The “new” look of psychedelic art and design of the 1960s was, as a recent Vox video shows, about recooking the past. “Art Nouveau on acid.” For Huxley, meanwhile, the psychedelic experience is about Moksha, a concept from Eastern spiritual traditions involving freedom from samsara, or access to a truth or a reality beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth. I find myself returning to Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1945, immediately after WWII. The book assembles passages from the writings of saints and prophets from traditions of Eastern and Western mysticism. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is the one who named this strain of esoteric wisdom “the perennial philosophy.” There’s a universalizing bent to perennialism, arguing as it does that all religions, despite their differences, point to the same truth: “That Art Thou,” or “Thou Art That,” “the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being” (Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii). There is an eternal Self in the depths of each person. Or as Marcus Aurelius claimed, “the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.”
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.
A midmorning conversation with a friend helps to enliven me. Magic seems to be in the air these days. When I mention to this friend of mine my upcoming trip to Los Angeles, he in no uncertain terms recommends I visit the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Along with research at major West Coast libraries and visits with old friends, several of whom we haven’t seen in more than a decade, Sarah and I hope to tour a number of locations of significance to us throughout the LA basin. This reminds me: I should track down a copy of David King Dunaway’s book, Huxley in Hollywood. Huxley has been on my mind of late. In preparation for my encounter with his papers, currently stored in special collections at UCLA, I’ve been reading his masterpiece on mysticism, The Perennial Philosophy—a book written, in fact, during WWII, when Huxley and his wife Maria were living at Pearblossom Ranch, a five-acre plot in the desert, overlooking the cemetery of LA’s short-lived socialist utopia, the Llano del Rio colony. This, too, is one of the locations I hope to visit in the next two weeks. Onward and upward!