts. There’s that challenge. But on a more personal level, I’ve spent much of my life in that dim alley where skepticism meets cynicism, wandering around, looking for a little light.

Aldous Huxley helps me find the light.


Don Lattin writes about Aldous Huxley in The Harvard Psychedelic Club and Distilled

Don Lattin's picture

Don Lattin is a veteran journalist and the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His national bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent work, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, is a memoir and group biography of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lattin’s stories have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for two decades. He lives on an island in the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Laura, and his dog, Bella. Visit him at donlattin.com.

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