“Scientist Huxley’s whereabouts a mystery,” is the front-page title in a Brazilian newspaper. Where is Francis Huxley? Lost, it seems, in the Brazilian Jungle. All we know is, that together with the French linguist, Boudin and Brazilian Anthropologist, Darcy Riberio, he was on his way from Belem, via Pará, up the Gurupi river in the dense Amazonian rain forest, to conduct his first ethnographic fieldwork with the Ka’apor - descendants of the Tupinamba tribes – their name literally means forest dwellers. So, had he now vanished without a trace?
According to the newspaper Folha Verspertina, on the 14th November 1951, Huxley had last been seen on October 24th. The National Directorate of Serviço de Proteção aos Indios (SPI) sent a telegram to the Regional inspectorate, begging them to inquire as to the whereabouts of the 28-year-old English ethnologist. It had all begun so well. When Huxley came to Brazil in November 1950, the recipient of a government grant to pursue his sociological and anthropological interests, his arrival made the Sao Paulo press. Coming from the renowned, “noble” British traditional University, Oxford, as the press had it, to conduct research with an Amazonian tribe. ‘A Gazeta’ interviewed signor Francis Huxley, in the company of Mr. Donald Darling, press attaché of the British Consulate. He is presented as an inquisitive spirit, the nephew of one of the most sagacious British writers of our time, Aldous Huxley, and son of the famed natural scientist, first Director General of UNESCO, Julian Huxley. The tone is clearly set. This young Huxley, belonged to the fourth generation of the intellectual family founded by T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), following others who had made their mark in biology, zoology, botany, horticulture, literature, art and exploration.
Given that ‘Huxley’ was such a household name, it is still something of a surprise that Francis Huxley made such headlines. His name, it is true, had already appeared in English newspapers after his expeditions to the Arctic and Gambia. He had studied the Tupinamba tribes of Brazil, for his anthropological B.Litt. at Oxford University and before embarking on this journey, he had been cordially invited by the Brazilian Government, aware of his Tupi-Literature research, to hear lectures in anthropology and sociology at São Paulo University. “Why did you choose South America and specially the Tupi for your field of research?” one journalist asked. Huxley replied:
To be honest, nowadays when anthropology in Europe is concerned, tribal peoples in Africa, Oceania and North America are favoured. This makes me tired, always to hear and read the same. That is why I have decided to research the natives of South America and chosen the Tupi, about whom the most was written so far.
He went on to say, in front of a sizeable gathering, that he did not regret his decision. Following his disappearance, weeks passed with no information. Fortunately, ‘O Globo’ the third largest daily newspaper in Brazil would eventually report: “Surgiram da Mata!” – ‘they emerged from the forest!’ Since his vanishing act had caused a veritable sensation, it was important for the press to report that this unsettling riddle was now solved. All three companions, Riberio, Boudin and Huxley stayed for six months in the region of Gurupi and in various villages of the Urubu tribes. They emerged richer for their experience, replete with copious research data and numerous colourful tribal artefacts. O Globo reported them safe and sound in Belem do Para, carrying a charming picture of a young, smart looking Huxley, adorned with a tie and, as was his usual habit, quite the English gentleman, sporting a tweet jacket.
In accord with the level of interest generated, Huxley and his fellow travellers into the unknown, gave an evening of talks, spiced with music by Villa-Lobos and a showing of the film ‘Uirapuru’ to an invited audience of The Institute of Anthropology of Pará, and the North American Consulate. News of their return from the forest, had attracted a sizeable and varied crowd. One journalist remarked that he found Huxley to be modest and slightly reserved when talking about his father and his uncle, though otherwise ably, and in an easy-going fashion, entertaining his listeners about his experiences with the natives. His comfortable ways with words would become a hallmark of his social presence and a feature of the narrative anthropology he was to introduce, which deftly navigated the rivers of his own life as they merged into the flowing tropical waters of the people he encountered in the rainforest.
Francis Huxley was a complex figure. This, no doubt is true of us all, as we necessarily confront the times and tides within which we move. As an exercise in biography, we hope our exploration of his life and work will have something to say about that general truth. We have no interest in fixing or identifying an essential ‘Huxley’ who will emerge as a constant figure in all periods of his life, rather, we wish to convey something of the journey – emotional, spiritual and intellectual – undertaken through a long and eventful life - and the various conflicts, personal, familial, and epistemological, he sought to resolve along the way. We have therefore set out to write this in terms of two interlocking strands. The first of these comprises the ‘facts of life’ – detailing the Huxley family background, setting out the key relationships (familial, intellectual and romantic) – and institutions (educational, professional and vocational) through which his life was navigated. The second strand is chiefly concerned with the anthropological and psychotherapeutic dramas which he grappled with, both practically and as a writer intellectually. These are necessarily not entirely independent of one another.
To achieve an appropriate balance of wisdom and knowledge is difficult. One’s heart and voice are seldom at peace. As members of the ‘psy’ professions – we will both be concerned with the means by which Huxley sustained (or failed to sustain) his wellbeing. Our efforts to understand the man must inevitably seek to map the external world he lived in – born as he was into the turbulent 1920s - with the inner worlds which developed in response to it. We must therefore contend with the forces and expectations which saturate, and continue to saturate, the social class landscape of the country in which he was raised.
We each have our own different relationship to this landscape, and so there is always more than one way to tell a story and there will be truths and partial truths that go untold or unheard as a result. Facts are always dependent upon a context for their life and understanding. We all enjoy a diverse number of lives – public, private, official and secret, approved and disapproved, fulfilled and unfilled. While acknowledging this, we can interrogate the record of Francis Huxley’s life as we know it and provide an interpretive account of what propelled change or maintained stasis in the interlocking inner and outer worlds of the man - what truths were successfully reckoned with and which were not. Hermione Lee, wrote that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” With this in mind, we hope we will document the many changes in Huxley’s life in a manner which will raise deep questions about the influences –conscious and unconscious - which not only shaped his life and how he sought to make sense of it, but course through the rivers of every person’s life. This is, consequently, a biography which asks questions about the society Huxley lived in and whose influences still exact their share of misfortune. In entering the waters that flowed through the Huxley dynasty, then we think of the present work, with its central examination of the intergenerational forces of family and class, as actively disturbing that river. We hope our readers will feel enlightened by what we offer.
Francis Huxley’s life is unavoidably entwined with that of his ancestors. Often, through no fault of his own, he found himself ensnared in the traps that come from being born into a famous family. What specific burdens did this entail and how widespread in the family where they? We like to think that his efforts to make sense of this intergenerational trap in part accounts for his narrative wit, as well as his honest and empathic approach to others – an aspect of his character which would lead to his attempted professional rapprochement between anthropology and psychotherapy and situate him at the heart of the 1960s counter-culture, in the company of R.D. Laing.
Huxley was at his best when juggling with how human life has a cultural significance yet can never be wholly defined by it, nor its wholeness rendered entirely amenable to a conclusive narration, try as we might. The totality of life is as elusive as the final interpretation of a text. Francis remained aware of the shadows cast by our own body, both in the full light of its living and when the living processes themselves wind down and pass into the repositories of cultural memory. He, after all, grew up in the often-terrifying shadows of his forebears. The creative tension between the living and the dead animated much of his theoretical thinking and his relationships to loved ones and foes alike – and in his many love affairs the reverberations were striking. Francis was in some ways a master in the art of cultivating love but not in dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which assailed those relationships.
Francis Huxley honed his story-telling skills through a graphic imagination, revealing just enough detail to wet a listener’s appetite before exercising his seemingly inexhaustible powers of suggestion to bring closure to the dramatic narrative. The denouement of the tale would often bring the heart of the story into an iconographic familial focus – as his family was an endless source of the strange, the bizarre, and the unconventional. His favourite maxims - “Beauty is truth and truth is beauty,” was one, another “the Poet is no liar, for nothing he affirms” – signal to us that between the artistic and scientific poles set out by his illustrious family members he was a man more comfortable with the unpredictable and wayward truths of the arts than the sciences.
His humour carried him far from his more serious anthropological and practical work, writing his own idiosyncratic biography of Lewis Carroll - The Raven and The Writing Desk - which exemplified the operation of his own meticulous and playful intelligence as much as it illustrated the life and riddles of Charles L. Dodgson. In terms of writing style, elegance, sagacity, tonality and flow, he marched to his own tune – adhering to his own rulebook, that if one takes care of the sense, “the sounds will take care of themselves.” To his friends he was a witty and gifted master of story-telling, able to summon at the appropriate moment a refined dose of raucous laughter. But the laughs were punctuated by much sadness and the weight of family silences and intergenerational mores were never far away.
When once, he asked his mother Juliette, why she did not let him know earlier about Aunt Margret, and her lesbian nature, she said: “Oh Francis, we do not talk about these things in our family. Please don’t ask, you would not want to know the answer.” Answers, both revealed and concealed, Huxley came to know, had their place in the human heart. We know now, that Francis Huxley was hungry for knowledge, enjoyed the fun of knowing, and was partial to gossip, for this is part of the emotional fabric which binds a community together. Let him have here, in this prelude, almost the last word: “If some of it now adds up to anything, this can only be coincidence, whatever we may like to mean by the word.”
Naturally we hope that the words which follow do add up to something – and give more than a flavour of a fascinating, fully lived, joyful, and on occasion, a painful and difficult life.
London and St Gallen