Back to the future. Aldous Huxley was very much a product of his time: racist, snobbish and superior. But he was also a visionary, a chronicler of our disturbed modernity. By John Gray

Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual

Nicholas Murray <em>Little, Brown, 496pp, £20</em>

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Aldous Huxley is easy to dislike. The offspring of a formidable intellectual dynasty - he was the grandson of T H Huxley and the great-nephew of Matthew Arnold - Huxley inherited a position in society from which he was able to view the world with an often disapproving but never uncomfortable detachment. He led a charmed life, moving effortlessly from Eton and Balliol College Oxford to Hollywood, criss- crossing the world in search of sun and solitude in which to work, and ending up as one of Britain's most celebrated public intellectuals. His success as a journalist, scriptwriter, novelist and early New Age guru is testimony to the versatility of his talents, but there can be little doubt that his career was made possible by his origins in the upper reaches of English life. As he put it himself, while travelling through India in the mid-1920s: "I was born in the upper-middle, governing class of an independent, rich and exceedingly powerful nation. Born an Indian or brought up in the slums of London, I should hardly be able to achieve so philosophical a suspense of judgement."

Along with the advantages of his time and his class, Huxley inherited many of their prejudices. Buying a house on the Provencal coast at Sanary-sur-Mer at the start of the 1930s, he raged snobbishly at the influx of visitors during the summer. He particularly deplored the increasing numbers of German exiles, describing them as "rather a dismal crew" and, in August 1933, as a "rich selection of Jews". If, like his friend T S Eliot, he saw nothing untoward in the casual anti-Semitism conveyed in such attitudes, he also shared the racist phobias of his day. Writing to Norman Douglas about some Tunisian Arabs he had seen, Huxley commented: "In 50 years' time, it seems to me, Europe can't fail to be wiped out by these monsters."

Huxley was a man of his time, not only in his prejudices, but also in his illusions. At a time when Mussolini was waging a cruel war in Abyssinia, he joined Dick Sheppard's preposterous Peace Pledge Union. Justifying himself to the eminently sane and sober Leonard Woolf, Huxley took a neo-Gandhian line: "The worst way of dealing with one evil is to do another evil, or to threaten another evil." Huxley seems not to have noticed that this pacifist stance could be adopted and advocated only in liberal democracies of the kind that were rapidly disappearing throughout Europe. Perhaps he simply could not imagine his own freedom being curtailed. In one of his letters, he declared: "About 99.5 per cent of the entire population of the planet are as stupid and philistine as the great masses of the English . . . The important thing, it seems to me, is not to attack the 99.5 per cent - except for exercise - but to try to see that the 0.5 per cent survives, keeps its quality up to the highest possible level and, if possible, dominates the rest."

Huxley took it for granted that he would always be in the top 0.5 per cent. In many ways, he was a specimen of a thoroughly conventional English type - the Bloomsbury bohemian who never questions his privileged place in the society he mocks. At the same time, as Nicholas Murray shows in this wonderfully balanced and unfailingly interesting new biography, he was a consistently inquiring and innovative thinker, who strove throughout his life to combine bold risk-taking with old-fashioned decencies.

Aldous Huxley: an English intellectual breaks new ground in revealing Huxley's menage a trois with his wife, Maria, and Mary Hutchinson, the bisexual mistress of Clive Bell. Without ever being prurient, Murray provides a detailed and absorbing account of "the coexistence of complete sexual freedom and a long and loving marriage" that Huxley managed to achieve over the course of several decades. Some found him cool and introverted, scarcely aware of the existence of other people - a trait that may have been exacerbated by his chronically weak eyesight. Yet he must have had considerable sensitivity to sustain such a complex connection so successfully, and for so long.

A good deal of Huxley's writing - all of the poetry, most of the essays and many of the novels - has dated badly, but what survives is astonishingly prescient. The Doors of Perception - his De Quincey-like meditations on his experiences while taking mescaline - remains valuable for its reflections on the ways in which, for the sake of biological survival and social stability, our senses filter out much that is aesthetically or spiritually valuable. The Perennial Philosophy, an anthology he published in 1945 to propagate the mystical philosophy to which he had been drawn during his years in California, is flawed by its neglect of the diversity of mystical experience. After all, much of the religious life of mankind has always been polytheistic, and the primordial religion of the species - animism - tells of a world full of gods, not one God. It seems to me more than doubtful that there is such a thing as a philosophia perennis - a universal insight into the essential unity of things. Even so, this is a book that prefigures the spiritual quest of later generations, and attests to the sincerity of Huxley's search for a philosophy more satisfying than the stunted English agnosticism in which he had been reared.

If anything of Huxley's will always be read, though, it is Brave New World, a satire commonly bracketed with Orwell's 1984 or - less often but more plausibly - with Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, a brilliant assault on Soviet and left-progressive ideas of social perfection, written in 1920. In fact, Huxley's book belongs to a different genre, that of the dystopian critique of the uses of science which H G Wells had pioneered in his short novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. Huxley's dystopia is sustained by nothing as primitive and messy as totalitarian terror, but instead by modern technology: behavioural conditioning, euphoria-inducing drugs and - in a flash of premonitory genius - a version of human cloning. His brave new world is a tranquil and hygienic place in which human beings have been scientifically re-engineered to remove unhappiness and the pain of personal choice.

In practice, the technologies Huxley imagines being used to engineer a conflict-free world are more likely to be deployed in waging war. (Think of the possibilities that will be opened up when it becomes feasible to clone armies that can kill without the normal reactions of fear or sympathy.) The human future is sure to be less antiseptic than Huxley imagined. Yet it is impossible to read Brave New World without being impressed by Huxley's eerie glimpses into the present. We may imbibe Prozac and not Huxley's soma to relieve our distress, and rely on surveillance cameras and electronic tagging rather than the administration of electric shocks to keep the peace, but if we believe in anything, it is that unhappiness and social disorder are problems that can be solved by technical fixes. Huxley may have been sadly blinkered in many of his social attitudes, but his vision of the future is disquietingly close to the way we live today.

John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. His next book, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, is published by Granta in September

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