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The Doors of Perception (1954) / Heaven and Hell (1956)
by Aldous Huxley
144 pages
Penguin

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Two collected essays by Aldous Huxley, the product of his experiences with mescaline and LSD.

The first essay, The Doors of Perception, deals with the experience of taking mescaline and what Huxley sees as similarity to the mystical experience of the religious (or sometimes the illness of schizophrenics). In many ways this piece is very much rooted in its era; Huxley spends a lot of time talking about his positive experiences, but the essay was written, and his life ended, before psychedelic substance use became more widespread among the population.  Thus, Huxley was able to experience the love-filled visions of his own disciplined experimenting, but didn’t live to see the days of people taking these sorts of drugs day after day just to stay high, or the permanent mental damage they initiated in some users, or even the use of these drugs by cults like the Manson family where they were used to break people down and turn them into mindless killers.  In the light of what we’ve now seen, Huxley’s appeal from the mid-50’s that drugs like these are harmless, and would ideally replace alcohol and even religious discipline, seems dangerous and mostly irrelevant.

The second essay, Heaven and Hell, is less notable, and mostly deals with various forms of art and the way Huxley believes that various aspects, such as landscapes or jewels, relate to the visionary experience, and the ‘other world’ all people have some kind of  (greater or lesser) contact with.  It’s a bit wordy and begins to grate when Huxley over-uses his metaphorical terms like Old World, New World, and Antipodes when referring to consciousness. It can also be very irritating to read what is supposed to be a fact-based essay when you catch inaccurate information, such as when early on Huxley states unquestionably that the vast majority of people dream in black-and-white.  This sounded odd to me, as I certainly don’t, and I did a bit of reading on it, and it seems that most people do actually dream in colour, though for a period in the 1950’s there was a theory floating around that most people dreamed in black-and-white.

That sort of inaccuracy is emblematic of this book, that is too concerned with unexamined spur-of-the-moment ideas, and swept up in Huxley’s enthusiasm for his newly discovered psychedelic substances. It can still be an interesting read in parts, but its relevancy has declined in the light of vaster knowledge, and it does something of a disservice to Huxley’s much-finer work elsewhere.

For relief I turned back to the folds in my trousers. ‘This is how one ought to see,’ I repeated yet again. And I might have added, ‘These are the sorts of things one ought to look at.’ Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma-Body, in Luciferian defiance of the grace of God. (pg.33)

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The Book of the Mind: Key Writings on the Mind from Plato and the Buddha through Shakespeare, Descartes, and Freud to the Latest Discoveries of Neuroscience (2003)
edited by Stephen Wilson
Bloomsbury
432 pages

I think I got a bit hoodwinked by the cover on this one.  It looks really nice with the green background and hand-drawn people, and the subtitle makes it sound like it’s much more appealing to a mainstream audience than it really is.  Though there are samples of writings from all the names mentioned in the title, the vast majority of excerpts are taken from dry academic works by scientists you’ve never heard of.

Most of the excerpts are quite short, about a page or two, so I didn’t feel like there enough space allotted to follow the thought process of any author, and instead you were just lucky if you got a hint of what they were talking about. I picked this book up mostly because I thought it would be the sort of thing that would be full of ideas that make you think and wonder – but it wasn’t anything like that at all.

The book is divided into six main sections: Perception, Memory, Emotion, Thought, Consciousness, and Self.

I think someone who is deeply interested in psychology and psychiatry at an academic level might enjoy this, though the very short excerpts may be a problem even for them.

My favourite quote in here is by Gilbert Ryle:‘The mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe’ (pg.249)

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