Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Doors of Perception

When I first picked up “The Doors of Perception”* I had no idea what it was about. All I knew was that Aldous Huxley was the man and I had really enjoyed “Brave New World” (despite being secondary to 1984 in great dystopian literature). Aldous was an English writer in the early 1900’s who greatly contributed to both literature and film. He was heavily involved in the Vedanta branch of Hindu philosophy, was allegedly friends with Ray Bradbury, promoted pacifism, and wrote a script for Alice in Wonderland (ah, swooning). Knowing that he and I were clearly a match made in heaven, I obviously trusted that whatever this book was about, it was probably in my best interest to read it. In general, it is a rule of mine to approach each book with a *tabula rasa*, i.e. I don’t read the synopsis on the back. Oftentimes those pesky summaries ruin some major surprises (kind of like what I’m doing for you guys!) Additionally, there are usually some over-blown quotes strewn in to build your confidence that you chose the right book-- this has the potential to subconsciously shape my ideas about the book mid-read. There will be some review from a major magazine like “this is the most magnificent book of the entire century and the author spoke to the depths of my soul”…so then I’m reading and I’m all like OMG, he IS speaking to the depths of my soul. In order to save face on my blog and keep you guys coming back, I will acknowledge that reviews more frequently serve as a launch pad for your own thoughts about a particular subject. Except those times when books (or movies) advertise that they are 3 out of 5 stars as if it’s something to brag about. Maybe one of these days I’ll read the back of a book and see it got 3 out of 5 camel humps and that’s when I’ll know I made it.

         Back to the point--my interest was pretty piqued when I found out I’d be reading about Aldous’ mescaline trip. Mescaline is a naturally occurring peyote cactus extract that, when ingested, creates a psychedelic experience. I’m probably not going to make it into any political office posting about hallucinatory drugs (darn) but Aldous makes some great points that are worth talking about regardless of how down you are with D.A.R.E.

         He begins by explaining that each of us is an “island universe”—we experience things, both good and bad, in solitude; the exact nature of these experiences are only expressible through indirect symbols (Huxley, 13). For instance, I can try and make you feel better if your dog died by subconsciously drawing from the movies I’ve seen where people’s dogs have died, the time when I witnessed consolation in general, my understanding that dogs are adorable, etc. I am not personally experiencing the death of your dog as you are, but I can try my hardest to empathize. Aldous hoped that one of the benefits of mescaline would be to create a bridge between the islands, allowing himself to know others as they know themselves. As such, the drug would be a nice means of character building.

Upon taking the pill under the supervision of his wife and a fellow investigator, he begins to marvel intensely at the significance and beauty of the seemingly mundane. The entirety of the book is a back-and-forth between descriptions of his high and a reflection on what took place. One of my favorite parts is when the investigator asks him his attitude towards time and Aldous profoundly replies, “there seems to be plenty of it” (Huxley, 21). Swag. He discovers that mescaline induces egolessness—he no longer thinks in terms of selves. Instead, “all is in all”—Aldous can “see the All in every this” (Huxley 26, 29). This reminds me of that comforting quote—“do not feel lonely; the entire universe is inside you”. Aldous quotes Traherne in order to explicate further-- “when we feel ourselves to be sole heirs of the universe, when ‘the sea flows in our veins… and the stars are our jewels,’ when all things are perceived as infinite and holy, what motive can we have for covetousness or self-assertion, for the pursuit of power or the drearier forms of pleasure” (Huxley, 43)? Through the mescaline-prompted “knowledge of the intrinsic significance of every existent”, he realizes that all things are interconnected while simultaneously appreciating each individual thing (Huxley, 33). All things are rightly egoless because they are “sufficient in their Suchness”, i.e. satisfied in a pure, non-assertive state of being (Huxley, 38). Mere existence. He refers to this overall awareness as “the timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see” (Huxley, 35).

A key point to understanding the effects of the drug on him is the theory of “Mind At Large” (Huxley, 22). This theory suggests that the Central Nervous System operates eliminatively. At any point in time we are capable of perceiving everything everywhere… but this obviously interferes with our ability to exist as efficient humans. I can’t get any work done if my mind is busy processing all that is happening in the office. I can barely get any work done if someone is using a stapler nearby. So, in order to survive, the “Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain” (Huxley, 23).One method we’ve used to simplify and manage this reduced consciousness is through language; however, due to our indelible reliance on words, we start to mistake words for reality. We are distanced from the realness of existence because we think in terms of concepts communicable through man-made words. He later extrapolates that our education system is primarily to blame for this problem and that we need to begin emphasizing the non-verbal humanities more in order to experience and interact with the world in its majestic, unadulterated rawness. Aldous claims that mescaline somewhat halts the eliminatory process, allowing the mind to perceive a wider range of sensory material that is normally foregone for functionality. Because of this, the contemplation which accompanies mescaline is not balanced by action. You are perfectly satisfied with staring at the flowers for a while, seeing them as you’ve never seen them before and seeing them how you feel you ought to see them.

Towards the end, Aldous transitions from detailing his trip to outlining the practical implications of how awesome it was for him. He asserts that the introspective, “inner-world”  is special to us—for some, of spiritual importance—because it’s much more mysterious and much less monotonous than the outer world where we wake up in the same bed, in the same city, with the same job, and the same routines (Huxley, 46). For Aldous, mescaline transfigures the outer world in ways akin to the pleasurably indecipherable dreams and visions of the inner world. There’s a lot about life that sucks and people frequently have the irrepressible, deeply psychological desire to escape and transcend. Desperately clamoring for anything they can, people smoke cigarettes and drink despite the numerous health consequences simply because it’s all they have available to them. Shutting down all of the possibilities to deviate from “regular life” with something like a widespread prohibition is impractical and unproductive. Instead, Aldous recommends adding different, healthier options to the mix (ahem, mescaline). He explains that this additive alternative “should produce changes in consciousness more interesting, more intrinsically valuable, than mere sedation or dreaminess, delusions of omnipotence or release from inhibition” (Huxley, 65) He hypes this specific drug, citing the fact that there is no hangover, no withdrawal, and virtually no toxicity. Basically, he shits on all the other drugs, and rightfully so. Still, he doesn’t just irresponsibly suggest that we all quit our jobs and start snorting mescaline on the reg. He does put forth the disclaimer that it must be done in the “right” quantities, in the “right” circumstances, under the “right” state of mind.

So what’s the biggest problem with it all? The research is scarce. Why is the research scarce? The government classifies it as a schedule I hallucinogen. This is very restrictive—and not just for those tryna get their buzz on. Personally, I am a huge proponent of research because I think that *knowledge is power*. To rob the world/country of access to certain things largely based on unfounded, outdated, moralistic premises is so ridiculous to me. It’s a shame that controlled substances are deft of research simply because of the limitation of an (often arbitrary) government label. I was literally just reading in Men’s Health* (don’t ask me why I was reading Men’s Health) that “every 15-year-old boy in the United States has access to better marijuana than researchers do” (Warner, 2014). Different drug, same basic idea.

This book was first published in 1954—clearly the government did not heed his advice and mescaline is not readily available. Still, the boldness of his widely-publicized experiment and the value of the lessons he derives from it make me feel this book was worth both writing and reading. I was extremely impressed with his ability to effectively verbalize what I’m sure was mostly an indescribable experience. He also used the word “foppish” which is a pretty awesome word. In spite of all this 5 hump high-praise, I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps. It was compelling, entertaining, and enlightening—but probably because I am most interested in the intersection between spirituality and psychology. It’s not necessarily a “must-read” for those who are not inclined to these areas of study, but I trust it would be a joy for those readers nonetheless.

*Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004. Print.

*Warner, Joel. “Weed is Legal. Are we High?” Men’s Health July/August 2014: 111-113, 151. Print.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Heart of Darkness

I know what you’re thinking—finally, a relatively short post! Sometimes you need to keep things short and sweet—or in this case, sour. Before I dive into the book, let me tell you about the author. Joseph Conrad was orphaned at the meager age of eleven, losing both parents to tuberculosis. Of note, the name Conrad was penned when he began his writing career in 1894—an Anglican twist on his Polish middle name Konrad. He possessed an early knack for geography which translated into a maritime career in adulthood (undoubtedly influencing this novel). Throughout his life, his reticence masked a deep emotional struggle, culminating in a failed suicide attempt at the age of twenty. Somewhere, Albert Camus is rolling his eyes in his grave. He shot his chest like he wrote this book— well-intentioned but missing the mark a bit.

            I can totally see why people like it. It has several elements of a worthwhile book: ominous setting, mysterious plot, impressive syntax, ambiguous morality, and intriguing narration. Unfortunately, it was boring as hell. The story goes a little something like this: the main character, Marlow, recounts his experiences working for an ivory trading company stationed in Central Africa. He is generally taken aback by the workers he encounters, finding their greediness distasteful and their attitudes lazy. In the midst of it all, he often hears of an enigmatic Mr. Kurtz—the chief of a station nearby. When Mr. Kurtz falls ill, Marlow and his men must come to the rescue. The journey proves treacherous, as most sea voyages do, and upon arrival it is apparent that Kurtz has gone mad and is responsible for much of their trouble. Marlow is shocked by how Kurtz has utilized his power as the intrusive white man to manipulate the “savage” natives. In the end, the team successfully takes Kurtz with them, raining bullets on the natives in their departure. Kurtz dies on the ship, muttering his famous last words, “the horror! The horror!” (Conrad, 178).

            The most redeeming thing about Kurtz is that he’s honest about being a jerk. He doesn’t try and shroud his tactics of suppression and intimidation with fluffed-up imperialistic excuses. While Marlow is openly revolted by Kurtz’s methods, he is similarly at fault. He sees the Africans as a means to an end but in less overt ways. Hence Marlow’s ambivalent feelings towards Kurtz—he isn’t necessarily down with Kurtz putting the native’s heads on sticks but can sort of sympathize with the reasoning. Kurtz’s madness is merely one dot in the backdrop of a more widespread madness that drives dark, evil colonial endeavors. So, what truly constitutes barbarism? The natives, with their undisciplined, uncivilized culture…or their invaders, with their violent domination?

What the book boils down to: a semantically well-written commentary on darkness and its dehumanization. The African jungle-- bereft of sunlight. Mankind—bereft of the ability to truly see other humans, i.e. the failure to recognize the natives as individuals worth recognizing. That’s true and all… but hand me any history book and I can come to the same realization. The novel was pretty heavy. Not physically—it’s actually only 84 pages—but the content itself seemed burdensome. Most of the time, the impetus to pick it back up stemmed more from the sentiment that “I should read this because it’s a classic” or “I should read this because it’ll be good for me and I’ll learn something”… and not necessarily because of a genuine desire to read it.

I feel sort of bad shitting all over it because he’s a really good writer. I swear! At one point, he describes the sky as a “benign immensity of unstained light” while I’m all like, “yeah, the sky is blue like that ocean water drink at Sonic” (Conrad, 104). Clearly, this guy is quite sophisticated. But a storyteller? Not so much. This could have something to do with the fact that stories about life at sea generally put me to sleep. Unless there is some sort of man-eating water dragon or you throw Johnny Depp with dreadlocks into the mix, who cares about how the wind is affecting the sails or how the riverbank is shaped? All in all, I give the novel 2 out of 5 camel humps. I want to give it more because I know all of the symbolism and the metaphors are every English teacher’s wet dream but I can’t pretend to have enjoyed it just because I respect Conrad’s ability to write a pretty sentence.

*Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002. Print.