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The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell…

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell

by Aldous Huxley

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3,305301,647 (3.73)15
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    The biology of human starvation by Ancel Benjamin Keys (Sylak)
    Sylak: Huxley took notes from this work for his sequel to 'The Doors of Perception', titled 'Heaven and Hell'. See appendix II of the 1959 Penguin copy.

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“But 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.”

One of the handful of books I’m reading to bone up for my next novel: 𝘛𝘰𝘹𝘪𝘤 𝘕𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘫𝘢𝘳𝘴.

I didn’t get nearly as much information out of this that I’d expected, but man, it was a great read. Huxley’s one of the few writers who can slip into philosophy as easily as fiction and not bore the living bejesus out of me. He sure had a predilection for the words “antipodes” and “preternatural” in this work, so I’ll make sure to sneak those terms into mine as well.

And now I really, really, really want to munch on some mescaline.

Also, the appendices were nearly as interesting as the proper essays. Another rarity in a writer. I could read a different Huxley book every month. ( )
1 vote ToddSherman | Feb 20, 2018 |
Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception
Heaven and Hell

Vintage Classics, Paperback [2004].

8vo. xviii+123 pp. Foreword by J. G. Ballard [vii-viii]. Biographical Introduction by David Bradshaw, 1993 [ix-xviii].

The Doors of Perception first published, 1954.
Heaven and Hell first published, 1956.
Vintage edition first published, 2004.


The Doors of Perception is an amazing book. I have read it with frank amazement from cover to cover. I couldn’t believe Aldous Huxley was for real.

The “plot” is well-known. Our protagonist, Mr Huxley, swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescaline one bright May morning in 1953, then sit down to wait and record the results. Soon magical things began to happen. The books in his library acquired a shimmering glow with “a profounder significance”. He looked at the flowers, and there was “the Inner Light” and everything was “infinite in its significance.” He looked at his crossed legs in trousers. The texture of the gray flannel – “how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous!” He looked at the legs of the bamboo chair: “how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness!” The Doors of Perception had opened wide indeed, and yes, Dr Blake had been right all along that then everything will be revealed as it is, infinite. Mr Huxley gazed at what “I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality.” He was never the same man again.

If all this makes any sense to you, you have my hearty contempt. To me, this is pure, undiluted nonsense. Forty pages of it that feel like four hundred! It’s easy, you may say, to sneer at what you don’t understand. That’s right, it’s easy. Should we make it difficult for the sake of difficulty? Nobody can really understand these babblings because there is nothing to understand about them. They don’t mean anything. If you think otherwise, I’m afraid you’re only cheating yourself with idle words. But you have the right to do so. Just remember that “nothing is so foolish as to ascribe profundity to what on the surface is merely inept”, as Somerset Maugham wisely observed in his short story “Miss King”.

I grant Mr Huxley his experiment was a brave thing to do and his description of it may have some slight historical value. The last ten pages, when he finally (and thankfully!) drops the tedious description, contain some interesting if not profound reflections – beautifully written, of course – about the social, individual and religious implications of consciousness-expanding drugs. That aside, it is as worthless tripe as ever came from the pen of a fine novelist, great short story writer and outstanding essayist. Even the fine last pages are marred by the same pretentious mysticism that completely destroys the first forty.

Worst of all, if Mr Huxley’s account is accurate, and I believe it is, his mescaline experience proved to be completely unproductive. For what insight into his own mind and life or the universe at large did this experience bring him? So far as we can tell from this book, none whatsoever. Did he become happier or wiser? If he did, it doesn’t show in his writings. Were his p.m. (post-mescaline) books vastly superior to the a.m. (ante-mescaline) ones? Not at all! What about some special insights in this book? Well, there is an enjoyable discourse on drapery in painting...

It used to be thought, and probably still is by some foolish people, that all those great rock bands from the 1960s and 1970s existed only because their members were perpetually stoned. Nonsense, of course. Dope, however powerful and harmless, may at best enhance your ability. It cannot create one. And that enhancement seems to have been confined mostly to greater physical endurance. Countless stoned bands existed back then. Very few have produced something of lasting value. Here is a simple but devastating case against drug-induced creativity. A great artist is great regardless of his or her pharmacological record.

Mr Huxley simply took a hallucinogenic drug and enjoyed the experience. Nothing more, nothing less. No after-effects whatsoever, not even any damage to his liver. By all means do follow his example if you like to. Take whatever drugs you like, if you can handle the health and legal hazards, and merge your finite self with the gloriously significant Infinite, the Reality with capital “R”, the Inner Light, etc. It’s your body, your mind, and your life; you can do anything you like with them. Just don’t fool yourself you will gain anything else but a brief mental orgasm, diseased liver and cramped quarters courtesy of the government. If you get lucky, you may gain permanent oblivion.

The author concludes this bizarre essay with a somewhat half-hearted defence of the mescaline experience as one of “inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.” It would have been better if he had demonstrated the truth of this proposition by his own systematic use of mescaline and some brilliant late works; but even a fine and thought-provoking book like Island (1962), the last but one he wrote, hardly contains something he hadn’t said earlier in other novels and essays. He is certainly and unfortunately right that there are too many “students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience” and also too many “students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s.” But I do question his idea that consciousness-expanding drugs would be of much use in his so-called “non-verbal education”. Whatever Doors with a capital “D” mescaline and similar substances may open, it’s impossible to accept a conclusion like this:

But 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.

This, too, is total nonsense. Mr Huxley never could understand that mescaline doesn’t lead to the ultimate reality. It simply leads to escape from the only reality that matters.

It is ludicrous to claim, as J. G. Ballard does in his Foreword, that The Doors of Perception may be Huxley’s most important non-fiction work. The man was one of the finest essayists of the twentieth century, wrote hundreds of essays on hundreds of subjects, and his best non-fiction legacy are fifty rambling pages about Suchness, Mind at Large, sacramental visions of reality and all that crap? I don’t buy this. The only value of this book is that it gave the name of one great rock band.

It is truly regrettable – indeed, it is tragic – that a man of Aldous Huxley’s impressive intelligence and solid scientific background should succumb to such stupendous mystical nonsense in his twilight years. Still more tragic, he wrote about it. Here is a cautionary tale relevant to us all. It is never too late to make a fool of yourself.

Heaven and Hell is supposed to be a brief history of visionary experience by way of sequel. It is permeated by the same baffling contradiction about the author. On the one hand, Mr Huxley is extremely erudite about human history and human physiology. He explains with scientific precision and perfect lucidity how charming methods like fasting, chanting and self-flagellation produced visionary spectacles in past centuries. All this makes for a fascinating read. On the other hand, he does believe “visionary experiences enter our consciousness from somewhere ‘out there’ in the infinity of Mind-at-Large”. This bogus metaphysics is scientifically indefensible, to say the very least. He certainly didn’t convince me that visionary experiences, even if we could make them easy and safe for everybody, are anything more than a peculiarly vivid form of escapism. Nothing’s wrong with escapism, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that high doses of it are incompatible with life.

Many of Mr Huxley’s conclusions are embarrassing with their silliness. This is truly transcendental. He claims, for instance, that “precious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.” Nay, pretty much every man-made object in history which is not strictly utilitarian has been made by somebody in regular communion with the “Other World”, “the mind’s antipodes”, and with the express purpose of being a “vision-inducing” device. Really, Aldous! You must have taken something stronger than mescaline this time. Precious stones are precious for the very simple reason that they are rare. The aesthetic sense, even in some of its most acute forms, is not necessarily mystical. It simply affords a special kind of lasting pleasure. Simple as that. No need to make it more complicated. As for the vague similarity of heavens and hells through many different cultures and many different centuries, it shows only that human nature hasn’t changed much from time immemorial. Certainly, it doesn’t confirm any reality of the mystical experience beyond the purely subjective world of the mystic in question.

The last word on mysticism belongs to Somerset Maugham. In chapter 69 of his spiritual autobiography, The Summing Up (1938), he describes his own mystical experience, which came to him suddenly while he was sitting near a deserted mosque in Cairo, and concludes that “the ecstasy of the mystic is real enough, but it is valid only for himself.” This is rational detachment which Mr Huxley, at least in his late years, did not possess. A little later, in chapter 76, Maugham also addresses the most important question about the mystical experience, and though he refrains from giving a direct answer, he does imply that it has, on the whole, been largely unproductive and not worth making so much fuss of:

But I have asked myself what was the use of this emotion. Of course it is delightful and pleasure in itself is good, but what is there in it that makes it superior to any other pleasure, so superior that to speak of it as pleasure at all seems to depreciate it? Was Jeremy Bentham so foolish after all when he said that one sort of happiness was as good as another, and if the amount of pleasure was equal pushpin as good as poetry? The answer the mystics gave to this question was unequivocal. They said that rapture was worthless unless it strengthened the character and rendered man more capable of right action. The value of it lay in works.

All in all, Mr Huxley’s two longish essays, enormously vacuous and pretentious, proved to be one of the most worthless reading experiences in my life. What a shame this book is second by number of copies and fourth by number of reviews on Mr Huxley’s author page here. I am indeed ashamed to contribute to both numbers myself, but I couldn’t resist the temptation. Nobody’s perfect after all – except the Mind-at-Large, of course. ( )
  Waldstein | Sep 19, 2017 |
When I first read The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell, most of it was lost on me, and I assumed this was because at the time I lacked any experience with psychedelics. The second time I read the book — many years and many psychedelics later — I still found myself struggling to follow along. I generally don't write negative reviews, but I think this book offers at least two valuable lessons to writers.

Lesson One: don't alienate the reader.

I'm not sure who Huxley's intended audience might have been, but it certainly was not the casual reader, regardless of psychedelic experience. Below is a list of the names that Huxley casually references without any explanation, seemingly under the assumption that the reader is already well familiar with each:

Pickwick, Sir John Falstaff, Joe Louis, Lungarno, Meister Eckhart, Suzuki, Braque, Juan Gris, Bergson, Wordsworth, St. John of the Cross, Hakuin, Hui-neng, William Law, Laurent Tailhade, Botticelli, Ruskin, Piero, El Greco, Cosimo Tura, Watteau, Cythera, Ingres, Mme. Moitessier, Cezanne, Arnold Bennett, Vermeer, The Le Nain brothers, Vuillard

That's just from the first forty pages or so. I gave up and stopped writing them down after that.

Lesson Two: be clear and concise.

In the passage below, Huxley describes a chair that caught his attention during his mescaline experience:

I spent several minutes — or was it several centuries? — not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them — or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for "I" was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were "they") being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.

Under the influence of psychedelics, I too have felt entranced by common household objects, toiled over the distinction between self & not-self, etc., so I can relate to the sentiment, but the passage above (along with many others) struck me as rather confusing.

Huxley was clearly a pretty smart dude, and the book contains interesting ideas (some more believable than others), but overall the book simply left me scratching my head. ( )
2 vote Nicholas_Floyd | Aug 31, 2016 |
First edition, fourth printing
  lazysky | Feb 14, 2016 |
If you ever have or ever plan to do any kind of mind-altering substance, you might want to check this book (written back in 1954 !) out, along with Timothy Leary/Ram Das (Richard Alpert) and Ralph Metzner's book _The Psychedelic Experience_ which was written back in 1964. A clear message now - be here now - when you worry about the past or try to project yourself into some certain future riddled with expectation, you will almost certainly be unsuccessful. This is also, in case you hadn't already noticed a central part of both the teachings of this guy we all know as Jesus and also of that poker/happy-faced guy from India known as Buddha. ( )
1 vote dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
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"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite." - William Blake
For M.
First words
It was in 1886 that the German pharmacologist, Louis Lewin, published the first systematic study of the cactus, to which his own name was subsequently given.
But the need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain.
There is always money for, there are always doctorates available in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when?
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Contains "The Doors of Perception" AND "Heaven and Hell" - please don't combine with editions containing only one of these. While not always specified in the title, the German edition with the ISBN 3492200060 contains both works and is correctly combined here!
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060595183, Paperback)

Sometimes a writer has to revisit the classics, and here we find that "gonzo journalism"--gutsy first-person accounts wherein the author is part of the story--didn't originate with Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe. Aldous Huxley took some mescaline and wrote about it some 10 or 12 years earlier than those others. The book he came up with is part bemused essay and part mystical treatise--"suchness" is everywhere to be found while under the influence. This is a good example of essay writing, journal keeping, and the value of controversy--always--in one's work.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:40 -0400)

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"Explores ... the mind's remote frontiers and the unmapped areas of human consciousness ... [and] the effects of mind-expanding drugs"--P. [4] of cover.

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