Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Book Review: The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell

When I first read Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell, most of it was lost on me, and I assumed this was because at the time I lacked any experience with psychedelics. The second time I read the book — many years and many psychedelics later — I still found myself struggling to follow along. I generally don't write negative reviews, but I think this book offers at least two valuable lessons to writers.

Lesson One: Don't Alienate the Reader

I'm not sure who Huxley's intended audience might have been, but it certainly was not the casual reader, regardless of psychedelic experience. Below is a list of the names that Huxley casually references without any explanation, seemingly under the assumption that the reader is already well familiar with each:
Pickwick, Sir John Falstaff, Joe Louis, Lungarno, Meister Eckhart, Suzuki, Braque, Juan Gris, Bergson, Wordsworth, St. John of the Cross, Hakuin, Hui-neng, William Law, Laurent Tailhade, Botticelli, Ruskin, Piero, El Greco, Cosimo Tura, Watteau, Cythera, Ingres, Mme. Moitessier, Cezanne, Arnold Bennett, Vermeer, The Le Nain brothers, Vuillard
That's just from the first forty pages or so. I gave up and stopped writing them down after that.

Lesson Two: Be Clear and Concise

In the passage below, Huxley describes a chair that caught his attention during his mescaline experience:
I spent several minutes — or was it several centuries? — not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them — or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for "I" was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were "they") being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.
Under the influence of psychedelics, I too have felt entranced by common household objects, toiled over the distinction between self & not-self, etc., so I can relate to the sentiment, but the passage above (along with many others) struck me as rather confusing.

Huxley was clearly a pretty smart dude, and the book contains interesting ideas (some more believable than others), but overall the book simply left me scratching my head.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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