Book Review: The Doors of Perception, and Heaven and Hell — by Aldous Huxley

This is a review of Albus Dumbledore, I mean, Aldous Huxley’s two pieces, “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell” — or as I like to call them, “Huxley’s Double Whammy”.

Overview

“The Doors of Perception” overall is pretty good. Though, Huxley exoticizes Native American rituals involving the consumption of peyote and explains these rituals from a faux-insider point of view, which feels annoying and gross.

“Heaven and Hell” is mostly rambling and presumptuous, but hilarious for the same reason, kind of like reading NYT columnist Davis Brooks’ work (if you can call his stuff “work”).

I would recommend “The Doors of Perception” despite its awkward exoticizations, so long as you’re aware that that’s happening and have the patience to absorb the other good stuff going on in this piece. “Heaven and Hell”, I might have done without, though its appendices were actually kinda fun to read. It was weird trying to understand an author who died over half a century ago, who in their works is always making cultural references from centuries before their time. I understood a small minority of these references, the allusions to Van Gogh, Goya — basically the obvious ones that they beat you over the head in high school art history class. The rest were, as they say, “water under the bridge”, or, “no dirt off my shoulder”. (Pretty sure I got those expressions right ;))

Likes

Huxley is obsessed with the thingness, or the being of objects, as separate from their connotations, or from the symbolic meanings of them. He takes mescalin in “The Doors of Perception” and as he’s tripping, he starts to see the beauty of random things, such as a lawn chair, or the leaves of a flowering plant. He is not quite hallucinating at this point. He is just seeing these things as being, existing separately from human context.

He talks about how seeing objects at very close range, or from very very far away, can help a human observer dislodge their preexisting notions and conceptions of what the objects mean or to which uses these objects may be put. A chair at medium range would just be a functional implement to use for human sitting. We are all used to seeing chairs half-way across the room. But up close, or from very far, or while on mescalin (lol), a chair is this remarkable thing that, for Huxley, exists separately from the functions it could serve to humans.

I meditated a bunch of times as I was reading this book, noticing again the fabric of the couch on which I was sitting. Huxley waxes poetic about fabric, making up all kinds of art history BS to explain his own fascination with fabric while on mescalin. There was something to it though, I thought to myself, while trying to meditate as I was looking at the various couch and quilt fabrics around me.

I liked appreciating objects, the way the light falls on them, how unique they are, how ‘terrifying’ as Huxley observes during a phase of his trip. This lesson made me love everything. Cups, plants, keyboards, books, coins, leaves, trees, everything. I already liked these things, and I already liked to meditate on these things. But reading this book made me see them as unearthly, terrifying, horribly grand, mysterious, and so so strange. Objects can exist regardless of the human object! They are imbued with such a self-hood, a thingness, their own existence that is apart from their symbolism to humans. Oh, how I love that minds can bend like this!

Dislikes

Uhh racist (or messed up in whatever way) depictions of Native American rituals, weird old-school terminology to describe groups of non-white people across the world who have rituals around consumption of hallucinogens or other spiritual practices, rambling in “Heaven and Hell” on the topic of gemstones which were pretty hilarious but also kind of boring.

Conclusion

It could be good to read this with an open mind. Probably helps if you know how to meditate ahead of time. If you were open to appreciating things for what they are, and not what they might mean (i.e. ‘beginner’s mind’), it could help you have lots and lots of fun with these pieces, especially “The Doors of Perception”. I am very glad I read this, and appreciate viscerally the understandings that it brought me.

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