Author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley was born on July 26, 1894 and died on November 22, 1963—exactly 56 years ago today. In his memory, we’re republishing Jay Stevens’ article from the January, 1988 issue of High Times, originally titled “Door to Perception: Huxley Drops Mescaline,” which was excerpted from Stevens’ book, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.
He was born Aldous Leonard Huxley on July 26, 1894, in the county of Surrey, England, the third son of Dr. Leonard Huxley, educator, editor and minor literary figure, and the grandson of T.H. Huxley, eminent biologist and one of the most famous men in Victorian England. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T.H. was the man who had demolished Bishop Wilberforce in the famous Oxford debates over Darwin’s theory of evolution. He personified the scientific rationalist, and he eloquently argued its case in newspapers and magazines, and from lecterns throughout the English-speaking world. His collected essays, filling nine volumes, began appearing in the year of his third grandson’s birth, and just a few months before his own death at age seventy.
“Clear, cold logic engines,” were what T.H. demanded from his son and grandsons. As Aldous’s older brother, Julian, once defined it, the Huxley tradition was one of “hard but high thinking, plain but fiery living, wide intellectual interest and constant intellectual achievement.”
Huxley’s mother, Julia, came from equally impressive stock. She was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold and granddaughter of the moralist and educator Dr. Thomas Arnold, one of the eminent Victorians later eviscerated by Lytton Strachey in the book of that name. Julia Huxley was an educator who founded Prior’s Field, a girls’ school just a few meadows away from Hillside School, where young Aldous received his first education.
He was, by all accounts, a brilliant, unathletic, aloof student, whose capacity for detachment unnerved his peers. “Aldous possessed the key to an inviolable inner fortress,” said his cousin Gervas, who also attended Hillside. “Never can I remember his losing his control or giving way to violent emotion as most of us did.” He “possessed some innate superiority and moved on a different level from us other children,” according to his older brother, Julian. He was always thinking, measuring, comparing, assessing. Once his godmother, after observing him staring fixedly out a window, asked what on earth he was thinking about and received the single word skin in reply.
So he was an odd child, even a little scary. Some years later the English science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon published a book called Odd John, which was an attempt to imagine what an intellectual superman, a true Übermensch to use Nietzsche’s much debated term, would really be like. The resulting portrait bears a striking resemblance to the adolescent Aldous Huxley, with the profound qualification that Odd John was never tested by personal tragedy the way Huxley was. Beginning with his entrance to Eton, Huxley’s detachment was shattered by three tragedies. When he was fourteen his mother died. When he was sixteen he contracted a streptococcus infection that destroyed the cornea in his right eye and left the other clouded to the point of blindness. The condition was so serious that Huxley was forced to learn Braille, which he shrugged off with the wry joke that now he could read with impunity after lights out. He was also forced to give up his dream of studying biology, in preparation for a medical career. Adapting a typewriter with Braille keys, he began tapping out poems and stories.
Finally, two years after his blindness lifted and a year after matriculating at Balliol College, Oxford, in the same August that saw the beginning of World War One, Huxley’s middle brother, Trev, committed suicide.
“There is, apart from the sheer grief of the loss, an added pain in the cynicism of the situation,” Aldous wrote to cousin Gervas. “It is just the highest and best in Trev, his ideals, which have driven him to his death, while there are thousands who shelter their weakness from the same fate by a cynical, unidealistic outlook on life. Trev was not strong, but he had the courage to face life with ideals—and his ideals were too much for him.”
This was not a mistake Aldous intended to make. At Oxford he buried his idealism under a cloak of aesthetic dandyism, affecting yellow ties and white socks, and instead of the usual classical reproduction above the fireplace, installing a poster of bare-breasted bathing beauties—French of course. He moved a piano into his room and began banging out American jazz. And he started spending weekends at Garsington, a manor house some six miles from Oxford that Phillip and Ottoline Morrell maintained as a country retreat for the Bloomsbury crowd. A typical Garsington houseparty mingled the likes of Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, the Woolfs—Leonard and Virginia—with assorted other aristocrats of the artistic and intellectual beau monde. Young Huxley held his own amid this galaxy of wits, and was considered by them an intellectual comer and promising poet. When he published a chapbook of poems entitled The Defeat of Youth in 1918, tout Garsington joined in his praise.
Garsington was also where Huxley met his future wife, Maria Nys, a waifish Belgian war refugee who was one of Lady Ottoline’s charges. Besides being more than a foot shorter than her future husband, Maria’s temperament—intuitive, magical, sensuous—was the exact opposite of Aldous’s clear cold logic engine. Igor Stravinsky once said of Maria: “knowing nothing, she understands everything.” And one of things she understood was people. Maria had great psychological acuity, something her husband was almost totally without. Aldous called her his “personal relationship interpreter,” and he used to quiz her thoroughly about the people they met at Garsington.
Their partnership—they began living together in 1919 and were married a few months later—produced one child, a boy, Matthew, and at least eight novels. The first of these, Chrome Yellow, was published in 1921, and was followed at two-year intervals by Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point, Counterpoint. Opening the boards of that first book, none of Huxley’s friends could have been prepared for what they found inside. The gentle, abstracted poet of lines like
No dip and dart of swallows wakes the blank
Slumber of the canal: —a mirror dead
for lack of loveliness remembered
turned into an assassin when he wrote fiction. (“I have done an admirable short story,” Huxley once wrote to his brother Julian’s future wife. “So heartless and cruel that you would probably scream if you heard it: the concentrated venom is quite delicious.”) Sure the writing sparkled and the plot unfolded with professional ease, but there was something acid and unsettling about the way the stories portrayed the emptiness, the artistic and moral pretences of the very friends who were now reading the book. The only thing that saved Huxley from the anger that later greeted Evelyn Waugh’s similar lampoons was the fact that Huxley dissected his own pretensions with equal ferocity. He never stinted on himself.
Huxley dealt with his angst by moving frequently, living in Belgium, France, Spain, and Tunisia, and Italy, where his wife Maria and he became friends with D.H. Lawrence. As the Twenties drew to a close they semipermanently established themselves at a villa in Sanary, France, among the mix of artists and idle rich lucky enough to live on the Côte in the years immediately preceding the Crash of ’29. From Marseilles to Antibes, the Midi was an expanded version of a Garsington weekend. It was familiar fauna, and one might have expected a continuation of what the London Times described as “the many-toned wit… the learning, the thought, the richness of character.”
But Huxley gave his readers instead the anti-utopian Brave New World. Brave New World was Huxley’s first stab at themes that would occupy him for the rest of his life: the gap between technology and human wisdom; the misapplication of evolution; the failure of education to create a whole man; the increasing centralization of power, with its elevation of ends over means. It was also his most savage book, consigning the human species to the trash heap, albeit a comfortable, pleasureful trash heap. In a world in which science allows you to customize the ultimate in bread and circuses, argued Huxley, the concept of coercion becomes meaningless. One of the brilliant elements of Brave New World, indeed the one that made the whole vision of state-controlled euphoria plausible, was the drug soma. In terms of pharmacological reality, soma was a combination of three different kinds of mind drugs: on one level it was a pleasant and entertaining hallucinogen, on another a tranquilizer like Librium or Valium, on a third a sleeping pill. There was nothing coercive about soma use: diehard individualists had the option of relocating to several offshore islands.
But soma was only a symptom of Huxley’s larger theme, which was the machining of human nature. The genius that had allowed the smart monkey to tame the natural world was beginning to focus on itself. And unless something was done to alter the monkey’s fundamental psyche, the consequence was going to be a scientific hell that called itself paradise.
Huxley’s intellectual companion during these years, and perhaps his mentor, was a London literary boulevardier named Henry Fitz Gerald Heard—Gerald to his friends. In 1937, the two moved to America, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where they became a familiar presence on the local spiritual scene, studying Vedantic Hinduism at an ashram in Hollywood. The ashram was under the supervision of a canny, charismatic teacher, Swami Prabhavananda, who some years earlier had been ordered to Los Angeles by his teacher to fulfill the larger karma of introducing the inner disciplines of the East to the materialistic West. To leave not only his native land, but the contemplative solitude of the ashram, for Hollywood, California—it was not a task Prabhavananda had welcomed. But he had come and prospered, confirming the shrewdness of his teacher’s foresight.
The ashram, in classic Southern California fashion, was shaped like a miniature Taj Mahal, and was surrounded by lemon trees and young girls meditating in saris. Prabhavananda was fond of tea parties, during which he would debate Huxley and later Alan Watts, on various doctrinal points. The swami counseled asceticism in all things, including sex.
“But Aldous, what if we don’t like him? What if he wears a beard?” was Maria’s comment when Huxley announced that he had invited an unknown chap named Humphrey Osmond, a psychiatrist no less, for a visit. The offer of room and board chez Huxley was a rare ticket; even Julian, when he was in town, stayed at a local hotel.
The possibility that Osmond might be a tedious bore hadn’t occurred to Huxley, and after a few moments’ thought he arrived at a simple solution. “We can always be out,” he said.
Osmond, some three thousand miles away, was having similar fears. What if he couldn’t play in Huxley’s intellectual league? What if he came off as a tedious bore? “You can always arrange to stay late at the APA,” his wife said.
He need not have worried. The thing Huxley prized most in a fellow conversationalist was intellectual breadth, and Osmond had plenty of that. Like Heard, he could turn on a conversational dime and launch into a disquisition on, say, scurvy, that was so vivid one would almost swear he had shipped with Da Gama when half of the gentleman’s crew perished. Maria, watching Aldous warm to the younger man, confided to Osmond: “I knew you’d get along. You’re both Englishmen.”
Huxley accompanied Osmond to several APA sessions, which he found deadly dull, and amused himself by genuflecting whenever Freud’s name was mentioned. The subject of mescaline didn’t arise until two days before Osmond was to leave, and then it was Maria who broached the subject, having decided that the famous British reticence was going to prevent the two men from discussing what was certainly uppermost in Aldous’s mind. Osmond admitted that he had brought some mescaline with him; while Huxley conceded that he had borrowed a tape recorder to preserve a record of the experiment.
The next day, May 4, 1953, Osmond dissolved some mescaline crystals in a glass of water and nervously handed it to Huxley. Outside it was one of those perfect LA mornings, blue and warm, with just a trace of smog hanging over the San Bernadino valley. What if the drug worked too well, Osmond thought to himself. Although Smythies and he had begun to appreciate that there was more to the mescaline experience than simple psychosis, that didn’t diminish the possibility that the next six hours might be absolutely hellish. And Osmond didn’t relish the possibility that he might become infamous as the man who drove Aldous Huxley crazy.
On the other hand, what if nothing happened? It was beginning to dawn on Humphrey that Huxley had some rather idiosyncratic notions about what he hoped to achieve in the mescaline state. Nowhere was this more explicit than in the letter Osmond had received confirming his invitation to stay with the Huxleys while at the APA. After the usual pleasantries, Aldous had launched into a critique of what he called the Sears & Roebuck culture:
“Under the current dispensation the vast majority of individuals lose, in the course of education, all the openness to inspiration, all the capacity to be aware of other things than those enumerated in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue; is it too much to hope that a system of education may someday be devised which shall give results, in terms of human development, commensurate with the time, money, energy and action expended? In such a system of education it may be that mescaline or some other chemical substance may play a part by making it possible for young people to “taste and see” what they have learned at second hand, or directly but at a lower level of intensity, in the writings of the religious, or the works of poets, painters and musicians.”
Osmond was using mescaline as a mimicker of madness; Huxley wanted to incorporate it into the curriculum.
The minutes passed slowly—too slowly for Huxley, who told Osmond he expected to enter what he called the Blakeian world of heroic perception. What actually happened was much more mundane. The lights danced. The inside of his eyelids dissolved into a complex of gray squares that occasionally gave birth to a blue sphere.
Then, ninety minutes into the experience, Huxley felt himself pass through a screen, at least that’s what it seemed like, and suddenly he was seeing “what Adam had seen on the morning of creation.” It was as though, born myopic, he had just put on his first pair of glasses. The colors, the shapes, the sensuous mysteriousness of his flannel trousers. Later Aldous would pun that he had seen “eternity in a flower, infinity in four chair legs, and the Absolute in the folds of a pair of flannel trousers.”
He kept murmuring, “This is how one ought to see.”
Mescaline, Huxley decided, intensified the visual at the expense of the temporal and spatial. There was a pronounced loss of will, which gradually expanded into a loss of ego. And as the ego relinquished its grip, all sorts of useless data, biologically speaking, began to seep into the mind.
From the house, with its suddenly cubist furniture, they wandered into the garden. For the first time Huxley felt the presence of paranoia, and beyond that, madness. “If you started the wrong way,” he told Osmond, “everything that happened would be proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating. You couldn’t draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot.”
“So you think you know where madness lies?” Osmond asked.
“And you couldn’t control it?”
“No, I couldn’t control it,” Huxley said. “If one began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have to go on to the conclusion.”
But then the shadow passed. From the garden they moved to the street, where a large blue automobile touched off gales of laughter. Fat and self-satisfied, it seemed to Huxley that the car was a self-portrait of twentieth-century man; for the rest of the day he giggled whenever he saw one. Aldous was having a wonderful time. After years of theorizing that each of us carries a reserve of untapped vision and inspiration, he had suddenly stumbled across it at the advanced age of fifty-eight.
It was a little like that classic moment in children’s literature when the hero walks outside one morning and discovers a door, where yesterday there was only blank wall. And beyond that door, a garden of infinite dimension, infinite adventure.
Huxley was jubilant.
Mescaline was “the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision,” he cabled his New York editor, Harold Raymond, adding that he was working on a long essay that would raise “all manner of questions in the fields of aesthetics, religion, theory of knowledge.” He planned to call this essay The Doors of Perception, after Blake’s observation that “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Destined to become the most famous volume on the psychedelic bookshelf, Doors took Huxley a month to write, and when he was done he had a blow-by-blow account of that afternoon with Osmond—events like the Dharma body of the Buddha manifesting itself in the garden hedge—tempered by liberal speculation as to what it all might possibly mean in terms of human psychology.
What it all meant, Huxley thought, was that Bergson and the English philosopher C.D. Broad had been correct when they suggested that the brain operated as a vast reducing valve, “shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” Like the Freudian ego, this reducing valve was constantly beset by the raging tides of Mind at Large, which was what Huxley called Jung’s archetypal unconscious plus Freud’s pathological unconscious plus Myer’s treasure house plus all the other unconsciousnesses yet to be named. And like Freud’s ego, this reducing valve was not watertight: its seal was susceptible to pressure.
“As Mind at Large seeps past the no longer watertight valve,” he wrote, “all kinds of biologically useless things start to happen. In some cases there may be extra-sensory perceptions. Other persons discover a world of visionary beauty. To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence…. In the final stage of egolessness there is an ‘obscure knowledge’ that All is in all—that All is actually each.” Which was why bookjackets gleamed with godliness and an innocuous canvas chair in the garden “looked like the Last Judgement.”
There was nothing unique about Mind at Large: the smart money had been vacationing there for millennia—the number of hit or miss techniques could’ve filled a small booklet. But suddenly, with mescaline, mankind had lucked upon a technology. For the first time a science of the Other World was possible. Perhaps.
The Doors of Perception was published in the spring of 1954 to generally perplexed reviews. Had anyone else written a book recommending mescaline as “an experience of estimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual,” declared The Reporter’s Marvin Barrett, it would have been dismissed “as the woolgathering of a misguided crackpot. But coming…from one of the current masters of English prose, a man of immense erudition and intellect who usually demonstrates a high moral seriousness, they deserve more careful scrutiny.” Barrett called around until he found some Lab Madness researchers who were using mescaline as a psychotomimetic. They were “less enthusiastic than Dr. Huxley and the Indians,” he reported. “In controlled experiments they have found that mescaline more often than not produces symptoms unpleasantly similar to those of schizophrenia.”
The critical response to Doors was almost an echo of the British Medical Journal’s condemnation of Havelock Ellis for his enthusiastic endorsement of peyote. In effect, Huxley’s knuckles were rapped, and another black mark was added to the “whatever happened to Aldous” column. “How odd it is that writers like Belloc and Chesterton may sing the praises of alcohol (which is responsible for about two-thirds of the car accidents and three-quarters of the crimes of violence) and be regarded as good Christians and noble fellows,” Huxley complained, “whereas anyone who ventures to suggest that there may be other and less harmful short cuts to self transcendence is treated as a dangerous drug fiend and wicked perverter of weak-minded humanity.”
But Doors sold, slowly but steadily. Someone was reading it.
Maria died in February 1955. During her last hours, “with tears streaming down his face and his quiet voice not breaking,” Aldous read to her from the Bardo Thodol, interweaving the ancient Tibetan text with lyrical descriptions of their shared past. With Lawrence in Italy. Summers at Sanary. The weekends at Garsington when they had first met while the rest of the world was falling apart on the Somme. Their trips to the California desert. The white snowcapped mountains of the Sierras. “Go toward the light,” Aldous kept murmuring. “Those last three hours were the most anguishing and moving of my life,” Matthew Huxley later wrote to his wife; while for Gerald they were proof that Aldous had indeed come back through the Door a changed man; that he was able to cope with Maria’s death so calmly was wholly attributable, Gerald felt, to the wisdom he had gained from mescaline.
The fall of 1960 was an equivocal time for Aldous Huxley. His lectures on visionary experience were jammed. And not just by students. The public ones at night caused traffic problems more appropriate for the Harvard-Yale game. Huston Smith, who taught religion at MIT, considered it the crowning moment of Huxley’s career as a public philosopher. Huxley was less sanguine. For twenty-five years, ever since he had joined Gerald Heard in support of Dick Shepperton’s Peace Union, he had been chipping away at his loathing for the public soapbox; in the last twenty years he had addressed everyone from rotarians to nuclear scientists; so by the time he reached MIT he was in top oratorical form. But he found he had little to say. “It’s a bit embarrassing,” he confided to Huston Smith, “to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kind.’”
It was the sort of gentle resignation one might expect from a man who had recently been diagnosed as having cancer of the throat.
Health problems, which he blamed on his stringbean lack of robustness, had always been a complication in Huxley’s life; his letters are peppered with self-mocking references to his hypochondria, his blindness, his lack of stamina. But cancer was Maria’s disease, there was a finality to it, which may be why Aldous told no one except Humphrey Osmond, whom he swore to secrecy.
With death on his mind, Huxley redoubled his efforts on his recalcitrant utopian novel, which now bore the working title Island. Every morning he wrestled with the literary problem of how to portray a psychedelic utopia without boring the reader. “It may be that the job is one which cannot be accomplished with complete success,” he confessed to his son. “In point of fact, it hadn’t been accomplished in the past. For most Utopian books have been exceedingly didactic and expository. I am trying to lighten up the exposition by putting it into dialogue form, which I make as lively as possible. But meanwhile I am always haunted by the feeling that, if only I had enough talent, I could somehow poeticize and dramatize all this intellectual material.”
It was a losing battle. Despite his best efforts, Island was becoming a thinly fictionalized anthology of final thoughts on topics that had occupied Huxley for forty years: on education, psychology, metaphysics; on the place of art and creativity in life, and the role of psychedelics in exploring the mind’s potential. To dramatize this last theme, he had invented a new mind drug, which he called moksha, “the reality revealer, the truth and beauty pill.”
The crab, in remission since 1960, had come creeping back, and by autumn it was touch and go. Huxley checked into a Los Anbgeles hospital and tried to ignore the disease that was ravaging his throat. He was unable to write because of the pain but he did have a dictaphone and in lucid moments he worked on an essay on Shakespeare. Although his condition was obviously grave, he refused to acknowledge the possibility of death. Did he know he was dying? It was a question his second wife, Laura, couldn’t answer:
“We read the entire manual of Dr. Leary based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He could have, even jokingly, said: “Don’t forget to remind me when the time comes.” His comment instead was directed only to the problem of “reentry” after a psychedelic session. It is true he sometimes said things like, ‘If I get out of this,’ in connection with his new ideas of writing, and wondered when and if he would have the strength to work. He was mentally very active and it seemed that some new levels of his mind were stirring.”
But on the morning of November twenty-second, 1963, a Friday, it became clear the gap between living and dying was closing. Realizing that Aldous might not survive the day, Laura sent a telegram to his son, Matthew, urging him to come at once. At ten in the morning, an almost inaudible Aldous asked for paper and scribbled “If I go,” and then some directions about his will. It was his first admission that he might die. Soon after he murmured, “Who is eating out of my bowl?” When Laura asked what he meant he dismissed it as a private joke. “At this point there is so little to share,” he told her, a statement that she interpreted as meaning no questions. Around noon he asked for the pad of paper and scribbled
In a letter circulated among Aldous’s friends, Laura Huxley described what followed: “You know very well the uneasiness in the medical mind about this drug. But no ‘authority,’ not even an army of authorities, could have stopped me then. I went into Aldous’s room with the vial of LSD and prepared a syringe. The doctor asked me if I wanted him to give the shot—maybe because he saw that my hands were trembling. His asking me that made me conscious of my hands, and I said, ‘No, I must do this.’”
An hour later she gave Huxley a second 100mm. Then she began to talk, bending close to his ear, whispering, “light and free you let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going toward the light. Willingly and consciously you are going, willing and consciously, and you are doing this beautifully; you are doing this so beautifully—you are going toward the light—you are going toward the light—you are going toward a greater love…. You are going toward Maria’s love with my love. You are going toward the best, the greatest love, and it is easy, it is so easy, and you are doing it so beautifully.”
All struggle ceased. The breathing became slower and slower and slower, until, “like a piece of music just finishing so gently in sempre piu piano, dolcamente at twenty past five in the afternoon, Aldous Huxley died.
And it was only then that Laura Huxley really had the time to fathom the other great tragedy of the day, the assassination of the President in Dallas.