Three Roads Less Traveled: The Pacifism of Huxley, Isherwood, and Auden

By Bruce Johnston | 2002-10-01 12:00:00

If it's true that a society can be judged by its treatment of its own writers, can the same be said of a community of writers and their treatment of their own society? In the late 1930's, as the Second World War loomed ever closer, three prominent British writers left Europe and made a new start in the United States, triggering a firestorm of criticism in their homeland and widely varying reactions, ranging from a crisis of belief to a renewed conviction, in themselves.

Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden, three of the greatest British writers of their time, left England for America on the eve of the Second World War. For each, it was a journey made, at least in part, due to another commonalty: a belief in pacifism. In reading Isherwood's Diaries, Volume One 1939-1960 one is struck by a kind of metamorphosis that seems, plausibly, to have been widespread in Europe in the 1930s. It was a conversion to what for many would have been a new kind of pacifism at the time: one that could not be considered "passivism."

The relationship that novelists Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley and the poet W. H. Auden had with the pacifist movement as World War Two unfolded illustrates three lives imbued with similar convictions at the outset. Their reactions branch a spectrum.

The vilest place since Sodom

The prevailing mood during Britain's interwar period was one of despair. Disenchantment pervaded in a nation rife with internal conflict, reeling from an economic depression.

Before the Nazi rise to power, Christopher Isherwood, then in his late twenties, set out in search of "the vilest place since Sodom" as he later called it, to satiate his wanderlust. He found such a place in 1920s Berlin. His Berlin years are documented in the two novels Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1939), both considered key texts of British writing in the thirties. Ironically, the main criticism of the Berlin novels is his central character's seeming heartlessness toward the political violence already beginning to escalate in the city before the Nazis took power. It was the same escalation, coinciding with the beginning of Hitler's reign in 1933, that convinced Isherwood himself to leave. He traveled in Europe with his partner Heinz Neddermeyer, until the latter's arrest by the Nazis in 1937.

The other two artists were also busy in the thirties. Auden traveled to Spain in January 1937 to support the republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but was never put to work in the British medical detachment he joined, in part as a snub at his never having joined the British Communist Party. Huxley published his classic Brave New World in 1932, and spent much of the rest of the decade campaigning for peace on behalf of the Peace Pledge Union in Britain.

When Auden and Isherwood were sent to observe the Sino-Japanese conflict together early in January 1938 their spirits were high, seeing themselves as competing with Ernest Hemingway, who had reported from the front lines in the Spanish Civil War. Auden even called their trip to China "a war of our very own" to make a name for themselves. Yet their literary effort Journey To A War, did little to increase either man's reputation as a writer and the experience of war at first hand led them to dislike the popular intellectual movement of the day in Britain.

When on September 29 1938, the Munich Conference came to a close, then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain uttered his famous line about having achieved "peace in our time." Instead of peace, Germany had achieved rearmament, thanks in large part to improper policing of the accords of the Versailles Treaty. Appeasement by the French and British during this period also aided Hitler in fully rearming, then annexing the Sudetenland and invading Poland.

The crossing

The non-German attendees of the Munich Conference may not have seen the inevitability of a war hidden in its agenda, but Aldous Huxley certainly would have. By the time Chamberlain had boasted of "peace in our time," Huxley had already traveled to the United States with his family in the company of fellow writer Gerald Heard. Isherwood and Auden sailed to New York together on January 19, 1939, the first anniversary of their trip to China.

Isherwood and Auden had reasons very different from Huxley's for leaving: Isherwood confessed later that, unlike Huxley, he was not making a political statement by emigrating. He simply could not stop traveling, having started ten years earlier. Auden immigrated partly due to his dislike of the London literary scene. Before his own earlier emigration with Heard in 1937, Huxley had seen his pleas for a peaceful resolution falling on increasingly deaf ears. Frustrated, he sought an audience willing to listen to a pacifist stance on the coming war. Backstabbing had already begun among his peers in England, where he was being portrayed as a Judas for his absolutist views in opposition to war.

To each a separate genesis

While the genesis of a war was taking place in the Europe of the late thirties, each of the three literary ex-patriots was undergoing his own ideological genesis: a move to engage pacifism.

When war came, pacifism continued to be a central message in Huxley's writing. Isherwood, however, embraced something that had, until the late thirties, been ethereal. Auden felt an uncharacteristic ambivalence toward pacifism and would, eventually, formally disavow it.

After Brave New World was published, Huxley moved toward a more spiritually oriented pacifism in the mid-thirties after realizing the implications of the nationalist repression that was occurring in Spain at the time. In his writing his tone changed from sardonic to serious and interested in pacifism. Huxley had been attacked by his former pacifist colleagues for not supporting the use of force to defend the republican cause in Spain, as many of them did. Reacting to this criticism, Huxley stated bluntly, "Europe is no place for a pacifist."

On the ship to America, Isherwood realized that he had always been a pacifist. His father's life as a career soldier taught him to hate war. Isherwood claimed that before going to China his pacifism had been so wrapped up in cowardice that he could never properly consider it. Witnessing the "monolithic patriotism" that accompanied that conflict, the idea of pacifism started to dawn on him.

Later in life, Isherwood said that he'd never been able to grasp an idea except through people. The idea of pacifism was no different. The arrest of Heinz Neddermeyer (Isherwood's lover during his Berlin years) in 1937, and Neddermeyer's subsequent sentence of conscription into the German army, allowed Isherwood's own sea change to take place en route to New York. His rationale had been that since Heinz was in the German army and he could never kill him, he had no right to kill anybody. In his new life in the United States, he finally stopped traveling and found peace both in his writing and his spiritual pursuits.

Auden's Arrow: "I want to kill people"

W. H. Auden's own disenchantment went beyond the London literary scene. He wrote that all of the political activity British intellectuals had undertaken since 1931 amounted to nothing, except for the money they had raised for humanitarian purposes.

During the 1930s Auden's politics and beliefs had been largely static; it was he who was constantly moving. He traveled to Berlin to be with Isherwood; to Spain to contribute to the republican effort; to China to compete with Hemingway's Spanish reportage. With his arrival in New York, the opposite was true for the poet: he stayed in New York City while his politics and beliefs strayed all over the map.

Barely two months after arriving in New York, in March 1939, Auden was suddenly determined to go back to England, should war break out. By May, he had gone as far as to provisionally support the war. Contradicting this stance later in the year, Auden did some "spiritual exercises" to assume a pacifist position.

Later still, he would disavow pacifism altogether as he explains to Isherwood in the latter's' Diaries: "No one can be a pacifist who isn't trying to live Gerald's life. The truth is, I want to kill people." (Gerald Heard had converted to Vedanta, one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, and had become a disciple of the guru Swami Probhavananda since emigrating to California with Huxley in 1937). For two years Auden kept trying to convince himself of what path to follow and failing, only to try and try again.

Was There No Other Way?

In the United States, Huxley had intended to lecture extensively on pacifism but he spent much of the war years writing screenplays for Hollywood, including Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice and Charlotte Bront''s Jane Eyre. He became increasingly depressed that pacifists in Europe had failed to find a diplomatic solution.

Isherwood also found work as a screenwriter in California, and worked with Huxley periodically. He worked on the screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel The Hour Before Dawn, which depicted the genesis of a pacifist, a story the studio did not release during the war. It was reworked after Isherwood's writing had been completed, coming out in 1944 as a different story about a man who had overcome temporary weakness -- pacifism.

Isherwood spent most of his time during the War working at a Quaker hostel in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where he helped resettle Jewish refugees. He remained in Haverford after the United States declared war, classified a conscientious objector.

For his part, Auden taught at various universities during the war, but volunteered to go to Germany as part of the war effort, working for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. He interviewed German civilians to discover the effects of the allied bombing on their morale. Viewing the remains of Darmstadt, 90 percent of which had been destroyed by allied bombing, Auden said: "I cannot help but ask myself, 'was there no other way?'"

As the war progressed in Europe, Huxley, Isherwood and Auden found themselves increasingly under attack from the British press. All three men had high reputations by the time the war broke out. Their former colleagues saw them as abandoning leadership posts in wartime Britain.

Some felt that Huxley should have remained to lead Reverend Dick Sheppard's Peace Pledge Union in the early forties, but Huxley thought his efforts would have more impact in America. Isherwood and Auden were vilified for doing "untold harm" to a literary-political movement that they had led before departing for the United States.

The attacks continued throughout the war. Many newspaper columns lambasting the three were written by pre-war friends and colleagues. Evelyn Waugh quipped at the time that W. H. Auden had fled to the States "at the first squeak of an air raid warning."

This abuse crested on January 13 1940, when Auden and Isherwood were named in a session of parliament as examples of "British citizens of military ageÉ who have gone to the United States." It was asked in that same session whether these citizens "will be summoned back for registration and calling up, in view of the fact that they are seeking refuge abroad?" Huxley was left out of these harangues due to his age, which was well above draft level at 46 in 1940. Isherwood and Auden were 36 and 33.

Nevertheless, the three men stayed in America. Huxley published his seminal essay Science, Liberty and Peace in 1946, in which he discusses the relationships between science, violence and nonviolence.

Auden, the least pacific of the three men, wrote the first poem of the Second World War, titled September 1, 1939 in response to the German invasion of Poland. As if to complete our picture of his own ambivalence and self-contradiction, Auden would later disown the poem, finding certain lines within it "modish and corrupt."


Aldous Huxley continued to write groundbreaking fiction and non-fiction until his death in 1963, exploring the frontiers within the human mind with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and mescaline.

Huxley, like Isherwood and Auden, attempted to become an American citizen in 1952. He had not agreed to a clause in the application asking new citizens to bear arms in defence of their new nation should the need arise. He was eventually called before a judge to explain himself. When the judge asked whether he would pick up a gun to defend his home and his family from intruders, Huxley said it would be impossible: he would never have a gun in his house to begin with. Some time later, when it seemed certain that his application for citizenship would be refused, Huxley withdrew it.

When asked, later in life, if the position of a pacifist is a difficult one to maintain, Isherwood explained:

"I don't bother about justifying it with a tremendous lot of intellectual reasoning: I just know that I personally ought to do this. And I hope I will have the gumption to go on saying so under any necessary circumstances."

And he quoted Huxley:

"Civilization dies anyhow of blood poisoning the moment it takes up its enemies' weapons and exchanges crime for crime."

These three men can be judged by their actions and by their writing. Both were conducted in the spirit of a pacifism that each embraced for a time -- Isherwood and Huxley for most of their lives -- and that continues to echo through such works as September 1, 1939 and Science, Liberty and Peace to this day.

Bruce Johnston is an Ottawa writer.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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