Sunday, November 07, 2004

Book Review: Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

I've always disliked the divisive saw that starts out "there are two types of people in the world, those who X and those who Y," with as many possibilities as there are endeavors or lifestyles. Usually it's just another harmless way to pronounce membership of some group, as always who you're not as much an identifying factor as who you supposedly are.

One experience that regularly seems to elicit this type of response is an LSD trip. It is so unlike anything the person is likely to have ever done before that it seems natural to distinguish themselves as being qualitatively different than how they were before and from others who haven't done it. Though it does possess that annoying exclusionary insinuation and an assumption of having some special insight into life's mysteries.

It has some merit though, as you do feel as though you have glimpsed something you never thought possible, both in terms of sensory perceptions and imagination regarding philosophical considerations. While isolated in your own mind, the power of feeling these thoughts is real though undoubtedly any attempt to record them in that state would result in gibberish when viewed or listened to later. This fundamental rearranging of the apparent consistency of the world around us, even only for those 12-24 hours, and the realization that it is possible does result in this regular description being offered up by those who have tried the drug.

It has now receded so far into the past that it would be impossible to ever sit in a reverie and recapture the actual state that I experienced at that time, as it is sometimes possible with other emotions. It is that remembrance of thinking at the time that I would never be the same that has remained.

There have been a number of popular books written on the subject of LSD, both historical renditions examining the early development and usage of the drug as well as descriptive accounts recounting the details of various individual experiences. Probably the best known of the lot is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe trailed along after one-hit wonder author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and his troupe of flunkies as they traveled around the US in a souped up psychedelically painted van, dropping copious amounts of LSD and evading authorities as new laws were enacted to deal with the arrival of the drug. Wolfe did a stunning job of capturing an entertaining feel for the time period (early 1960's) as well as the thoughts and feelings that can accompany the experience of trying the drug. Far from only romanticizing the characters and lifestyles described, he applied his usual razor sharp caustic wit in showing many of the inherent absurdities of the antics described.

Together with Kesey, Timothy Leary was another 60’s LSD celebrity who was noted for his public endorsement of the drug and also penned at least a few books on the subject. While the Wolfe classic tended more towards the social aspects that grew out of the popularization of the drug at that time, Leary concentrated on more dreary and deeper "spiritual" issues. At one point in Kool-Aid, Wolfe hilariously mocked the different types that were attracted to each following and detailed one encounter between the Kesey and Leary camps that took place at the mansion of some well-bequeathed societal dropout. The attempts to out-cool each other offered a perfect demonstration of how self-proclaimed satori cannot eliminate those annoying traits that afflict us all nor does it induce some universal brotherhood among the clods who habitually take the drug.

True to the 60's drug culture icon status they helped create for themselves, both fools fell into the trap than many people do and kept on plowing back fistfuls of LSD like candy, desperately trying to recapture the wonder of those first few experiences. Kesey especially rode out his counterculture icon schtick to the very end, endorsed a handful of embarrassing tributes to his acid tripping days while never producing any written work that ever approached One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in terms of acclaim. Leary too lived as a caricature until he passed away, latching onto any well-to-do hipster clique that would finance whatever half-baked project he was pursuing in exchange for the cachet he brought them. Any truthful account of the last years of both highlights their uninspired thoughts (though Leary is always mentioned as having waxed presciently on the advent of the internet...I think this is overstated somewhat) and general listlessness as compared to their earlier work and relative mental sharpness.

Aldous Huxley was another author and experimenter of LSD. Probably best known for his dystopian, tale Brave New World, Huxley penned a number of other lesser known books as well, including Doors of Perception, a slim volume that details one of his mescaline (a naturally occurring psychotropic drug, also known as peyote, obtained from small cactus plants whose effects are similar though not as powerful as LSD) trips. Doors of Perception is actually little more than an extended essay, though it often appears together with a longer more detailed discussion entitled Heaven and Hell. (An accompanying trivia note that always seems to go along with any mention of Doors of Perception is that apparently the American rock band from the 1960’s, the Doors, named themselves after the book.)

Huxley describes the sensory perceptions he experiences after having consumed the mescaline, drawing comparisons to the pureness of observations that he feels the greatest artists of history must be imbued with. This relates to the title of the book, the "doors" he refers to being the various artistic and spritual endeavors that humans have always had as part of their life as a way to alleviate the monotony and seek out a mental landscape where the potential wonder of existence can manifest itself in a tangible and productive way. The mental rut that most people end up in is only a defense mechanism though, the laziness and inability to harness potential largesse resulting in a safe and narrow construct that keeps us from losing it completely. As Huxley states regarding what happens when things ricochet in the other direction:

The schizophrenic is a soul not merely unregenerate, but desperately sick into the bargain. His sickness consists in the inability to take refuge from inner and outer reality (as the sane person habitually does) in the homemade universe of common sense - the strictly human world of useful notions, shared symbols and socially acceptable conventions. The schizophrenic is like a man permanently under the influence of mescalin, and therefore unable to shut off the experience of a reality which he is not holy enough to live with, which he cannot explain away because it is the most stubborn of primary facts, and which, because it never permits him to look at the world with merely human eyes, scares him into interpreting its unremitting strangeness, its burning intensity of significance, as the manifestations of human or even cosmic malevolence, calling for the most desperate countermeasures, from murderous violence at one end of the scale to catatonia, or psychological suicide, at the other. And once embarked upon the downward, the infernal road, one would never be able to stop. That, now, was only too obvious.

A strange resemblance to the way heads characterize those individuals who weren't able to handle an acid trip and "never returned," the danger that exists adding to the experience and the cachet of the surrounding subculture and necessarily implying that their minds are strong enough to withstand such an onslaught. I've yet to meet one of these individuals trapped in the perpetual madness brought on by a bad LSD trip or an unprepared mind, though I don't suppose they would be out and about too often, assuming they're not an urban myth.

Huxley also discusses the use of peyote by Indians of North and South America, praising them for recognizing the importance of seeking out mescaline-induced beatific visions to aid in their spiritual and religious ceremonies. He also laments the fact that western religions can't see the benefit in taking mind-altering substances as a means to increase spiritual awareness. The obvious universal and historical need for humans to literally get out of their minds a perfect match for the escape that many are likely seeking but often never receive from Christianity for example, taking the insanity instead as at least it takes place in a kind of social club and provides a sense of belonging. Huxley's discourse becomes rather dry at this point, and his default position seems to be a romanticized view of the Indians as compared to westerners especially when discussing the corresponding religions of both groups. After a lifetime's exposure to self-righteous and judgmental bible-beaters I don't blame him.

The earlier part of the essay in which Huxley tries to capture the experience of tripping into words is the most concise and engaging. Though he does a good job of capturing some of the sensations that a person reiterate that cliché really is impossible to do it complete justice. The theme that runs throughout the essay is the belief that all humans have incredible mental potential for both thought and accomplishments that can be aided by drugs such as mescaline. Unlike Wolfe's classic, this is a relatively serious discussion of responsible drug experimentation as a means to literally open a door that can then be expanded on with other means. Free from any of the social hysteria or subculture that was detailed by Wolfe (released at least 10 years before the other books, there probably was no subculture to speak of at the time) it is a logical and relatively entertaining discourse on a subject that rarely is covered in any way except for propaganda or hype.