In 1954, Aldous Huxley published the book, The Doors or Perception, which details his experiences after swallowing 4/10ths of a gram of mescaline dissolved in half a glass of water. It’s a book that, thanks to my tutor, the Barcelona-based sculptor Frank Plant, has been one of my go-to books when exploring how we can perceive. This post is based on 18 pages of notes I wrote three years ago while reading this book.
Mescaline is an alkaloid, whose effects wear off after 8 to 10 hours with no hangover. It is the principal agent of peyote, a psychedelic cactus. It was first isolated and identified in 1897 by Arthur Heffter and first synthesized in 1919 by Ernst Späth. It inhibits production of an enzyme that regulates the supply of glucose to the brain. The individual remembers less, but has heightened visual impressions. His perceptions, such as of color, improve drastically, though the will to do anything decreases.
Among the things Huxley discovered, or re-discovered, are magenta and cream carnations such as above, which he wrote as to be “breathing” — “repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning.” Books glowed, and walls no longer met in right angles. Spatial relationships stopped mattering; mind was perceiving the world in terms of other criteria, more on the intensity of experience, profundity of significance, and relationships within a pattern. Furniture became a pattern of horizontals, uprights, and diagonals — of pure aesthetic purpose, concerned only with form. Huxley’s general reaction:
“This is how one ought to see, how things really are.”
What was intriguing was Huxley’s outlook on relationships when he was under the influence. He wrote:
“Wife and friend belonged to the world from which, for the moment, mescaline had delivered me—the world of selves, of time, or moral judgments and utilitarian considerations, the world of self-assertion, or cocksureness, or over-valued words and idolatrously worshipped nations.”
And when he was done, he also raised the age-old debate between the actives and the contemplatives:
“How was this cleansed perception to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion?”
Or, how can we bridge the transcendent with our worldly cares?
Perhaps, as a suggestion, we can do so by sharing, by making visible what we perceive, or by letting positive feelings, such as joy, be contagious.
The Guardian has a gallery of what Huxley saw in pictures. Also, a reminder of where Huxley’s title came from:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell