Saturday, September 29, 2018


Agha Shahid Ali

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

Credits: This poem appears in the collection The Half-Inch Himalayas, 1987. It can also be found online at

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Yes and No Poem

Laura Riding

Across a continent imaginary
Because it cannot be discovered now
Upon this fully apprehended planet—
No more applicants considered,
Alas, alas—

Ran an animal unzoological,
Without a fate, without a fact,
Its private history intact
Against the travesty
Of an anatomy.

Not visible not invisible,
Removed by dayless night,
Did it ever fly its ground
Out of fancy into light,
Into space to replace
Its unwritable decease?

Ah, the minutes twinkle in and out
And in and out come and go
One by one, none by none,
What we know, what we don't know.

Credits:  This poem can be found at

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Rita Dove

I love the hour before takeoff, 
that stretch of no time, no home
but the gray vinyl seats linked like
unfolding paper dolls. Soon we shall
be summoned to the gate, soon enough 
there’ll be the clumsy procedure of row numbers
and perforated stubs—but for now
I can look at these ragtag nuclear families 
with their cooing and bickering
or the heeled bachelorette trying 
to ignore a baby’s wail and the baby’s 
exhausted mother waiting to be called up early
while the athlete, one monstrous hand
asleep on his duffel bag, listens,
perched like a seal trained for the plunge. 
Even the lone executive
who has wandered this far into summer 
with his lasered itinerary, briefcase
knocking his knees—even he 
has worked for the pleasure of bearing 
no more than a scrap of himself
into this hall. He’ll dine out, she’ll sleep late,
they’ll let the sun burn them happy all morning
--a little hope, a little whimsy 
before the loudspeaker blurts
and we leap up to become
Flight 828, now boarding at Gate 17.

Credits:  This poem can also be found at  Painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Lorca's Bones

Jon Lee Anderson

In the Andalusian city of Granada, a little road leads uphill, past the forested ramparts of the Alhambra, to a cemetery. The earth there is a deep, raw red, and the olive trees that punctuate it are green and gray and very old. The cemetery wall is high and long, the same color as the earth, and it is crowned with rough clay tiles.

Twenty feet or so along the wall from its southwestern corner, there are egg-size gouges in the plastered brick. The marks are impacts from bullets. In the summer of 1936, more than a thousand people were brought to the cemetery in open trucks, day after day, to be shot against the wall by firing squads. American tourists who were staying in the little hotels down the lane later told of their horror at being awakened before dawn by the grinding gears of the trucks as they went uphill, and then, minutes later, hearing the volleys of gunfire. On August 16th, thirty people were shot at the cemetery, while down in the city the poet Federico García Lorca was taken into custody. Two days later, Lorca was murdered, along with two bullfighters and a schoolteacher.

Lorca was handsome and dark-haired, and walked with a curious, flat-footed gait that made him instantly recognizable in Granada, where he had grown up. He was a son of the local élite; his father was a wealthy granadino landowner. But, in what was a conservative, provincial city, the family was also associated with the Spanish Republic and its liberal values; one of Lorca’s sisters was married to Granada’s Socialist mayor, who was among those killed on August 16th. With his 1928 book of poetry, “Gypsy Ballads,” and his 1932 play, “Blood Wedding,” Lorca had become Spain’s most renowned poet and dramatist. Among his closest friends were Salvador Dali, with whom he had a turbulent love affair, and Luis Buñuel, the film director. Lorca had toured Spain since 1931 with his own theatre group, La Barraca, for the Republic’s Ministry of Education. At the age of thirty-eight, and more or less openly gay, Lorca was a highly visible figure with known Republican sympathies. And that, in the Granada of the summer of 1936, was enough to get a person killed.

On July 17, 1936, a forty-three-year-old general named Francisco Franco had launched a military rebellion against Spain’s left-leaning government. A cabal of military officers seized control of Granada three days later. In the three-year civil war that ensued, Franco and his ultranationalist Falangists received military assistance from Hitler and Mussolini, and more than half a million Spaniards were killed before the Republic finally succumbed. In April, 1939, Franco formally initiated his dictatorship. It lasted until his death, in 1975.

The old execution ground at the cemetery was deserted when I visited late one recent afternoon, but a bouquet of red roses lay drying against the wall, beneath a cluster of bullet gouges. The impacts were roughly at the level of a standing man’s groin. I said as much to my companion, Juan Antonio Díaz, a professor of English and German philology at the University of Granada. He remarked, “Not if you were kneeling. They would hit you at head height.”

A moment later, Díaz cursed. “They have taken the plaque. I knew they would.” He pointed to a blank patch on the wall. A few months earlier, Granada’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, of which he was a member, had installed a small plaque: “To the victims of Francoism who were shot at this wall.” Without it, there was no sign that anything dramatic or historic had ever occurred here.

Lorca’s grave, by the side of a road at the edge of a nearby village, was also long unmarked—he and the bullfighters and the schoolteacher were buried there together, secretly and hastily. In 1966, Ian Gibson, an Irish-born historian who became Lorca’s biographer, identified the probable site, but the bodies remained where their killers had dumped them. Then, late last year, a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, ordered that Lorca be dug up.

Garzón is famous for finding novel ways to use the law in the name of historical justice. In 1998, he invoked international statutes to secure the arrest, in London, of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This April, he opened a formal investigation into torture at Guantánamo Bay. His exhumation order was seen as a historic challenge to the silence in Spain about the Franco years—the first official inquiry into the dictatorship’s repression. But it set off a raging public debate in Spain. The problem is that although the Spanish Civil War ended seventy years ago, victor and vanquished were never truly reconciled.

The conflict lives on in unexpected ways. With Garzón’s order came the news that Lorca’s own relatives—a group of nieces and nephews—opposed his exhumation. (In fact, they had said so before, but only now did the matter acquire urgency.) In a tersely worded press communiqué, they said, “We reiterate our desire, as legitimate as those of other relatives, that the remains of Federico García Lorca repose forever where they are.” This was incomprehensible to many in Spain and gave rise to all sorts of rumors—that the family was embarrassed about the poet’s homosexuality; that it had already privately dug him up and reburied him years before. His relatives had said that they wanted to avoid “a media circus.” Instead, they found themselves in a fight over Lorca’s body.

Until Franco’s death, a textbook titled “El Parvulito” was standard issue in Spain’s preschools. In it, the civil war was introduced to four- and five-year-olds on a page labelled “The National Uprising.” Under a picture showing a serious-looking soldier, bayonet drawn, it reads, “Some years ago, Spain was very badly governed. Every day there were shots fired in the streets and the churches were burned down. To stop all of this, Franco rose up with the army, and, after three years of war, managed to throw out the enemies of the Fatherland. The Spaniards named Franco their Chief or Strongman”—Jefe o Caudillo—“and he has been governing Spain gloriously since 1936.”

More than four hundred thousand Spaniards spent time in concentration camps between 1939 and 1947. And over the next three decades, Spaniards continued to be persecuted for political reasons; thousands were executed by firing squad and garrotte. Half a million fled the country. In the jittery, attenuated glasnost that characterized the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, however, politicians adopted a don’t-look-back policy. In 1977, Spain’s parliament passed an amnesty law that sealed the past in what became known as the pacto de olvido, or pact of oblivion. That’s how things stood until a decade ago, when “historical memory” groups, formed by the descendants of murdered Republicans, Communists, and anarchists, began to dig up some of their bodies.

The memory groups’ activities inspired a national lobby for a reckoning with Spain’s past, but the conservative Partido Popular of President José María Aznar, who was in power from 1996 to 2004, was hostile to such demands. Aznar was succeeded by the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, however, and in 2007 Spain’s parliament approved a Law of Historical Memory, which required the state to support the exhumation of thousands of mass graves. The bill also granted citizenship to the descendants of Spanish Republicans who had been forced to flee the country between 1936 and 1955. More than a million people, most of them in Latin America, became eligible, including as many as two hundred thousand Cubans. In February, the first of the new passports were issued.

Despite the law, Spain’s mass graves remain largely unexhumed. Maribel Brenes, a historian who is the president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Granada, has compiled a map of a hundred and twenty-five of them in Granada Province alone, containing twelve thousand victims. Her motive wasn’t personal; one of her grandfathers had fought for Franco. “It’s not about revenge, it’s about documenting history,” she said. “We Spaniards are hypocrites. We threw our hands in the air over what Pinochet did in South America, but no one has done anything about our own desaparecidos”—disappeared ones.

Last October, Baltasar Garzón, in response to a petition filed by thirteen historical-memory associations, decreed that Franco and thirty-four others were guilty of crimes against humanity—“a preconceived and systematic plan of elimination of political opponents through mass killings, tortures, exile, and forced disappearances.” He tallied more than a hundred and fourteen thousand victims. Declaring Spain’s 1977 amnesty null and void with regard to human-rights violations, Garzón ordered an investigation and the exhumation of nineteen mass graves, including the one believed to contain Lorca’s remains.

Emilio Silva, who founded Spain’s historical-memory movement, called Garzón’s order “the condemnation of Francoism that Spain’s parliament has never dared to do itself.” But there was also anger at Garzón. Former President Aznar, whose grandfather and father both served under Franco, spoke darkly about people determined to “destroy” Spain. Then Javier Zaragoza, Spain’s prosecutor-general, filed an appeal against Garzón’s order, challenging his jurisdiction and accusing him of carrying out an “inquisition.”

Zaragoza managed to put a temporary halt to the exhumations. If his appeal succeeded—and there was a decent chance that it would—Garzón’s investigation would be dead. Garzón responded with a preëmptive and risky move. On November 18th, he suddenly announced that he was dropping his federal case and instead referring the crimes he had identified to Spain’s provincial courts. By doing so, Garzón kept the investigation going. There was no doubt, however, that he had suffered a setback.

Two days later, on the thirty-third anniversary of Franco’s death, around fifty people gathered in a rooftop room in a cultural center in Madrid to express their support for Garzón. An elderly woman who had spent time in Franco’s concentration camps spoke, as did Ian Gibson. The Valencian folksinger Paco Ibáñez, famous for putting Lorca’s verses to music, got up and sang.

Afterward, I went with Ibáñez and Fanny Rubio, a poet who had helped to organize the gathering, to meet Garzón in Riofrío, a café across the street from the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s high court. We sat in a corner booth. Garzón arrived a few minutes later, with one of his bodyguards. (The militant Basque separatist group E.T.A. has targeted Garzón for assassination; one plot, revealed last week, involved a bottle of poisoned Cognac.) The bodyguard, a young man wearing a duster, stood about ten feet away. Garzón, who is fifty-three and has a distinctive gray streak in his hair, ordered chamomile-mint tea. For legal reasons, he could not speak to me directly about the case, but he allowed me to sit in on his conversation with Ibáñez and Rubio.

Garzón said that he had found himself on his own in the high-court case, without any allies. Senior officials in the Socialist government felt that he had gone too far, and were not willing to back him. But the battle was not over. Transferring the cases to Spain’s provincial courts was a sort of force multiplier. Now it wasn’t just up to him. Judges all over the country would be obliged to investigate, and to do so seriously, whatever their personal beliefs. Presented with a crime, they were required to look at all available evidence, including the grave sites. He had made a thousand Lorcas possible.

“What about Lorca’s relatives saying they don’t want him dug up?” Ibáñez asked.

“Imagine if, as an investigating judge, I was shown to a house where a body was buried in the basement,” Garzón said. “And, when I ordered it to be dug up, the family living in the house said, ‘No, you can’t, that’s our uncle, and we want to leave him there!’ Would I leave him there just because they said so?”

Francisco Galadí, the grandson of one of the two bullfighters killed with Lorca, is a ruggedly handsome man of sixty. When I met him in Granada, he was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. He had worked in the local brewery, Cerveza Alhambra, until recently, when he had been forced to take early retirement. With time on his hands, he had joined the historical-memory association. Before his father had died, a few years ago, he had begged Francisco to recover his grandfather’s remains. “He told me, ‘Don’t leave him lying there like a dog,’ ” Galadí said. “I’ve been fighting for that. What I didn’t expect was that the Lorca family would object.”

Galadí ’s grandfather, also named Francisco, had been a popular banderillero—a torero who makes the bull charge, plunging darts adorned with bright flags into its neck. He was also an anarchist. For a few futile days in July, 1936, he had led the only resistance in the city of Granada to the military takeover. He and a handful of fellow anarquistas had held out in the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter, under a withering artillery barrage, but eventually their ammunition ran out. “They were in a cave at the foot of the Alhambra, and my father, who was twelve at the time, had gone there to say goodbye. He told him, ‘Vete, hijo’—‘Go, son.’ ” After his son left, the bullfighter surrendered. “They say that he was tied to a horse-drawn cart and that they drove him through the streets, beating him with sticks,” his grandson said. “They say he was one of the bravest, most fearless, of men.”

Once, when the younger Galadí was doing his obligatory military service, in the late sixties, a colonel had asked him if he was related to “the famous Galadí.” He smiled proudly. “You know, in those days, Federico García Lorca was known only by other members of the élite, those people who could read and go to the theatre. But my grandfather, a bullfighter, was well known by everyone, because this was a workers’ city, and they liked the bulls.” Galadí paused, and then added, “I’ve lived with my parents’ fear all my life. My mother is eighty-five now. She was twelve when it happened. They killed half the people in her neighborhood! But it wasn’t just the war, it was the years of repression afterward, of fear and humiliation. She used to say ‘Shush!’ whenever I tried to ask about my grandfather. ‘It’s that they are real hijos de puta,’ she would say. And the rancor is still there today, you know? But they are the rancorous ones. I’ve heard there are some who are going around saying, ‘We should have killed more of them.’ But I’m not interested in looking for the grandchildren of those who did the killing. All I want is to exhume the remains of my grandfather and to give him a dignified burial. The Francoists can express themselves as they like, as they always have.”

Along with Franco, Ramón Serrano Súñer was one of the men Garzón charged with “crimes against humanity.” He was Franco’s brother-in-law, and served as Interior Minister during the civil war. As Foreign Minister from 1940 to 1942, he negotiated personally with Hitler and Mussolini. He was instrumental in arranging the Gestapo’s arrest of Spanish exiles in Occupied France. Some were returned to Spain and, in many cases, summarily shot; at least fifteen thousand were sent to Mauthausen and other concentration camps. In 1948, Serrano Súñer was the first public figure in Spain to admit that Lorca had been killed by Nationalists, though he blamed “uncontrollables.” Until then, Franco’s regime had denied any knowledge of the crime, and the Nationalist media had tried to blame it on “the Reds.”

Serrano Súñer died in 2003, at the age of a hundred and one, but his son, Don Fernando Serrano Súñer y Polo, agreed to meet me at my hotel in Madrid for tea. Don Fernando, who is in his seventies, wore a sharply tailored English suit. His mother and Franco’s wife were sisters. He remarked that Spain’s Falangist movement had been “misinterpreted,” and that he found Garzón’s inquiry into the past “a little depressing.” “It is very pitiful that we are like we are, all these years later,” he said. “Two of my father’s brothers were fusilados and buried in a mass grave outside Madrid. In other words, not all the victims are Franco’s.” Don Fernando said that he admired the way that Americans had reconciled after their Civil War, and he proceeded to recite, from memory, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in Spanish.

The closest thing to a national civil-war monument in Spain is Valle de los Caídos—the Valley of the Fallen—centered on a vast subterranean basilica that Franco ordered built in 1940. Burrowed deep into the granite of the Sierra de Guaderrama mountains outside Madrid and topped by a five-hundred-foot stone cross, the monument took almost twenty years, and the labor of thousands of Republican prisoners of war, to complete. Although it was billed as a resting place for the dead of both sides, and contains the remains of some forty thousand Nationalists and Republicans, it commemorates nothing so much as Franco’s megalomania and triumphalism. When he inaugurated the necropolis, in 1959, Franco spoke about how his enemies had been made to “bite the dust of defeat.” In the main hall, the only marked tombs are those of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Party, and, since 1975, of Franco himself. (The other remains are in sealed catacombs.) Not surprisingly, Valle de los Caídos has become a sanctuary for Spain’s diehard Falangists.

Last November 20th, the anniversary of Franco’s death, his followers came, as they always do, to pay their respects, although, in accordance with the new Law of Historical Memory, police had been ordered to prevent openly Fascist displays. Franco’s tombstone was a slab of granite in the floor, etched with only his name and a cross. There were bouquets of red and white roses, and a wheel of carnations. Several well-dressed older people bowed their heads. A small group of plainclothes policemen stood watching. A man in a red jacket approached, gave a Fascist salute, and dropped to one knee. He then stood up, and saluted once more. One of the policemen came trotting over, but did nothing. A moment later, two more men, with closely cropped hair and small, trimmed mustaches, met at the tomb and gave simultaneous Fascist salutes of their own.

Lorca was buried less than five miles from Granada, on the outskirts of the village of Alfacar. Following the route that Lorca’s executioners took, Juan Antonio Díaz and I drove first to the nearby village of Víznar. We parked in a little square next to an eighteenth-century archbishop’s palace, which, in 1936, was turned into a military command center. It will soon be converted into a five-star hotel. A small road, cut like an elbow around a deep gulch, led to Alfacar past what had once been a children’s summer camp called La Colonia. In the summer of 1936, La Colonia was used as a holding center for the victims of the Nationalists’ purge in the area. (There were other execution grounds, including the city cemetery.) According to Gibson, Lorca arrived as a prisoner before daybreak on August 18th, as did the bullfighters and the schoolteacher. They were then driven a short distance down the road, and taken for a paseo—a stroll.

We walked on that same road. Below us was the vega, the greensward that surrounds Granada, which Lorca wrote about in his 1921 “Meditations and Allegories of Water”:

I was returning from the dry lands. Down in the hollow lay the vega, swathed in its blue shimmer. Through the recumbent air of the summer night flo
ated the fluttering ribbons of the crickets.

We saw rectangular stands of white poplars, as well as the shining roofs of new industrial warehouses, strung along the way to Lorca’s birthplace, the village of Fuente Vaqueros. This view, minus the warehouses, must have been one of the last things Lorca saw.

Behind an apartment building, we came to a fenced-in sliver of hillside which, some years ago, was belatedly preserved as a Lorca memorial park. At its far edge was a lone olive tree, and near it a small stone marker: “To the memory of Federico García Lorca and all the victims of the civil war.” It was the approximate spot where, according to Gibson’s sources, including one of the gravediggers, Lorca and the others had been shot and buried in a trench “behind an old olivo on a bend in the road.” There was nobody else around; a pair of motorcyclists came racing past, breaking the stillness. Walking deeper into the park, we found a stone wall inlaid with Andalusian blue, green, and white tiles painted with Lorca’s verses. One, from a 1918 poem, “Autumn Song,” reads, “If death is death, what then of poets, and of sleeping things, if no one remembers them?”

On May 29th, the Granada judge assigned to rule on Lorca’s exhumation recused herself from the case. This would have sent it to the Supreme Court of Spain, which was viewed as unsympathetic to Garzón. (Two days earlier, the court had agreed to hear a lawsuit, filed by a far-right group, charging Garzón with “prevarication” in the course of his investigation.) But, on June 9th, Granada’s prosecutor filed a grievance appealing the judge’s decision, potentially returning the case to her. Granada’s historical-memory association, meanwhile, declared that if Spain’s courts continued to stonewall its efforts, it would request that the graves be opened as an “archeological site.” Amid these developments,Lorca’s family was silent.

When I asked Juan Antonio Díaz about the Lorca family, he shook his head. “Any normal person, with a close relative—a father, an uncle, a son—who has been mysteriously disappeared, and is known to have been murdered, has to feel the minimal interest in where he might be. In the case of Lorca, this is even greater, because Lorca isn’t only the patrimony of one family but of all decent people of this world. Normal people want to know what happened, and where Lorca is. But it seems there are people who are not normal, and are incapable of resolving their personal and family traumas.”

Laura García Lorca, the poet’s niece, has a breathtaking view of the Alhambra from the living room of her apartment, on the top floor of a building in central Granada. A former actress, with the large, expressive brown eyes of her late uncle, Laura heads the Federico García Lorca Foundation. On the day I visited, she appeared overwrought. All of the media attention, she said, had been extremely stressful.

"We have, I think, never communicated our feelings well,” she said, with a sigh. “So—why don’t we want him dug up? As far as the remains of Federico García Lorca are concerned, for us—and these are things that are perhaps a little irrational—we will not gain any consolation from knowing exactly where his remains are,” she said. “We would like to leave him there.” She went on, “A great deal has been said about all of this; it is said that we don’t want to stir up history. This is an infamy! As a family, we have done everything in our power for the history to be known.”

Laura’s tone turned sarcastic. “But no, it seems it is conservative to not open a tomb, and progressive to open it. They have even said we are homophobes. This is defamation, just plain crazy. It’s not that. It’s that there is a prurient interest in this search for Federico García Lorca. And it is logical; he was a symbol. But we want him to be respected. For us, the prospect of exposing further the degrading circumstances in which he was murdered is very disagreeable. To violate him further would be, for some—very unpleasant.” Laura wept.

After she had composed herself, she said, “We don’t want this to become a spectacle. But it is very difficult to imagine that the bones and skull of Federico García Lorca will not end up on YouTube.”

Laura remarked that those whose relatives happened to be buried with Lorca seemed much more interested in exhuming them than were other victims’ families. “Isn’t it strange?” she said. “The question is, Why do people want to dig him up? Is it that they want the relic, the bones of the saint? Because it adds nothing to history.”

“But why,” I insisted, “leave him in the ditch where his killers dumped him?”

“What ditch?” Laura retorted. “It’s a sacred place. They’re all in good company there.”

Credits:  This article first appeared in 2009 in The New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Talented Mr. Huxley

Danny Heitman

At six feet four and a half inches, Aldous Huxley was perhaps the tallest figure in English letters, his height so striking that contemporaries sometimes viewed him as a freak of nature. British novelist Christopher Isherwood found Huxley “too tall. I felt an enormous zoological separation from him.” Virginia Woolf described him as “infinitely long” and referred to him as “that gigantic grasshopper.”

Everything about Huxley seemed large. “During his first years his head was proportionately enormous, so that he could not walk until he was two because he was apt to topple over,” writes biographer Sybille Bedford. Shortly before his death, Huxley confided to a friend that his childhood nickname had been “Ogie,” a substitute for “Ogre.”

But this seems like the kind of exaggeration children so often use to rib each other. In pictures, Huxley looks imposing, but far from ugly. Anita Loos, the American screenwriter, playwright, and author, was impressed by Huxley’s “physical beauty . . . the head of an angel drawn by William Blake.”

His voice, preserved in recordings easily sampled online, was also part of his charm. Huxley spoke like Laurence Olivier—with exacting British diction and an unerring verbal accuracy that few people, then or now, possess in casual conversation. He talked in silver sentences, treating conversation as a form of theater, or even literature.

The largeness of the man and the precision of his language continue to live more than a half a century after his death. Every year, another generation of young students gets that sense of him from Brave New World, the 1932 novel that’s become assigned reading for millions of middle schoolers.

Taking its title from an ironic line from The Tempest by Shakespeare, Brave New World envisions a fictional society in which infants are grown in laboratories, and people become so conditioned to consumer comforts that they no longer question their leaders. Amid this malaise lingers a dissident regarded as a savage because he still embraces Shakespeare, his passion for poetry suggesting an indulgence of feeling that, in this brave new world of tomorrow, seems dangerously taboo. Readers still argue about the degree to which Huxley’s grimly conceived future has become the human present, and the emergence of test-tube babies, television, and online culture invite obvious parallels to Brave New World.

Huxley transcribes the emotionally arid landscape of Brave New World into visual terms, translating the dormancy of the human soul into a city devoid of bright colors. In his description of a laboratory where new citizens are conceived, he writes:

"The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north . . . for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. . . . The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-colored rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost."

Huxley also wrote poetry, plays, travelogs, essays, philosophy, short stories, and many novels. Sadly, the overshadowing fame of Brave New World has tended to obscure the range of his talent.

Huxley came from one of England’s great intellectual families: He was born in Surrey, England, the son of Leonard Huxley, editor of the influential Cornhill magazine, and Julia Arnold, niece of the legendary poet and essayist Matthew Arnold. Huxley was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, a scientist and friend of Charles Darwin. Huxley’s brother Julian was a noted biologist and writer, and his half-brother Andrew was a Nobel laureate in physiology.

Huxley appeared destined to work in science, too, initially planning to become a physician. But, in 1911, when he was 16, he suffered an eye infection that left him nearly blind for almost two years. His sight was so compromised that he learned to read in Braille. He eventually recovered some vision, initially using strong eyeglasses to cope. With his sight damaged, a career in medicine or science seemed impractical, so Huxley turned to writing.

“He rose above the disability but he never minimized the importance of the experience in his life,” notes biographer Nicholas Murray. Huxley was fascinated by how adjustments in the senses greatly altered how we perceive reality, a theme that would deeply inform some of his later books.

His struggle with vision was the subject of a 1943 book, The Art of Seeing, in which Huxley championed the controversial theories of Dr. W. H. Bates, who asserted that eyes could be improved with training exercises instead of prescription lenses. Huxley claimed that the Bates Method worked for him, though it still remains far outside the medical mainstream.

Just how much Huxley was able to see is uncertain, although his eyes were obviously compromised, forcing him to compensate in creative ways. Julian Huxley thought that his brother developed a Herculean memory so he could better retain what he labored so hard to read. “With his one good eye, he managed to skim through learned journals, popular articles and books of every kind,” Julian recalled. “He was apparently able to take them in at a glance, and what is more, to remember their essential content. His intellectual memory was phenomenal, doubtless trained by a tenacious will to surmount the original horror of threatened blindness.”

Early in his writing career, Huxley worked as a journalist and teacher, including a stint at Eton instructing a young Eric Blair, who would eventually become known to the world as George Orwell.

Published in 1949, nearly two decades after Huxley’s masterpiece, Orwell’s 1984 depicted a world in which the state imposes its will by force. Huxley wrote a fan letter to Orwell after 1984 appeared, complimenting him on “how fine and how profoundly important the book is.” But Huxley offered a polite dissent from Orwell’s premise: “I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.” Huxley thought it more likely that in the long run, despots would find it efficient to coddle rather than coerce humans into conformity.

When Huxley published his first novel, Crome Yellow, in 1921, he gained attention not as a sober prophet of human oppression, but a light satirist of the English gentry. “What makes Crome Yellow . . . so appealing is its restfulness,” literary essayist Michael Dirda has observed. “There is no plot to speak of. Nothing dramatic happens. Instead, the book sustains interest almost solely through its style, a low-keyed ironic wit, and the evocation of a leisurely summer of cultivated country-house pleasures. Young people make love and their elders discourse about life; afternoons are spent in walking or painting, evenings taken up with reading aloud and conversation.”

The fictional house of the novel’s title appears to be based on Garsington, the estate where Lady Ottoline Morrell hosted Bloomsbury-era artists and writers, including Huxley. At Garsington, Huxley met the beautiful Maria Nys, a Belgian refugee displaced by World War I. They wed in 1919, and their marriage, perhaps reflecting its origins in Bloomsbury avant-garde society, was unconventional. Maria was bisexual, and the Huxleys at one point entered into a romantic triangle with a mutual friend, Mary Hutchinson. Unusual though such an arrangement might have been, the Huxleys appeared devoted to each other until Maria’s death in 1955. Their household grew to include one son, Matthew, born in April 1920.

“She devoted herself wholly to him,” Murray writes of Maria’s relationship with Aldous. “Because of his poor eyesight, she read to him, endlessly, even if the material bored her beyond belief. She drove him thousands of miles around Europe and the United States—putting her profession as ‘chauffeur’ in hotel registers. She typed his books and was his secretary and housekeeper.”

The life the Huxleys created seemed a mostly happy one. Although the future Huxley popularized in Brave New World was bleak, the author himself didn’t lack cheer or humor, as anyone who reads his essays quickly discovers. “Aldous Huxley is an essayist whom I would be ready to rank with Hazlitt,” Somerset Maugham declared. “The essayist needs character to begin with, then he needs an encyclopedic knowledge, he needs humor, ease of manner so that the ordinary person can read him without labor, and he must know how to combine entertainment with instruction. These qualifications are not easy to find. Aldous Huxley has them.”

“Meditation on the Moon,” a 1931 essay, exemplifies Huxley’s sometimes dreamily poetic style. He argues that skygazers don’t have to think of the moon as either a rock or a romantic icon; it can be both. It’s an essay about the claims and limits of technical knowledge, in which Huxley, whose family tree included poets and scientists, attempts to reconcile their intellectual traditions. He wrote:

"The moon is a stone; but it is a highly numinous stone. Or, to be more precise, it is a stone about which and because of which men and women have numinous feelings. Thus, there is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding. There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love—to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe."

The passage points to Huxley’s deftness as a scene-setter, a skill that made him a great travel writer, too. Along the Road, Huxley’s 1921 collection of travel essays, is perhaps one of the best modern travel books—and inexplicably, one of the most overlooked. It chronicles his jaunts around Europe, often with self-deprecating charm. In a funny musing called “Books for the Journey,” Huxley considers the bibliophile’s tendency to over-pack. “All tourists cherish an illusion, of which no amount of experience can ever cure them; they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading,” Huxley writes. “They see themselves, at the end of a day’s sightseeing or motoring, or while they are sitting in the train, studiously turning over the pages of all the vast and serious works which, at ordinary seasons, they never have time to read.”

Huxley suggests, as an alternative to all those heavy books, just toting a random volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica along for the ride. “I never pass a day away from home without taking a volume with me,” he confides. “Turning over its pages, rummaging among the stores of fantastically varied facts which the hazards of alphabetical arrangement bring together, I wallow in my mental vice.”

Huxley was really serious about carrying around the Britannica. “Bertrand Russell joked that one could predict Huxley’s subjects of conversation provided one knew which alphabetical section of the Encyclopedia he happened to be reading at the time,” Murray notes. “Huxley even constructed a special carrying-case for it on his journeys.”

This was so like Huxley, his mind sparked by any fact, however arbitrary. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was living in Brazil when Huxley arrived for a visit, described what it was like to see him explore a new place:

'There is a slight cast to his bad eye, and this characteristic, which I always find oddly attractive, in Huxley’s case adds even more to his veiled and other-worldly gaze. When examining something close . . . a photograph or a painting, he sometimes takes out a small horn-rimmed magnifying glass, or, for distant objects, a miniature telescope, and he often sits resting his good eye by cupping his hand over it."

Huxley’s travels paralleled an intellectual and spiritual odyssey that increasingly shaped his work. His early fiction, which extended the wry tone of Crome Yellow, evolved into more somber, psychologically complex novels like Eyeless in Gaza, his 1936 story about a cynical Englishman who comes of age during World War I and eventually turns to Eastern philosophy and meditation to address his disillusionment. Many readers see Eyeless as a deeply autobiographical work reflecting Huxley’s own turn away from ironical detachment to life as, in Dirda’s words, “a gentle mystic.”

Huxley’s globe-trotting took him to the United States in 1937, where he made his home, primarily in Los Angeles, for the rest of his life. Lucrative Hollywood screenwriting jobs proved hard to resist. He wrote film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, as well as a Disney version of Alice in Wonderland that was never made. In 1956, a year after Maria’s death, Huxley married Laura Archera, an Italian violinist and psychotherapist who had been a family friend, and who proved an equally devoted wife. California’s climate of cultural experiment seemed suited to Huxley, whose willingness to explore new things in the pursuit of enlightenment led him to the strangest writing project of his life.

In the spring of 1953, Huxley took a precisely measured dose of mescalin, the hallucinogenic drug derived from the peyote cactus of the American Southwest, then recorded his experience in a small book, The Doors of Perception, its title inspired by a quote from the visionary poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Huxley found that the drug greatly enhanced his sense of color. “Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood,” he wrote. But Huxley also noted that under the influence of mescalin, “the will suffers a profound change for the worse. The mescalin taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular.”

The book doesn’t argue for unrestricted drug use, and in other writings, Huxley pointed out the dangers of abuse and dependency. “In their ceaseless search for self-transcendence, millions of would-be mystics become addicts, commit scores of thousands of crimes and are involved in hundreds of thousands of avoidable accidents,” he cautioned in his essay, “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.” Even so, The Doors of Perception achieved considerable cachet in the drug culture of the 1960s. The rock group the Doors took its name from Huxley’s book, and in a sad irony, its lead singer, Jim Morrison, struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism until his death in 1971.

Huxley’s own death after a lengthy struggle with cancer contained an irony of its own. He died on November 22, 1963, just hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and on the same day that fellow writer C. S. Lewis passed away. Kennedy’s death overshadowed the passing of Huxley and Lewis. But just as events in Dallas cracked open the chaos of the 1960s, so Huxley’s life and work, with its questioning of conformity and the power of the state, seemed to anticipate the countercultural revolution that would soon sweep his adopted country.

In a 1958 nonfiction work, Brave New World Revisited, Huxley concluded that new developments had made it even more possible for the ominous social order of his most famous novel to be realized. But in Island, a utopian novel completed shortly before his death, Huxley depicted a benevolent mirror image of Brave New World, in which ingenuity is harnessed for good rather than evil. It was Huxley’s way of saying that human destiny is still a matter of moral choice—a choice that must be informed by constant inquiry.

“Fearless curiosity was one of Aldous’s noblest characteristics, a function of his greatness as a human being,” Isherwood recalled of his friend. “Little people are so afraid of what the neighbors will say if they ask Life unconventional questions. Aldous questioned unceasingly, and it never occurred to him to bother about the neighbors.”

Credits:  This article appears in Humanities.  It was updated in 2015.  

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