They died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. 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 JFK 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.
Two passages from their work illustrate this point — that comfort purchased by sacrificing transcendence might not be worth the cost. The first comes from Lewis’ Narnia novel “The Silver Chair,” in which a character named Puddleglum confronts a queen who has confined the heroes in an underground kingdom, and lulled them with the insistence that the underground world is all there is — that ideas like the sun and sky are dangerous wishful thinking, undermining their immediate contentment.
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things,” Puddleglum replies — “trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones ... We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”
The second comes from the end of “Brave New World,” when a so-called “Savage” raised outside the dystopia confronts its presiding “Controller,” Mustapha Mond. The Savage lists everything that’s been purged in the name of pleasure and order — historical memory, art and literature, religion and philosophy, the tragic sense. And Mond responds that “these things are symptoms of political inefficiency,” and that the comforts of modern civilization depend on excluding them.
“But I don’t want comfort,” the Savage says. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Which brings us back to that notorious sinner John F. Kennedy. 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’ 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.
And one can believe JFK is a poor vessel for these desires, and presidential politics the wrong place to satisfy them, without wishing they would disappear.
“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.”
It is obviously a serious mistake, from this perspective, to deify someone prematurely or naively, as too many of Kennedy’s admirers have done.
But it’s a much greater mistake, the two writers who entered eternity with JFK would argue, to seek a brave new world with no heights or depths, no room for divinity or heroism anymore.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.