Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Literate Man Is the New Haight-Ashbury, and (correspondingly) a Review of the Doors of Perception (Aldous Huxley)

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (P.S.)Today is a day for rebellion and counterculture at The Literate Man, a day for disavowing the conformist decisions of the past and opening one’s mind to the essential “Is-ness” of all things and the limitless possibilities that the world has to offer to those that surrender to it. And it is in this spirit that I have decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon The Literate Man’s tried and true ten-point rating system. Ok, so maybe it’s not a rebellion per se, and maybe it has nothing at all to do with 60’s counterculture, but I have been paying attention to those voices that I most respect in the book blogosphere (you know who you are) and I can see the wisdom of moving off of a subjective rating system in favor of a more participatory conversation about the book or literary concept under discussion.

And how could I judge The Doors of Perception anyway when its basic message is that, in judging, in focusing our minds on the individual and particular aspects of a thing, we fail to see its essential, holistic nature. I really shouldn’t even be describing it as a book for, in doing so, I fail to appreciate the artistry of its cover design, the symmetry of the representational symbols within, the interwoven pulp of the page, and the elements, both natural and artificial, that have combined to make it what it is. Or in Huxley’s words:

I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

“Is it agreeable?” somebody asked. (During this part of the experiment, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)

“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.”

Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy—except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

Far out ... I know.

The Doors is not so much a book as an extended essay, which was coupled in my edition with Heaven and Hell, another extended essay, both of which treat the subject of the expanded psychological states that may be induced by the taking of mescaline. Mescaline, for the uninitiated, is the active ingredient in peyote and several other species of other hallucinogenic cacti. The Doors is essentially a chronology of events as understood and recorded by Huxley after having ingested mescaline at his home in West Hollywood in 1952. Heaven and Hell explores the cultural development of views of the afterlife as potentially influenced by drug-induced visions around the world.

Actually, the essays are surprisingly enjoyable and not just in the hippie burnout way that I’ve presented them here. As anyone who has read Brave New World will attest, Huxley is uber-intelligent, and he makes a very compelling case for taking a fresh new look at the world in which we live by removing the biological blinders that evolution and the survival instinct have saddled us with in order to ensure our continuance as a species. That he removes those blinders by means of the ingestion of a psychoactive agent (and spends much of the essay contemplating the folds of a skirt) is almost secondary. His real message is that we need to slow down, look around us, bond with the expressions of existence that we rush past every day, and come to a broader understanding of our own place within the universe.

Now who can argue with that?


  1. There is something peculiar and wonderful about drug-induced literature, isn't there? Fascinating stuff. Now to get my hands on some peyote. Just kidding, just kidding.

  2. Thanks, IngridLola. I do seem to have a fascination with it, at least the more moderate, mainstream works, especially Kerouac and Kesey (and I'll throw Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in there as a Kesey bio). I've read Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing as well, but they don't really seem to strike a chord with me. Maybe those require a special "mindset" for true appreciation. But Huxley reads like a classic, even if the subject matter is a little off.

  3. If you enjoyed Brave new world, try Island, for a non technocrat vision from Huxley.