Hug me till you drug me

Alex Harvey

  • After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley
    Vintage, 314 pp, £8.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 78487 035 5
  • Time Must Have a Stop by Aldous Huxley
    Vintage, 305 pp, £9.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 78487 034 8
  • The Genius and the Goddess by Aldous Huxley
    Vintage, 127 pp, £8.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 78487 036 2

In her memoir Kiss Hollywood Goodbye Anita Loos recalls her friend Aldous Huxley’s ‘childish love for picnics’. One excursion he organised ‘might have taken place in Alice in Wonderland’. Huxley had gathered a choice selection of his Californian friends: Charlie Chaplin and his wife, Paulette Goddard, dressed ‘in a Mexican peasant outfit’; Greta Garbo, wearing a ‘sloppy pair of men’s trousers and a battered hat with a brim that hid her face’; the visiting Bertrand Russell; Christopher Isherwood; and Huxley’s favourite mystic, Krishnamurti, accompanied by a retinue of Theosophists and vegetarian catering ladies in saris. While his guests looked like pixies ‘on a spree’, according to Loos, Huxley himself resembled a ‘giant from some second-rate circus’. He had indulged his taste for the seedy parts of the city by choosing ‘the dusty bottom of the Los Angeles River, drier than a desert and strewn with rusty cans and pop bottles’, as an anti-pastoral setting for the picnic.

The Indian delegation set about to boil their rice but while we were unpacking the other picnic fare, we were rudely shocked by a gruff voice demanding, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ There hove into view a sheriff … with a gun in his hand.

‘Doesn’t anybody in this gang know how to read?’ he asked Aldous. Aldous meekly allowed he could read but still he didn’t understand the man until he pointed out a sign we hadn’t noticed. It read ‘No Trespassing.’

When Huxley’s promise to clean up the riverbed was met with continued hostility, he played his trump card, proudly introducing his world famous movie star friends. But ‘the sheriff squinted his measly little eyes at them. “Don’t give me that!” he snarled. “I seen them stars in the movies and none of ’em belong in this outfit. Get out of here, you tramps, or I’ll arrest the whole slew of you.”’

Like many British writers in the 1930s, Huxley had been lured to Hollywood by the easy money supposedly on offer from the studios, which liked to parade a certain literary pedigree. A month after Huxley’s arrival in 1937, P.G. Wodehouse left, but J.B. Priestley, Hugh Walpole and Anthony Powell were all hawking their wares with varying degrees of success (Powell was hindered by the fact that his agent had dropped dead on Hollywood Boulevard a few days before his visit). Unlike Huxley, these other English writers found Los Angeles unappealing: ‘No wars, no politics, no deaths make any effect here. We are all on a raft together in the middle of the cinema sea! Nothing is real here but the salaries,’ Walpole wrote.

A decade earlier, during his first trip to the US in 1926, Huxley had formed an incongruous friendship with Loos (at 4’11” she matched Huxley’s height sitting down; he said he’d like to keep her as a pet). On that visit Huxley had found America distasteful. In his volume of essays Proper Studies, published in 1927, he wrote that, in the US, ‘all the resources of science are applied in order that imbecility may flourish and vulgarity cover the whole earth.’ Early Huxley, the satirist who delighted in admonishing the world, displayed an aversion to most forms of 20th-century popular culture. Jazz was ‘brassy guffaw and caterwauling’; movies banal, empty titillation. He argued that the ‘effortless pleasures’ provided by mass entertainment existed ‘merely to fill a gap of leisure, to kill time and prevent thought, to deaden and diffuse emotion’. ‘Of all the various poisons which modern civilisation by a process of auto-intoxication, brews quietly up within its own bowels,’ Huxley wrote, ‘few, it seems to me, are more deadly (while none appears more harmless) than that curious and appalling thing which is technically known as “pleasure”.’ Huxley recoiled from America’s embrace of manufactured pleasure. He believed that ‘ready-made distractions’, incessantly marketed at the working class with manipulative advertising, meant that ‘our leisures are now as highly mechanised as our labours … [in] the sphere of play no less than the sphere of work, creation has become the privilege of a fortunate few. The common man has always had to suffer from lack of money; he is now condemned to psychological poverty as well.’

Huxley singled out Henry Ford as the figurehead of this mass-produced society, attacking his belief that workers should be trained not to think creatively in order to keep them subservient. Huxley’s understanding of the logic of Fordism underpins Brave New World, which takes place in the year 632 AF – that is, after Ford invented the Model T. An unthinking proletariat is lulled into unmindfulness by popular culture, drugs and sex – as Lenina sings in the shower:

Hug me till you drug me, honey;
Kiss me till I’m in a coma,
Hug me honey, snuggly bunny;
Love’s as good as Soma.

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