One pill makes you larger . . .

Over the past week, I’ve heard two different people recall experiences involving psychedelic drugs in high school and college. At a wedding last night, I met a woman in her 50s, who recalled driving to Antioch College to see a film—she was attending school in Dayton at the time—and she described how the entire audience of undergraduates was high on one controlled substance or another, all of them doing sound effects to accompany a Buster Keaton flick, laughing hysterically, as if they were at a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She found the whole experience funny but a little annoying. Afterward, she said, she and her friends went to a dorm room where several people who had dropped LSD were gazing with rapt wonder at a lava lamp. “I just thought, how moronic these people were.” A week ago, on a trip to see some of my own childhood friends in Boise, Idaho, I listened to one of them describe his experimentation with mescaline many years ago: “You were still yourself. It didn’t make you feel out of control, the way acid would, but it changed everything visually. Walking along the sidewalk, the ground would seem to roll up toward you and unroll behind you. Your sense of space was totally different. I remember getting into a Volkswagen van and looking around and thinking, it’s as big as a stadium. It was amazing.”

Both of those accounts confirm observations that Aldous Huxley made decades ago when he participated in an experiment testing the effects of mescaline. It might just make you look pretty childish to an onlooker, and yet for the participant, it seems to unveil an incredible depth of meaning in the most commonplace things. As William Blake put it: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear . . . as it is, infinite.” A researcher had come to Los Angeles where Huxley lived and asked if he wanted to take the drug and then report on what he saw and heard and felt, minute by minute, as the researcher recorded his commentary. Afterward, Huxley wrote a short book, called The Doors of Perception, recounting the episode in great detail, and it remains for me one of the finest books ever written about why painting matters. In fact, a fair number of pages in the book are devoted to how the drug enabled Huxley to see painting itself from a completely new perspective—how there’s a sense of significance and meaning and deep satisfaction in the simple act of perception, especially the act of looking at a commonplace object, and only after he’d taken mescaline did this become obvious to him. This book has become something like a sacred text for me, as a painter, and it serves as a little manifesto for why anyone should want to pick up a paint brush:

The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant. An hour and a half (after he took the drug) I was looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained three flowers . . . but I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of the creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence. . . . Plato . . .could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing else, than what they were . . .  

I’m not sure that’s dig against Plato is justified, but when I read this, it occurred to me that he’s saying nearly everything Martin Heidegger ever wanted to say—his ontology reduced to clear, no-nonsense conversational prose—about how our evolution and civilization have obscured the simple, fundamental apprehension of Being. We’re so caught up in rationally dissecting the world into its pieces and parts, in order to manipulate them and establish scales of quality in order to make choices which will put food on the table, that we completely fall asleep to the most important act of all: pure perception. Huxley seems to suggest in this book that the notion of “purpose” in life, so central to our survival as individuals and a species, obscures this act of pure perception, from which we derive the greatest and most vital sense of meaning. You can’t give up the survival behavior, in favor of staring at a lava lamp all day, but somehow you need to regain the sense of what’s amazing in just looking, hearing, smelling, touching, if you want to stay connected to the mystery and fascination of actually being alive.

Whether or not subsequent research on brain function bears him out, Huxley had an interesting view of how the brain is largely designed to screen out stimuli so that the individual can focus on predators and prey. In other words, you have to quit being awed by everything you see in order to eat and avoid being eaten.

. . .the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by 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. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.

It sounds ludicrous to say we’re here to do nothing but look and listen and taste and touch, and everything else we do as a species pales in comparison with this mindfulness, and yet this is the wisdom Huxley derived from his experiment. He portrays this cleansed perception as what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.” We’re so busy analyzing and classifying and improving the things around us, we completely forget that existence itself, just as it is, right at this moment, is astonishing. We’re so busy doing so many things, we forget the most crucial apprehension of the world takes no thinking, no conceptualizing, no effort at all, other than what’s required to quiet the mind for a bit.

Huxley knows there’s some humor in all this, from the perspective of anyone not high on mescaline, which is why his account includes a visit to The World’s Biggest Drug Store, in Los Angeles back in 1953, and yet, ironically, this is where he begins to talk about the wonders of painting:

I was taken for a little tour of the city, which included a visit to . . . the World’s Biggest Drug Store. At the back of the WBDS, among the toys . . . stood a row of, surprisingly enough, art books. . . .(which he began to thumb through) mere tailoring can never explain the luxuriant development of drapery as a major theme of all the plastic arts. Bernini tempers the all but caricatural verisimilitude of his faces with enormous sartorial abstractions, which are the embodiment, in stone or bronze, of . . .  the sublimity to which mankind perpetually aspires, for the most part in vain. Or consider Watteau—not an inch of smooth surface here, not a moment of peace or confidence, only a silken wilderness of countless tiny pleats and wrinkles, with an incessant modulation—inner uncertainty rendered with perfect assurance of a master hand—of tone into tone, of one indeterminate color into another.

When he says these things, it’s hard not to think of those Antioch undergrads gazing with moronic rapture at a lava lamp, but put the reflexive mockery aside, and you know he’s right. The collar and shirt in a Franz Hals portrait draw your eye away from the superb rendering of the face, and you keep going back to that black, snowcapped mountain of cloth again and again, without any way to explain its fascination, other than these observations Huxley made. The details of this fellow’s blouse stand as a portal into a mindful awareness of Being. You’re seeing the simple “isness” of that cloth and, even to a drug-free mind, it’s marvelous, even though to say so sounds utterly ludicrous.

What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness. It is a knowledge of the intrinsic significance of every existent. For the artist, as for the mescalin taker draperies are living heiroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being . . . the folds of my gray flannel trousers were charge with “is-ness” To what they owed this privilege, I cannot say.

As he walked back from The World’s Biggest Drug Store along Sunset Boulevard, he says:

And all at once I saw what Guardi had seen (with what incomparable skill) had so often rendered in his paintings—a stucco wall with a shadow slanting across it, blank but unforgettably beautiful, empty but charged with all the meaning and mystery of existence.

 An hour later, with ten more miles and the visit to the World’s Biggest Drug Store safely behind us, we were back at home, and I had returned to that reassuring but profoundly unsatisfactory state known as “being in one’s right mind.”

 We must learn how to handle words effectively, but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.

 Poring over Judith’s skirts, there in the World’s Biggest Drug Store, I knew that Botticelli . . . had seen  . . . the Infinity of folded cloth and had done (his) best to render it . . . . For the glory and wonder of pure existence belong to another order, beyond the power of even the highest art to express. But in Judith’s skirt, I could clearly see what, if I had been a painter of genius, I might have made of my old gray flannels. Not much, heaven knows, in comparison with the reality, but enough to delight generation after generation of beholders, enough to make them understand at least a little of the true significance of what, in our pathetic imbecility, we call “mere things” and disregard in favor of television.

 “This is how I ought to see,” I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers. “This is how one ought to see, how things really are.”

And that’s exactly what I say to myself every time I look at a masterful painting.

1 Response to “One pill makes you larger . . .”

  1. “The specialness of even the most ordinary things . . .” » Art Matters!

    […] of lost ideal of the artist for me. Granted, I’m anthropomorphizing this little bird, but still. Aldous Huxley talked about this state of mind, a deep hunger to simply look, to see, in The Doors of Perception. […]