I graduated college almost exactly one year ago, and for the most part I love being a “real adult” with a “real job” in the “real world.” I miss my friends, I miss Boston, and I miss all the things to do in a large city, but what I miss the most are my classes–I absolutely loved my literature, philosophy, and sociology classes. Not surprisingly, any class that had loads of reading and writing was sure to become a favorite. With all my school friends updating Facebook and Twitter for the last month with “OMG last paper ever and I’m still procrastinating!” and “Last final exam, no more college” and “First beer as a college graduate–freedom never tasted so good!” I’ve been really missing school. And so I decided to read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell: Two Complete Nonfiction Works because it would have fit perfectly into several of my college philosophy and sociology classes.

4 out of 5 bookmarks

Huxley is probably best known for Brave New World, one of my favorite books. I knew he had written other books, but never went out of my way to find them–now I wish I had, this book was a great read. The blurb on the back describes it as “…among the most profound studies of the effects of mind-expanding drugs written in the twentieth century. These two books became essential for the counterculture during the 1960s and influenced a generation’s perception of life.” I can’t claim to know what life was like in the 1960s, nor can I verify that his experience on drugs were accurate reflections of the effects of “mind-expanding drugs,” but it sure was fun to read about.

The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell: Two Complete Nonfiction Works is really two essays put together into one book. The first work, The Doors of Perception, chronicles his experience on mescalin (a man-made version of peyote) while Heaven and Hell contains his advice on how to use the transcendental experience of drugs and how to achieve these experiences without drugs. His general conclusion is that people need to be more open-minded, and society needs to be more accepting of people who live in either a permanent or semi-permanent open-minded state.

The Doors of Perception start one morning, when Huxley takes mescalin as a scientific experiment to understand the effects of mind-altering drugs. Because that’s what everyone was doing in 1954, apparently. He starts by staring at a vase of flowers, moves onto his bookshelves, listens to music, goes to a drug store, looks at art, goes for a ride in a car, and a walk through his neighborhood. Through all of this his conversations were recorded, and it is those recordings that formed the basis for the book. He realizes that everything is beautiful and pure, bright colors are pretty much the best thing ever. Lighting becomes important, and he spends several minutes staring at a chair that has a patter of sunlight and shadows over it. This first book is rather disjointed, but anyone who has taken drugs or been around people on drugs will recognize the feelings of figuring out the meaning of life and everything is connected. His experience is decidedly happy, and he enjoys the few hours of the mescalin-induced high. However, he does realize how disconnected life must feel for those with mental disorders who do not have the option to simply stop taking drugs to return to “normal life,” and urges more compassion for those individuals.

Heaven and Hell tries to explain what he experienced, and why it happened. At the time he wrote the book there wasn’t enough information to understand on a chemical level what exactly happened to the body while on drugs, but he has many philosophical theories about the changes to the human mind. When functioning normally, the mind has a valve that restricts what information becomes conscious thought, and thus in our day-to-day lives we are rational beings. When on drugs, this valve stops working as well and unstructured unconscious thoughts manage to get through. The more drugs that are taken, or the more willing the individual is to have visions, the more information that gets through. Yet because many people are opposed to drugs, and because they can be dangerous when not used safely, he offers other ways to achieve this mental state. Pure, bright colors in art and cloth can be stared at until they produce a hypnotic-like state, as can fireworks and flowers when studied up close. Great art, in the form of paintings and theater, can more viewers to an enlightened state. And there are ways to “modify” the body to chemically produce natural “drugs:’ fasting messes with the levels of vitamins in the body, insomnia allows the valve to be more open, festering untreated wounds introduce toxins into the blood stream, and controlled breathing (through yoga, chanting, singing, and yelling for long periods of time) can upset the balance of oxygen and carbon in the brain. Maybe not all the best way to induce visions, but not everyone has access to drugs.

The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell was a fascinating read. While his arguments don’t always make sense (people who haven’t seen a kangaroo won’t necessarily believe such a strange animal can be real, but they are so we need to accept that other weird things are real), the book is a quick and enjoyable read. It would have fit perfectly into my Forbidden Knowledge philosophy class, or my Deviance and Social Control sociology class, and I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the counterculture of drugs. Or anyone who misses the slightly random books from college philosophy classes.