Tim Pendry's Reviews > The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell

The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
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Although much-lauded, especially by those looking for a literary advocate for the re-integration of altered states of consciousness into our society and culture (a cause I tend to support on principle), this book has not stood the test of time very well.

This edition contains, in fact, two works – ‘The Doors of Perception’, an account of Huxley’s experience taking mescalin and ‘Heaven and Hell’, a somewhat rambling view of art from a somewhat self-appointed cultural Pontifex Maximus.

‘Heaven and Hell’ betrays itself as something to be expected from a famous European belles-lettrist with a bee in his bonnet, most of which is opinionated nonsense.

It is, nevertheless worth ploughing through (it is only forty pages) in order to reach and appreciate a curious set of ‘appendices’ on a variety of subjects that are genuinely informative and stimulating – albeit not really consciousness-changing.

‘The Doors of Perception’ itself is only fifty pages long and it stands as an excellent and well written account of how an elite member of the British literary class responded to an experience otherwise undertaken by Amerindian shamans and peasants and academics.

From that point of view, it is well worth reading although the responses are so embedded in the habits of Huxley’s class and expectations as to offer little insight other than that:-

- a) the experience is enormously interesting and

- b) there is cause to question the fear of it amongst our authoritarian bureaucrats (albeit with the caveat of caution as to its effects on the truly vulnerable).

Where the account breaks down is in the lack of detachment. This is a man desperate to believe in something and it shows.

The account in both texts is by a patrician who has already decided how he wishes to understand the plebeian and who is subliminally looking for a magical means of reasserting his cultural authority in a mosern age with which he self-evidently has little sympathy.

His snobbery about the modern world and about ordinary folk is palpable. But let us step back because there are insights in the text even if the account demonstrates little of the validity of Huxley’s subsequent philosophical and spiritual claims about his experience.

He also does rather go on a bit about art. Art is a 'thing' with the European intelligentsia but his comments, though interesting, do rather seem to appear like a set of non sequitors.

If he wants to imply that European artists were as high as kites when they produced their great works, then the implication is daft.

He experiences mescalin and then relates it to art but in a way that tells us a great deal about him (perhaps a taste for the magpie gaudy) but very little about art.

He also tends to try and suggest that all meaningful experiences are ‘as one’. This is pure ideology, perhaps a forced assumption resulting from his naive ‘perennialism’.

He asserts but does not demonstrate his points and thus by scattering his shot, he fails to make well the better single valid point that the common experience of taking drugs that alter mental states taps into very similar mental effects in all persons.

He and others take this as meaning that there is some greater reality ‘out there’ but this is not logically necessary. It could (and probably does) equally mean that chemical processes trigger very similar perceptual and ordering processes and imageries in all or most persons.

There is also a determined self-centredness in the account (which is reasonable enough as an account of the experience of taking mescalin) but not of its wider implications.

There is a curious passage on dreaming in colour where you get the sense (I may be being unfair) that he rather resents not dreaming in colour (I do dream in colour and got bullied by a teacher for stating that fact once) and so must diminish it as having meaning.

In this and in his comments on visualisation, you get the sense of his feeling disadvantaged, as if he was disabled, by being an intellectual. But Huxley is an intellectual even if he perhaps wants to be other than intellectual.

Mescalin enables him to leap across to the category of spiritual on one bound. He wants to be a Platonist at a level that is more than intellectual – not merely to accept the existence of a world of forms as rational argument but to perceive them as ‘real’.

Of course, the Platonic always was absurd except as belief but over two thousand years of Western cultural history have been in deep denial about this. Squaring Platonic reason and Platonic faith has been no less a task than squaring Christian revelation and reason itself.

What Huxley, in his experience of mescalin, gets absolutely right is that the majority of the population, in their need to survive through maintaining social bonds, live in a constructed world of perception that is not necessarily ‘real’.

Unfortunately, he assumes that the break-down of our tightly controlled perception of reality, that is required in order to survive in nature let alone in society, can, under the influence of drugs, result in access to a ‘true’ reality.

The greater likelihood is that all we are seeing is the collapse of the controlling socialised and historically constructed reality in favour of contemplative stasis, not Reality but a new version of a reality because Reality is simply not available to us simply because of how we have evolved.

The unreality of everyday reality does not require drugs or altered states of consciousness to expose it as such.

Existentialist reasoning will take you to the same conclusion without needing you to adopt the illusion of seeing the universe in a grain of sand, lovely though such an experience might be.

What Huxley is experiencing is as illusory as socialised or constructed habitual reality but he is grasping at it as ‘true reality’ (like so many before him) because he cannot live without meaning. Indeed, his elite status and education requires that the world have meaning.

In this Huxley is in the same state of torment as his grandfather Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, in observing a world where the traditional Judaeo-Christian God has no credible role.

Once you start questioning social and personal-historical reality, it is hard to stop and you are left with only three alternatives.

You can accept the social and one’s own history pragmatically and make the best of it (or become grumpy and depressed), create a new self and so contribute to creating a new social reality (the way of the existentialist) or deny one reality and replace it with another (the way of religion).

The ‘normal’ path has both self and meaning (though both are false in the sense of being constructed by others). The existentialist path retains self but contains no meaning other than the meaning inherent in the self he or she constructs – which is a tough path to follow for most people.

The religious mentality in rejecting the forms of society or in seeking to change society (and, in this, communists are religious) in a collective way must retain meaning but can only do so by rejecting self. ‘Selflessness’ is a virtue to the social but not to the individual.

In the 1930s, many elite middle class Englishmen who rejected the social ‘given’ might have chosen the new religion of Marxism-Leninism or discovered obedience to Rome or even (at a pinch) fascism but Huxley found his salvation in the perennial philosophy, loss of self and oneness in ‘nature’.

Experience of mescalin, of religious ecstasy and of many other altered states that break down the conventional ordering of perception in the brain (and Huxley is no fool in his understanding that whatever is happening has a brain chemistry aspect) lead to the grand illusion of all illusions.

A process which should be understood as permitting the illusion of universal consciousness is so powerful in its effects that the person who is not detached and who is sub-consciously searching for meaning must impose non-dualism on the experience, absolute and not contingent.

From a sense of personal salvation (legitimate enough) through the insights given in altered states of consciousness, the mind slips into an assumption that the world out there is actually ‘like that’, imbued with consciousness or some meaning that exists outside the experiencing brain.

Huxley gets into knots here because he does not want to depart too far from the social. He worries about detachment from society and lack of compassion and he argues (probably rightly) that use of altered states must in stable societies (he is a true conservative) enhances social virtues.

In other words, context is all. He clearly fears that he might be confused with some radical anarchy of drug-taking that is not bound by conventions and belief systems. The book was written in 1954 and he died in 1963 so he was spared the worst of the hallucinogenic chaos of the later 1960s.

In fact, existentialist thought also tends oddly to an engaged realignment with the social despite the equally dangerous misuse of the philosophy by the sort of libertarian who has not read or certainly not understood Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Sartre.

If anyone is misaligned with the social – and there is every reason to be misaligned with the social since the social is always marginally misaligned with functional reality itself as its pragmatism catches up with itself ...

... then an illusory non-dualistic search for meaning in the world and the phenomenological creation of meaning in oneself against the world are going to be eternally with us.

In such responses to social reality, the illusory essentialism of taking the ‘reality’ of personal experiences of altered states as a greater reality will always compete with the colder, harder detached pragmatic observation of social reality as intrinsically absurd if pragmatically necessary.

Perhaps Huxley most gives himself away at the very end of ‘Heaven and Hell’ where he pictures mental hell as a paranoid picture of human robots in a ‘system’. This is the madness he fears and it significantly make up the last paragraphs of the last Appendix. Believe or fear!

Huxley’s short text still represents an entry point for those who are determined on ‘meaning’ no matter what –and no matter that, as he notes himself, the loss of self in this universal consciousness will almost certainly create a passive observing conservatism towards the world.

But, then, an aging Englishman whose world was dying and who feared the philistinism of the masses, might naturally have been drawn to loss of self in a fantasy world induced by drugs.

Yet this is not an argument against permitting those who are disconnected from the world, who are unable to take courage and be critics of the world and of themselves, to take substances that alter consciousness and create the illusion of spirituality.

On the contrary, vast numbers of people are very uncomfortable in any given 'social reality’ (they may be in serious mental or physical pain) and most will not be in such a position that they can afford to revolt with any effect from their condition.

Rather than live in misery, the solaces of religion and of ‘altered states’, with experienced guides concerned for the safety of their subjects, may be vital to the survival of society, pacifying a depressed and anxious population and allowing the energetic to move forward.

So long as spiritual types are not significant as a class in the allocation of power and resources, and their guides, the shamanic and priestly class, do not become bureaucratised into agents of power as in Constantinian Rome, then the more spiritual paths that are permitted the better.

Huxley is merely asking for the freedom to withdraw from society into ecstatic contemplation in order to cope with it … and that freedom should probably have been granted to all in the West a long time ago.
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