The psychedelic movement began earlier than I thought.
How about 1954, when Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception? This unusual essay was pretty influential to the acid-dropping extravaganza of the sixties: Jim Morrison and Co. named their band after it.
Until I read it, I was incredulous that Huxley is as much a psychedelic hero as Timothy Leary or Tom Wolfe. What, this lanky English gent of letters whom Virginia Woolf once called, “a great grasshopper” is the literary Dr. Gonzo?
Sort of. The thing is, Huxley is about as curious a guy as you’ll ever read. And perhaps a bit crazy, I decided after reading Brave New World. But interestingly enough, his essay writing on mystical things is even more grounded and approachable than his novel.
If you’ve read Brave New World, (and if you haven’t, you ought to) then you know that Huxley’s interest in mescalin predated this experiment by at least a couple decades. In the novel, the masses of London are addicted to a synthetic konk-out drug called Soma. Then there are the New Mexicans (an Aztec-like people in this version of the future) who have their own mind-altering substance straight from the peyote cactus—mescål.
The day was going to come along when Aldy would finally try the stuff. So he had a couple friends observe him, ask him questions, and record the responses. Here’s his breakdown of the experience with mescalin:
- “The ability to remember and ‘think straight’ is little if at all reduced.”
- “Visual impressions are greatly intensified… interest in space is diminished and interest in time falls to almost zero.”
- “Though the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved, the will suffers a profound change for the worse.”
- Observed objects or sensations are often “better” so long as mescalin takers “come to the drug with a sound liver and an untroubled mind”
According to his description, hallucinogens heighten the senses in a way that overwhelms the survival instincts. The build-shelter, drink-water, find-food instincts are no longer regarded because that vase of flowers is so goddamn pretty. (But maybe find-food is sometimes intact, where Cheetos and Pop Tarts are involved) Not useful, of course, in everyday life, but to artists…
He also experienced a breakdown in boundaries between all things living and not. Which is why he stereotypically fixated on the otherwise trifling aesthetic details, like the creases in his own trousers, or a chair in a veranda: “A rose is a rose is a rose. But these chair legs were chair legs were St. Michael and all angels.”
But mescalin, for all its effects, had its limits: “Now I knew contemplation at its height. At its height but not yet its fullness…. Mescalin can never solve that problem; it can only pose it.”
This was about as curious a read as one might expect, especially with such an unexpectedly academic treatment of the subject. I became sorry I that I didn’t have a better grasp of Eastern philosophy, because whatever Huxley’s getting at with his comparisons of the Dharma-Body and so on, I’ll bet there’s something enriching there, too. I trust there is.
I think Huxley’s arguing style, though, doesn’t close up all the necessary gaps. Instead of convincing me of what is, Huxley rather convinces me of what could be, and that to me is still worth the reading.
I also read Heaven and Hell, in which he makes a more detailed argument of the relation between visionary substances and religious experience. This makes it all the more interesting that Huxley’s last words were reportedly, “LSD, 100 micrograms I.M”—which is what his wife then injected him with as he prepared for the hereafter.