The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
The Doors of Perception (1954) & Heaven and Hell (1956) are two essays written by the English writer, Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963.) The two are now, more often than not, bound together in a single volume, which form a remarkable insight into psychedelics. Through Huxley’s astute exploration of his own subjective, psy-experience with Mescaline, to his philosophical treatment of the mystical experience, therein lies the conceptual groundwork for contemporary psychedelic literature (psy-lit.)
It was a Spring, Monday morning in 1953 when Huxley took four-tenths of a gramme of mescaline and, armed with the use of a sitter (his wife) and a voice recorder, experimented the psychedelic experience on himself. The resulting essay of analysis and observation, The Doors of Perception, took it’s name from a passage by Blake, however Huxley was quick to psychologically differentiate between himself and the great poet artist.
“From what I had read of the mescaline experience I was convinced in advance that the drug would admit me, at least for a few hours, into the kind of inner world described by Blake. But what I had expected did not happen.” (Huxley 2004, 5)
We are introduced to Huxley’s experience via it’s psychological and therefore subjective effects. Huxley contrasts himself to Blake by telling us he doesn’t see visually “words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind.” Instead we come to know his experience by someone who thinks in the abstract; meaning and object. This is a crucial point for understanding how contemporary psychedelic literature became so multi-faceted; the psychology of the genre was posited in a wider spectrum of understanding.
The descriptive realms of the experience, Huxley himself notes, is just an elaborate metaphor for what words could never truly, sensually describe. The widely-known reactions of seeing intrinsic light or energy in items, less interest in spatial location and, for Huxley’s psychological type, a changing of perception in regard to object’s meaning, are all approximations restricted by the boundaries of our language.
The mind-at-large is the theory which Huxley explores in order to explain the sensual psy-experience. He posits that the mind has a set of filters, which are determined by our facets of survival and that they reduce the amount of information we receive from the senses. In other words that the mind is sensually aware of everything that is going on in the universe; it’s a question of limited access not inability. Having taken the theory from French philosopher Henri Bergson, it has been an increasingly important theory in psychedelic studies ever since.
At the most heightened stage of the psychedelic experience Huxley talks about an “obscure knowledge” when “all is in all” and this represents the closest one’s perception can come to knowing the mind-at-large. The interesting consequence is that Huxley says that we cannot come to truly know this state of being, it is outside ourselves, so to speak. The mind-at-large reappears later in the form of Leary’s “white void”, which is linked to his and Huxley’s reading of Tibetan Buddhism, but Leary takes it onto a new level by believing that the state of being is a knowable spiritually. Both Huxley and Leary saw this as reaching a state of egoless-ness.
Heaven and Hell is a slightly different prospect to the first essay. Throughout both pieces Huxley bemoans the lack of information about psychedelics. He appears with these two essays to be wanting to open up new avenues of investigation. In The Doors of Perception it was the scientific mind at work but in Heaven and Hell, philosophy and theory mark out new avenues of research that the author wishes to explore.
The title of the second essay, taken from Blake, presents the two halves of Huxley’s perception of the psychedelic experience. When you’re taken into either ecstasy or fear, and this is related to the older psychotomimetic reading that these substances ‘mimic psychosis’. Therefore, the hell represents the pathological element, which is uncontrolled, while heaven is the more mystically-understood territory that careful trip management can navigate one to.
Using a geographical metaphor for the mind, Huxley separates the psyche into territories including the far edges, the “antipodes”, and the brain-filter orders the territories in regard to their biological and utilitarian functions at the lower level. Those antipodes of the mind-at-large, which have no biological/utilitarian use are blocked and can only be reached by chemicals (psychedelics) and hypnosis; two passages to reach terra incognito according to Huxley
In discussing the “light” one see’s in a visionary experience (Castaneda lovers please note) Huxley said the following: “The self-luminous objects which we see in the mind’s antipodes possess a meaning and this meaning is, in some sort, as intense as their colour. Significance here is identical with being; for, at the mind’s antipodes, objects do not stand for anything but themselves.” The quote seems to indicate the extent to which knowledge can be garnered from psychedelics; only in so far as an object’s being or nature. This is important because it draws a distinct line between science and the spiritual; the former investigates relationships between objects whilst the latter investigates intrinsic being i.e. meaning. As psychedelic literature progresses over the next fifty years this line is increasingly blurred however.
The experience of these two essays lies in the richness of their text. Aldous Huxley has an extraordinary ability as a literary communicator, which coupled with his well reasoned methodology creates a very powerful and thought-provoking book. I was wholly gratified to find that The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell lived up to its tag as the definitive psychedelic text. To read it is to find not only a gateway into the rich history of psychedelic literature but to also hear the words of one of last century’s greatest writers.