Sunday, January 10, 2010

Readings — The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell

The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell
by Aldous Huxley

I had of course heard of Huxley’s book long ago, though only vaguely. I knew nothing of what it was actually about. Which is why I was surprised to find that, above all else, it was a book of art criticism. Although there’s much in these essays about the psychedelic experience, the book’s most interesting insofar as it considers how this and other ways of seeing apply to the history of art.

To call Huxley’s writing ‘lucid’ is an ironic understatement. There’s a clarity of approach here which belies these essays’ status as underground, or at least counterculture, landmarks. Instead, there’s a sense of these writings as being in the tradition of the essayist as critic, the man of letters as scholar. They read like measured, thoughtful considerations of unusual experiences.

I’ve never taken psychedelic drugs, but the experiences Huxley describes in terms of the nature of vision and art are familiar, are things I can grasp. It’s a mistake, then, to imagine that these essays are solely of relevance to those interested in drugs. They’re about the attempt to capture a transcendent experience. Time having passed, one can now be sceptical about the nature of transcendence involved in the drug experience — surely such a mass enlightenment would have had more of an effect on the world by this time — but the way that Huxley approaches what was for him a new technology hinting at new realms of vision is intriguing.

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