Saturday, March 28, 2009

The 50th Anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s UCSB Lecture Series

The 50th Anniversary of Aldous Huxley's UCSB Lecture Series

Remembering a Genius in a Tourist Town

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
By D.J. Palladino

Among Santa Barbara's finest rumors are some crazy stories about
Aldous Huxley living here. Some maintained that the author of Brave
New World and Crome Yellow once dwelled in Isla Vista, and whilst
across the channel was inspired to write Island. Another tale held
that Huxley's wife would annually procure him a virgin from the
then-new UCSB campus for a springtime ritual cloaked in obvious pagan
and erotic possibilities. Some rumors suggest that Huxley called the
Upham Hotel home while teaching a class at the university, others
that his series of lectures became all the rage, spilling audiences
out from the auditorium located where UCSB's lagoon-hugging UCen now stands.

Actually, the last story is true. The other tales, not so much. It's
true, though, that 50 years ago this month, the university hosted
Huxley as its first visiting professor. Besides teaching courses to a
select corps of English majors, Huxley gave a series of wildly
popular public lectures which can be revisited on tape and in a
hard-to-find paperback volume barely available on Amazon. In the
talks, Huxley isolated major points that would later engage my
generation in angry debates as well as stoned ruminations. Would the
future belong to B.F. Skinner's brand of scientific determinism or
Timothy Leary's mystical adventure? What does it mean to be human in
a pervasively technological culture? How can we talk about the future
under mushroom-clouded skies?

"I deliberately kept the title of this course as vague and as general
as I could," Huxley declared in his February 9, 1959 intro lecture,
"so as not to commit myself too far in advance or to pretend that I
know too much." Modestly titled "The Human Situation," the lectures
today seem remarkably prescient, opening with overpopulation,
pollution, and their plausible effects on the climate, and concluding
with an intriguing inventory of human possibilities. Besides clearly
helping to brand Santa Barbara as the eco-friendly New Age paradise
it is today, Huxley in 1959 anticipated language that would not be
employed by trendy professors, tree-huggers, and San Francisco
hippies for at least another decade.

Forward into the Past

Not everybody was enchanted by the author, essayist, and lifestyle
pioneer. The well-known S.B. actor George Backman was one of the
English majors who took the class. "It was very boring stuff," he
said. "He was so blind he held the notes up practically to his face,
and he read all the lectures. Isherwood was much, much better."
Nevertheless, Backman remembers that the public talks needed
loudspeakers outside for the overspill throngs.

Who knows why the people came? The talks were made possible by UCSB
Proust professor Douwe Stuurman­a khaki-clad, ascot-wearing character
about town­who had attended Oxford's Balliol College with Huxley and
Isherwood. But it wasn't just Anglophilia that made Huxley a hot
ticket. His talks fit the agenda of a once-sleepy tourist town that
suddenly had a UC campus, appealing to both academics and the greater
community. First, Huxley made an impassioned plea for remarrying the
increasingly specialized branches of Academia. He wanted people to
see the world as a combination of "atomic physics" on one hand and
"an immediate experience of value, love, and emotion" on the other.
"The building of this fundamental bridge is an urgent, urgent problem
in our world," he said.

He then called for "more Nature in art"­he found the contemporary art
of his era too theoretical, and would have loved the Oak Group which
formed some 30 years later. But more to the point, he wanted to
reclaim moral life on a biosphere. "Th[e] ethical point of view in
which nature is regarded as having rights, and we are regarded as
having duties, is not found within the Western tradition," he rightly
complained. "Instead we have what seems to me a rather shocking
formulation … that animals have no souls. Therefore they have no
rights and we have no duties toward them, and consequently they may
be treated as things. I feel that this is a most undesirable
doctrine." It's hardly what you would've read on an op ed page in
1959, though I'd venture to say that it's a notion most Santa
Barbarians today, from Wendy McCaw to Marty Blum, would probably embrace.

Braving the New World

Huxley was born in 1894, and grew up into the guttering half-light of
World War I England after losing most of his eyesight and his beloved
brother. His fame came early in bitingly satirical novels like Crome
Yellow, not through family fame, but through sheer hard work. Trained
to teach, he was soon dissuaded away from that profession and toward
fiction and began by promising his publisher two books a year, all
the while traveling and making friends like D.H. Lawrence and
Bertrand Russell. Attaining popular infamy by 1931 after the
publication of the excoriating sci fi dystopia Brave New World,
Huxley came to Southern California, where he mixed literature and
science into a pursuit of transcendent experience. He was a member of
the Vedanta society and a friend of Krishnamurti in Ojai. He first
took psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico, and was given LSD in 1955. He
wrote simply and beautifully about the experience in The Doors of
Perception, a slender book that became a counter-culture Bible.

The UCSB lectures reveal Huxley's hard-won acuity as well as his
humanity. Huxley was a pacifist, and he devoted a hard hour of
thought to underscoring why Marx was so wrong about the proletariat,
who did not join across borders and resist fighting during World War
I but died for nationalist systems that were crushing them. Huxley
was also fascinated by language acquisition and the difference
between nature and nurture in the formation of our ethical selves.
His essay on the Unconscious makes a lucid attempt at understanding
why we use linguistic and amoral constructions like, "I don't know
what came over me," and, "I wasn't myself."

Best, however, reading these lectures opens a door to the group mind
of our city. In 1959, though the university had barely 2,000
students, Santa Barbara was a budding intellectual oasis. There were
citizens of note already assembled here: the great critics Hugh
Kenner and Marvin Mudrick, poets like Edgar Bowers, the crime writer
duo Kenneth (Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar, as well as artists
like Howard Warshaw. Beatniks had opened the Somnambulist Coffee
House near the Lobero, and future hippies were establishing space on
Mountain Drive. Huxley was a friend of Robert Hutchins of Montecito's
Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, as well as of Igor
Stravinsky, who helped found the Music Academy of the West.

Huxley ended his UCSB lecture series in late spring with a plea for
objectivity drawn from Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you from the
bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." It's a
quote Huxley believed should be inscribed on every pulpit and lectern
in the land. Fifty years later, though, maybe his own radical words
spoken a few paragraphs earlier serve better as dessert: "If we all
had the doors of our perceptions cleansed and we all saw the world as
infinite and holy, we should all find it a great deal less necessary
to go in for bullfighting, attacking minorities, or working up
frenzies against foreign people." That would be a brave new world we
could start right here.


Tapes of Huxley's 1959 UCSB lecture series can be heard for free at
the university's Special Collections Library. Call (805) 893-3062 or
visit A limited number of copies of the
lectures are also available in book format on


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