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Aldous Huxley: Reaching beyond the confines of the physical

Mankind’s perennial certainty that the future for which it strives will necessarily be an improvement on both the present and the past is a theme whose folly and contemporary relevance is brought to the fore in two classics by Aldous Huxley, now reissued by Vintage.

Born in 1894, and exempted from military service in the Great War due to a childhood illness that left him almost blind, Huxley was nevertheless no stranger to death. The loss of his mother to cancer when he was 14, and the suicide of his elder brother Noel in 1914, just as the demise of a generation of his contemporaries began, lent Huxley’s writing an abiding preoccupation with mortality.

Both After Many a Summer and Time Must Have a Stop hint at their author’s personal pursuit of a divine level of consciousness, reaching beyond the seemingly infer-ior confines of the physical. Originally published in 1939 and 1944 respectively, each novel confronts the reader with metaphysical truths concerning the relentless struggle between good and evil, while examining the motivations underlying social interactions and the relationship between the body and soul. Taking its title from Tennyson’s Tithonus, the Trojan prince and lover of Eos who was doomed to live and age forever, After Many a Summer tells the tale of Jo Stoyte, a discriminating philanthropist and self-made millionaire who seeks and eventually finds the secret of eternal life but at the cost of his own humanity.

Set in a wryly depicted late 1930s Los Angeles, the city Huxley called home after emigrating in 1937, and borrowing freely from the gothic literature of the 18th century, the novel has castles, cemeteries, iniquitous doctors and simpering maidens. In the dénouement, man is finally exposed in his most primal form, condemned like Tithonus but more horrifically so in the absence of the civilising self-awareness that comes with catharsis. In a further Faustian twist, we see plainly what Stoyte’s desperation has blinded him to. By binding himself solely to the earth and eschewing both moral and spiritual development, he has forfeited any hope of sublime contentment.

Despite the eloquence of Huxley’s prose, it is hard to muster any real sympathy for the book’s characters. The only exceptions are Peter Boone, a young, hopelessly idealistic medical researcher, recently returned from fighting for the Republican side in Spain, and an old school friend of Stoyte’s, the academic Mr Propter. Assessing the virtues and pitfalls of just about every conceivable “ism”, Propter chiefly appears as the emissary of Huxley’s own philosophical suppositions, on the intelligent application of free will and its power to cause both immense happiness and untold harm.

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