Posted inVisual Arts

Peering through The Doors of Perception

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CW: mentions the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. This is an article intended to evaluate how drug use informed the artistic process of Aldous Huxley, it is in no way an endorsement of drug consumption. If you need advice, or want ‘honest information’ on the nature of drug use see the link at the bottom of the article.

“Born into the rain…I have always felt a powerful craving for light”.

I think Aldous Huxley had two meanings in mind when he made this statement for the 1952 New York Herald Tribune. One need only look through the titles of his works to recognise the value the writer placed on sight: The Doors of Perception, Eyeless in Gaza, The World of Light, and The Art of Seeing are but a few examples. We might expect this from an author who struggled for most of his life with visual impairment – at the age of sixteen, a violent attack of Keratitis had left Huxley with just one eye capable of perceiving light. Yet, the writer was also playing on a more metaphorical idea. Born into the downpour of world wars and totalitarian regimes, the author’s life was a constant search for understanding, for ideological enlightenment.

How does this relate to the consumption of drugs? Huxley believed that experimentation with hallucinogens could elevate his art to a process in which both these desires – for physical sight and metaphysical answers – could be satiated together. When he was first given four tenths of a gram of Mescaline (the psychoactive compound contained in peyote), the writer hoped to undergo something of a transformative experience, much like the Native American religious ceremonies in which the plant was used for thousands of years. This was to be the burning of “the candle of vision”, as if “the curtain was lifted that I might see”.

The event was later recounted in Huxley’s novel The Doors of Perception, and it seems very strange. The most ordinary elements of life are devoted pages of description, taking on divine importance. See how Huxley describes the legs of a chair:

“how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness! I spent several minutes – or was it several centuries? – not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them – or rather being myself in them”

Or how he views the folds of his own trousers:

“what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the grey flannel – how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous!”

Perhaps this is a reasonable moment to interject that I am no medic; I would strongly recommend that everyone do their own reading on such complicated topics, both out of interest and for safety. Drugs like hallucinogens are taken at a person’s own risk and evaluation, and this piece is by no means an endorsement of their consumption. Rather, it is an exploration of Huxley’s artistic process, and the other worlds hallucinogens may allow us to peer into.

Huxley’s brother, Julian, claimed that the writer often contemplated “the strangeness of things” and we see this here. The word ‘strange’ derives from the Latin ‘extraneus’ (foreign, from without), and Huxley highlights this original sense in The Doors of Perception; the author does not just cross boundaries, but worlds, falling into something outside normal vision and consciousness. Often printed alongside his short work is the essay Heaven and Hell, which sheds light on Huxley’s desire to become something of a psychological explorer. Seeing himself in the same vein as his naturalist Grandfather Thomas Huxley, the prominent Victorian scientist often labelled ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, he compares the mind to the earth of a hundred years ago, still possessing its “darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins”.

The Doors of Perception, then, serves as Huxley’s scientific method, a process of sampling and experimentation. The real influence of hallucinogens is realized in the author’s final novel, Island. The central practice on this utopian Island of Pala is the use of a so-called ‘Moksha medicine’, an experience described in remarkably similar terms to visions in The Doors of Perception:

“the fountain of forms, the coloured orbs in their conscious arrays and purposefully changing lattices gave place to…a matrix of living and pulsating mother-of-pearl. Like a blind man newly healed and confronted for the first time by the mystery of light and colour, he stared in uncomprehending astonishment.”

What does this medicine offer? I think the answer lies in a motif that runs throughout the work. The novel begins when Will Farnaby is awakened on an island, by a voice repeatedly yelling “Attention”. The novel ends with the island’s invasion by external forces, at which point we again hear a mynah bird yell “attention”. Despite the pessimistic conclusion, Huxley’s redeeming message is clear: Farnaby does eventually manage to pay attention, and Huxley implores his readers to be similarly attentive to the troubles around them. Moksha medicine gradually induces a heightened state of awareness, in this case of the invasive forces that threaten Pala.

Herein, I think, lies the real benefit the writer saw in the use of hallucinogens. The temptation is too great not to see the parallel between Will’s description as “a blind man newly healed” and Huxley’s own struggles, and so we recognise the physical aid drugs offered the writer. Yet, we also see the broadly heightened perception stimulated by such hallucinogens. If one had only read about Huxley’s dystopia, they might be forgiven for thinking the writer was little more than a sad, satirical commentator. It is true that the writer had his set of concerns; the presentation of ‘soma’ consumption in Brave New World, for example, predicts people driven by immediate pleasure and superficial knowledge. But beneficial drug use, like the intake of Mescaline or the ‘Moksha’ medicine from Island, allowed the writer to go beyond the satirical writing for which he is famous and attempt to realize far higher human potentialities. Each experience with hallucinogens forced the author to look at the world around him in a new light and see how it could be improved further.

Huxley’s personal motto, taken from a painting by Goya, was aun aprendo I am still learning – but I think this applies to artists in general. It is often their desire to explore new worlds and, in doing so, make us re-evaluate our own – and perhaps drug consumption can aid this. At least that’s what Huxley thought:

“It would be extremely good for almost anybody with fixed ideas and with a great certainty about what’s what to take this thing and to realise that the world he has constructed is by no means the only world”.

for more detailed information on the effects/nature of drug use, as well as advice on getting help see below: