Aldous Huxley was a famous but unlikely crusader for psychedelic drugs and their mind-expanding capabilities. English, classically educated and the hard-thinking contemporary of T.S. Elliot and Bertrand Russell, his position as a precursor to Timothy Leary remains one of the most intriguing subplots of 1960s American counterculture. Unlike his friend D.H. Lawrence, for example, who voices his rebellions against mainstream culture angrily throughout his essays and fiction, Huxley writes with an objectivism and gentlemanly calm apparently at odds with his radical visions. Allene Symons’ Aldous Huxley’s Hands is part Huxley biography, part history of psychedelic science but also – and less promisingly – an attempt by a daughter to commemorate her father’s amateur scientific research into the physiognomy of hands. Symons, a medical journalist and media studies lecturer, set out to write the book after finding a sample with Huxley’s name on it amongst a thousand photographs of hands in her father’s attic. Beyond a surprising but not particularly close friendship, her investigations into the photo’s origins led to some illuminating discoveries about the crank scientific and occult leanings that motivated Huxley’s fixation with hallucinogenic drugs in the 1950s and the production of his Blake-inspired and Jim Morison-inspiring The Doors of Perception (1954).
As biographies by Sybille Bedford, David King Dunaway and Nicholas Murray have also noted, Huxley spent a large part of the fifties collaborating with psychiatrists to promote the study of mescalin. Alongside Huxley and her father Howard Alban Thrasher, the main subjects of Symons’ book are the Dr.’s Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies, two Saskatchewan-based specialists in schizophrenia who gave Huxley his first dose of the drug and enlisted him for a national campaign to win research funding. Quoting from their correspondence, Symons shows us the grandiose and practical sides to their mission, which Huxley christened ‘onsight’ – from the belief that mescalin, and later LSD and Psilocybin (magic mushrooms), could engender rapid and fundamental “change [in] the intellectual and spiritual climate” to more plausible theories about the biochemical replication of schizophrenic states to investigate a cure. They believed, Symons says, that “since taking mescalin induced a distorted visionary experience similar to schizophrenia … a naturally occurring chemical in the human body might be related to schizophrenia”. Symons also gives us some entertaining insight into Huxley’s first trip – which became the basis for The Doors of Perception. Opposite a photo of the elder literary statesman peering out over the Hollywood Hills, professorially attired but clearly out of his skull, Simmons pieces together information from Osmond’s records to show us Huxley’s immediate reactions, like his childlike hysterics at the warping of his car into a “cartoon car” with a “bulbous top”, rather than the recollected feelings and thoughts presented in The Doors.
Touching (and amusing) though this is, it and the story of Huxley’s ‘Onsight’ project have been well covered elsewhere. More revealing and original sections of Aldous Huxley’s Hands arise from Symons’ research into her father’s time in his company. Howard Thrasher was, he tells his daughter, a regular at the weekly salons Huxley and his wife hosted in Hollywood throughout the 1950s. Never one, according to his friend Christopher Isherwood, “to bother about the neighbours”, Huxley would bring together shwarmis, mediums, and various unproven or discredited amateur scientists for discussions he hoped would inspire future projects. As Symons says, Huxley and his first wife Maria had been half-interested in hands as a clue to personality since living near a “hand healer” in France during the 1920s, and they asked her father along to display his findings and photograph their guests. Although no professional collaboration came from this, Symons finds a link between her father and Huxley in their common skepticism about the received wisdom of Freudian and behaviorist ideas. Where Huxley and his psychiatrist collaborators saw drug-inspired visions as evidence that schizophrenia was biochemically rather than unconsciously or experientially induced, Thrasher drew similar conclusions from the recurrence of hand markings among the mental patients he photographed. Huxley and her father, Symons claims, were part of the same fight to prove the ” biochemical basis for mental illness” at a time when that was a “radical, and even a ridiculed, idea”.
If Symons overplays Huxley’s enthusiasm for her father’s hand project, as well as its relevance to psychedelic science, the personal accounts of the Huxleys’ house parties are a good way into the subject of ‘parapsychology’. A school of psychology that refuses to rule out the paranormal, it had an important influence on much of his pre-psychedelic writing, from 1925’s Those Barren Leaves through to A Brave New World (1932) and his last novel, The Island (1960). After the revelation that Huxley was holding séances and hanging out with Ron L. Hubbard in the fifties, Symons takes us back to the First World War and his discussions of ‘theosophy’ – ‘an amalgam of so-called ancient wisdom spun into cosmic laws and astral planes’ – with D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and Bertrand Russell. These took place at grander but equally unconventional salons hosted by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Morrell, the model for Lawrence’s Hermione Roddice in Women in Love, was an early advocate of ‘Free Love’ and possibly inspired Huxley to undertake what Symons tactfully calls a ‘marriage loosely tethered by creative consent’. This, we are told, resulted in his wife arranging affairs for him with various renowned women, including shipping heiress and modernist muse Nancy Cunard. Later, approaching middle age in the 1940s, we find him training under “Swami Prabhavananda, the guru of the Vedanta temple in Hollywood”, then living alongside Christopher Isherwood and the BBC announcer Geoffrey Heard on the latter’s quasi-Hindi commune at Laguna Beach. Here Huxley and his old friend Heard explored their interest in “telepathy and precognition”.