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Brave New Mescaline
Jun 14, 2008, 3:14p - Consciousness

I just finished reading Aldous Huxley's double-book, "The Doors of Perception" and "Heaven and Hell." It was a welcome break from all the academic papers I've been reading lately. Basically, the book is about Huxley's experiments with mescaline (also known as peyote) in the 1950s. Mescaline is a drug that is known to cause vibrant hallucinations for up to 10 hours after being ingested, and Huxley experimented with it because he wanted to study the consciousness-expanding properties from the inside out. I'm not sure I would actually recommend reading this book, though I did find portions of it somewhat profound. I've included those below. One interesting link that Huxley makes is between the experience of a mescaline taker and that of a schizophrenic - the schizophrenic has an unending hyper-perception of the world, with both positive and negative valence, while the mescaline taker has a finite 10 hours of hyper-perception, so if it's a bad trip you know it will eventually come to an end. The schizophrenic has no such glimmer in the vast darkness.

Mescaline has a somewhat dubious legal status. Apparently it is legal in the US to own a cactus that produces mescaline (e.g. San Pedro), but it is illegal to use its clippings to make mescaline. To get a sense of what it's like to be on mescaline, I recommend watching "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". Jude and I watched it about 6 years ago, and its bizzarity is permanently etched into my mind. Bats, bats, everywhere!

Quotes from Huxley's "The Doors of Perception":

- "From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes." (13)

- "I took my pill at eleven. An hour and a half later I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers - a full-blown Belle of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal's base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris. Fortuitous and provisional, the little nosegay broke all the rules of traditional good taste. At breakfast that morning I have been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation - the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence." (17)

- "I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing - but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning. Words like "grace" and "transfiguration" came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things, they stood for." (18)

- "My mind was perceiving the world in terms other than spatial categories...The mind was primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning." (20)

- "That which, in the language of religion, is called "this world" is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language." (24)

- "[On mescaline] (1) The ability to remember and "think straight" is little if at all reduced... (2) Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept... (3) The mescalin taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting." (25)

- "To other again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence, of the given, unconceptualized event." (26)

- "However expressive, symbols can never be the things they stand for." (29)

- "The artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful." (33)

- "For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else... How could one reconcile this timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see with the temporal duties of doing what one ought to do and feeling as one ought to feel?" (34-35)

- "But now I knew contemplation at its height. At its height, but not yet in its fullness... It [mescaline] gives access to contemplation - but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action, the very thought of action." (41)

- "From the first, my own case had been different. Mescalin had endowed me temporarily with the power to see things with my eyes shut; but it could not, or at least on this occasion did not, reveal an inscape remotely comparable to my flowers or chair or flannels "out there." What it had allows me to perceive inside was not the Dharma-Body, in images, but my own mind; not Suchness, but a set of symbols - in other words, a homemade substitute for Suchness." (45)

- "In the inner world there is neither work nor monotony." (46)

- "Today the percept had swallowed up the concept." (53)

- "Most takers of mescalin experience only the heavenly part of schizophrenia." (54)

- "The schizophrenic is like a man permanently under the influence of mescalin, and therefore unable to shut off the experience of a reality which he is not holy enough to live with, which he cannot explain away because it is the most stubborn of primary facts, and which, because it never permits him to look at the world with merely human eyes, scares him into interpreting its unremitting strangeness, its burning intensity of significance, as the manifestations of human or even cosmic malevolence, calling for the most desperate countermeasures, from murderous violence at one end of the scale to catatonia, or psychological suicide, at the other." (56-57)

- "I had returned to that reassuring but profoundly unsatisfactory state known as "being in one's right mind."" (62)

- "Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul." (62)

- "We now spend a good deal more on drink and smoke than we spend on education." (63)

- "The need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain." (64)

- "We must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction." (74)

- "But when it comes to finding out how you and I, our children and grandchildren, may become more perceptive, more intensely aware of inward and outward reality, more open to the Spirit, less apt, by psychological malpractices, to make ourselves physically ill, and more capable of controlling our own autonomic nervous system - when it comes to any form of non-verbal education more fundamental (and more likely to be of some practical use) than Swedish drill, no really respectable person in any really respectable university or church will do anything about it." (76-77)

- "Systematic reasoning is something we could not, as a species or as individuals, possibly do without. But neither, if we are to remain sane, can we possibly do without direct perception, the more unsystematic the better, of the inner and outer worlds into which we have been born. This given reality is an infinite which passes all understanding and yet admits of being directly and in some sort totally apprehended. It is a transcendence belonging to another order than human, and yet it may be present to us as a felt immanence, an experienced participation. To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness - to be aware of it and yet to remain in a condition to survival as an animal, to think and feel as a human being, to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be. Unhappily we make the task exceedingly difficult for ourselves. Meanwhile, however, there are gratuitous graces in the form of partial and fleeting realizations. Under a more realistic, a less exclusively verbal system of education than ours, every Angel (in Blake's sense of the word) would be permitted as a sabbatical treat, would be urged and even, if necessary, compelled to take an occasional trip through some chemical Door in the Wall into the world of transcendental experience. If it terrified him, it would be unfortunate but probably salutary. If it brought him a brief but timeless illumination, so much the better. In either case the Angel might lose a little of the confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning and the consciousness of having read all the books.

Near the end of his life Aquinas experience Infused Contemplation. Thereafter he refused to go back to work on his unfinished book. Compared with this, everything he had read and argued about and written - Aristotle and the Sentences, the Questions, the Propositions, the majestic Summas - was no better than chaff or straw. For most intellectuals such a sit-down strike would be inadvisable, even morally wrong. But the Angelic Doctor had done more systematic reasoning than any twelve ordinary Angels, and was already ripe for death. He had earned the right, in those last months of mortality, to turn away from merely symbolic straw and chaff to the bread of actual and substantial Fact. For Angels of a lower order and with better prospects of longevity, there must be a return to the straw. But the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend." (77-79)

Quotes from Huxley's "Heaven and Hell":

- "When worshippers offer flowers at the altar, they are returning to the gods things which they know, or (if they are not visionaries) obscurely feel, to be indigenous to heaven." (104)

- "And here we may note that, by its amazing capacity to give us too much of the best things, modern technology has tended to devaluate the traditional vision-inducing materials... The fine point of seldom pleasure has been blunted." (115-117)

- "..the art where "denotation and connotation cannot be divided", and "no distinction is felt between what a thing 'is' and what it 'signifies'."" (124)

- "To sit, with eyes closed, in front of a stroboscopic lamp is a very curious and fascinating experience...When the lamp is flashing at any speed between ten and fourteen or fifteen times a second, the patterns are prevailingly orange and red. Green and blue make their appearance when the rate exceeds fifteen flashes a second. After eighteen or nineteen, the patterns become white and gray." (146) [I'd like to try this]

- [Recounting a psychotic/depressive/schizophrenic state of mind] ""The men and women around me," writes Carlyle, "even speaking too with me, were but Figures; I had practically forgotten that they were alive, that they were not merely automata. Friendship was but an incredible tradition. In the midst of their crowded streets and assemblages I walked solitary; and (except that it was my own heart, not another's, that I kept devouring) savage also as the tiger in the jungle... To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility; it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam Engine, rolling on in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb... Having no hope, neither had I any definite fear, were it of Man or of Devil. And yet, strangely enough, I lived in a continual, indefinite, pining fear, tremulous, pusillanimous, apprehensive of I knew not what; it seemed as if all things in the Heavens above, and the Earth beneath, would hurt me; as if the Heavens and the Earth were but boundless jaws of a devouring Monster, wherein I, palpitating, waited to be devoured."... To both, again, all is significant, but negatively significant, so that every even is utterly pointless, every object intensely unreal, every self-styled human being a clockwork dummy, grotesquely going through the motions of work and play, of loving, hating, thinking, of being eloquent, heroic, saintly, what you will - the robots are nothing if not versatile." (184-185)

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