"Brave New Worldview" -

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"Brave New Worldview" -

Post  Khephra on Tue Dec 23, 2008 11:19 am

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Brave New Worldview: The Return of Aldous Huxley

By JEFFREY J. KRIPAL

Was that a peace-sign flag I saw waving in Grant Park before President-elect Barack Obama's victory speech? Despite all the talk of Obama's being next generation, 21st century, post everything, and of the divisive culture wars bred in the 60s finally being put to rest, on election night I couldn't help but think of that distant decade that brought us the peace sign and how some of its dreams might now be realized. What's next?

Spiritual exploration and the debunking of religion were other features of the 60s that people have tended to either ridicule or denounce, but we seem to be revisiting those themes as well. Before the presidential campaigns kicked into high gear, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote an essay called "The Neural Buddhists." In it he called arguments defending the existence of God against atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins easy, and predicted that the real challenge would "come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits." He continued: "In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That's bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation."

The phrase "neural Buddhists" calls up the ways in which the conclusions of modern neuroscience and a collection of ancient meditation practices developed in Asia have come to similar experiential and empirical conclusions about a number of things, including the ultimate nonexistence of the individual self or surface social ego. Such ideas, of course, are part of a much broader interest in "mysticism" and "spirituality," themselves, perhaps ironically, markers of that quintessentially modern and eminently democratic turn to the individual as the most reliable source of religious authority and insight.

Significantly, the modern, Western use of those terms mysticism and spirituality arose in the middle of the 19th century at the exact moment that science, in the form of an ascending Darwinism, was first seriously challenging institutional religion. This, of course, is a cultural war that is still very much with us in the present debates around religion and science, belief and atheism, creationism and evolution. Add to that volatile mix the violent terrorism of radical Islam, the likely role of modern technology and carbon-burning fuels in global warming and the environmental crisis, and the ability of institutions and governments to monitor our thoughts and words in extraordinarily precise and effective ways, and you have all the ingredients for ... what?

What do neural Buddhists, individualist spiritualities, cultural wars over science and religion and creationism and evolution, a nature-hating technology, the violence of extreme religious belief, and potentially omniscient government surveillance all have in common? They were all core elements in the life and work of the literary prophet Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

Perhaps not coincidentally, a kind of Huxley renaissance is under way. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brave New World is being made into a film, to be directed by Ridley Scott and produced by George DiCaprio, starring his son, Leonardo. New editions of Huxley's books are in the works, and serious global interest in his writing is on the rise, particularly in Eastern Europe. It is worth returning to Huxley, then, not as he has been for us in the past the author of the prophetic, dystopian Brave New World but as he might be for us in the future.

Huxley was an iconic literary figure who embodied many of the tensions and coincidences of our contemporary intellectual scene, particularly those orbiting around those warring twin Titans, science and religion. On the scientific side, Aldous was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the great English defender of Charles Darwin winner of the first great cultural war over religion and science and the man who, in 1869, coined the word "agnosticism." Other than Darwin himself, T.H. Huxley, a biologist, probably did more than anyone else to lay the cultural foundation for our present scientific worldview. The results, as is well known but not always admitted, were devastating for traditional religious belief. W.H. Mallock captured the tone in 1878: "It is said that in tropical forests one can almost hear the vegetation growing," he wrote. "One may almost say that with us one can hear faith decaying." One can only guess what Mallock would say now.

Aldous's older brother was Sir Julian Huxley, a well-known evolutionary biologist. Sir Julian thought that there is "one world stuff" that manifests both material and mental properties, depending upon whether it is viewed from without (matter) or from within (mind). The mental and the material aspects of reality, in other words, are two sides of the same cosmic coin. Aldous would arrive at a nearly identical position, drawn not from science but from comparative mysticism, and described in his still popular The Perennial Philosophy (1945). His primary inspiration seems to have been Advaita Vedanta, a classical Indian philosophy that captured much of elite Hindu thought and practice in the 19th century and subsequently influenced the reception of Hinduism among American intellectuals and artists in the 20th.

But Huxley was suspicious of gurus and gods of any sort, and he finally aligned himself with a deep stream of unorthodox doctrine and practice that he found running through all the Asian religions, which, he proclaimed in Island (his last novel, published in 1962), was a "new conscious Wisdom ... prophetically glimpsed in Zen and Taoism and Tantra." That worldview which Huxley also linked to ancient fertility cults, the study of sexuality in the modern West, and Darwinian biology emerges from the refusal of all traditional dualisms; that is, it rejects any religious or moral system that separates the world and the divine, matter and mind, sex and spirit, purity and pollution (and that's rejecting a lot). Put more positively, Huxley's new Wisdom focuses on the embodied particularities of moment-to-moment experience, including sexual experience, as the place of "luminous bliss."

Science, particularly what would become neuroscience, was a key part of that mature vision. Very late in life, Huxley would drift further and further into an oddly prescient fusion of Tantric Buddhism and neurophysiology, a worldview captured in the "neurotheologian" of Island, identified there as someone "who thinks about people in terms, simultaneously, of the Clear Light of the Void and the vegetative nervous system." This Buddhist neurotheologian was in fact a fictional embodiment of Huxley's own philosophy, which we might frame as "the filter thesis." Following the philosophers Henri-Louis Bergson and C.D. Broad, Huxley consistently argued that consciousness was filtered and translated by the brain through incredibly complex neurophysiological, linguistic, psychological, and cultural processes, but not finally produced by it. We are not who we think we are. Or better, who we think we are is only a temporary mask (persona) that a greater Consciousness wears for a time and a season in order to "speak through" (per-sona). That old English bard had it just right, then: The world really is a stage.

Huxley also became profoundly interested in psychical research (J.B. Rhine, founder of the parapsychology lab at Duke University, was a good friend), in animal magnetism (which he would sometimes practice at home, even on an occasional baffled guest), various alternative therapeutic practices (which he was driven to because he was half-blind), and, perhaps most famously, the spiritual potentials of mind-altering plants and drugs. Here, too, Huxley was a pioneer. His correspondence with his psychiatrist friend Humphrey Osmond produced the English neologism "psychedelic" (literally, "mind-manifesting"), and, of course, he wrote one of the earliest, and probably the best, pieces of literature on the mind-manifesting potentials of psychotropic plants and chemicals that beautiful little Blakean book The Doors of Perception (1954).

Here again Huxley was thinking along neuroscientific lines, if in highly unorthodox ways. In Doors Huxley used his filter thesis to explain how the mystical states so often reported during psychedelic sessions could be related to the obvious chemical catalysts in an associative but noncausal way: Essentially, something like mescaline, Huxley speculated, could suppress the brain's filter, thus allowing what he called "Mind at Large" to bleed through into the individual's experience. Psychotropic substances do not cause Mind at Large; they allow us to become aware of it.

This was no whim or passing phase for Huxley. He was so committed to the sacramental potential of psychedelic substances that he literally ended his life on LSD. Huxley's second wife, Laura, in her lovely biography of her husband, This Timeless Moment (1975), published a facsimile of the very last sentence Aldous shakily wrote a few hours before he died of cancer: a self-prescription for 100 micrograms of LSD to be delivered intramuscularly. That is the door through which he departed the stage.

In what Huxley called Mind at Large lies the deepest secret of his work's significance for us today, caught as we have been for so long in a conflicted world of historically constructed political, ethnic, and religious roles, or masks.

Huxley's vision was not yet in place in 1932, when he published what remains his most famous work, Brave New World. The story revolves around a future civilization that produces happiness through a regime of high biotechnology in which humans are genetically engineered in test tubes on a conveyor belt and then socialized into a rigid caste system. The regime includes abolition of the nuclear family, establishment of a free sexuality decoupled from procreation, systematic hatred of nature, and a constant government supply of "soma tablets" named after the mysterious ambrosia of ancient Indian Vedic seers that deliver mindless happiness or, in higher doses, sound sleep. Motherhood is obscene in this brave new world, and all genuine individuality is socialized away. The novel depicts a scientifically savvy but superficial monoculture that accomplishes its day-to-day tasks through social stratification, the systematic suppression of individualism, and an unlimited supply of free sex and drugs. Constant distraction makes the system work.

_________________
"Sacred Activism is the fusion of the mystic's passion for God with the activist's passion for justice, creating a third fire, which is the burning sacred heart that longs to help, preserve, and nurture every living thing." - Andrew Harvey
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Continued...

Post  Khephra on Tue Dec 23, 2008 11:20 am



Brave New World was the mirror opposite or photographic negative of the world Huxley described 30 years later in Island. That novel, the author's utopian answer to his own dystopian legacy, revolves around a jaded Western journalist, Will Farnaby, who finds himself shipwrecked on the island of Pala. Founded by an Indian Tantric Buddhist (the Old Raja) and a Scottish doctor who had become friends, Palanian culture is a synthesis of East and West that answers the authoritarian monoculture of Brave New World point by point.

Biotechnology is present, but as a kind of ecologically wise agricultural system. Family planning is in place too, but through genetically gifted frozen sperm and the disciplined practice of maithuna, a kind of coitus reservatus inspired by the American Oneida community and Asian Tantric practices that allows Palanians as much sex as they wish without the constant burden of pregnancy (maithuna is a Sanskrit term for "ritual sexual intercourse"). The nuclear family has been abolished on Pala, but only to increase human attachment among all its inhabitants and share the responsibilities of child rearing among multiple couples and families. Soma tablets have been replaced by "moksha medicine," a sacred mushroom named after the Sanskrit word for spiritual liberation, which initiates the taker into a direct experience of cosmic consciousness that is, Mind at Large. Finally, just as Brave New World ends with the despairing suicide of the rare and true individual, Island ends with the political murder of the enlightened island doctor, as Pala is invaded by a foreign power hungry for the island's oil reserves and morally supported by a fundamentalist religion.

Things do not quite end there, though. The novel really ends, exactly as it began, with the island's mynah birds repeating the mantra they have been trained to mimic over and over again: "Attention." Constant attention to the here and now is the key to the island's contemplative culture, even and especially when it is being invaded by a military power bent on oil, with God on its side.

I find it strange, and more than a little depressing, that, despite all of this well-known biographical and metaphysical material, Aldous Huxley is best known today for his dystopian novel, Brave New World. Why is a man who had so much to say about the synthesis of science and spirituality and the deeper dimensions of human consciousness known primarily for a novel about the authoritarian horrors and technological dead-ends of the modern consumer state? Why is this consummate individualist, intrigued by the potential for spiritual ecstasy, still mostly identified with a story of moral despair and fascist political control? Obviously, part of the answer is because Brave New World was so incredibly accurate. But Huxley did more than diagnose the disease; he also provided what he thought of as a realistic treatment in Island.

I interviewed Laura Huxley about Island a few years ago (she died last year at the age of 96). She described the novel to me as "the last will and testament" of her late husband. Island, she suggested, is where he left his most sincere convictions and deepest thoughts about what human beings are capable of at their best. He was very careful, she pointed out, not to include anything in the novel that was not possible, that had not been practiced somewhere before and found useful. So he was quite upset when Island was received as a piece of fantasy rather than a practical program for translating his abstract philosophy of consciousness and existential mysticism into effective social, educational, and contemplative experiments. Island was no fantasy for Aldous Huxley. It was, as Laura said, his "ultimate legacy."

This seems like the right time to entertain the possibility that Aldous Huxley is more relevant now than he ever was, that Island is as important as Brave New World, and that the two novels should be read together. I am particularly struck by Huxley's vibrant critique of religious literalism and the whole psychology of belief in Island. "In religion all words are dirty words," the Old Raja's little green book declared. Hence the novel's ideal of the "Tantrik agnostic" (Aldous's grandfather returns) and its scorn for that "Old Nobodaddy" in the sky (the expression is pure William Blake). Hence the humorous prayer of Pala: "Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief." The scarecrows in the fields were even made to look like a God the Father, so that the children who manipulated them with strings to scare off the birds could learn that "all gods are homemade, and that it's we who pull their strings and so give them the power to pull ours."

Huxley in fact had already said much the same thing eight years before, in a foreword to the first book of one of his closest friend's, the Indian philosopher and education reformer Krishnamurti. In that foreword to The First and Last Freedom (1954), Huxley wrote that a man who has resolved his relation to the domains of science and religion to "the two worlds of data and symbols" is "a man who has no beliefs." He adopts beliefs merely as tools with which to address practical problems, and he holds them lightly. There are many ways, Huxley taught us, to be religious without being religious: Religious identity, after all, is just another muddy filter through which the clear light of the Void shines.

Of course, writers and thinkers have been discussing the fusion of science and mysticism for years; "neural Buddhism," by other names, was an element of the human-potential movement that began in the early 60s at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., partly inspired by Huxley and his lectures on "human potentialities." I sometimes wonder if the counterculture of the 1960s, which arose in tandem with the human-potential movement, in a much more ecstatic and decidedly less intellectual mode, had the unfortunate effect of delegitimizing the mystically inclined Huxley in the broader culture. Certainly many of the counterculture's shortcomings and casualties arose not from following Huxley through the doors of perception, but from not following him closely enough. In particular, the counterculture lacked Huxley's intellectual discipline and his high regard for the arts of reading and writing.

Huxley was an accomplished British-American literary figure, a gifted intellectual product of Eton and Oxford, and a member of England's cultural aristocracy. And he remained so, even in his psychedelic explorations, which were neither casual entertainments nor public parties but profound and private philosophical considerations. Moreover, he rejected the idea that such powerful substances should be made available to everyone. Quite the contrary. At one point, he complained of his good friend Timothy Leary, whom he feared was messing it up for everyone: "I am very fond of Tim but why, oh why, does he have to be such an ass?" He told Leary to "go about your business quietly." Never was advice more spectacularly ignored.

In his 2002 biography of Huxley, which finally gets the writer's worldview right, Dana Sawyer suggests that Huxley's work can fruitfully be read as a life-long attempt to answer his grandfather's call to agnosticism. "I remain an agnostic," Huxley wrote, "who aspires to be a Gnostic but a gnostic only on the mystical level, a gnostic without symbols, cosmologies or a pantheon."

And what are we? As a culture, we are in the midst of a vast, decades-long repression and forgetting of Huxley's utopian island Pala, where consciousness is literally cosmic, where the body is mystically erotic, where consumerism is dead and the earth is alive. Until now, we have chosen to enact his "brave new world" instead, a mechanical world of advanced science, unsustainable consumerism, looming nuclear apocalypse, and pending ecological disaster. It seems a good time to bring Aldous Huxley back but the whole Huxley this time, not just the dystopian one. Yes, we desperately need our literary prophets and social critics. But we also need our intellectual mystics, agnostic gnostics, and Buddhist neurotheologians.

_________________
"Sacred Activism is the fusion of the mystic's passion for God with the activist's passion for justice, creating a third fire, which is the burning sacred heart that longs to help, preserve, and nurture every living thing." - Andrew Harvey
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Re: "Brave New Worldview" -

Post  neutralrobotboy on Tue Dec 23, 2008 5:11 pm

Ok, fuck, you've convinced me. I'm getting my hands on it and reading. Huxley was one remarkable character.

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Re: "Brave New Worldview" -

Post  Chakravanti on Tue Dec 23, 2008 10:44 pm

Sir Julian Huxley's "The Phenomenon of Man" is about on par with this work. I'm only beginning it but I'll see what I can do for the community.
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