Long Strange Trip: On the Death of Kennedy and Huxley

cyborg
Caption: Photo credit: Lily Monster / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

More and more these days, the subject of “transhumanism” — human biological “improvement” through integration with technology — is creeping into the news. But while the increasingly public debate between the “pro” camp — futurists and tech gurus — and the “anti” camp — bioethicists and conspiracy theorists — has been raging for a couple decades, the concept of “transhumanism” goes back much farther.

In 1957, an essay bearing that title was published by eminent evolutionary biologist and leading eugenicist Julian Huxley. The next year, Huxley’s younger brother, Aldous, published Brave New World Revisited, an assessment of how startlingly rapid the “predictions” of his classic 1932 novel had advanced toward reality.

And so it was in view of the developing reality of transhumanism, and not least the already-here prospect of microchip implantation, that I recently decided to revisit Brave New World, probably the second or third time since high school. And in the brief biographical section at the end of the book I discovered that Aldous Huxley had died from cancer on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated: November 22, 1963.

Huxley laid out a frightening transhumanist future in which social engineers mentally condition and manipulate people from test tube hello to hallucinogenic deathbed goodbye. Kennedy’s demise augured decades more of frustrating war, hot and cold, and ruptured something in the American body politic that has never mended.

I immediately sensed some sort of significance in this coincidence of famous deaths, although it was unclear precisely what the significance was. Obviously, there was no related causal significance. The connection seemed more abstract, somewhere in the metaphysical realm rather than the merely temporal. Its rough outlines were not long in forming.

Brave New World, Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece with its disturbing visions of stratified human cloning, sexualized children, and mass pharmacological sedation, differs from George Orwell’s 1984 in important respects. Whereas in Orwell’s nightmarish future society the masses are controlled through overt fear and disciplinary violence, in Huxley’s they are more subtly, and perhaps more effectively, controlled through selective breeding, subliminal brainwashing, and unlimited access to chemical bliss and sensual distractions. Which version has come nearer to actuality is a topic for another discussion, but it’s safe to say that both have proven at least partly prescient.

1984 was published in 1949, when Jack Kennedy was still a skinny young Congressman from his family’s longtime political district back in Boston. The short remainder of his life would chart the phenomenal trajectory of maybe the most profound political career in American history, one in which JFK went from ardent cold warrior (albeit with outspoken anti-colonial sympathies) to reluctant (and ultimately resistant) warmonger in a death struggle with his own national security state, as well as with all manner of anti-communist zealots who believed that Kennedy was either a soft sell-out or a fully conscious agent of the international Red conspiracy.

Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy

Aldous Huxley (left) and President John F. Kennedy (right). Photo credit: Life Magazine / Wikimedia and JFK Library

Huxley gave characters in Brave New World the names of Communist luminaries like Marx, Lenin(a), and Trotsky, and it’s clear that his fictional society owed much to the Bolshevik model. If nothing else, the disastrous conditions of war and economic ruin which made possible the October Revolution of 1917 (the year of Kennedy’s birth) are the same circumstances which brought about the totalitarian system described by Huxley.

When Huxley passed from this celestial plane on 11/22/63, mere hours after Kennedy was pronounced dead in Dallas, he was flying sky high from intramuscular LSD injections…

The significance regarding the coincidental deaths of Huxley and Kennedy, I suspect, must lie somewhere in all this. The real coincidence, you might say, is that on that historic day two men died who presaged a darker road ahead for humankind. Huxley laid out a frightening transhumanist future in which social engineers mentally condition and manipulate people from test tube hello to hallucinogenic deathbed goodbye. Kennedy’s demise augured decades more of frustrating war, hot and cold, and ruptured something in the American body politic that has never mended.

And in their own ways both men were visionaries. Huxley foresaw how technology would produce wonders of convenience and pleasure as well as threaten the very essence of being human — naturally procreating, parenting, marrying, even feeling less than perfectly peachy if one chose. He definitely envisioned the ubiquitousness of diversionary entertainments, recreations, spectator sports, and of course sex and drugs, with the concomitant decline in historical sense and traditional book learning. Was the novel pure speculative sci-fi or diabolical blueprint? I suppose that a cataclysmic war and economic collapse, precipitating the establishment of a totalitarian World State, depending on your outlook, is either paranoid hogwash or right around the corner.

For his part, Kennedy perceived that other, weaker and poorer countries would chafe at American domination and would resent foreign interference in their political and economic affairs. He saw nothing good in the Vietnam escalation, and it is now more or less accepted fact that he planned to withdraw. Whether or not that decision was a factor in his murder, while widely suspected, will probably never be known. But in terms of sheer clairvoyance JFK gets major bonus points, for evidently he expressed premonitions of his own imminent death.

In short, there was nothing suspicious about their coincidental deaths. (C. S. Lewis, another writer-philosopher, also died on the same date.) But the very coincidence of their deaths portended something dark and dismal in store for the brave new world after they were gone.

There are other strange connections worth noting. When Huxley passed from this celestial plane on 11/22/63, mere hours after Kennedy was pronounced dead in Dallas, he was flying sky high from intramuscular LSD injections — a tripped-out death experience fairly similar to that which is routinely administered to the carefree clones fictionalized in his novel. What very few Americans know is that JFK, while president, may have experimented with LSD, and maybe the psychedelic experience even had some transformative effect upon his views about peace or politics.

Also little known is that Mary Pinchot Meyer, former wife of a high-level CIA officer and Kennedy’s mistress with whom he was allegedly smoking pot and dropping acid, was herself murdered the year following the assassination. The hapless man accused of the killing was acquitted and the crime was never solved. Not surprisingly, many believe that the two lovers’ deaths were linked. Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist whom Meyer had approached for advice about LSD and subsequently befriended, said that leading up to her murder she was worried and feared she knew too much.

In 1954 Aldous Huxley published a book-form essay titled The Doors of Perception, based on his experience of a mescaline trip the previous year at his home in West Hollywood. Huxley was an enthusiastic, if private, psychedelic explorer, and in 1955 he had an LSD experience more profound than his earlier mescaline trip. Ten years later, in 1965, Jim Morrison used Huxley’s book as inspiration for his band name The Doors.

(Cue “Riders on the Storm.” “The End”? “Strange Days”? Take your pick.)

As a boy, like the young JFK, Morrison was a voracious reader and lover of literature. He grew up a peripatetic military brat whose father, Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison, USN, commanded a carrier division of the United States fleet during the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, the dubious episode which resulted in the rapid escalation of the Vietnam War. At the time, Morrison’s son Jim was a student at UCLA, where he would meet fellow student Ray Manzarek and start their band.

With their intoxicating blend of blues rock, poetic mysticism, and psychedelia, The Doors became seminal cultural figures of the restive sixties, a decade roiled by civil unrest, political assassinations, and opposition to the war in which Morrison’s own father was intimately involved. It was a war that Kennedy has often been falsely accused of having “started,” a war he certainly dreaded, and a war that very well may have been a contributing motive for his murder on the same day that Aldous Huxley flooded his perceptual doors with massive doses of hallucinogenic drugs, perhaps on his way to meet JFK in the new frontier of the Great Beyond.


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