Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Paris Review Interview with Aldous Huxley: Psychedelic Drugs and Enlightenment

A few months ago, Nicola Griffith posted that the Paris Review had opened its archives of author interviews, back to 1953. I don't usually read literary magazines, but I finally got a chance to browse through the Paris Review's archives. It is quite interesting to see what the science fiction writers they interviewed have to say about science and their fiction.

Of course the authors they interview are all "literary" sorts of authors*, and they wouldn't necessarily agree that their writings that I would consider science fictional are SF. Even so, the authors did take into account science in their writing.

I thought I'd highlight a few of the interviews that touched on the biosciences. The first is an interview with Aldous Huxley, in which he talks about his ideas about society and drugs.

When Huxley was interviewed in 1960, he was 65 years old at the time of this interview, and working on his novel Island, which would be his last. Island depicts a utopian community, that is a counterpoint to the dystopian society he depicted in Brave New World. Huxley describes his work in progress:

It’s a kind of fantasy, a kind of reverse Brave New World, about a society in which real efforts are made to realize human potentialities. I want to show how humanity can make the best of both Eastern and Western worlds. So the setting is an imaginary island between Ceylon and Sumatra, at a meeting place of Indian and Chinese influence. One of my principal characters is, like Darwin and my grandfather**, a young scientist on one of those scientific expeditions the British Admiralty sent out in the 1840s; he’s a Scotch doctor, who rather resembles James Esdaile, the man who introduced hypnosis into medicine. And then, as in News from Nowhere and other utopias, I have another intruder from the outside world, whose guided tour provides a means of describing the society. Unfortunately, he’s also the serpent in the garden, looking enviously at this happy, prosperous state.
The islanders take moksha medicine, a fungus-derived psychedelic drug. As it's described in the final version of the novel the drug helps liberate consciousness and bring self-knowledge:
Their response is the full-blown mystical experience. You know—One in all and All in one. The basic experience with its corollaries— boundless compassion, fathomless mystery and meaning.

"Not to mention joy," said Dr. Robert, "inexpressible joy."

In contrast, in Brave New World, the drug soma is described as making people content, complacent, and able to ignore the difficulties of their daily lives. Linda, mother of the "savage" John, takes massive doses to cope with her return to civilation:
The return to civilization was for her the return to soma, was the possibility of lying in bed and taking holiday after holiday, without ever having to come back to a headache or a fit of vomiting, without ever being made to feel as you always felt after peyotl, as though you'd done something so shamefully anti-social that you could never hold up your head again. Soma played none of these unpleasant tricks. The holiday it gave was perfect and, if the morning after was disagreeable, it was so, not intrinsically, but only by comparison with the joys of the holiday. The remedy was to make the holiday continuous. Greedily she clamoured for ever larger, ever more frequent doses.
The permanent soma-induced holiday leads to Linda's death.

Huxley's different take on drug use in his two novels appears to be based - at least in part - on his own experimentation with drugs in the years between publication of Brave New World and his work on The Island. In his interview, Huxley talks about drugs in Brave New World and in real life, based on his drug-taking experiences that he described in his non-fiction book The Doors of Perception.
Soma is an imaginary drug, with three different effects—euphoric, hallucinant, or sedative—an impossible combination. Mescaline is the active principle of the peyote cactus, which has been used for a long time by the Indians of the Southwest in their religious rites. It is now synthesized. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) is a chemical compound with effects similar to mescaline; it was developed about twelve years ago, and it is only being used experimentally at present. Mescaline and lysergic acid transfigure the external world and in some cases produce visions. Most people have the sort of positive and enlightening experience I’ve described; but the visions may be infernal as well as celestial. These drugs are physiologically innocuous, except to people with liver damage. They leave most people with no hangover, and they are not habit-forming. Psychiatrists have found that, skillfully used, they can be very helpful in the treatment of certain kinds of neuroses.
So Huxley seems to have formed his later ideas about drugs through a combination of personal experience and science. Mescaline and LSD were both made illegal in the US in 1970, seven years after Huxley's death. I suspect it's less likely that present-day authors would feel so free to experiment with psychedelics - or at least freely discuss their experimentation.

Be sure to read the whole interview for more from Huxley on his writing process and thoughts about fiction.

Tomorrow I'll look at the Paris Review interview with William S. Burroughs.

* You can tell they are "literary" writers from the covers of their novels: rather than illustrated characters or scenes, they usually just abstract images and text.

** Aldous Huxley's grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his support of Darwin and advocacy on behalf of his evolutionary theory.


  1. Thanks Peggy for this very informative post of my interest...The word 'soma' is extensively used in Rigveda and is a wonder drink most sought after by warriors and priests of veda period and even after that -King of gods in Indian mythology, INDRA drinks it and kill a very mighty demon VRITTASUR.Huxley perhaps had on his mind about this wonder drink when he narrated about the effects of soma pills .....He seems so obsessed with the wonder drink that in his last work as you have refereed, he has again described a cactus species having the similar properties . This is a new info to me .I wrote an article in a popular science magazine about the mystical 'soma' drink and indicated some possible plant species which could be a possible soma candidate ..if I had known about this species of cactus I would have included it in that article also ...thanks again for sharing this valuable info.

  2. Although Huxley's "soma" sounds almost like it had the opposite of soma in the Rigveda. No warrior would want to take a drink that helped him relax.

    Peyote (mescaline) on the other hand is supposed to provide mystical experiences. It was an extremely popular drug amongst the literary set in the 60s. It's still used by members of the Native American Church.

  3. @you are right Peggy,it appears that in his last novel Huxley described the mescaline/Lsd effects which is almost like Soma of Rigveda ..,Arthur Anthony McDonnell ,who was an authority on Rigveda describes soma as having exhilarating power leading to its being regarded as a divine drink bestowing even immortal life...draught of immortality all the warrior gods drank soma to become immortal...There is an elaborated hymn on Soma in Rigved...(A vedic Reader for students...)

  4. Huxley's foresight is incredible!


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