When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.
It’s too soon to reclaim Nov. 22, 1963, for Huxley and Lewis, and reassign John F. Kennedy to a lower rung of historical significance, where some of us suspect his presidency belongs. But pausing amid this month’s Kennedy-anniversary coverage to remember the two British-born writers offers a useful way to think about the J.F.K. mythos as well.
Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.
For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.
For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.
In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth. …
What exhausts skeptics of the Kennedy cult, both its elegiac and paranoid forms, is the way it makes a saint out of a reckless adulterer, a Camelot out of a sordid political operation, a world-historical figure out of a president whose fate was tragic but whose record was not terribly impressive.
But in many ways the impulses driving the Kennedy nostalgists are the same ones animating Lewis’s Puddleglum and Huxley’s Savage — the desire for grace and beauty, for icons and heroes, for a high-stakes dimension to human affairs that a consumerist, materialist civilization can flatten and exclude. …
'It is a serious thing,' Lewis wrote, describing the implications of his religious worldview, ‘to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship.’”
Puddleglum and the Savage