“That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives that are at the worst so painful…the longing to transcend themselves…is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul” wrote Huxley in his manifesto to liberalise the use of mescaline and psychotropic drugs in society. His 1954 novel reads like an extended essay, primarily concerning itself with a day Huxley spent tripping in 1953. Beginning with this life altering experience, Huxley then incorporates a plethora of scientific and intellectual thought to add weight to his argument. I read the edition that included the follow up “Heaven and Hell”, which is a considerably more erudite affair, where Huxley argues for mescaline as a choice in a free society purely on an artistic and scientific basis. There is an excellent comparison between the beauty and power of colour in Art and how it is similar to the vivid, ethereal bursts of colours that one encounters when tripping on LSD or mescaline. I’m with Huxley. In a free society, with effective regulation, I believe individuals have the absolute right to make their own decisions regarding their own lives.
Once he begins his odyssey, Huxley realises that “the great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant”. It made me wonder if the Post-Modernist thinkers had their own revelatory dalliances with experimental drugs. Derrida’s “The Rhetoric of Drugs” would suggest this may have been the case. The concept of seeing outside of your own perspective to undermine the notion of an objective reality is critical to the Post-Modernist ethos. Foucault was a fan, “we have to try drugs, they are part of our culture”. “This is how one ought to see,” continued Huxley when trying to articulate how he processed the world while on mescaline. He articulated his experience as one of “Egolessness” and “Notself”, again advertising the virtues of viewing the world from a previously unseen angle. Of course, it is possible to maintain a sense of there being some universal values whilst acknowledging that getting outside the “self” can be a revelatory experience.
He referenced Pascal, pointing out how the sum of all evil would be diminished if men could “learn to sit quietly in their rooms” and enjoy their own company. MDMA, which is used to treat war veterans and couples with relationship trouble, has performed a similar role in modern society. It is generally not as trippy as mescaline, but it massively increases the empathy we feel for our fellow human beings and gets us outside our normal realm of reality. For Huxley, the “contemplatives (in society) are not likely to become gamblers, or procurers, or drunkards, they do not, as a rule, preach intolerance, or make war; do not find it necessary to rob, swindle”. At times, he veers off into whacked out, idealistic twaddle, yet there is a point there. In our “inner world, there is neither work nor monotony” he concludes, a place and time where the mind can think and philosophise.
At times, Huxley’s trip was borderline religious, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation”. The image is evocative. It is not just Christianity that he references, he discusses the Dharma Body and the Arhat’s quest to exist as a perfect being. Huxley viewed mescaline as being a gateway enabler to transcendent experiences similar of that to which the out of body types that Buddhists may achieve. He writes of “Eden alternated with Dodona, Yggdrasil with the mystic rose”. Huxley points out how prevalent alcohol is in the Christian tradition and tries to imagine what it would be like if priests took mescaline instead.
Huxley wades into the, now well-treaded, question of why drugs are illegal and cigarettes and alcohol are not, advocating that mescaline really ought to be and questioning the double standard. To my mind, it is impossible to refute this. Even if you acknowledge that cigarettes and alcohol would be illegal if introduced now, the question is still, why? Assuming you do not hurt other people, you should have the right, in a free society, to do what you want.
Huxley conveys the visceral, sensory overload of his mescaline trip, when he described how he viewed the flowers in his vase as the “qualitative equivalent of breathing” before going on to see a “deeper to deeper meaning” in them. Mid-trip, the “mescaline raises all colours to a higher power”. Huxley thinks cogently for large parts of “The Doors of Perception” about how important the processing of colour is to artists and thinkers, understanding that this sensory perception is separate to the intellectual one. However you process the world, heightening one’s senses is a liberating experience. There is hilarious titbit when the mescaline begins to wear off and Huxley saw a blue car outside. He looks at it and “laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks”! This is important. For all the artistic and creative plus points, taking mescaline is fun!
In “Heaven and Hell” Huxley critiques the art of colour and the colour in Art and design at length. It is a fascinating read. Truly, he was an exceptional essay writer. I noted down copious references that I had not heard of, adding a chunk onto my reading list. The vividness that the drug user encounters while taking mescaline is inextricably linked to how the artist perceives colour, “what the rest of us see under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful”. Mescaline can help the rest of us to open the doors of perception.
Huxley believed, with historical logic on his side, that takings drugs were something that the human species has done “systematically, from time immemorial”. It is true. The whole war on drugs farce was doomed to fail when you consider humans have always, and always will, use them. There is a rock solid economic reason too. Supply and demand. Governments can try their hardest to stem the supply, but until demand stops, they will be fighting a losing battle. Safe regulation is the only way to go. We should have the freedom to choose. Leave the government out of the argument, they should not be stopping people from enjoying these experiences. The “Doors” in “The Doors of Perception” came from William Blake’s 1793 work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and signified how we need to break through the doors in the walls of our mundane lives. Huxley decried that there is “no place for valid transcendental experiences” in society yet beseeched us that there should be. Moreover, are said “transcendental experiences” not merely Art in another guise? It kind of reminds me of the famous Dali quote when an interviewer asked him, “Do you take drugs?”, to which Dali replied, “I am drugs”. J.G. Ballard, in his excellent preface, analyses how Huxley recognised that, over generations, our subconscious has evolved for mostly utilitarian purposes, and that this closed us off to the sensory wonders in life. He hypothesised that experiences such as those on mescaline could help bridge this gap in our evolutionary cycle. We are still trying to break on through to the other side in that regard.