Aldous Huxley’s Hands by Allene Symons

Aldous Huxley's HandsOriginally published in 2015 by Prometheus Books, Aldous Huxley’s Hands: His Quest for Perception and the Origin and Return of Psychedelic Science by Allene Symons is a fascinating, multi-layered story. Part personal account, and part Huxley biography, the book is a lucidly told tale of exploration and experimentation. Symons, a former editor, has previously written Nostradamus, Vagabond Poet: A novel of his Life and Time (1987).

Allene Symons was clearing out her family’s garage when she happened upon a number of boxes filled with photographs and pertaining information cards. They were the product of her father’s photographic experiment on hands in the 1950s – not palmistry, but an attempt to identify whether there were categorical similarities dependent on one’s job. A faith healer and an aeronautic engineer, her father mixed the practical with the spiritual. Although Allene had helped him a little with the research, she had hardly spoken to him in the intervening years after her parents separated. She decided to reconnect with him in order to find out more and tell the story – especially as one of the photographs was of Aldous Huxley’s hands.

My father met Aldous around 1951 through the British ex-pat network of Isherwood, Heard, and Huxley, with their shared interest in spiritual and parapsychological pursuits. One of Dad’s friends, a fellow adept from St. Francis-by-the-Sea, lived in Santa Monica and, as it turned out, his home was a few doors away from Gerald Heard’s (Symons 2015: 70)

The reconnection with her father underpins the whole narrative, so far as it lends an important level of personal and human interest. It does not, however, overpower the book. It provides a revealing backdrop to the bulk period of the story, the 1950s, and has the effect of bringing the text to life. From the reader’s perspective, one feels very much invested in the great journalistic adventure of uncovering the story not only for the personal sake of the author, but also for the formative characters who are brought to life by the process.

Indeed, there are two important narratives driving the story: the journalistic and biographical. The former lets the reader follow Symons on her journey of discovery. As already stated, this helps bring the narrative to life, As she meets with Dr John Smythies and the late Dr Humphry Osmond’s daughter, the connection between past and present – although quickly vanishing – is beautifully cultivated. The uncovering is not just about her father’s involvement with Huxley’s Tuesday night salons, but also the wider implications of ‘being’ Aldous Huxley. It thus neatly compliments the biographical narrative.

The book is mostly devoted to a biography of Huxley. Although there have been several outstanding biographies of Huxley in the past, this one benefits from looking more closely at the relationship between Humphry Osmond and Huxley. Smyons is able to do this thanks to talking with Osmond’s daughter, who had kept a whole file of their correspondence. For psychedelia generally, their relationship is of the utmost importance. Not only did Osmond provide Huxley’s first mescaline experience, he also coined the term psychedelic. What is of particular value is their attempts to start, although they never did, the Outsight project – to turn on the best and brightest to psychedelic substances, in Huxley’s inimitably elitist fashion.

The far-reaching goal of Outsight was no less a goal than to advance human consciousness, and to this end draw attention to a chemically induced way of accessing some higher dimension. You could call it the Ground of Being, alluded to by mystics throughout the history of the world’s religions, yet somehow it is related to the same creative force experienced by artists like Botticelli, Van Gogh, and Leonardo da Vinci (Symons 2015: 136)

The project’s attempts were largely a failure, although it demonstrates the wide circle of people who were at least turned on to the potential of psychedelic substances, and is another example of that psychedelic effect that tends to make people group together for short and intense periods of time. The impatience, the giddiness, and the hope of their letters – often reimagined narratively by Allene Symons – provides a window into the emotions of their attempts. One is left to wonder what might have happened had they managed it. Moreover, their inability to find funding is surprising if one believes the current theories about Huxley’s involvement with the secret services – they missed their best chance to fund the revolution!

The birth and rebirth of ideas, projects, and people, pepper the story. However it is ultimately tempered thematically by its flip-side; death. The death of Huxley’s first wife, Maria, is wonderfully crafted by Symons, and is partially revealed through the letters, indicating just how unaware of her immanent death Huxley was – although she had confided in Osmond. Coupled with Huxley’s famous passing on LSD, and the death of her father, the cycle of regeneration endures. This is best illustrated by Symons’ discussion of the return of psychedelic science today, which is examined in the final section of the book. The psychedelic experience, like the Ground of Being perhaps, is irrepressible.

There is much to be enjoyed by a reading Aldous Huxley’s Hands by Allene Symons. Although for the psychedelic history buff, and the Aldous Huxley buff, there is a good deal you may well have read before, there are without doubt some interesting additions to the story. Moreover, it is reconditioned delightfully in light of Symons’ relationship with her father, and the great spiritual explorations on the west coast of the USA in the 1950s, painting a vivid and engaging picture. Heartily recommended.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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