Re-reading The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic “trip narrative” about a mescaline experience at his house in Los Angeles, I’m struck by Huxley’s disdain for modernism and his admiration for artists of earlier eras: Goya, Vermeer, William Blake. Huxley is a proponent of the “Perennial Philosophy.” He finds across time a convergence of teachings, a shared wisdom in the visionary or mystical strains of each of the world’s religions. There is for him a “universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence” and a “need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings” (The Doors of Perception, p. 64). One of the most remarkable aspects of The Doors of Perception, however, is the fact that it’s a book about vision and visionary experience by a man of poor vision. Huxley’s eyesight was damaged; an illness at the age of 16 left him thereafter severely impaired. Huxley claimed to have overcome some of this impairment through an experimental technique known as the Bates Method, about which he wrote a 1942 book called The Art of Seeing. Huxley is thus a modern incarnation of the “blind prophet,” in the tradition of figures like Tiresias, the seer from Antigone and Oedipus Rex.
Huxley’s “reducing valve” metaphor renders the self or the Ego porous through a kind of sense-awakening, like the opening of a third eye. Growth of a new organ, as the Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson said, “to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions” (Postmodernism, p. 80). Jameson’s visit to the Bonaventure Hotel reads like a trip report — an account of an anabasis, with its ascent up the Portman building’s remarkable elevators. These elevators grant their riders the ability to cross realms, as Jameson does. After traveling up from the building’s interior atrium, one is launched out, in a glass-windowed capsule, up the building’s exterior shell. The ride allegorizes space flight. Riders shoot upward and land safely upon return into a dizzying postmodern hyperspace connected only by way of ascending escalators to the streets of Los Angeles. The pools at the base of the elevators simulate NASA’s trademark “splash landing.”
News media platform spectacles, political theater: a Trump-incited attempted coup. Jedi warriors like Obi-Wan Kenobi sit in caves and meditate until called upon to aid the Force in its struggle against the Dark Side. Sometimes the way forward is to perform a paralogical move. In Obi-Wan’s case, it means vanishing temporarily from the gameworld. His body departs from the antagonism — the conflict with Vader — so that he may return thereafter as a spirit-guide for the story’s other hero, the warrior who wins the fight: Luke Skywalker. The Star Wars universe’s war-torn cosmos is the cosmos of decolonizers and antifascists. Of course, there are other paralogical responses. When the US entered a war against global fascism after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sun Ra refused induction. Like fellow mystic Aldous Huxley, Ra opted out of the conflict, declaring before the State his status as a conscientious objector on account of his pacifism. What about today? What would be an appropriate paralogical move in response to Trumpism? Should we try again to levitate a building, as did those who marched on the Pentagon in October 1967? Do new superheroes arrive: Pink Panthers? Or do we let the Spectacle dissipate of its own accord, washed away by subsequent waves of narrative?
Packing books into boxes takes time — not least because I keep pausing to admire ones that catch my eye, like Aldous Huxley’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which, in its 1972 Perennial Library paperback edition, features a groovy cover design by a young Barbara Kruger. But into boxes they go — all of them. Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, R. Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. To be retrieved at the new place a few days hence.
Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Huxley is a prophet, and with his final novel Island, he offers us a vision of redemption. Each of us is the island of Pala. Let us work together as allies. Youth for Bernie! There it is: let’s do this! “Uncover honey / where maggots are,” as Charles Olson prompted at the end of his poem “The Kingfishers.” We determine with the genres we teach different kinds of subjects. By assigning utopias rather than dystopias, we arrange for students to confront within themselves stirrings of hope rather than fear.
With daily practice I develop greater strength and control in my left hand. Exercised with concentration, the hand’s ability to drum shows noticeable improvement. In between these exercises I think about indigenous drum ceremonies like Powwows, and instruments like rattles. How might we account for the Christian West’s antipathy to drums and percussive noise throughout most of its history? Horns, bells, and strings have their charms, but they evoke entities different in kind from those conjured with sticks and skins. With Dustin Laurenzi’s Snaketime providing productive accompaniment, I descend back into Gerald Heard’s essay on his close friend Aldous Huxley, a piece called “The Poignant Prophet,” published in 1965, two years after Huxley’s death. Right away, I’m troubled by Heard’s Darwinian emphasis on Huxley’s heredity (the “ancestral pressures” placed upon the latter due to “the intellectual nobility of his forefathers,” etc). Yet there are also moments when Heard offers glimpses of Huxley as the latter struggled to grow beyond his early reputation as a satirist. The two kept up a tradition of “afternoon walks-and-talks.” We learn of their joint investigations of groups like Moral Rearmament and teachers like Ouspensky. The most interesting part of the account, of course, deals with the transformation in Huxley effected through the latter’s encounters with psychedelics like mescaline. “Was there any effect that was permanent, that manifestly altered his everyday character in relation to others,” asks Heard, “giving his actions a new strength of conviction and initiative of encouragement? Could he thereafter persistently see the common day in the full light of this masterly comprehension, and so go forward as a guide? I think there was evidence” (66).
Fiction, with its fabulated particulars, helps us see among these an implicit grammar, communication from a shared unconscious, truths indiscernible elsewhere. Yet here I am reading an intellectual biography, Alison Falby’s Between the Pigeonholes: Gerald Heard, 1889-1971. I respond skeptically to Falby’s characterization of Heard from the late 1940s onward, after the dissolution of Trabuco College — the Heard, in other words, of the psychedelic revolution — as a “counter-cultural conservative.” Ideologically, he was an odd bird, heterodox and hybrid; of that, we can be certain. I guess Falby is right, though. Her argument is as follows. “Heard’s career,” she writes, “reflects the intersection of spiritualized psychology, religion, and conservatism in postwar America. He became a religious counselor to several libertarian businessmen as well as to Clare Booth Luce, the writer, diplomat, and Republican Congresswoman. Although he advocated self-transcendence, he ultimately entrenched individual selfhood with his spiritual prescriptions of yoga, meditation, and LSD. Although he subverted the individual in his theology, he affirmed individualism by putting his spiritual system at the service of libertarianism” (Falby 121). By the early 1960s, she says, Heard was a fan of Barry Goldwater, supporting the latter’s bid for the presidency in the 1964 election. His views had already turned markedly to the right by the late 1940s. A book of his from 1950 advocates reform of criminals through techniques similar to brainwashing. This same book of his (Morals Since 1900) also contains praise for the surveillance work of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. During the same year, Heard also published a bizarro book about UFOs — and this was all several years before he tried psychedelics. By the mid-1950s, Heard joined with libertarians Edmund Opitz (1914-2006) and James C. Ingebretsen (1906-2000) to form an elite spiritual organization called The Wayfarers. Heard convinced several of these right-libertarian patrons and friends of his to try acid during this period. He and Aldous Huxley were both elitists in this regard, thinking it appropriate to share psychedelics only with a select few. Huxley’s elites were often cultural progressives, however, whereas Heard’s were spiritually-minded business executives and captains of industry.
The Revolution proceeds in each of our lives, in the smallest of acts, scaling outward and upward, each act its own reward. Take it into the kitchen, I tell myself. Make it personal. Sometimes, as the people of Pala realize, the Revolution is as simple as following a recipe for bread. “It’s all a question,” as Huxley writes, “of being shown what to do and then practicing” (Island, p. 277). This simple technique, like a seed, contains within itself an entire method of liberation. “Not complete liberation, of course,” notes Huxley. “But half a loaf is a great deal better than no bread” (277). By these means, we begin to slip free of money’s grip.
If I were an animal among animals, I imagine I’d be a seagull. But alas, I’m not. Instead, I’m the landlocked proprietor of a botched life, hours passing unheeded. What dreams I once had of rising from this wretched state! Of course, it isn’t always wretched. I text with friends and find a book on Tai Chi in the Goodwill bins. I meet the day’s paper-grading quota and go for a run midafternoon. Alan Watts coaches me in the Taoist principle of wu-wei, which he defines as acting without forcing, “in accordance with the flow of nature’s course which is signified by the word Tao, and is best understood from watching the dynamics of water” (Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, p. 2). My reading for class teaches a similar lesson. We act, say the Palanese of Huxley’s Island, “to make the me more conscious of what the not-me is up to” (243). The day ends with a minor life achievement: I prepare a biga so that tomorrow I can bake my first loaf of Italian bread.