The Doors of Perception by Aldous HuxleyPosted: July 19, 2022 Filed under: America Since 1945, art history, drugs Leave a comment
It’s 1953, Aldous Huxley’s in California. He’s close to sixty, a literary man who’s also made a good living as a screenwriter. A friend, one of the “sleuths – biochemists, psychiatrists, psychologists” – has got some mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote. He gives four-tenths of a gram to Aldous and we’re off.
What if you could “know, from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about?” That’s what he’s after.
The mescaline kicks in. Aldous looks at flowers, and the furniture. He looks at a book of Van Gogh paintings, and then a book of Botticelli. He ponders, in particular, the folds of drapery in the pictures.
I knew that Botticelli – and not Botticelli alone, but many others too – had looked at draperies with the same transfigured and transfiguring eyes as had been mine that morning. They had seen the Istigkeit, the Allness and Infinity of folded cloth and had done their best to render it in paint and stone.
Cool. He lies down and his friend hands him a color reproduction of a Cezanne self-portrait.
For the consummate painter, with his little pipeline to Mind at Large by-passing the brain valve and ego-filter, was also just as genuinely this whiskered goblin with the unfriendly eye.
Huxley feels an experience of connecting to “a divine essential Not-self.” Vermeer, Chinese landscape painting, the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, all pass through his mind. William Blake comes up, from him Huxley took his title. Huxley listens to Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Concerto but it leaves him feeling cold. He does appreciate some madrigals of Gesauldo. He finds Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite kind of funny. He’s offered a lunch he’s not interested in, he’s taken for a drive where he “sees what Guardi had seen.”
he comes down.
OK, says Huxley, ideally we’d have some kind of better mescaline that doesn’t last this long and doesn’t cause a small percentage of takers to really spin out. But: we’ve got something here. A possible help on the road to salvation. A substance which allows you to perceive the Mind at Large, to feel the connection to the divine superpower, what he calls in the next essay “out there.”
However, once you go through the Door In The Wall (Huxley credits this phrase to H. G. Wells) you’re not gonna come back the same. You’ll come back “wiser but less cocksure, happier by less self-satisfied,” humbler in the face of the “unfathomable Mystery.”
My friend Audrey who works at the bookstore tells me she sells a lot of copies of this book, mostly to young dudes. The edition I have comes with an additional essay, “Heaven and Hell,” which considers visionary experiences both blissful and appalling, and tries to sort out what we can from them. There’s also an appendix:
Two other, less effective aids to visionary experience deserve mention – carbon dioxide and the stroboscopic lamp.
Huxley finds these less promising.