The Doors of Perception

Aldous Huxley by Edan Duarte

The Doors of Perception is a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley detailing his experiences when taking mescaline, a hallucinogen found naturally in the peyote cactus.

The book takes the form of Huxley’s recollection of a drug trip which took place over the course of an afternoon, and takes its title from William Blake’s poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’ Huxley recalls the insights he experienced, which range from the ‘purely aesthetic’ to ‘sacramental vision.’ He also incorporates later reflections on the experience and its meaning for art and religion.

Mescaline has been used in Native American religious ceremonies for thousands of years. In the 1930s, an American anthropologist Weston La Barre, published ‘The Peyote Cult,’ the first study of the ritual use of peyote amongst the Huichol people of western Mexico. La Barre noted that the Indian users of the cactus took it to obtain visions for prophecy, healing and inner strength. Most psychiatric research projects into the drug in the 1930s and early 40s tended to look at the role of the drug in mimicking psychosis.

In 1947 however, the US Navy undertook Project Chatter, which examined the potential for the drug as a truth revealing agent. In the early 1950s, when Huxley wrote his book, mescaline was still regarded as a research chemical rather than a drug.

Huxley had been interested in spiritual matters and had used alternative therapies for some time. The Alexander Technique and the Bates Method of seeing had particular importance in guiding him through personal crises. He had become interested in the spiritual teaching of Vedanta in Hinduism and in 1945 he published ‘The Perennial Philosophy,’ which set out a philosophy which he believed was found amongst mystics of all religions.

In the epilogue to his novel ‘The Devils of Loudon,’ Huxley had written that drugs were ‘toxic short cuts to self-transcendence. He changed his opinion after finding that mescaline was not addictive and appeared to be without unpleasant physical or mental side-effects. Further, he had found that hypnosis, autohypnosis and meditation had apparently failed to produce the results he wanted.

After reading a research paper on mescaline, he sent a letter to its author, Humphry Osmond, expressing interest in the research and putting himself forward as an experimental subject. His letter explained his motivations as being rooted in an idea that the brain is a reducing valve that restricts consciousness and hoping mescaline may help access a greater degree of awareness, (an idea he later included in the book). Reflecting on his stated motivations, Huxley had realized the ways to enlightenment were many, and prayer and mediation were techniques among others. He hoped drugs might also break down the barriers of the ego, and both draw him closer to spiritual enlightenment and satisfy his quest as a seeker of knowledge.

Osmond, had misgivings but eventually acquiesced to Huxley’s requests, agreeing to administer the drug himself. Osmond recorded his impressions of the famous author as a tolerant and kind man, although he had expected otherwise. He was still unsure of his decision, writing, ‘I did not relish the possibility, however remote, of being the man who drove Aldous Huxley mad.’ But, he found him to be an ideal subject. Huxley was ‘shrewd, matter-of-fact and to the point’ and his wife Maria ’eminently sensible.’ Overall, they all liked each other, which was very important when administering the drug. Slow to take effect, Osmond saw that after two and a half hours the drug was working and after three hours Huxley was responding well. The experience lasted eight hours and both Osmond and Maria remained with him throughout.

The experience started in Huxley’s study before the party made a seven block trip to The Owl Drug store, known as World’s Biggest Drugstore. Huxley was particularly fond of the shop and the large variety of products available there. There he considered a variety of paintings in art books. Huxley’s poor eyesight manifested in both a great desire to see and a strong interest in painting, which influenced the strong visual and artistic nature of his experience. After returning home to listen to music, eat, and walk in the garden, a friend drove the threesome to the hills overlooking the city. Photographs show Huxley standing, alternately arms on hips and out stretched with a grin on his face. Finally, they returned home and to ordinary consciousness.

After Osmond’s departure, Huxley and Maria left to go on a three-week, 5,000-mile car trip around the national parks of the North West of the USA. After returning to Los Angeles, he took a month to write the book. ‘The Doors of Perception’ was the first book Huxley dedicated to his wife Maria.

The title was taken from William Blake’s poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.’

During his trip, a vase of flowers becomes the ‘miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.’ The experience, he asserts, is neither agreeable nor disagreeable, but simply ‘is.’ He likens it to Meister Eckhart’s ‘istigheit’ or ‘is-ness’, and Plato’s ‘Being’ but not separated from ‘Becoming’.’ He feels he understands the Hindu concept of Satchitananda, as well as the Zen koan that ‘the dharma body of the Buddha is in the hedge’ and Buddhist suchness. In this state, Huxley explains he didn’t have an ‘I’, but instead a ‘not-I’. Meaning and existence, pattern and color become more significant than spatial relationships and time. Duration is replaced by a perpetual present.

Reflecting on the experience afterwards, Huxley finds himself in agreement with philosopher C.D. Broad that to enable us to live, the brain and nervous system eliminates unessential information from the totality of the Mind at Large. In summary, Huxley writes that the ability to think straight is not reduced on mescaline, visual impressions are intensified, and the human will see no reason for action because the experience is so fascinating.

The book recounts his trip to the World’s Biggest Drug Store where he was presented with books on art. The dress in Botticelli’s ‘Judith’ provokes a reflection on drapery as a major artistic theme as it allows painters to include the abstract in representational art, to create mood, and also to represent the mystery of pure being. Huxley feels that human affairs are somewhat irrelevant whilst on mescaline and attempts to shed light on this by reflecting on paintings featuring people. Cézanne’s Self portrait with a straw hat seems to him as incredibly pretentious, while Vermeer’s human still lives.

For Huxley, the reconciliation of these cleansed perceptions with humanity reflects the age old debate between active and contemplative life, known as the way of Martha and the way of Mary. As Huxley believes that contemplation should also include action and charity, he concludes that the experience represents contemplation at its height, but not its fullness. Correct behavior and alertness are needed. Nonetheless, Huxley maintains that even quietistic contemplation has an ethical value, because it is concerned with negative virtues and acts to channel the transcendent into the world.

After listening to Mozart’s C- Minor Piano Concerto, Gesualdo’s madrigals and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, Huxley heads into the garden. Outside, the garden chairs take on such an immense intensity that he fears being overwhelmed; this gives him an insight into madness. He reflects that spiritual literature, including the works of Jacob Boehme, William Law and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, talk of these pains and terrors. Huxley speculates that schizophrenia is the inability to escape from this reality into the world of common sense and thus help would be essential.

The Red Hot Poker flowers in Huxley’s garden were ‘so passionately alive that they seemed to be standing on the very brink of utterance.’

The book finishes with Huxley’s final reflections on the meaning of his experience. Firstly, the urge to transcend one’s self is universal through times and cultures (and was characterized by H.G. Wells as ‘The Door in the Wall’). He reasons that better, healthier ‘doors’ are needed than alcohol and tobacco. Mescaline has the advantage of not provoking violence in takers, but its effects last an inconveniently long time and some users can have negative reactions. Ideally, self-transcendence would be found in religion, but Huxley feels that it is unlikely that this will ever happen.

Christianity and mescaline seem well-suited; the Native American Church for instance uses the drug, where its use combines religious feeling with decorum.

Huxley concludes that mescaline is not enlightenment or the Beatific Vision, but a ‘gratuitous grace’ (a term taken from St Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologica’). It is not necessary but helpful, especially so for the intellectual, who can become the victim of words and symbols. Although systematic reasoning is important, direct perception has intrinsic value too. Finally, Huxley maintains that the person who has this experience will be transformed for the better.

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