I came to this project, not long after I formally retired from academic life. By then I had already become disillusioned with the shackles which my own discipline (psychology) has placed on any serious attempt to understand our plight as human beings. My friendship with the late Svetlana Boym had awakened me to the marvellous possibilities of opening oneself to the mysterious and artistic delights of existence. Some of her influence, for me pervades these pages. In writing about Francis in the wake of Svetlana’s own death I have been led to appraise/reappraise the place which the dead have in the lives of those of us who are still here. That too, had time and space permitted could easily have found its way into the book for much greater consideration. Nevertheless, we have chosen to make one of the central themes of the book the subject of how ancestral voices may exert an intellectual and emotional embrace that extends beyond the lifespans of their original bearers and act as carriers of memory beyond the physical brains of descendants. To see memory as a social and collective endeavour, not necessarily planned as such, and which is formed through relationships, both horizontal and vertical in time. In one sense the Huxley dynasty provides a template for how other writers may and social scientists may approach the matter.
I think Francis was asking big questions – some of them the same as I have asked throughout my life. In that respect, getting to grips with his life and work has contributed further to my own understanding of the unpredictable contingencies that we have to contend with in life, and how great a privilege it is to be alive and share this time with others.
My own Amerindian heritage – my father was born in Guyana – has meant that delving into the anthropology of the peoples of the Amazon has been particularly meaningful – so too getting to grips with the pernicious influences of the English class system – from an insider perspective. Francis’ social background was very different to my own. In the course of writing this book I have come to have a greater sympathy for how the public-school system adversely shapes the lives of those who journey through it. On this I’ll say no more and hope that the book says what needs to be said in that arena.
Finally, though not in our acknowledgments, we must thank the man himself, the late Francis Huxley, who never dreamt of this book, but made possible the very real privilege of writing it.
My experience in researching for this biography was obviously manifold. Early on we made a decision that I would be addressing the biographical aspects of Francis Huxley’s life whilst Ron would examine Francis’ published output. Being neither a native speaker nor writer, I was to be free to write as idiosyncratic and uncensured about what we had discovered about Francis’ life. Ron would be the native writer who would mould this into a more conventional narrative form.
As a first-time biographer, the feeling was to approach this as both a detective and a scholarly researcher, and in my particular case, having been Francis’ apprentice and student as of 1976, becoming a friend by 1980, and he becoming our first child’s godfather, in January 1982, the bonds of familiarity were stronger. Lady Huxley jokingly wrote in a dedication to her first book, given to me: “for Theo, late adopted Grandson, from a Traveller in vanishing Africa.” August 1982.
I was seen by some as a kind of ‘Boswell’ to Francis, having already compiled the Festschrift for his 70th birthday. Yet I am certain Ron and I came to write this book coincidentally. It’s true, that Michael Williams, a close friend of Francis in his later years, wished, on the New Year’s Day gathering with Adele and the whole Itten family, on the last day of their visit to Francis, that someone would do a biography of this extraordinary person.
The seed was planted. After having written my obituary for the Daily Telegraph, and having helped David Napier to write his, I sent Ron my “Myth of Madness” essay to read with the comment ”There might be a book in the waiting.” We thus came to play with the idea to write this book back in March 2017. Until we finally got the contract with Routledge, we wrote several versions of our proposal, meeting in Hamburg to discuss our vision of this project, the emotional entanglements involved with the additional pleasure of writing a second book together.
From Francis, Ron and me, the project expanded to a wider circle, as we felt our way through the Huxley tribe, acquaintances, friends and colleagues. To the nearly fifty odd interviews, Ron and I conducted we added a wealth of material which we discovered in the two weeks we spent in Francis’ cabin and office in Wagnon Road. We organised this material as best as we could on both a thematic and temporal basis. In fact, while researching his archive we gave it an initial structure. We then went to New York, meeting up with Deirdre Bair, who generously offered guidance on the art and practice of biographical writing.
Writing about such an exquisite writer as Francis was a challenge. I had begun writing about his work, as long ago as 1979, writing up a case experiment interwoven with his own work up until then. There were moments of shyness, when peering into his address book for example, or reading letters to his mother, father, spouses, former lovers and dear friends. I could often feel him leaning over my right shoulder saying: “Itten, what do you think you are doing, nosing in my private life?” At other times he would put in an appearance in my dreams, and was forthcoming with comments, various hints and even sharing secrets, only some of which got to be told. In this dream land he gave me free access to his vacant flat in Wedderburn Road, and showing evident pleasure that I was actually writing this life of his with Ron. Ron and I had a postcard of the staff of Asclepios, where wisdom and science crawl over and under one another, reaching the peak of the staff, just as Francis described in his Dragon book.
There is much that we had to decide to leave out. Studies of laughter and humour in daily life, a facet of Francis Huxley’s behaviour that all who knew him regularly observed could also have been fruitfully mined. Writing about his library of over 3,000 books, including those of his parents, T.H. Huxley and Leonard Huxley. How these texts have influenced him as an avid reader and reviewer could easily have warranted further attention.
Being a Swiss native, yet having studied and worked in London for nearly a decade from September 1972 onwards, I felt a book like this could only be done in a duet with Ron, trusting, sharing and exploring the depth of experience and knowledge to be discovered. Our insights into the literary artistry and art of living of Francis were part and parcel of our own creative challenge to write a life story interwoven with our own ideals, ideas and histories. As in any project there are necessary limits and caveats. In my case these are bound to my own biography in which Francis played such a major part not only as mentor, fatherly friend and godfather to my first born, but also as letter writer and telephone conversationalist with forty years of exchanging laughter, pain and tears. When you read this book of ours, you might have hoped to read some more spicy stories than are included. Again, we decided to avoid any temptation to make the main points of interest those which serve only the devils of gossip and spectacle. Sleeping dogs can lie when there are more important tales and issues to explore. There are of course persons still living whose sensitivities deserve respect and our responsibilities as writers extends to their well-being and privacy.
I shed some tears in realizing what was done and what was not done, what is said and what we had to be silent about. I treasured my friendship with Francis and sharing this has enriched my friendship with Ron. Now the time has come to let it all go, to become silent as the book itself speaks.