“The Doors of Perception”

Aldous Huxley

Huxley is the kind of author I’ve tended to shy away from, entirely based on Brave New World. Dystopian science fiction, popular with literature teachers? Nope, not for me. So I was a bit wary of this, going in, but after a few pages I realized that what I was reading was nonfiction, and nonfiction with a very interesting writing style at that.

I actually found myself collecting quotes as I read, along with ideas. I quite liked his semi-utopian vision of a future where we’ve replaced alcohol’s role in society with something like a short-lived mescaline derivative. No hangover, no belligerent drunkenness, just a feeling of being one with the world and experiencing something greater than yourself? Sounds pretty neat! Shame we went all “war on drugs” instead.

Some of the quotes just hit me with a sense of poetry:

In a few minutes we had climbed to a vantage point in the hills, and there was the city spread out beneath us. Rather disappointingly, it looked very like the city I had seen on other occasions. So far as I was concerned, transfiguration was proportional to distance. The nearer, the more divinely other. This vast, dim panorama was hardly different from itself.

Others just made me laugh:

An hour later, with ten more miles and the visit to the World’s Biggest Drug Store safely behind us, we were back at home, and I had returned to that reassuring but profoundly unsatisfactory state known as “being in one’s right mind.”

I also, being the big fan of Snow Crash that I am, liked some of the discussion about words-as-symbols, and the inability of symbols to be the real thing:

This may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that our perceptions of the external world are habitually clouded by the verbal notions in terms of which we do our thinking. We are forever attempting to convert things into signs for the more intelligible abstractions of our own invention. But in doing so, we rob these things of a great deal of their native thinghood.

Another one that felt like a reference, this time to Timeheart in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series:

In other words, precious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.

And the discussion of art was just marvelous throughout. I want a museum setting of this book, walking you through his discussion of each piece as you walk by the piece itself.

The past is not something fixed and unalterable. Its facts are rediscovered by every succeeding generation, its values reassessed, its meetings redefined in the context of present tastes and preoccupations. Out of the same documents and monuments and works of art, every epoch invents its own Middle Ages, its private China, its patented and copyrighted Hellas. Today, thanks to recent advances in the technology of lighting, we can go one better than our predecessors. Not only have we reinterpreted the great works of sculpture bequeathed to us by the past, we have actually succeeded in altering the physical appearance of these works. Greek statues, as we see them illuminated by a light that never was on land or sea, and then photographed in a series of fragmentary close-ups from the oddest angles, beat almost no resemblance to the Greek statue seen by art critics and the general public in the dim galleries and decorous engravings of the past.

. . .

This may be bad art history, but it is certainly enormous fun.

One more block quote, because the final line really reminded me of Saturn by Sleeping At Last:1

A single candle, as Caravaggio and Spaniards had shown, can give rise to the most enormous theatrical effects. But Latour took no interest in theatrical effects. There is nothing dramatic in his pictures, nothing tragic or pathetic or grotesque, no representation of action, no appealed to the sort of emotions, which people go to the theater to have excited and then appeased. His personages are essentially static. They never do anything; they are simply there in the same way in which a granite Pharaoh is there, or a bodhisattva from Khmer, or one of Piero’s flat-footed angels. And the single candles used, and every case, distress this intense but un-excited, impersonal thereness. By exhibiting common things in an uncommon light, its flame makes manifest the living mystery and inexplicable marvel of mere existence.

Rather a long review, courtesy of the many quotes, but at the end I think all I’ve got to say is that I enjoyed it. Get a paperback copy; this is the kind of book that really wants to be perused on the couch on a rainy day, pen and paper available for jotting notes. Give it a go.2

  1. Specifically the line — “how rare and beautiful it is to even exist”
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.