Friday, February 25, 2005

The Doors of Perception (Aldous Huxley)

In this famous essay, Aldous Huxley describes his experience of swallowing four-tenths of a gram of mescalin that would influence a generation's perception of life. His descriptions of external phenomena are immensely rich and detailed, filled with depth and vitality. It is as if everything in his new world comes alive. He makes the statement of "seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence." Huxley makes extraordinarily profound descriptions of the various contents of his experience while on the drug, including his perception of common things such as flowers, fabrics, furniture, painting, color, music, poetry, space, and time. In particular, he makes a very insightful point with regard to the essential function of art, and the poet-artist's uniqueness not consisting in the visionary quality itself but,

solely in his ability to render, in words or [...] in line and color, some hint at least of a not excessively uncommon experience. The untalented visionary may perceive an inner reality no less tremendous, beautiful and significant than the world beheld by Blake; but he lacks altogether the ability to express in literary or plastic symbols, what he has seen.

In preparation for the description of his peak experience, Huxley neatly addresses the issue of how the mind and sensory apparatus function, quoting an eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad,

[...] that we should do well to consider much more seriously [...] the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.

And so, with this protective and eliminative function now largely removed, Huxley is confronted by a chair that he perceives as the chair of the Last Judgment, and finds himself on the brink of panic:

This, I suddenly felt, was going too far. Too far, even though the going was into intenser beauty, deeper significance. The fear, as I analyze it in retrospect was of being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cosy world of symbols, could possibly bear. The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the 'Mysterium tremendum.' In theological language, this fear is due to the incompatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity, between man's self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God. Following Boehme and William Law, we may say that, by unregenerate souls, the divine Light at its full blaze can be apprehended only as a burning purgatorial fire. An almost identical doctrine is to be found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the departed soul is described as shrinking in agony from the Pure Light of the Void, and even from the lesser tempered Lights, in order to rush headlong into the comforting darkness of selfhood as a reborn human being, or even as a beast, an unhappy ghost, a denizen of hell. Anything rather than the burning brightness of unmitigated Reality—anything!

Huxley then goes on to describe the profound affinity of the mystic and the schizophrenic. The primary difference between the two being, the mystic has learned how to swim in the waters of the unconscious, whereas the schizophrenic has not. As Huxley puts it,

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 unajavascript:void(0)ble to shut off the experience of a reality 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.

     "If you started in the wrong way," I said in answer to the investigator's questions, "everything that happened would be proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating. You couldn't draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot."
     "So you think you know where madness lies?"
     My answer was a convinced and heartfelt, "Yes."
     "And you couldn't control it?"
     "No I couldn't control it. If one began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have to go on to the conclusion."
     "Would you be able," my wife asked, "to fix your attention on what The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls the Clear Light?"
     I was doubtful.
     "Would it keep the evil away, if you could hold it? Or would you not be able to hold it?"
     I considered the question for some time. "Perhaps," I answered at last, "perhaps I could—but only if there were somebody there to tell me about the Clear Light. One couldn't do it by oneself. That's the point, I suppose, of the Tibetan ritual—someone sitting there all the time and telling you what's what."

Huxley describes through direct personal experience the world of the schizophrenic, and goes on to prescribe methods he believes would be particularly helpful in dealing with the states encountered. These are in principle the same methods employed by the Buddhist monks of Tibet described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It essentially requires the psychiatrist to assure the patient day and night, even while they sleep, that "in spite of all the terror, all the bewilderment and confusion, the ultimate Reality remains unshakably itself and is of the same substance as the inner light of even the most cruelly tormented mind." He indicates the use of public address systems, and pillow speakers, for example, to keep the patients constantly reminded of these primordial facts, walking them through the turbulent waters of their unconscious.

Moving towards societal implications, Huxley speaks to the possible uses of a mescalin-like psychoactive as an innocuous aid for the initiation of the masses into self-transcendent experience—a temporary release from selfhood—which in present times are sought ineffectively in so many ways to the detriment of the individual and society. A kind of "gratuitous grace" available for those who wish it,

[...] To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large...

And finally, Huxley presents a pertinent critique of our education system, indicating that it places far too much emphasis on book knowledge and little if any on knowledge obtained through direct perception. And for those learned individuals who have climbed the heights of this system, the "Angels" described by Blake as those who "have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise, doing so from an insolent confidence sprouting from systematic reasoning," Huxley describes a more realistic scenario, a less exclusively verbal system of education, where every Angel would be permitted, urged, and even compelled to take an occasional trip through some chemical Door of the Wall to the other side. To what end?

The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He 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.

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