By John Garth

When JFK was assassinated on 22 November 1963, it overshadowed the deaths of Oxonians Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis that same day. Their views of life and death lead John Garth to construct an unconventional comparison of the trio.

Everyone whose memory stretches 50 years back remembers the moment they heard President Kennedy had been shot. Few, however, realise that two other major figures – world-shapers in their very different ways, and Oxonians both – died the same day. The shots fired in Dallas echoed almost instantaneously around the world. The deaths of CS Lewis (Univ, 1917) and Aldous Huxley (Balliol, 1913) were mute, private events, only reported in The Times three days later. 

Lewis died first, at 5.30pm after tumbling from his bed at the foot of the stairs in the Kilns, Risinghurst. One hour later (12.30pm in Texas) the President was shot. At the Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Los Angeles, Huxley’s second wife Laura, bearing his request for an LSD injection, found the doctor and nurses watching in shock the news of the assassination. Huxley died at 5.20pm local time just under eight hours after Lewis.

Americanist Godfrey Hodgson, (Magdalen, 1952)  is currently working on a book about JFK and Lyndon B Johnson. Hodgson heard the newsflash while lunching with a fellow correspondent. At Andrews Air Force Base he stood beside National Security Advisor McGeorge ‘Mac’ Bundy as Bobby Kennedy pushed past the newly sworn-in LBJ onto Air Force One, and Jackie Kennedy emerged from the plane in her blood-spattered pink suit. The next day, a fellow journalist said to him: “Have you heard the joke? Lyndon Johnson isn’t deer-hunting 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 the many conspiracy 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 and his sister Kathleen (Joe died in 1944 when the explosive payload of his plane detonated prematurely; Kathleen in 1948 when her flight went down in the Ardèche). In Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, Robert dallek argues that these experiences lent urgency to JFK’s pursuit of power, not to mention women.

Both Lewis and Huxley’s bereavements came earlier in life, and surely bit more deeply. Each lost a 45-year-old mother in 1908, to aggressive cancer. Lewis, just shy of ten, was sent almost immediately from his Belfast home to a brutal english boarding school. Perhaps unsurprisingly, narnia features children pitched suddenly into other worlds, as well as a delicious school revenge fantasy (The Silver Chair). And in The Magician’s Nephew young Digory poignantly restores his dying mother to life with a magic apple. 

Huxley, at 14, had been just settling in at Eton when his mother died; a further sad blow came six years later with the suicide of his brother trevenen. Both losses appeared, disguised, in his novels. Huxley said that his 1950s drug experimentation was an attempt to retrieve some childhood memory, but biographer Nicholas Murray (Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual) believes, “it is more likely that it centres on the trauma of his mother’s early death.” And yet Huxley’s 1939 novel After Many a Summer displays a swiftian scorn for the dream of defeating death: a millionaire seeks the key to immortality in the archives of an 18th-century Earl, who is eventually discovered still alive at 201, “a foetal ape” skulking in a dank cellar. 

Huxley was exempt from military service due to severe eyesight problems, but Lewis and Kennedy, in their respective wars, each became closely acquainted with death. In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote of the trenches of 1917-18: “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 Dr Michael Ward, Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars and author of the acclaimed literary study Planet Narnia. “That experience, he said, meant he understood what Kant meant when he talks about the phenomenal and the noumenal self.”

In plainer terms – for the future US President was  no philosopher – a wartime scrape with death was central to the making of the phenomenon ‘JFK’. During a night operation in the Solomon Islands in 1943, the Patrol torpedo boat he commanded was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Despite his agonising back condition, 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 1955, 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 be 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.

In October 1962, he faced Khrushchev in a standoff over Cuba. Huxley told a friend, “if only [Timothy Leary] could get into a Summit Meeting and give some mushrooms 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 an insouciant veneer) was Khrushchev.

Kennedy’s reluctance meshed with an outlook inherited more from his worldly father – a Catholic for show – than from his pious mother. “A man who believes that he will survive death in a nuclear holocaust is going to behave differently from a man who doesn’t,” hodgson observes. “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, but he increasingly sought to penetrate beyond its mundane appearances. The subject of an anniversary conference last month at his college, Balliol, he started out in the intellectual tradition of his naturalist grandfather TH Huxley, who had coined the word ‘agnostic’. But Eyeless in Gaza in 1936 began a shift towards mysticism: Aldous came to espouse Leibniz’s view that all great religions are reflections of a ‘perennial philosophy’, and to seek enlightenment on Earth. 

His 1954 book The Doors of Perception recorded his attempt to achieve this with the aid of psychedelics. It later became a hit with the Flower Power generation, but Huxley scorned those who sought the ‘little death’ of temporary oblivion in narcotics. After all, his prophetic Brave New World had long before predicted a society enslaved by the drug soma. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether mescalin and LSD gave Huxley the enlightenment he craved. “He envied people like William Blake who had these wonderful visions of alternative realities,” says Murray. After being diagnosed with cancer in 1960, Huxley 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,” Murray adds. “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 – who gets a memorial stone at Poets’ Corner on 22 November – came to see life as defined by his Christian faith. Biographer Alister McGrath (Wadham, 1971; CS Lewis - A Life: Eccentric genius, reluctant prophet (2013)) views Lewis’ father’s death in 1929 as a catalyst for his belief in God. His fraught response to the death in 1960 of his wife Joy Davidman – at 45, from cancer – was recorded in A Grief Observed. Ward describes it as “a whirlwind of sorrow, fear, regret, anxiety” but also an attempt to give an everyman’s account of grief. “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.” Lewis devoutly hoped to be reunited with loved ones in Heaven. He knew death itself was dreadful. But some time before his own – from complications from an enlarged prostate – he told his brother, “I have done all that I wanted to do and I am ready to go.” 

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…” In his Christian 10 apologetics, he admitted he had “loved Balder before Christ”. And in Narnia he had created 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. 

William Manchester, in his best-selling 1967 book The Death of a President, argues that Kennedy fulfilled the perennial roles of Balder, Osiris and others: autumnal deaths to expiate the sins of a people and appease the heavens so summer might return. Subsequent revelations – that the President was a serial philanderer battling his  near-crippling back troubles with the aid of an impressive pharmacopia of drugs – have only served to polarise opinion. Yet youth, beauty, apparent vigour and even the most arguable personal virtues may be sanctified by a sudden and violent death.

Of the three who died that same day, Kennedy alone had no time to prepare. Yet the manner of his going transfigured him utterly. What does the departure of these three men on the same day tell us? Not whether CS Lewis truly went to meet his maker, or whether Aldous Huxley, aided by LSD 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 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.