Date finished: May 17th 2016
I came upon a nice little 1980 edition of Huxley’s famous essay The Doors of Perception, and the lesser known Heaven and Hell. For £2 you can never really argue with a couple of short essays to read, and I needed a break from the immense tome that is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (300 pages down, 600 to go).
The Doors of Perception outlines Huxley’s experiences with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. He recalls his own personal perceptions and feelings whilst under the influence of the substance, and delves into the historical, cultural and religious aspects to the experience.
Heaven and Hell continues in a similar vein, but this time focuses upon visionary experience in relation to the arts. Huxley argues that the great painters and architects of history have had an innate ability to do to the mind something similar to that which mescalin confers upon its taker. He explores humankind’s cross-cultural attitude towards art and religion and how these pursuits have attempted to transcend the superficiality of the world around us and plumb for a deeper truth
Huxley writes with engaging wit and perceptive insight, yet it’s somewhat lost upon the inexperienced reader. Though The Doors of Perception is a fascinating account of the mind-altering quality of hallucinogens, it’s completely beyond the comprehension of the reader who has not also experimented with such substances. If one wants to understand and empathise with Huxley, they may have to contact their local drug dealer. But to attempt to get one’s head around Huxley’s expostulations is interesting, to say the least.
Heaven and Hell is less engaging, and descends into fairly heavy art criticism and philosophical ramblings that feature the phrases ‘the mind’s antipodes’, ‘transporting’ and ‘visionary experience’ that you could make a drinking game of it and end up thoroughly merry.
I think, however, some of this is down to myself and Huxley being different people. Huxley’s focus on art, architecture and religious experience is completely at odds with my own interest in the written word, music and nature. Where Huxley finds visionary quality I don’t, and likely vice versa. This makes it difficult for me to appreciate where Huxley comes from personally, but means that a reader with an interest in the subjects Huxley touches upon may find Heaven and Hell a lot more illuminating.
These two essays should and could be more interesting than they are. Rather than delve into any real meaning or analysis, Huxley seems content to pontificate about art, visionaries and a higher state of consciousness which he is unable to describe, but spends 143 pages talking about anyway. There is undoubtedly value within these two essays but to make them at all interesting or meaningful one needs a hefty dose of mescalin.
The Doors of Perception – 6/10
Heaven and Hell – 4/10
Overall – 5/10
(But they’d transcends ratings if you read them while on LSD!)