Monday October 9, 2017

My students are reading Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic classic The Doors of Perception this week. I’ve taught the book a number of times over the years, but I’m only just now getting around to reading Huxley’s follow-up essay, Heaven and Hell, published two years later in 1956.

To be honest, though (and judging only from what I’ve read so far), I’m finding this latter work to be somewhat underwhelming. Huxley begins by asserting that heightened attention to light and color are common features of visionary experience. “The visions met with under the influence of mescalin or hypnosis,” he writes, “are always intensely and, one might say, preternaturally brilliant in color” (89). As support for this claim, Huxley cites lines from visionary works of poetry like Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” as well as relevant passages from mystical texts like Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations and Irish theosophist Æ’s Candle of Vision. Readers of these trance-scripts will find much of interest (including several valuable leads for further research) in this section of Huxley’s work. My sense, however, is that from this point onward, Huxley grows a bit too enamored with his thesis about light and color. Curtain lifted, he trails off into a lengthy, multi-page digression dealing with the history of humanity’s fascination with gemstones, stained glass, and related kinds of shiny objects. Huxley believes that religious traditions value these objects because of their resemblance to the self-luminous “stones of fire” that are said to populate the otherworldly inner landscapes encountered by visionaries of all ages. “Hence man’s otherwise inexplicable passion for gems,” he writes, “and hence his attribution to precious stones of therapeutic and magical virtue” (103). As a brief aside, let me add that there’s an interesting passage in the midst of this excursus where Huxley speaks of hypnotists who use shiny objects to lead subjects into trance states. “How, precisely,” he asks, “does the view of a shiny object induce a trance or a state of reverie? Is it, as the Victorians maintained, a simple matter of eye strain resulting in general nervous exhaustion? Or shall we explain the phenomenon in purely psychological terms—as concentration pushed to the point of mono-ideism and leading to dissociation?” Huxley himself prefers a third possibility. “Shiny objects,” he writes, “may remind our unconscious of what it enjoys at the mind’s antipodes, and these obscure intimations of life in the Other World are so fascinating that we pay less attention to this world and so become capable of experiencing consciously something of that which, unconsciously, is always with us” (106). Speaking of which: with a burning sensation at the back of my throat, vaguely reminiscent of asthma attacks from childhood, I mark my place in the book with a folded receipt and ascend to Huxley’s “Other World.” As that phrase suggests, Heaven and Hell is rife with spatial metaphors, some of them wince-inducing in ways that demand postcolonialist reading, as for instance when, at the beginning of the book, the tastelessly Eurocentric Huxley digs himself a hole by writing, “Like the earth of a hundred years ago, our mind still has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins” (83). Fortunately it looks like there’s substantial criticism of Huxley on these grounds, as in Lindsey Michael Banco’s Travel and Drugs in Twentieth-Century Literature and Sharae Deckard’s Paradise Discourse, Imperialism, and Globalization: Exploiting Eden. To hallucinate means “to wander in the mind.”

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