The two essays collected in this thin volume recount Aldous Huxley’s experience taking mescalin (a psychedelic drug / hallucinogen derived from a cactus root) in the 1950’s, and the insights derived from that experimentation. The book contains descriptions of what Huxley observed under the influence, such as the hallucinations of “sacred geometry” that are common among those consuming hallucinogens. However, much of these essays are about how what he witnessed mirrors art and the text of mystical religions. Huxley provides a steady diet of food-for-thought on these topics. It is when Huxley relates the psychedelic experience to the mystical, religious, and artistic experience that I found this volume to be the most intriguing. “The Doors of Perception” is a mix of description and discussion of these linkages. “Heaven & Hell” delves much more deeply into said linkages, and I was blown away by some of the ideas in the latter essay. There is also a bit of discussion of the commonalities between schizophrenia and psychedelic experience.
Huxley devotes some space in both essays to discussing the science of these experiences, but I don’t see those parts as the strength of the volume. While Huxley was a scientifically minded fellow, his reporting on science errors on some of the grand scale issues (e.g. memory, which is far more fallible than was thought in his day.) (Specific [small-scale issue] findings are probably accurate.) The thing is, Huxley was also a mystic and he viewed biology as a “reducing valve” that mitigated our experience of consciousness—a grand field existing wholly beyond the nervous system, such that our experience of it was hemmed in by biology—rather than being created by it. This isn’t particularly a criticism. For one thing, when one beholds the bold sensory experiences that Huxley witnessed and contrasts them to the visualization of everyday consciousness, it’s hard not to believe that one is on a plane entirely outside the bonds of biology. While I’ve never done psychedelic drugs, my limited experience with the more-real-than-real world of lucid dreaming makes me sympathetic to this long-held and widely held belief. Additionally, neuroscience was still in it’s infancy during Huxley’s time. [It may still be in its infancy, but a great deal has been learned—particularly since the technology of the 1990’s—that points to biology being the source of many of these experiences that seem amaterial.]
The two essays are each short. “The Doors of Perception” is about 50 pages, and “Heaven & Hell” is about 40. Even with the front matter and appendices, the book comes in at only a little over 120 pages.
There are no graphics in this volume, nor is it annotated—except for in-text references and a few footnotes. With respect to front matter, there is a Forward by J.G. Ballard and an Introduction / bio-sketch of Huxley by David Bradshaw. There are also a series of appendices that report on various topics related to mystical / psychedelic experiences such as the effects of CO2, strobe lights, and starvation, as well as the relationship to lighting, works of art, and mental illness.
If one is interested in alternate states of consciousness, I’d highly recommend this book. Huxley’s ability to capture his experience vividly and his thought-provoking suggestions about the experience make these essays worth the read.