There are two claims made for the Alexander Technique, during Alexander’s lifetime, by public figures, which stick in my mind. The first is by John Dewey, the leading American philosopher, who, in an introduction to Alexander’s book The Use of the Self (1932) states that the Technique “bears the same relation to education that education bears to all other human activities”. Dewey sees life as being about learning, and that learning depends on recognising our ignorance, and puzzling things out together. Learning is a social enterprise and the teacher-student relationship in the Alexander Technique lesson was, for Dewey, the focused essence of a learning situation – integrating mind and body, giving attention to the means, to the next step, finding, as he calls it “an act within our power”.
The second arresting claim made for the Technique came in 1941 when Aldous Huxley wrote a review of another of Alexander’s books, The Universal Constant in Living. Huxley claims that he knows “only two solutions have been discovered to the problem of bridging the gap between idealistic theory and actual practice”. One is the traditional mystic’s ‘technique of transcending personality in a progressive awareness of ultimate reality’. The other is the Alexander Technique which he praises, as would Dewey, for getting away from preaching, for not ignoring the body, and for concerning itself with means, indirectly approaching a goal. I think Aldous Huxley’s relationship to the Alexander Technique, all of seventy years ago, can still be of interest because of the very extravagance of the claims he makes. It touched something deep in his destiny and through the magnifying glass of his extravagance I think I can find a more modest but clearly defined assessment of the Technique’s helpfulness and purpose.
Aldous Huxley was born in 1895, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s champion and a great Victorian self-taught intellectual activist. As a teenager Aldous suffered a severe eye infection which left him with very poor sight for the rest of his life. He had over a year of severe incapacity. This followed the death of his mother and preceded the suicide of his loved and admired brother Trev. He soon, via Oxford, joined the aristocratic literary set. By 1934, when he first met Alexander, he had produced over twenty books and was seen as an enigmatic intellectual – cynical, witty but with a humane sympathy known only to his friends. Virginia Woolf describes him, at this time, as “a most admirable, cool, antiseptic, distempered, but humane and gentle man”. Huxley himself writes, just before he met Alexander, “I am more and more struck by the hopelessly primitive and uneducated state of our minds – utterly ignorant of all rational techniques for encouraging such essential states as concentration on the one hand and ‘decentration’ – relaxed quiescence – on the other… It’s a dismal story of wasted talents and unrealised potentialities.. and I come more and more firmly to believe that the most important task before human beings is the perfection of a series of psychological techniques for the proper exploitation of personality… We remain barbarously unplanned as individuals”.
This long quotation would show, to anyone who knows of Alexander and his Technique, that it is just what Huxley is looking for, but you perhaps can also get a hint of the way an idea or a method can take hold of him, at least temporarily, to the exclusion of all else. This was a crucial period in his life. He tries Yoga, he becomes involved in the birth of the Peace Pledge Union and finds himself starting to allow “the belief in a spiritual reality to which all men have access”. He associates the rise of nationalism, unwelcome to him, with a-spiritual humanism. His wife recognised the part his work with F M Alexander had played in what may be called Huxley’s conversion. She writes of the lessons bringing out “all we, Aldous’ best friends, knew never came out either in the novels or with strangers”. In the novel Huxley had begun in 1934 (before he met Alexander), a character modelled in part on Alexander is introduced. It is an autobiographical novel in which the hero undergoes the same process of letting go of scepticism and turning towards a higher meaning in life which Huxley was going through himself. A friend writes at this time of hoping that Huxley’s “unself-seeking nature” might “give him the courage to know himself, to cast aside his superiority and revalue his burden of knowledge, and to conquer contempt by compassion”.
“Eyeless in Gaza”, the title of the novel, is a quotation from a poetic drama by John Milton about Samson, blind and a prisoner of the Philistines and in despair, who goes through a series of meetings in which he overcomes both his apathy and his passion, only to take tragic vengeance by pulling down the pillars of the theatre in which he is being exhibited by his enemies, bringing death also to himself. Huxley, the almost blind and previously disillusioned intellectual, was discovering new access to creative energy, to light. Soon afterwards he left England to settle in America. You can see how the Alexander Technique came at a time of deep upheaval.
Within ten years he is editing an anthology of spiritual and mystical literature, The Perennial Philosophy, which is presenting his new preoccupation with a kind of seeing which recognises the limitations of language, a kind of knowing which depends on the knower. To quote from his editorial introduction: “Knowledge is a function of being. Where there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing… what we know depends, also, on what, as moral beings, we choose to make ourselves”. This tone continues right through to Huxley’s death and, again, I can see how it relates to the particular qualities of the Alexander Technique – about personality, choice and change. It is illuminating but in danger of burying the practical work of the Technique in grandiose generalities.
In fact, for Huxley, I think the Alexander Technique had an important role as the most immediate, physical image for the process of change he was seeking. A life-changing transformation such as Aldous Huxley underwent at the time he met Alexander had a deep and complex genesis in which the Alexander Technique played a necessary and readily identifiable part. His longing for “techniques for the proper exploitation of personality” was in part answered by his meeting the Alexander Technique and in part by his discovery of mysticism. This second path took him into the experiments with LSD and mescalin which he wrote about in the 1950’s – another passing cause which consumed his enthusiasm for a while, but which disappointed.
I think the physical groundedness of the Alexander Technique moderated the potential fanaticism of this searching intellectual, and kept his striving for non-attachment in touch with life. “I will have nothing to do with a perfection that is annihilation” he had written in 1929 and I think the hidden spirit of humane tolerance, which others saw beneath the cleverness, was nurtured, as Huxley became more focused on personal development, by his practice with the Alexander Technique. I will end with one story of Confucius, which Huxley included in The Perennial Philosophy in the section on non-attachment, a story which also keeps its feet on the ground, and shows how the Alexander Technique might appropriately be compared to the path of the mystic, in that it was a first step, a means to be attended to. Confucius offers an image for someone seeking to overcome self “Look at that window. Through it an empty room becomes bright with scenery; but the landscape stops outside. In this sense you may use your ears and eyes to communicate within, but shut out all wisdom (in the sense of conventional, copybook maxims) from your mind”.
Huxley was seeking this state to his last days, in which he wrote “We must learn to come to reality without the enchanter’s wand and his book of the words. One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time”. To return to the review I mentioned at the beginning, it is clear to me how easy this giant of a restless intellect found it to get lost in idealistic theory. The Alexander Technique was for him a bridge between “idealistic theory and actual practice”, as mundane as Confucius’ simple window, a technique to go beyond words and wisdom, to let in the light.