Jul 7, 2021

Huxley, Burroughs, and the Church of Scientology

Huxley, Burroughs, and the Church of Scientology
David S. Wills

July 6, 2021

"In the 21st century, Scientology has become a synonym for "cult." Thanks to an array of investigative exposés and testimony from former members, few people in the Western world are unaware of at least some of the Church's fantastical beliefs and more alarming behaviours. Sixty years ago, however, it was viewed quite differently. Scientology―or dianetics, as it was originally known―was an appealing idea to many intellectuals and creatives at a time when the world was rapidly changing and notions that had once been taken for granted were suddenly being tossed out of the window. In science, art, and philosophy, accepted norms were being turned on their heads, and in the 1950s and '60s, L. Ron Hubbard's ideas―peddled as an alternative to psychiatry―fit quite nicely among the emerging doctrines dreamed up by his contemporary thinkers.

Indeed, the original concepts that launched Hubbard's movement were not as outrageous as those that define it today. Among these, the idea of "engrams" and the "reactive mind" were perhaps the most appealing. Hubbard theorised that humans are marked by unconscious traumas that essentially pre-determine "aberrant" behaviour. Naturally, he claimed that his organisation held the key to removing these traumas and freeing people from a great deal of suffering. Stripped down to its fundamentals, dianetics seemed to be no more implausible than the strange new ideas espoused by Freud and Jung, or even those previously espoused by Nietzsche.

Of course, there were always oddball beliefs bundled in as well, and as the years went by, these became more prominent. Hubbard―a science fiction author prior to his metamorphosis into quasi-religious guru―enjoyed adding new elements of fantasy to his central theories, layering sci-fi storylines on top of one another until his movement had become an extravagant sort of space opera. The more obvious cult-like elements would emerge in due course: charging adherents for advancement in the organisation; trapping them with manipulation and blackmail; the development of esoteric jargon known as "Scientologese" that made it almost impossible for real communication to take place between members and outsiders; and shocking campaigns of harassment against critics and apostates.

In the early days, however, none of this was particularly obvious. Hard as it is to believe now, many intelligent people were once drawn to Scientology out of an overabundance of curiosity, and its absurdities were generally perceived as harmless, affable eccentricities. Among those lured into the fold of this mysterious new organisation were two of the most important authors of the 20th century: Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs. Although Hubbard's own novels elicit little more than derision from critics, his ideas wormed their way into some very influential books and left an indelible mark on American literature.

When people first hear about Huxley's and Burroughs's interest in Scientology, they typically express some degree of shock and/or scepticism. These men were highly intelligent thinkers famous for their insightful criticisms of the dominant culture. And both wrote extensively on the topic of coercion―Huxley was keenly aware of how humans could be manipulated into subservience by technodictators, and Burroughs was fascinated by the idea that language could be employed for the purposes of mind control. How then could they have fallen for the very thing they critiqued?"  

The reasons are quite obvious, in fact, and not especially different from those offered by the majority of ordinary people who fall under the sway of a cult. Like so many suckered by predatory organisations, both Huxley and Burroughs suffered from deep traumas. In spite of their formidable intellects and capacity for scepticism, they were both prone to suspending belief when it came to potential cures for their own existential angst. A quick glance through their biographies shows that both men were fooled from time to time by embarrassingly transparent swindles in the vain hope of finding transformation or redemption.

Aldous Huxley first discovered Scientology before it was even given that name. In 1950, he met with L. Ron Hubbard, who visited Huxley's home in Los Angeles and personally administered the author's first auditing sessions. Huxley and his wife Maria were both plagued by health problems and had pursued a number of pseudoscientific channels in the hope of a cure. Hubbard's new movement, dianetics, appealed to them more than any other quackery they had encountered. Although Huxley immediately realised that Hubbard was "rather immature … and in some ways rather pathetic," he respected his recently published book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

Hubbard's ideas (and ideas he had stolen from others and passed off as his own), made their way into Huxley's landmark 1954 study, The Doors of Perception (a book Hubbard said he admired, in spite of his movement's vehemently anti-drug stance). Although Hubbard is not mentioned by name, references to his theories are scattered throughout its pages. Huxley talks about a gap between words and what they represent, and the importance of thinking in images rather than words―ideas discussed in Dianetics and its follow-up, Science of Survival. And Huxley uses the term "is-ness," one of many neologisms coined by Hubbard who liked to append "-ness" to various words. Huxley wrote that "Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him." In Dianetics, Hubbard wrote, "Wide awake and without drugs an individual can return to any period of his entire life." When Huxley said that the fundamental goal of human beings "is at all costs to survive," this was another reference to Dianetics: "The first law of dianetics is a statement of the dynamic principle of existence. THE DYNAMIC PRINCIPLE OF EXISTENCE IS: SURVIVE!"

Generations of readers have simply understood The Doors of Perception to be a book about a mescaline trip, infused with a little Eastern spirituality. However, in addition to drawing upon Hubbard's ideas and language, Huxley may have been undergoing dianetic processing during his trip. He repeatedly refers to his "investigator," who prompts him to answer questions and focus on different objects, while recording everything that happens on tape. Maria Huxley and the psychiatrist Dr Humphry Osmond were with him during the eight-hour episode. It is not clear who the "investigator" was and only a few questions remain in the written record, but it is possible that Maria was auditing him. In any event, just a year and a half later, Huxley would excitedly write to Osmond to inform him of a similar experience, only this time he reported that he had mixed dianetic processing with LSD.

Despite their dedication to dianetics and their shared conviction that it was ameliorating their health problems, Maria Huxley died of cancer shortly after the publication of The Doors of Perception. However, she had groomed another Scientologist, Laura Archera, as her successor, and after Maria passed away, Laura married Huxley and continued auditing him. Huxley referred to her as "my dianetic operator," and in October 1955, she administered 400μg of LSD as she performed her dianetic processing. The experience was life-changing. Huxley already had a great affinity for hallucinogens and dianetics, but this experience compounded them. He wrote that he became aware of the "primordial cosmic fact of Love." Although he acknowledged the absurdity of Scientology as an organisation, he was more convinced than ever that its core notions were of great importance and needed to be shared with the world.

Shortly afterwards, Huxley began work on a novel entitled Island, intended as a counterpoint to Brave New World. While the latter was a dystopian novel, the former was an attempt to express its author's new visions of utopia, in which he explained what he believed would make the perfect society: a mixture of sex-positive attitudes, hallucinogens, and dianetics. Of course, the term "dianetics" never appears in the novel, but there can be little doubt about its influence. Island is crammed with Hubbard's ideas and his annoying cult jargon. At the start of the story, the protagonist becomes aware of a system of "psychological first aid" that closely resembles dianetic processing. A young girl forces him to repeat a trauma over and over until its pain ceases to have any effect, which is exactly how Scientologists supposedly negate engrams. Soon, it is revealed that the entire population of the island is free from the pain caused by past traumas due to their reliance upon a range of dianetic procedures, and the trees are filled with mynah birds that call out "Attention!" and "Here and now, boys!" to help people remain "in present time"―a Hubbardian phrase that appears frequently throughout Dianetics and in his numerous lectures and papers.

Aldous Huxley died in 1963, the year after Island was published, but Scientology cast a longer shadow over the oeuvre of William S. Burroughs, influencing a great many of his novels and articles, as well as his audio recordings, film projects, and visual art. Burroughs came to Scientology in 1959 through his friend, the painter Brion Gysin, who had in turn been introduced by John Cooke―one of Hubbard's first disciples and the man who persuaded him to transform dianetics from a so-called science into a so-called religion (a manoeuvre that allowed him to evade lawsuits and taxes). At the time, Burroughs and Gysin were living in Paris at the Beat Hotel, a flophouse filled with artists and writers, where they engaged in various odd practices, many of which involved the occult. It was Gysin who accidentally uncovered the Cut-up Method, which he taught to Burroughs, who popularised it in his own writing."

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