Do you remember what you were doing the day Aldous Huxley died? Or C.S. Lewis? You don’t think so? Well, the odds are that if you were old enough to be laying down memories at the time, you do. Because it was also the day President Kennedy was assassinated.
The indelible experience of hearing the news is captured well in the opening scene of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Odessa File, as the announcement interrupts a song in mid-bar on our German hero’s car radio.
‘Jesus,’ he breathed quietly, eased down on the brake pedal and swung into the right-hand side of the road. He glanced up. Right down the long, broad, straight highway through Altona towards the centre of Hamburg other drivers had heard the same broadcast and were pulling in to the side of the road as if driving and listening to the radio had suddenly become mutually exclusive, which in a way they had.
In this way the shots fired in Dallas echoed almost instantaneously around the world, and plunged uncountable numbers into shock, grief, fear for the future, and reflections on mortality. It was the day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Later American singer-songwriter Dion, and after him Marvin Gaye, hauntingly sang ‘Has anybody here seen my old friend John? Can you tell me where he’s gone?’—because John F. Kennedy’s assassination did touch many millions as if they had lost a friend.
But virtually no one on 22 November 1963 realised—and relatively few realise even now—that that day also saw the departure of the two other major figures, who were also world-shapers in their very different ways. The deaths of Lewis and Huxley were mute, private events, only reported in The Times three days later.
Death had moved remorselessly westward to claim his scalps. Lewis died first, in his brother’s arms, a few minutes after tumbling with a crash from his bed at the foot of the stairs at the Kilns, his house outside Oxford, at 5.30pm. He was just a week shy of 65. One hour later—12.30pm in Texas—the 46-year-old President was shot. At the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, Huxley’s second wife Laura, leaving his bedside with his request for an LSD injection, found the doctor and nurses in shock watching the news of the assassination; Huxley died, aged 69, at 5.20pm local time, just under eight hours after Lewis.
Both Lewis and Huxley would have laughed heartily at the thought of the thoroughly worldly John F. Kennedy being translated to celestial glory.
Huxley was quietly cremated in Los Angeles on the Saturday and remembered by friends with a walk at Mulholland Drive on the Sunday. JFK lay in state in the White House and then the Capitol, where hundreds of thousands queued to pay their respects; and he was interred in Arlington Cemetery on the Monday in front of the representatives of 90 nations. With his assassination blurrily smeared onto Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, and photographers capturing his son John saluting the flag-draped casket that Monday (his third birthday), this was—to adapt the title of Lewis’s 1961 book—the most observed grief in history. Lewis himself was buried at Holy Trinity Church near his home on the Tuesday, but the hullabaloo over Kennedy’s death had prevented news of Lewis’s from reaching many friends, and it was a poorly attended funeral . His brother Warnie, apparently unable to face it, was elsewhere, blind drunk.
There’s no evidence that Huxley read Lewis, or that Kennedy read either—though his wife Jackie would certainly have read some of their books—but Lewis knew enough of Huxley to mention him in a letter of 1952 as an author of a future dystopia alongside H.G. Wells and George Orwell. The mental worlds inhabited by Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley—an Englishman translated permanently to West Coast America from 1938—were as mutually remote as their social worlds. Yet each devoted his energies to matters of universal concern, and together they form a curious triptych on the mortal condition.
The distinctions between the three men’s worldviews inspired a 1982 fiction, Between Heaven and Hell by Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft, in the form of a ‘Socratic dialogue’ in Purgatory. In this debate, Lewis represents ‘mere Christianity’, Kennedy modern humanism, and Huxley ‘Eastern pantheism’. Kreeft captures Lewis’s voice perfectly—or so Lewis’s friend George Sayer told him. I don’t pretend to know if Sayer was just being diplomatic, but I do know that Kreeft’s Kennedy is so far off-key as to suggest the author had no more interest in capturing character than in providing a plot. A devotee, Kreeft gives Lewis the big philosophical guns, and has him trouncing Kennedy and Huxley pretty comprehensively. I felt a similar dissatisfaction reading Jill Paton Walsh’s far superior philosophical novel Knowledge of Angels, in which the atheist Palinor progressively dechristianises the devout Beneditx and Severo.
If the men who died on 22 November met immediately after death, I agree that Lewis would have wanted to debate socratically. But he would have found Huxley unswayable in his mysticism—if indeed death had released Huxley’s spirit from the effects of the LSD administered by his wife in his final moments. Kennedy might have engaged for a while: he was always interested in philosophical ideas. But pretty soon he would have manfully picked himself up—as he habitually had over a lifetime of severe health problems—and hurried off to catch up with his dear dead brother Joe, or his even dearer dead sister Kathleen, or perhaps (if in a different frame of mind) Marilyn Monroe.
But let us return to non-fiction, the knowable world, and frankly earthbound thoughts.
The British historian and journalist Godfrey Hodgson, who read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, is my eyewitness to the events of the day in American history. His 16 books include All Things to All Men, which deals with the Presidency, and his 17th will be about JFK and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson.
Hodgson, who was then the Observer’s correspondent in Washington, D.C., was lunching there with his counterpart from The Guardian. ‘The radio was on, and as we were talking I heard someone say, “The President’s been shot.’ Hodgson jammed himself into a phonebooth for an hour, making arrangements for someone else to fly to Dallas while he covered the situation in D.C.
At Andrews Air Force base he stood beside National Security Advisor McGeorge ‘Mac’ Bundy as Air Force One landed with the newly sworn-in President Johnson and his predecessor’s body. Hodgson recalls: ‘Mrs Kennedy came down at the back of the plane, her pink suit covered in her husband’s blood—as she’d been encouraged by the Kennedy crowd on board not to change. Moments later, Johnson came down at the front of the plane and made a short, dignified speech—“I shall need God’s help and yours”—and just after that Mac stepped forward and handed Johnson a set of manila folders, which I assumed were the White House’s latest take on what was happening around the world.’
Another significant moment happened out of sight. To avoid attention, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother, had concealed himself in a skip. ‘When the plane arrived,’ says Hodgson, ‘he dashed up the steps and went in, and pushed Johnson out of the way and went past him to see his brother’s body and his brother’s widow. Johnson and the Johnson people were considerably affronted by this, so the Johnson people and the Kennedy people started off on terrible terms. The Kennedy people would never refer to Johnson as the President. When they said “the President”, they meant Kennedy.’
The unease in the partnership between the two Democrat clans was already widely known, and now gave rise to one of the earliest of the many conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination. Just the next day, a fellow journalist said to Hodgson, ‘Have you heard the joke: Lyndon Johnson isn’t deerhunting this season—because Lee Harvey Oswald has got his rifle.’ Hodgson is as sceptical as anyone that Oswald could have killed Kennedy alone and unassisted, but remains unpersuaded by any of the alternative theories.
Hodgson also covered the killings of Oswald and Jack Ruby: Kennedy’s death was like a comet trailing others in its wake, right down to the waiter who had served him his last breakfast.
It was also, in the popular construction, prefigured by the deaths of his elder brother Joe Jr in 1944, when the explosive payload of his plane detonated prematurely on takeoff from an RAF base near Norwich; and of sister Kathleen in 1948, when her private passenger flight went down in the Ardèche in France. In Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek argues that these experiences lent urgency to JFK’s pursuit of power, not to mention women. The deep-set learning difficulties of his sister Rosemary—ultimately lobotomised on their father’s orders—probably made a greater contribution to his capacity for empathy with others less fortunate.
Both Lewis and Huxley’s first bereavements came earlier in life, and surely bit more deeply. By another striking coincidence of mortality, each lost a 45-year-old mother in 1908, to aggressive cancer. Lewis recalled in Surprised by Joy: ‘With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life…. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.’ Not quite ten, Lewis was sent almost immediately from his Belfast home to a brutal English boarding school. Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that Narnia should so prominently feature children pitched suddenly into other worlds, as well as a delicious school revenge fantasy (The Silver Chair). And the autobiographical parallel is clear in the scene in The Magician’s Nephew when young Digory restores his dying mother to life with a magic apple—all the more poignant because Lewis himself could not do the same. His modest tombstone bears the line from Shakespeare that had been on his mother’s calendar the day she died: ‘Men must endure their going hence.’
Huxley, 14 in 1908, had been just settling in at Eton when his mother died. Julia Huxley left her son with a deathbed letter he kept all his life: ‘Judge not too much and love more.’ Near-blindness from an eye infection in 1911 cut short his Etonian schooling; a further blow came three years later with the suicide of his brilliant and athletic brother Trevenen. Both of these family bereavements appeared, disguised, in his novels. Huxley said his 1950s drug experimentation was an attempt to retrieve some childhood memory, but Nicholas Murray, author of the biography Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual, tells me: ‘It is more likely that it centres on the trauma of his mother’s early death.’
Huxley was exempt from military service due to his severe eyesight problems. His response to the deaths of serving friends was anything but religious. Rather, it’s a kind of communitarian version of the now-common pantheist idea that when we die our substance goes back into the cycle of physical life. ‘One way that people survive after they are dead is in the society to which they belonged and particularly in their friends. To look back is a kind of betrayal of the life entrusted to one: one must go forward. The best way of remembering them is not by dwelling on the past but the future.’
Through direct experience in their respective wars, Lewis and Kennedy each became close acquaintances with death. For Lewis, the horror was not a surprise, according to leading Lewis scholar Michael Ward: ‘He arrived on his 19th birthday in the French trenches and the front line. He knew it was going to be awful, so any slight lightening of the gloom he took as an uncovenanted boon.’ But Surprised by Joy describes ‘the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses’. A British shell fell short and obliterated his sergeant; Lewis, knocked out, had an out-of-body experience. ‘He looked down on his own body and the thought arose in his mind, “Here is a picture of a man dying,”’ says Ward. ‘That experience, he said, meant he understood what Kant meant when he talks about the phenomenal and the noumenal self.’
In plainer terms—for JFK’s brilliance was not in philosophy—a wartime scrape with death helped make the future President a phenomenon. During a night operation in the Solomon Islands in 1943, the patrol torpedo boat he commanded was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Despite injury to his already long-damaged back, he performed heroically to bring his crew to safety. To his father Joe Sr, bent on seeing a Kennedy son succeed in politics, it was all capital—as valuable as the multi-million-dollar family fortune that greased the wheels of power. JFK used his PT boat drama as an excuse to publish a book in 1957, Profiles in Courage, which won a Pulitzer and did no harm to his 1960 White House campaign.
Hodgson dismisses the idea that Kennedy’s war experiences gave him any significant surplus of insight or sensitivity, pointing out: ‘In 1960 almost all politicians would have had military experience. A lot of people were being killed in 1944, all over the place.’ But Kennedy’s experiences as a junior officer in the US Navy undeniably gave him a healthy contempt for the military top ranks—cemented in the first year of his Presidency after he let himself by guided by Pentagon ‘intelligence’ into the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Arguably it was this contempt for the top brass, more than anything, which was to save the world from a rain of death.
Kennedy was born in 1917 six weeks after Lenin returned to revolutionary St Petersburg. By October 1962, the world had so changed that Kennedy now faced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a standoff over Cuba which threatened mutual nuclear annihilation. Huxley told a friend: ‘If only [Timothy Leary] could get into a Summit Meeting and give some mushroom to the two Mr Ks—the result might be world peace through total lucidity and breaking out by both parties from the prison of their respective cultures and ideologies.’ In fact Kennedy and Khrushchev did bend the bars just enough to reach out to each other at the eleventh hour. Just as vital, however, was Kennedy’s 13-day rearguard action against the Pentagon hawks who wanted aerial bombing, invasion, dizzying escalation. JFK was horrified by the prospect of nuclear war; and so (behind a veneer of insouciance towards the deaths of millions) was Khrushchev.
Kennedy may have had a clearer sense of the horrors of nuclear war than the pacifist Huxley, the war veteran Lewis or most other people in the atomic era. Lewis wrote of the serious young anti-nuclear protesters of the post-war era: ‘Didn’t they know that, Bomb or no Bomb, all men die (many in horrible ways)? There is no good moping or sulking about it’. But Lewis’s realism about death’s inevitability follows from his childhood encounter with it. On the outbreak of the Second World War, he told friends wryly: ‘At any rate we now have less chance of dying of cancer’. On hearing an RAF chaplain vaunting the inner peace Christians can enjoy in the face of death, he countered: ‘No … death is dreadful and we are right to fear it … [It] is not a very little thing and it is horrible’.
Huxley seems to have even less recourse to consolation. On the passing of his friend Lytton Strachey, the Bloomsbury giant who wrote Eminent Victorians, he wrote: ‘How sad, sad, sad it all is; and with such a peculiar pointlessness and meaninglessness, when looked at from without.’ In 1930, the dying D.H. Lawrence stayed at the Huxleys’ home in France; Huxley wrote: ‘How horrible this gradually approaching dissolution is…’—and when Lawrence died he lamented: ‘a very painful thing to see an indomitable spirit finally broken and put out.’
But neither Huxley nor Lewis had any truck with the idea of super-extended life—and curiously each writer used a remarkably similar bestial image to express his disdain. Lewis’s version appears on the opening page of The Last Battle, and his name is Shift. Michael Ward provides persuasive evidence in his groundbreaking book Planet Narnia that The Last Battle revolves symbolically around the planet Saturn, whom Lewis in his 1935 poem ‘The Planets’ had described as ‘the last planet / Old and ugly’. Writing that ‘Lewis in this last tale lets Saturn deal out death in abundance, “bearing all his sons away”’, Ward comments:
As for ‘old’ and ‘ugly’, Shift the Ape is both: ‘He was so old that no one could remember when he had first come to live in those parts, and he was the cleverest, ugliest, most wrinkled Ape you can imagine.’ When Shift reappears in chapter 3 he is ‘ten times uglier’ than before. He tells the bewildered Narnians: ‘I’m so very old: hundreds and hundreds of years old. And it’s because I’m so old that I’m so wise.
Shift’s claim to great age reflects the imprint of Saturn, whose home is that ‘mountain of centuries’ presented in That Hideous Strength: ‘more and still more time.’
But all of Shift’s years have provided him with no wisdom about the timeless verities of Narnian creation; his wrinkles suggest he has simply used low cunning to defer his natural end. He puts on human clothes and human airs; but when death comes to Shift, he isn’t even given the dignity of being called an ape.
‘After that,’ said Edmund, ‘someone flung a monkey through the door. And Tash was there again. My sister is so tender-hearted she doesn’t like to tell you that Tash made one peck and the Monkey was gone!’
Shift has invoked Tash, a vulture-headed demonic power, only because he is too purblind actually to believe in him.
Huxley’s 1939 novel After Many a Summer provides an interesting parallel. I doubt that it is a source for Shift, but Lewis was so widely read that you never know, and there are similarities both superficial and substantial. After Many a Summer tells the story of Jo Stoyte, loosely based on billionaire William Randolph Hearst, who is persuaded by his snake-oil physician Dr Obispo that life can be extended indefinitely. Convinced that the key resides in the papers of the Fifth Earl of Gonister, an 18th-century English aristocrat, Stoyte employs an archivist to comb them for clues. The Earl’s diary records a breakthrough which has prolonged his youth for decades, though the recipe is decidedly unappetising: ‘the raw, triturated Viscera of freshly opened Carp’. The millionaire and his entourage end up at the Gonister ancestral home, flashlights scanning the rooms of a secret basement for the source of a foul stench. And then:
Beyond the bars … on the edge of a low bed … a man was sitting, staring, as though fascinated, into the light. His legs, thickly covered with coarse reddish hair, were bare. The shirt, which was his only garment, was torn and filthy…. He sat hunched up, his head thrust forward and at the same time sunk between his shoulders….
‘A foetal ape that’s had time to grow up,’ Dr Obispo managed to say. ‘It’s too good!’ Laughter overtook him…. ‘Just look at his face!’ he gasped, and pointed through the bars. Above the matted hair that concealed the jaws and cheeks, blue eyes stared out of cavernous sockets. There were no eyebrows; but under the dirty, wrinkled skin of the forehead a great ridge of bone projected like a shelf.
This Shift-like half-clothed ape, skulking in filth with his now equally simian wife, is of course the Fifth Earl, still alive at 201 thanks to the power of mashed fish innards. But Huxley’s scorn for the dream of defeating death is worthy of Jonathan Swift, and the satire is not quite finished. The book ends with the billionaire Stoyte considering the scene with famished envy and, abandoning the last vestiges of dignity, telling Obispo: ‘I mean, it wouldn’t happen at once … there’d be a long time while a person … well, you know: while he wouldn’t change any. And once you got over the first shock—well, they look like they were having a pretty good time. I mean in their own way, of course.’ For Stoyte, no price is too high for eternal life: it’s a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.
Kennedy’s deep health problems persuaded him he had little prospect of a long life, so he had better hurry and be doing. His spiritual outlook was inherited not from his pious mother but from his worldly father, a Catholic only for show. Privately, JFK felt that this earthly life is all we have. Godfrey Hodgson observes that this may have contributed to his reluctance on the brink of war over Cuba: ‘A man who believes that he will survive death in a nuclear holocaust is going to behave differently from a man who doesn’t. I once asked Mac Bundy whether he thought Jack Kennedy believed in life after death; to which he said, “Of course not, don’t be silly.”’
Huxley’s focus was on this life, too, yet he increasingly sought to penetrate beyond mundane appearances to discover what might lie beneath. From well before his critical faculties became fully formed at Balliol College, Oxford—in fact probably from the cradle—he had set out in the intellectual tradition of his naturalist grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, who first coined the word agnostic. But his 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza marked a shift towards mysticism: Aldous came to espouse Gottfried Leibniz’s 18th-century view that all great religions are reflections of a ‘perennial philosophy’, and to seek enlightenment on earth.
True to his scientific heritage, though, in the last decade of his life he sought to achieve this by experimentation—with the aid of psychedelics. His 1954 book The Doors of Perception, which recorded this attempt, later became a hit with the Flower Power generation, but Huxley scorned those who used drugs for purely sensual pleasure. After all, his prophetic 1932 novel Brave New World had long before predicted a society enslaved by the drug soma. Notwithstanding his own loftier goals, it is questionable whether mescaline and LSD gave Huxley the enlightenment he craved. Biographer Nicholas Murray says: ‘He envied people like William Blake who had these wonderful visions of alternative realities.’ Perhaps Huxley’s drug experiences achieved little more than mimicking the instant of oblivion that accompanies sexual orgasm, the ‘little death’ as he had called it in Brave New World and in After Many a Summer, where he wrote: ‘Like all the other addictions, whether to drugs or books, to power or applause, the addiction to pleasure tends to aggravate the condition it temporarily alleviates. The addict goes down into the valley of the shadow of his own particular little death.’
Lewis’s view of the meaning of life, in Michael Ward’s words, was ‘probably to love God and love one’s neighbour’. Among his favourite themes as a Christian writer were the afterlife, the hope of resurrection, and heaven itself: The Screwtape Letters ends with a patient going to heaven; most of The Great Divorce is set there; The Last Battle ushers the heroes and good Narnians in through the door. Ward says that all this ‘is unconventional in the depth of the imaginative attempts he makes to visualise heaven. He was a great fan of Dante’s Paradiso, but his own vision of the afterlife is less rhapsodically contemplative, and more active. It’s tasting beautiful fruits and running and never growing tired; being welcomed into the heart of reality and hearing the divine accolade “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and becoming a participant in the divine attributes—theosis, becoming a god, sharing in the divine life and becoming adopted into the divine family.’
The spiritual viewpoints of the three men are variously embodied in the moon. In Huxley’s Brave New World, inside a Westminster Abbey turned entirely over to worldly pleasure, ‘the sexophones wailed like melodious cats under the moon, moaned in the alto and tenor registers as though the little death were upon them’. And it occurs in the first reference to the novel’s drug of social control: ‘There is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon’.
But this association between the moon and trippy mindlessness would have seemed to Lewis to miss at least half the picture. Looking at the medieval cosmos in The Discarded Image, he identifies the moon as the very dividing line between us and the divine:
At Luna we cross in our descent the great frontier … from aether to air, from heaven to nature, from the realm of gods (or angels) to that of daemons, from the realm of necessity to that of contingence, from the incorruptible to the corruptible.
In The Silver Chair, if Michael Ward is right, the moon straddles both realms, as a symbol of mutability sinuously embodied by the Queen of Underland, and of the divine immutability which only the Eeyorish Puddleglum can stoically keep in mind.
Kennedy left America and the world moonstruck. He ramped up the Soviet—American space race in 1962: ‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ And Americans actually did it. As Ward points out, there is some reason to think Lewis would actually have been thrilled—the word of his gardener Paxford. ‘It was a pity that [he] could not have lived a few more years until the moon landing…. How thrilled [he] would have been if he could have seen the rock and dust brought back from the moon!’ On the other hand, Lewis once wrote that the colonisation of the moon would mean ‘The immemorial Moon—the Moon of the myths, the poets, the lovers—will have been taken from us for ever. Part of our mind, a huge mass of emotional wealth, will have gone. Artemis, Diana, the silver planet belonged in that fashion to all humanity: he who first reaches it steals something from us all.’ The Apollo journey parallels the hubristic Weston’s pioneering flight to Mars in Out of the Silent Planet, which, in transecting the moon’s orbit, violates the boundary between the human sphere and that of the celestial powers. Which is precisely what Kennedy intended by the moon mission of the Sixties: to transform ordinary humans into gods.
By the time of Kennedy’s moon speech, both Lewis and Huxley were freshly acquainted with death. Like Lewis, Huxley lost his wife to cancer; he said it was like ‘an amputation’. He remarried but was diagnosed with cancer himself in 1960, and then stripped of almost all his possessions and papers in a house fire. Huxley wrote: ‘I am evidently intended to learn, a little in advance of the final denudatio, that you can’t take it with you…. I took it as a sign that the grim reaper was having a good look at me.’ On his last visit to his childhood haunts he wrote, ‘How posthumous one feels’ (and shopping in London he asked, ‘Why do all the manikins look like Jackie Kennedy?’)
In an essay on Shakespeare dictated with great difficulty from his deathbed, Huxley reiterated his belief in the visionary life: ‘The world is an illusion, but it is an illusion which we must take seriously…. Our business is to wake up…. We must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it….’ But he was still averting his eyes from death, and his biographer says he approached the end in denial. ‘Death is one of the great unknowns too, and you would have expected him to be more curious, reflective, articulate about it. It wasn’t until virtually the day of his death that he realised the game was up.’
In stark contrast to Huxley and Kennedy, Lewis had long ago come to see life as defined by his Christian faith; and death had played a vital role in the process. His most recent biographer, Alister McGrath, reconfigures his father’s death in 1929 as a catalyst for Lewis’s shift to belief in God. The experience of tending his dying father was also strangely premonitory for his son, because the two looked so much alike: Lewis could see how he himself might look on his deathbed.
Lewis’s Christianity was strengthened and refined through further bereavements, including the loss of Charles Williams of the Inklings in 1945, who died during a perfectly routine operation at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. Lewis had gone there to lend Williams a book while on the way to the regular Tuesday morning gathering, at the Eagle and Child pub just down the road, of the Inklings, the literary circle that revolved around Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Williams. ‘I thought he would have given me messages to take to the others,’ Lewis recalled. ‘When I joined them with my actual message—it was only a few minutes’ walk from the Infirmary but, I remember, the very streets looked different—I had some difficulty in making them believe or even understand what had happened. The world seemed to us at that moment primarily a strange world.’ Lewis wrote to a friend at the time, ‘Death has done nothing to my idea of him, but he has done—oh, I can’t say what—to my idea of death. It has made the next world much more real and palpable.’
Lewis’s fraught response to the death in 1960 of his American wife of four years, Joy Davidman—from cancer at the age of 45 just like his mother—was recorded pseudonymously in A Grief Observed, with its famous opening line, ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.’ Ward describes it as ‘a whirlwind of sorrow, fear, regret, anxiety’ but adds: ‘It’s not just raw, unassimilated emotion. Lewis is partly, with an eye to his readers, giving what he thinks is an Everyman’s account of grief.’ It’s the closest Lewis came to losing his faith. ‘He entertains all sorts of dark ideas about God and meaninglessness, and whether his faith is all a house of cards that has come tumbling down. But in part four he’s beginning to recover.’ One of Lewis’s hopes for heaven was to be reunited with loved ones there.
Lewis nearly died of a heart attack in July 1963 and was even given the last rites. Michael Ward says: ‘He came round and half-jokingly said that, having been ushered up all the way to the gates of death, it was a bit of an anti-climax for them to be shut in his face and for him to be sent back.’ But some time before his actual death—from complications from an enlarged prostate—he told his brother Warnie, ‘I have done all that I wanted to do and I am ready to go.’
How to measure these men, 50 years on? Huxley’s star has been on the wane since his misappropriation by a hedonistic drug culture whose escapism and self-indulgence he deplored even before their zenith in the late Sixties. The English grave he shares with his parents in Compton, Surrey, has been neglected. Most of his 50-odd books, many hugely popular in their time, are now eclipsed by one. Yet that book, Brave New World, remains with George Orwell’s 1984 one of the great dystopian novels of the modern world, and for many the most applicable to a post-Soviet world of vast populations lulled to torpidity by consumer culture.
Lewis is now more than ever a name to conjure with, his Narnia books established as classics (and a film franchise), his works of theology bringing a devoted and perpetually renewed following, his overall work earning him a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner at London’s Westminster Abbey, to be unveiled on 22 November.
And Kennedy, whose grave at Arlington is marked by an eternal flame? Thanks no doubt to his assassination, he divides opinion as much as ever, his Presidency seen by some as the high water mark of liberal democratic hopes, by others as a whited sepulchre. You might say that by thus exposing our differences, he still helps define who we are.
But the manner of Kennedy’s going transfigured him utterly. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention nine months after his death, when his brother Bobby arrived on the podium to introduce a film about JFK, the audience stood and applauded for fully 22 minutes before they would let him speak. Almost overcome, Bobby finally managed to talk about his brother’s vision for party and nation. Then he enshrined him in words from Romeo and Juliet:
When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Footage of the event is all the more moving in the light of Bobby’s own death, in a pool of blood on a Los Angeles hotel kitchen floor, just four years later.
The idea of the dying god had once struck an acute chord with the young Lewis, who awoke to myth and ‘Northernness’ when he read Longfellow’s words, ‘I heard a voice that cried, / Balder the beautiful / Is dead, is dead…’ He later admitted he had ‘loved Balder before Christ’. In 1931, Lewis was persuaded by Tolkien that such myths were not ‘lies breathed through silver’ but fragments or glimpses of an original truth, ‘refracted light … splintered from a single White / to many hues’. So Lewis was able to reconcile his love of myth with his philosophical acceptance of God, and finally came to believe in Christ. And in Narnia Lewis created his own ‘refracted light’ of Christ, his own myth of the dying god, in the sacrifice of Aslan on the Stone Table—a reconfiguring of Calvary for a world of talking beasts.
Both Lewis and Huxley would have laughed heartily at the thought of the thoroughly worldly John F. Kennedy being translated to celestial glory. But William Manchester, in his 1967 micro-history The Death of a President, argues that Kennedy fulfilled the perennial roles of Balder, Osiris, Adonis and others, including historical figures such as Joan of Arc—betrayed by the French on 21 November, 1430. These are autumnal deaths to expiate the sins of a people and appease the heavens so summer might return. Such myths, Manchester argues, may be vestigial in the modern era, but they remain vital to the cohesion of a culture.
Through his entire political career, and most of all since his presidential campaign, Kennedy had capitalised on his relative youth and vigour and his apparent health, especially in contrast to his aging predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kennedy had in fact read about the myths of the young and sacrificial god in 1960, the year of the presidential campaign, in Mary Renault’s novel The King Must Die. If he had ever paid attention to the thought of posterity, he might just have wondered whether he could end up in Balder’s place. In classic Henry II style, he had turned a blind eye to CIA efforts to bump off Fidel Castro in Cuba, and as a realist he knew he too was certainly a potential assassin’s target.
But of the three who died that day in November, only Kennedy had no time to prepare. Soon, without a security detail covering his tracks and cleaning up behind him, his thoroughly dirty linen was being flung out for all to see. Hodgson recalls: ‘So much emphasis had been placed on how young and beautiful and vigorous Kennedy was, in a conscious contrast with Eisenhower; so it was interesting to discover that Kennedy had at least two and possibly three life-threatening diseases as well as an uncured sexual infection.’
Yet these revelations have done little to dent his myth. At worst, they have only served to polarise opinion. We’ve since seen similar transfigurations in the deaths of Princess Diana and John Lennon, whose considerable sins have been largely washed away by a flood of tears. As William Manchester asserts
What the folk hero was and what he believed are submerged by the demands of those who follow him. In myth he becomes what they want him to have been, and anyone who belittles this transformation has an imperfect understanding of truth.
Youth, beauty, apparent vigour and even the most arguable personal virtues may be sanctified by a sudden and violent death. And the fact that such a man paradoxically took on godhead for a while is proof that we continue to see death not just as an end, but as a doorway to transcendence.
What does the departure of these three men tell us? It would be difficult to argue that there was some divine purpose behind the conjunction of their deaths; easier, perhaps, to see it all as a wild coincidence and therefore as evidence of a chaotic and purposeless universe. Nor does it tell us whether C.S. Lewis truly went to meet his maker on 22 November 1963, or whether Aldous Huxley, aided by ‘LSD … intramuscular 100mm’ administered by his wife, passed through the doors of perception. What his assassination tells us about Kennedy is infinitely less valuable than what it tells us about our capacity to build myths in the face of mortality. It is surely in their achievements in life that we must really measure these men: the foundation of the moon mission, certainly, but also the writings of Huxley and Lewis which look beneath and beyond the world; and the 13 days in 1962 when Kennedy ensured the survival of that world in which we can continue to read them.
This is an expanded version of a piece that first appeared in Oxford Today, the official magazine of the University of Oxford.