A Little Less Spirituality
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Just tired and busy and amazed and amused and charmed and horrified. – Maria Huxley, in a letter
In 1913 Aldous Huxley began to lose his sight. His eyes clouded over, his vision was “steadily and quite rapidly failing. I was wondering quite apprehensively what on earth I should do.” After seeing an oculist, it was decided that a milder climate might help him, so Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria Nys went to Italy. Their son Matthew spent the first four years of his life in Florence and Rome.
Matthew was an extremely large and difficult child. Aldous and Maria were a bit taken aback by who they had created; Matthew Huxley would later become a prominent epidemologist. The child was a picky eater and stuck to a vegetarian diet, causing Aldous to remark, “he realizes that meat is dead animals.”
Matthew had no desire to read, which made him the polar opposite of his father. The entire family was practically grief stricken at the young boy’s non-literary habits; only Aldous was able to be patient with him. “Too early a passion for reading distracts from the powers of observation,” he told everyone.
The whole family liked Italy, but Aldous was the only one who admired it, more in theory than in practice. Florence never suited him; it was more a place where culture had been rather than a city where it was. He chose Rome as the young family’s landing spot. “After a third rate provincial town,” he concluded, “colonized by English sodomites and middle-aged lesbians, a genuine metropolis will be lively.” They could not stay in Italy, however, as fascism was in the air. They left Matthew in Belgium with his grandmother and took a boat to Bombay.
Aldous despised the architecture of Lahore, and loathed Kashmir worse. They kept incredibly active, fortified by a gnawing fear and the weight they burned off from their time in Florence. At Srinagar they visited the lunatic asylum.
Every place that they visited, Aldous asked question after question, ostensibly as research for a series of articles that helped pay for the journey. He also did it when he felt he did not have something himself to say.
An attempt to travel second class did not go well – a holy man spit his mucus all over their car – so they paid the extra rupees for first class, money they knew they should not be spending. Maria could barely eat the food. “India is depressing as no other country I have ever known,” Aldous wrote. “One breathes in it, not air, but dust and hopelessness.”
Aldous was most put off by the beliefs of the people he met. “A little less spirituality,” he wrote, “and the Indians would now be free – free from foreign dominion and from the tyranny of their own prejudices and traditions. There would be less dirt and more food. There would be fewer Maharajas with Rolls Royces and more schools.”
He was not impressed at all by the Taj Mahal, and told everyone so. “These four thin tapering towers,” he wrote in Jesting Pilate, “are among the ugliest structures ever erected by human hands.” Whatever one thinks of the Taj Mahal, it seems a greater dissatisfaction with the world and his place in it may have been the cause of this observation.
Things got better as soon as they left Calcutta for Burma. Dutch ships took them to the Philippines. From there they landed in Japan, taking the train to Kyoto and departing via Yokohama. Aldous watched Maria’s eating closely, preventing her from having too much caviar, the only food she felt comfortable consuming at sea.
Japan was almost as nauseating to Aldous as India, but for different reasons. Kyoto was “such a collection of the cheap and shoddy, of the quasi-genuine and the imitation solid, of the vulgar and the tawdry.” The industrial city did not suit Aldous’ taste at all:
Little wooden shacks succeeds little wooden shack interminably, mile after mile; and the recession of the straight untidy roads is emphasised by the long lines of posts, the sagging electric wires that flank each street, like the trees of an avenue. All the cowboys in the world could live in Kyoto, all the Forty-Niners. Street leads into identical street, district merges indistinguishably into district. In this dreary ocean of log-cabins almost the only White Houses are the hotels.
San Francisco was next, and from there Maria and Aldous took the Daylight Limited train to Los Angeles. They did not stay long in any one American city; Hollywood was “altogether too Antipodean to be lived in.” (Aldous would spend the majority of the rest of his life in Southern California.)
When they returned to England from New York, Maria went to see Matthew while Aldous stayed in England. It had been only the two of them for so long.
While they were apart, Aldous wrote Maria long letters. They prefigure a latent unhappiness that would lead him to adultery, but also the connection that would allow the marriage to survive his mistakes until Maria died of breast cancer in 1955.
I think myself it’s rather nice to be busy and practical on the outside – and daydreams, as you call it, inside. The things one cares about are all inside, like seeds on the ground in winter. But one has to attend to the things one only half cares about. And so life passes away.
Luckily, the inside thing corresponds with the inside thing in just a few people. I think it is so with us. We don’t fit in very well outside – but the inside corresponds, which is most important.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Pretty Words” – Crissi Cochrane (mp3)