Huxley on distractions

I’ve been spending what free time I have this summer dipping into the works of Aldous Huxley, both his fiction (Island, Eyeless In Gaza) and non-fiction (Brave New World Revisited). I’m currently working my way through a collection of essays called Huxley and God, which, as the title suggests, deals broadly with religion.

Huxley is best known of course for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he also had a lifelong interest in religion and mysticism. He popularized the idea of a “perennial philosophy”–a basic metaphysical, psychological, and ethical structure common to the great religions of the world. Huxley was a friend and mentor to Huston Smith, who further explored the perennial philosophy (or “primordial tradition” as Smith prefers to call it) in his study of the world’s religions.

One of the points Huxley returns to in several of these essays is the danger distractions pose to the spiritual life. We’re more commonly aware of the dangers of our passions–our deep-seated desires, our self-will. But, Huxley says, the “imbecile mind”–with its constant, meaningless chatter–can be even more insidious:

It is of [distactions’] essence to be irrelevant and pointless. To find out just how pointless and irrelevant they can be, one has only to sit down and try to recollect oneself. Preoccupations connected with the passions will most probably come to the surface of consciousness; but along with them will rise a bobbling scum of miscellaneous memories, notions, and imaginings–childhood recollections of one’s grandmother’s Yorkshire terrier, the French name for henbane, a White-Knightish scheme for catching incendiary bombs in midair–in a word, every kind of nonsense and silliness. … [W]e are … creatures possessed of a complicated psychophysiological machine that is incessantly grinding away and that, in the course of its grinding, throws up into consciousness selections from that indefinite number of mental permutations and combinations which its random functioning makes possible. Most of these permutations and combinations have nothing to do with our passions or our rational occupations; they are just imbecilities–mere casual waste products of psychophysiological activity. (Huxley and God, pp. 153-4)

In Huxley’s view, the modern world has made it particularly difficult to free oneself from distractions because it has elevated the pursuit of constant distraction to a positive good (one is reminded of Pascal’s line about men’s miseries deriving from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone):

The Old Adam’s restless curiosity must be checked and his foolishness, his dissipation of sprit turned to wisdom and one-pointedness. That is why the would-be mystic is always told to refrain from busying himself with matters which do not refer to his ultimate goal, or in relation to which he cannot effectively do immediate and concrete good. This self-denying ordinance covers most of the things with which, outside business hours, the ordinary person is mainly concerned–news, the day’s installment of the various radio epics, this year’s car models and gadgets, the latest fashions. But it is upon fashion, cars, and gadgets, upon news and the advertising for which news exists, that our present industrial and economic system depends for its proper functioning. For, as ex-President Hoover pointed out not long ago, this system cannot work unless the demand for non-necessaries is not merely kept up, but continually expanded; and of course it cannot be kept up and expanded except by incessant appeals to greed, competitiveness, and love of aimless stimulation. Men have always been prey to distractions, which are the original sin of the mind; but never before today has an attempt been made to organize and exploit distractions, to make of them, because of their economic importance, the core and vital center of human life, to idealize them as the highest manifestations of mental activity. Ours is an age of systematized irrelevancies, and the imbecile within us has become one of the Titans, upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the social and economic system. Recollectedness, or the overcoming of distractions, has never been more necessary than now; it has also, we may guess, never been more difficult. (pp. 156-7)

One can well imagine what Huxley would’ve had to say about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, um, blogs, and the various gadgets that keep us constantly in touch with these sources of distraction. O brave new world, indeed.


2 thoughts on “Huxley on distractions

  1. Pingback: How to Survive The Apocalypse » It’s the End of the World (of Warcraft)

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