The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley (2004 [1954])

Photo of Aldous Huxley and his wife, Laura Huxley (c) LA Times

I wasn’t as wowed by this as I’d hoped to be, but I was more entertained than I’d expected, and I understand why it’s a classic of the genre. It’s basically just a trip report, in prose that is at times beautiful, at times funny and at times a bit of a ramble (see below for examples of each).

I loved reading about his trip experience, and thought that it’s something he renders with great skill, encapsulating both the gentle but persistent puzzlement and the astonishing awe of experiencing the mundane while under the influence of psychedelics. However, oftentimes just when I’d just be getting immersed the ramble would begin. It seemed as though Huxley felt he had to interject constantly to explain the thoughts and actions of his intoxicated self, and needed to show off his art history knowledge while doing so. Look, I’ve spent several hours on one trip in particular obsessively poring over a book of art prints, and it was unspeakably engrossing to the degree that every turned page meant a new cycle of emotions and existence and so I could completely relate to the experience!… but I still found the description here quite boring.

I suppose Huxley was trying in some way to share how one’s thoughts morph and move incessantly from topic to topic while tripping, tying the boring day-to-day stuff to matters of cosmic significance with extraordinary ease. But instead, it came across – to me, at least – as quite jarring and a bit pretentious, or performative, as though a trip could only be justified if it provided some insight into the minds of ‘The Greats’. There we’d be, contemplating the glowing, jewel-like beauty of a bookshelf when suddenly it’s time for a seminar on cubism. If the scientific/observer/analyst mode was not optional, I’d have at least preferred to be given the trip in its entirety, and then the analysis.

But hey, it’s really hard to write about a trip.

Now, one part of the explanation which I did enjoy was the stuff about spirituality and religion, in particular the term ‘Mind at Large’ which I think he maybe came up with. Regardless, I think that it does a beautiful job of speaking to a significant part of the psychedelic experience which is that dissolution, partial or whole, of the ego and a merging with the world. I call it the universe; others call it god; maybe you’ll call it Elmo. Huxley called it Mind at Large, and something about it just works. Your mind feels larger, or perhaps rather more accurately it is revealed that your mind is part of something unfathomably large; but also, your mind is at large – out and about, exploring, adventuring, far away from you, on a trip.

On the whole, however, I really could have done without so much about Goethe and Van Gogh and Homer, Boticcelli and Wordsworth, Meister Eckart and Rembrandt, Gestalt psychologists, Christ’s apostles and Chinese landscape painters. Not nothing at all! Just… less. Do less, Al.

So, yes, while I generally felt those explanations to be interruptions from the good stuff, I am nevertheless very glad I read it, if for no other reason than to appreciate Aldous Huxley appreciating the hell out of a chair’s legs, and descending into a fit of giggles while looking at a shiny blue car. All told, I’d say it’s an incredibly helpful introduction to the world of psychedelics, very reassuring to someone dipping their toes in (the worst that happens is he loses his train of thought a few times) and entertaining to someone with a few trips under their belt. It’s staying on my bookshelf as a light re-read on a future holiday or rainy weekend.

I skimmed Heaven and Hell, and finding it to be more of the same type of stuff I’d skipped over in The Doors to Perception (arguing that taking mescaline allows you to access the mind of great artists and people with schizophrenia, all of which I would dispute and runs counter to the narrative I prefer to adopt regarding psychedelics, i.e. normalising rather than sensationalising), didn’t spend very long on it at all.

Funny

“[A]long with indifference to space there went an even more complete indifference to time. “There seems to be plenty of it,” was all I would answer, when the investigator asked me to say what I felt about time. Plenty of it, but exactly how much was entirely irrelevant. I could, of course, have looked at my watch; but my watch, I knew, was in another universe.”

“[F]our bamboo chair legs in the middle of a room. Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, they brought all manner of wealth – the gift, beyond price, of a new direct insight into the very Nature of Things, together with a more modest treasure of understanding in the field, especially, of the arts. A rose is a rose is a rose. But these chair legs were chair legs were St. Michael and all angels”

“I looked down by chance, and went on passionately staring by choice, at my own crossed legs. Those folds in the trousers – what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the gray flannel – how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous!”

“[H]ow I longed to be left alone with Eternity in a flower, Infinity in four chair legs and the Absolute in the folds of a pair of flannel trousers!”

“We walked out into the street. A large pale blue automobile was standing at the curb. At the sight of it, I was suddenly overcome by enormous merriment. What complacency, what an absurd selfsatisfaction beamed from those bulging surfaces of glossiest enamel! Man had created the thing in his own image – or rather in the image of his favorite character in fiction. I laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks.”

Beautiful

By which I mean ‘parts where his efflorescent language and theoretical discursions didn’t bother me’.

“I took my pill at eleven. An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers-a full-blown Belie of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris. … At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation-the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence. … I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing -but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning.”

“I remembered a passage I had read in one of Suzuki’s essays. “What is the Dharma-Body of the Buddha?” (‘”the Dharma-Body of the Buddha” is another way of saying Mind, Suchness, the Void, the Godhead.) The question is asked in a Zen monastery by an earnest and bewildered novice. And with the prompt irrelevance of one of the Marx Brothers, the Master answers, “The hedge at the bottom of the garden.” … It had been, when I read it, only a vaguely pregnant piece of nonsense. Now it was all as clear as day, as evident as Euclid. Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden. At the same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it was anything that I – or rather the blessed Not-I, released for a moment from my throttling embrace – cared to look at. The books, for example, with which my study walls were lined. Like the flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colors, a profounder significance. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate; of aquamarine, of yellow topaz; lapis lazuli books whose color was so intense, so intrinsically meaningful, that they seemed to be on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention.”

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