Color and Light: Huxley's Pathway to Spiritual Reality

By Paulsell, Sally A. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Color and Light: Huxley's Pathway to Spiritual Reality


Paulsell, Sally A., Twentieth Century Literature


Unlike modern British writers such as T. S. Eliot and Evelyn, Waugh, Aldous Huxley did not convert to a specific religious community indigenous to Western culture; however, his entire life embraced a consciousness-expanding search for ultimate reality revealed to him through the mystical qualities of color and light. Like Eliot and Waugh, Huxley found himself regarded by many critics as unfaithful to his earlier writing after his conversion to a spiritual faith. Huxley's friend Christopher Isherwood states that Huxley's developing beliefs were "widely represented as the selling-out of a once-brilliant intellect" (Clark 303), and Donald Watt concurs that "in the minds of a majority of critics Huxley was fixed as an entertaining recorder of the frenetic 1920s who later recoiled into an aesthetically suicidal mysticism" (AH 31).(1) More recent critics still tend to divide Huxley's canon into two halves in which Eyeless in Gaza (1936) is sometimes referred to as his "conversion" novel (Bowering 114, Watt AH 19). Although the assumption has been weakening, what many critics mistakenly took to be an abrupt change of direction and attitude in Huxley's writing actually represents a continuation of his search for theological idealism. The writer's steps on the pathway to spiritual reality can be charted -- from his first book of poetry in 1916 to his last novel in 1962 -- through his distinctive use of the imagery of color and light. By 1936 Huxley had already started his troubled spiritual journey from despair toward mystical union with the "pure light of the void." Despite elements of wishful thinking and open doubt in Huxley's life and work, his conscious commitment to the struggle to believe in the Divine Light can be traced as early as 1922 in his first novel, Crome Yellow.

Confirmation of Huxley's intentional use of color is summarized in his "Natural History of Visions," a 1959 lecture posing the question, "Why are precious stones precious?" (Human 216). These brightly colored pebbles, says Huxley, are not beautifully harmonized like a work of art or a piece of music; they are single objects which the human mind responds to in an unaccountable way. He states that one reason for our interest can be found in the Phaedo where Socrates speaks about the ideal world of which our world is in a sense a rather bad copy. Socrates says: "In this other earth the colors are much purer and more brilliant than they are down here. The mountains and stones have a richer gloss, a livelier transparency and intensity of hue" (217). Plato writes not merely about a metaphysical idea but also about another inner world which has landscape and beautiful regions of memory, fantasy, imagination, dreams, and-most remote -- "the world of visions" (218). Huxley explains the importance of light and color in this world of visions:

This experience of the pure light of the void is a visionary

experience of what may be called the highest, the most mystical

kind. On a rather lower level the lights seem to be broken up and

become, so to speak, incorporated in different objects and

persons and figures. It is as though this tremendous white light

were somehow refracted through a prism and broken up into

different coloured lights. In this lower form of vision we have the

intensification of light in some way associated with the

story-telling faculty, so that there are visions of great complexity

and elaboration in which light plays a tremendous part, but it is

not the pure white light of the great theophanies. (228-29)

Huxley deduces, therefore, that precious stones are precious because they are objects in the external world -- along with fire, stained glass, fireworks, pageantry, theatrical spectacle, Christmas-tree lights, rainbows, and sunlight -- which most nearly resemble the things that people see in the visionary world (232-35). …

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