‘the Self which underlies [...] separate individuality’: pain and the transcendence of selfhood in the work of Aldous Huxley

Ryan O'Shea


This article explores the presence of pain in Aldous Huxley’s works and its significance in relation to his religious and spiritual ideas. Drawing on Joanna Bourke’s conception of pain as an evaluative event rather than an objective stimulus, I will focus on how different stimuli are evaluated as pain-events, and how this process of evaluation can affect one’s sense of self. Through analysing his fiction with reference to Huxley’s study of religious thought, The Perennial Philosophy (1945), this essay will consider the theological contexts around pain-events. Through these contexts, a connection between pain and Huxley’s ideas of transcending selfhood will be drawn. A key term for the essay will be Huxley’s idea of the ‘Self’, a vague state of spiritual unity and bliss where one’s own selfhood is annihilated to make room for the presence of the divine. Starting with Brave New World (1932), this study will bring to light key religious contexts such as mortification, exploring the presence of self-flagellation in the text and its effectiveness in denying and transcending the body and self in the face of the World State. Moving onto Huxley and Christopher Isherwood’s critically neglected screen-treatment, Jacob’s Hands (1998), the essay will shift focus to the pain of a heart-attack, analysing the text in relation to Huxley’s ideas of organ deterioration being connected to a self-absorbed and spiritually unfulfilled existence. Finally, Time Must Have a Stop (1944) will be discussed in relation to previously discussed ideas, this time focusing on Huxley’s conception of purging pain in the afterlife, and the struggle towards the spiritual state of the Self. In Huxley’s view, the Self can eventually be achieved through perennial philosophy.


Aldous Huxley; pain; selfhood; perennial philosophy; mortification

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