Death makes for strange prophets: Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis

Ross Douthat:

THEY died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.

It’s too soon to reclaim Nov. 22, 1963, for Huxley and Lewis, and reassign John F. Kennedy to a lower rung of historical significance, where some of us suspect his presidency belongs. But pausing amid this month’s Kennedy-anniversary coverage to remember the two British-born writers offers a useful way to think about the J.F.K. mythos as well.

Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.

For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.

For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.

In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.

Two passages from their work illustrate this point — that comfort purchased by sacrificing transcendence might not be worth the cost. The first comes from Lewis’s Narnia novel “The Silver Chair,” in which a character named Puddleglum confronts a queen who has confined the heroes in an underground kingdom, and lulled them with the insistence that the underground world is all there is — that ideas like the sun and sky are dangerous wishful thinking, undermining their immediate contentment.

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things,” Puddleglum replies — “trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”

The second comes from the end of “Brave New World,” when a so-called “Savage” raised outside the dystopia confronts its presiding “Controller,” Mustapha Mond. The Savage lists everything that’s been purged in the name of pleasure and order — historical memory, art and literature, religion and philosophy, the tragic sense. And Mond responds that “these things are symptoms of political inefficiency,” and that the comforts of modern civilization depend on excluding them.

“But I don’t want comfort,” the Savage says. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Puddleglum and Savage, The New York Times

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