Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On time, trousers, transcendentalism, and passing once more through The Doors of Perception

Books made me take drugs. Okay, music, general rebelliousness and very likely some fundamental predisposition toward shoe gazing and altered states of consciousness were also significant factors –but books were enormously persuasive, with one in particular holding a prominent position of influence.

Written in 1954, Aldous Huxley’s
The Doors of Perception is commonly attributed with having turned a lot of middle-aged intellectuals onto psychedelics back in the day, but I’m surely far from alone in crediting Huxley with prompting my own first tentative frisks of various substances in my late teens. While reckless abandon had its allure (see Keith Richards), I felt more aligned with Huxley’s air of calm immersion, his heightened curiosity regarding what lies beneath life’s mundane surface. I wanted to penetrate the fabric of perception, and Huxley seemed a trustworthy guide.

Already 50 and established as a writer of novels and essays (in which drugs played a frequent role), Huxley’s introduction to mescaline was at once soberly approached (the dosage was administered by an “investigator” who monitored Huxley for the trip’s duration) and unrestrained in response. Huxley’s interest in psychedelics grew from his general fascination with mystic experience, yet his considerable intellect and skepticism kept his investigation well on the safe side of flakiness. I hadn’t read
The Doors of Perception since my teens, but on returning to it, I suffered none of the disappointment that sometimes accompanies a revisit to one’s objects of youthful enthusiasm. On the contrary, I think I relate to it more deeply now.

“I had expected,” Huxley writes, “visions of many-coloured geometries, of animated architectures ... symbolic dramas trembling perpetually on the verge of the ultimate revelation.” What Huxley actually experienced connected more closely with the texture of immediate sensations. He sees “a slow dance of golden lights” and “sumptuous red surfaces,” but the world Huxley enters via mescaline isn’t the world of alien visions, rather, “it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open.”

Huxley does indeed awaken to Blake’s “infinity in a grain of sand,” but he does so through a dialogue with the tactile world surrounding him, through observing the radiant, complex beauty of flowers (and that marvelous awareness of plants breathing), through books and printed images, through sudden awe over the sublime nature of drapery, which he describes as “living hieroglyphs,” and “a major theme of all plastic arts.” Huxley looks at his trousers, at prints of Van Gogh’s chairs, at the undulating textiles in Antoine Watteau’s paintings: “Not an inch of smooth surface here, not a moment of peace or confidence, only a silken wilderness of countless tiny pleats and wrinkles ... ” Though he begins The Doors clarifying the existential dilemma of individuality and irreversible separateness between people, Huxley, who claims to have never been a very visual person, suddenly seizes upon a way of accessing a great painter’s casual method of visualizing life’s intractable uncertainty through the ubiquitous unruliness of surfaces. It’s exhilarating to read his discovery, to witness how Huxley’s ode to drapery ascends from what first appears to be a druggy reverie over minutiae to something of tremendous insight.

Yet while Huxley spontaneously connects with the imaginative inroads of others while on mescaline, he also confesses to having a lack of interest in actual people while tripping:  “This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, for the necessary concerns involving persons.” I’m certainly sympathetic to Huxley’s essentially private rapture—the discoveries he’s making seem to luxuriate fruitfully when unencumbered by the rules of conventional human interaction—but it should be noted that not only was it his first time using mescaline, he was also the only one using it. (I have no doubt he would’ve had a radically different response had he, for example, had sex while high—there are few experiences as potentially rich with a sense of shared wonder.) For all Huxley’s introspection, it nonetheless moves me that it’s when he eventually hears vocal music that he reconnects with other people. Voices, he exclaims, became “a kind of bridge back to the human world.” He beautifully evokes that sometimes-difficult passage from interior to interactive states by falling in love all over again with music.

Huxley gets an incredible amount of mileage from this single venture into psychedelics, and in his posterior analysis, taking into account the dangers of drugs, he’s able to convey a larger idea of how we are always going to be drawn toward methods of transcendence, though some methods seem more productive than others. And in conclusion, Huxley thoughtfully imagines the ways in which agents like mescaline (or peyote or psilocybin) can grace one’s overall sense of awareness: the user “will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.” 

Postscript: On a related note, about an hour after posting this piece I read in the newspaper that Albert Hoffman, inventor, not to mention the first human guinea pig, of LSD, has died at his home in Burg im Leimental. He was 102. 


Paul Matwychuk said...

See, JB... this is one of the reasons your blog makes me feel so inadequate. You're busy rereading The Doors of Perception while I waste my time rewatching C.H.U.D.

On the other hand, last night I did watch Ken Russell's insane 1971 film The Devils, which was partly based on an Aldous Huxley book. Somehow I suspect the bit with the naked nun humping a gigantic candle was Russell's idea.

JB said...

Paul, truth is I read your terrific little piece on C.H.U.D. and it made me really want to go back and see it, flawed as it may be. I barely remember the thing from my childhood binges, those tender years when I dedicated myself to renting every tape in the horror section. Actually the last time I saw C.H.U.D. was roughly around the same time I saw THE DEVILS... and oddly enough the candle-humping rings a distinctive bell.