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Break on through to the other side

June 9, 2011 16 comments

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. 1953. Translated into French by Jules Castier.

The Doors of Perception is an essay in which Aldous Huxley relates his experience with mescaline in 1953. It was translated into French by Jules Castier in 1953 and published in 1954. I’m rather surprised that it has been published in France so shortly after it was released in America and even before it was published in the UK. I noticed the same phenomenon for the first translation of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I never suspected there was a readership for this in France in the 1950s.

I’m a huge fan of The Doors and I’ve always wanted to read The Doors of Perception but constantly postponed that reading, suspecting I wouldn’t understand it. Eventually, I decided to give it a try. As Nicolas Boileau once said:

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,

And the words to say it flow with ease.

This post will be an opportunity to ensure I understood something about what I’ve read. I think I understood the major part of it except for this particular sentence, which could have been written in Chinese:

And how can a man at the extreme limits of ectomorphy and cerebrotonia ever put himself in the place of one at the limits of endomorphy and viscerotonia, ot, except within certain circumscribed areas, share the feelings of one who stands at the limites of mesomorphy and somatotonia?

Any volunteer to translate this in comprehensible English for me?

OK now, here is what I understood. Huxley’s hypothesis is that Nature restrains our everyday perceptions so that our mind focuses on what is useful to stay alive and perpetuate the species. Our perception is bridled. He also points out that our perceptions are ours only and vocabulary is a poor vehicle to convey the depth of our sensorial and thinking experience:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraces, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transecendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solutide. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies–all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.  

After Huxley has swallowed mescaline, he experiences the disappearance of space and time notions. These are no longer relevant or important. His perception of objects is free from material needs, organized thinking and reasoning. He has access to another kind of perception, stronger than the every day life perception.

His vision of fabric, flowers, and inanimate objects is incredibly different. He argues that some of us have that quality of perception without mescaline. Artists are the ones who both have that superior perception and a superior gift to translate it into words or into images. Painters show it in the quality of fabric on their paintings. Poets and authors have a gift to make words sing and capture reality differently.

I agree with that. I’ve always thought that artists have a magic look on reality that I don’t have. And I’m glad they do as much as they can to help people like me have a glimpse of another way at looking reality. I thought about two poets when I read this. Huxley mentions Blake, but he’s not part of my background. Rimbaud and Eluard are part of my background. It reminded me of Voyelles by Rimbaud, a poem in which he gives a colour to each vowel of the alphabet. (Click here to read the poem in French and in English) I also reminded me of Eluard verse: La Terre est bleue comme une orange (The Earth is blue like an orange). This phrase always struck me as incredibly accurate. I wonder how he saw this image which was later confirmed by satellite images. And of course, Huxley evokes Van Gogh and the cubist movement.  

Huxley has a nuanced opinion about mescaline. When he was under mescaline, nothing was important except contemplate fabrics and flowers. No social duties or human relationship could have diverted him from this contemplative state. He writes this is unacceptable to keep the world moving. It is crucial to keep our thinking in that limited mode that allow us to act and interact with other people. However, he thinks that mankind needs drugs and especially to enforce the religious experience. There have been drugs in all civilizations, alcohol, marijuana, peyote…It is utopian to imagine a society without drugs, without moments to push the door of that extra perception or moments to shut out rational ways of thinking. He doesn’t say that mescaline is that drug. He says pharmacologists and therapists should ally to find a drug without long term effects on health or immediate effects on behaviours such as violence.

I can see how this text could influence Jim Morrison, obsessed as he was by Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud. I’m not sure at all that I understood what Huxley meant but well, I tried. And instead of mescaline, I’m addicted to Romain Gary. I couldn’t help thinking about this passage of Adieu Gary Cooper after finishing The Doors of Perception.

L.S.D, un sale truc, Lenny s’est embarqué là-dedans une fois, mais tout ce qu’il avait vu, c’était la même chose, seulement en technicolor, et le seul moment différent fut lorsque sa verge s’était détachée de lui, avait mis son anorak et pris ses skis, et il s’était mis à hurler et à courir pour les rattraper, il tenait à ses skis comme à la prunelle de ses yeux. Se faire voler comme ça par l’un des siens…On ne peut vraiment plus compter sur personne. L.S.D., a nasty stuff, Lenny got himself into it once but all he had seen was the same, but in Technicolor. The only different moment had been when his penis came off him, put on his anorak and took his skis. He had started to scream and run to catch them up, he wouldn’t have given his skis for the world. To be stolen like this by a relative…Nobody can be trusted anymore.

PS: I had to translate this quote as it is absent from The Ski Bum, the English version of Adieu Gary Cooper. I don’t know why. Either Gary invented it after The Ski Bum was published, when he wrote the French version or it wasn’t suitable for a diplomat in theUSA to write such things involving drug and sex.

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