The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley (1954) (read in 2017)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a book in two parts. The first is called The Doors of Perception and is an analysis of one of Huxley’s mescaline trips. It interweaves nigh-painfully evocative descriptions of what he saw on his 8-hour trip with a history of visions and visionaries. The discussion includes an examination of social implications of various intoxicants and their relative efficacy in providing escape, insight and advancement.
The second Heaven and Hell is a discussion of the thesis that much religious symbology is anchored in an effort to replicate/evoke/commemorate/trigger the majestic preternatural visions experienced on mescaline, peyote or sensory or nourishment deprivation. He discusses the relative facility of some artwork to transport individuals to other, more-visionary inner places. The efficacy of art to transport is relative to the the age within which it was observed: modern society’s surfeit of color and distraction serves to dampen the power of artwork that would otherwise be more easily able to induce visions and insight.
While he does not offer a scientific or empirical base for his thoughts, his rumination on their ineffability—and his attempts to make it more effable with some sort of framework, a model—is very interesting. He seeks not to diminish religion but neither does he lend credence to any of their models as the one true way. The subconscious is to be mined for insight—and insight exists outside of provability. His model is of the antipodes of the mind, places separate from the conscious and even most of the subconscious mind, where a clearer, unfiltered lens on reality exists. Or, at least, seems to exist. At that level of abstraction, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “real” in a physical or measurable sense, but that it influences your everyday consciousness and makes you a more observant, peaceful and reasonable person.
These books, like The Devils of Loudon are an investigation by a prodigiously learned, patient, curious, intelligent and open mind into difficult but overwhelmingly interesting topics for which there are no single answers, no roadmaps to enlightenment. The book includes voluminous appendices that comprise more than 1/3 of its pages. It’s not a self-help book. It’s not a scientific treatise. It’s a notebook of observations written by a master. Recommended.
“Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do 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.””
“Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born—the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.”
“Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language.”
“Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept.”
“It was on Van Gogh, and the picture at which the book opened was “The Chair”—that astounding portrait of a Ding an Sich, which the mad painter saw, with a kind of adoring terror, and tried to render on his canvas. But it was a task to which the power even of genius proved wholly inadequate. The chair Van Gogh had seen was obviously the same in essence as the chair I had seen. But, though incomparably more real than the chairs of ordinary perception, the chair in his picture remained no more than an unusually expressive symbol of the fact.”
Giacometti went down this road as well.
“Poring over Judith’s skirts, there in the World’s Biggest Drug Store, I knew that Botticelli—and not Botticelli alone, but many others too—had looked at draperies with the same transfigured and transfiguring eyes as had been mine that morning. They had seen the Istigkeit, the Allness and Infinity of folded cloth and had done their best to render it in paint or stone. Necessarily, of course, without success. For the glory and the wonder of pure existence belong to another order, beyond the power of even the highest art to express.”
“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.”
“As recently as three hundred years ago an expression of thoroughgoing world denial and even world condemnation was both orthodox and comprehensible. “We should feel wonder at nothing at all in Nature except only the Incarnation of Christ.” In the seventeenth century, Lallemant’s phrase seemed to make sense. Today it has the ring of madness.”
“For what seemed an immensely long time I gazed without knowing, even without wishing to know, what it was that confronted me. At any other time I would have seen a chair barred with alternate light and shade. Today the percept had swallowed up the concept. I was so completely absorbed in looking, so thunderstruck by what I actually saw, that I could not be aware of anything else. Garden furniture, laths, sunlight, shadow—these were no more than names and notions, mere verbalizations, for utilitarian or scientific purposes, after the event. The event was this succession of azure furnace doors separated by gulfs of unfathomable gentian. It was inexpressibly wonderful, wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying. And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad. Schizophrenia has its heavens as well as its hells and purgatories.”
“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.”
“Here, in spite of the peculiar hideousness of the architecture, there were renewals of transcendental otherness, hints of the morning’s heaven. Brick chimneys and green composition roofs glowed in the sunshine, like fragments of the New Jerusalem. And all at once I saw what Guardi had seen and (with what incomparable skill) had so often rendered in his paintings—a stucco wall with a shadow slanting across it, blank but unforgettably beautiful, empty but charged with all the meaning and the mystery of existence. The revelation dawned and was gone again within a fraction of a second.”
“That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul.”
“We can never dispense with language and the other symbol systems; for it is by means of them, and only by their means, that we have raised ourselves above the brutes, to the level of human beings. But we can easily become the victims as well as the beneficiaries of these systems. We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.”
“About the physiological effects of mescalin we know a little. Probably (for we are not yet certain) it interferes with the enzyme system that regulates cerebral functioning. By doing so it lowers the efficiency of the brain as an instrument for focusing the mind on the problems of life on the surface of our planet. This lowering of what may be called the biological efficiency of the brain seems to permit the entry into consciousness of certain classes of mental events, which are normally excluded, because they possess no survival value.”
““I was sitting on the seashore, half listening to a friend arguing violently about something which merely bored me. Unconsciously to myself, I looked at a film of sand I had picked up on my hand, when I suddenly saw the exquisite beauty of every little grain of it; instead of being dull, I saw that each particle was made up on a perfect geometrical pattern, with sharp angles, from each of which a brilliant shaft of light was reflected, while each tiny crystal shone like a rainbow…. The rays crossed and recrossed, making exquisite patterns of such beauty that they left me breathless…. Then, suddenly, my consciousness was lighted up from within and I saw in a vivid way how the whole universe was made up of particles of material which, no matter how dull and lifeless they might seem, were nevertheless filled with this intense and vital beauty. For a second or two the whole world appeared as a blaze of glory. When it died down, it left me with something I have never forgotten and which constantly reminds me of the beauty locked up in every minute speck of material around us.””
“Thanks to glass, Paolo Uccello could design a circular jewel thirteen feet in diameter—his great window of the Resurrection, perhaps the most extraordinary single work of vision-inducing art ever produced.”
“Familiarity breeds indifference. We have seen too much pure, bright color at Woolworth’s to find it intrinsically transporting. And here we may note that, by its amazing capacity to give us too much of the best things, modern technology has tended to devaluate the traditional vision-inducing materials.”
“With the development of chiaroscuro, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, night came out of the background and installed itself within the picture, which became the scene of a kind of Manichean struggle between Light and Darkness. At the time they were painted these works must have possessed a real transporting power. To us, who have seen altogether too much of this kind of thing, most of them seem merely theatrical. But a few still retain their magic. There is Caravaggio’s “Entombment,” for example; there are a dozen magical paintings by Georges de Latour;* there are all those visionary Rembrandts where the lights have the intensity and significance of light at the mind’s antipodes, where the darks are full of rich potentialities waiting their turn to become actual, to make themselves glowingly present to our consciousness.”
“There hangs in the Louvre a “Méditation du Philosophe,” whose symbolical subject matter is nothing more nor less than the human mind, with its teeming darknesses, its moments of intellectual and visionary illumination, its mysterious stairways winding downward and upward into the unknown. The meditating philosopher sits there in his island of inner illumination; and at the opposite end of the symbolic chamber, in another, rosier island, an old woman crouches before the hearth. The firelight touches and transfigures her face, and we see, concretely illustrated, the impossible paradox and supreme truth—that perception is (or at least can be, ought to be) the same as Revelation, that Reality shines out of every appearance, that the One is totally, infinitely present in all particulars.”
“Many schizophrenics have their times of heavenly happiness; but the fact that (unlike the mescalin taker) they do not know when, if ever, they will be permitted to return to the reassuring banality of everyday experience causes even heaven to seem appalling. But for those who, for whatever reason, are appalled, heaven turns into hell, bliss into horror, the Clear Light into the hateful glare of the land of lit-upness.”
“For the living, the doors of heaven, hell and limbo are opened, not by “massy keys of metals twain,” but by the presence in the blood of one set of chemical compounds and the absence of another set. The shadow world inhabited by some schizophrenics and neurotics closely resembles the world of the dead, as described in some of the earlier religious traditions.”
“[…] all is significant, but negatively significant, so that every event is utterly pointless, every object intensely unreal, every self-styled human being a clockwork dummy, grotesquely going through the motions of work and play, of loving, hating, thinking, of being eloquent, heroic, saintly, what you will—the robots are nothing if not versatile.”