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The Treatment

JACOB'S HANDS.\o7 By Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood (St. Martin's: 138 pp., $14.95)\f7

September 06, 1998|KATHERINE BUCKNELL | Katherine Bucknell edited Christopher Isherwood's "Diaries Volume 1, 1939-1960" and is preparing further volumes

The English-born writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood emigrated separately to the United States--Huxley in 1937 with his small family and with the Irish writer and broadcaster Gerald Heard and another friend, and Isherwood in 1939 with the poet W. H. Auden. Huxley settled in Hollywood as if by chance. He arrived with the hope of selling a film scenario he had written, failed in that hope, fell ill with pneumonia and then convalesced for so long that he decided to stay. Isherwood's arrival was, by comparison, fated. He was a childhood movie addict, and he had already worked on two film scripts in London. Also, he was following Huxley and Heard because he wanted to find out about their new lives in California.

All three men were pacifists, and they spent the war years in a contemplative vigil: studying Eastern religions, Christian mysticism and the lives of the saints; meditating with a guru they briefly shared; and discussing the forms of religious and secular love. So there is a certain spiritual grandeur to the preoccupations behind "Jacob's Hands," which Huxley and Isherwood wrote in the spring of 1944 as World War II was nearing its close. Some of these preoccupations are documented in Huxley's 1946 book "The Perennial Philosophy," a selection from theological texts weaved together with explanatory commentary.

Jacob is based on a hired man who had a gift for healing animals and who lived near the Huxleys at Llano, in the Mojave Desert, where the story opens. Huxley had been nearly blind since a severe illness as an adolescent, and his sight deteriorated until after his arrival in California, when he began practicing the eye exercises developed by W.H. Bates. In Llano, he experienced a quasi-miraculous cure. The clear desert light, home-grown food, outdoor work and few visitors all contributed to the completion of his American convalescence and to a partial recovery of his sight. He even learned how to drive.

Isherwood sometimes stayed with the Huxleys in Llano, and the story was devised there as a screenplay. The two writers shared a lifelong fascination with the subtle relationship linking physical, mental and spiritual health. Huxley and his first wife, Maria, explored nonconventional medical treatments, hypnosis and parapsychology; Isherwood shared their Viennese, vegetarian-diet-prescribing doctor, and he met at their various Los Angeles houses the hypnotists and mediums they befriended. Later, in the early 1950s, Isherwood emulated Huxley's experiments with mescaline (made famous by "The Doors of Perception"), though he never shared Huxley's belief in the visionary properties of psychedelic drugs.

Jacob's gift for healing is first presented as an innocent force of nature, an unself-conscious animal expression of physical love. Jacob is utterly without sexual magnetism (perhaps necessary for the censors) and without possessive will. Reluctantly, he is persuaded to lay his healing hands on the girl he adores, Sharon, a cripple. Once made whole, Sharon is off to Los Angeles to seek stardom as a singer.

Possibly Huxley worked on the treatment first and then sent it to Isherwood. The opening scenes have metaphysical purpose but seem schematic, and they are followed by a rather cliche-ridden join, as if neither writer took responsibility for the transition to the big, bad city where Jacob finds Sharon again. The Los Angeles lowlife scenes evoke Isherwood's affinity for the bars and brothels of the continental demimonde about which he wrote during the 1930s, both in his novels--such as "Goodbye to Berlin" and "The Last of Mr. Norris"--and in "The Dog Beneath the Skin," a vaguely Brechtian play on which he collaborated with Auden. Also, some features of "Jacob's Hands" resemble the fictional film script at the center of "Prater Violet," the novel that Isherwood was writing simultaneously during 1944 and that is itself about collaborating on a film script. But ideas that are probably Huxley's stiffly protrude from the treatment.

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