Aldous Huxley’s Hands: His Quest for Perception and the
Origins and Return of Psychedelic Science
One of those times is when you encounter multiple coincidences. You can be perfectly rational and calculate all the contingent probabilities and rest assured that randomness is alive and well and that everything is explainable. Or you can believe everything’s connected and happens for a reason, even if we are unable to see it.
Despite holding a degree rooted in the former, I have a healthy respect, maybe more honestly a preference, for the latter. How else to explain finding yourself joking about funny mushrooms with a Catholic priest just after you’ve finished reading a book about hallucinogenic drugs?
I like to think one lesson I learned from my spirit guide, Laozi, is to smile enigmatically at such times. Truth is, a lot of that situation is explainable in purely rational terms. And yet the lure of knowing all, or at least more, looms large.
That urge, I’d submit, is deeply human, so much so that it lies at the heart of many religious traditions. What leads to the expulsion from Eden if not the desire to know as much as God? What if psilocybin mushrooms and peyote cacti have more in common with apples than we thought?
Already I’m off-topic. Or, maybe not.
Before we get to the hands let’s remember just who Aldous Huxley was. For many of us, he’s the author of Brave New World. Rather shamefully, I didn’t realize until recently that BNW is a product of the Great Depression. I suppose I lumped it in with Orwell’s great post-war anti-totalitarian novels because they were taught, in my memory, as almost a trilogy. You see how curricula can warp knowledge?
Huxley was much more than a novelist. He wrote essays, poems, short stories, plays, screenplays. He aspired, my word not anyone else’s, to philosophy and had a wide-ranging curiosity. He certainly grew up in the right environment to scratch whatever itch he had. His grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was famously the great defender of Charles Darwin. His brother, Julian, was a noted biologist and, sadly, eugenicist.
Yes, Huxley had hands and I’ll get to them. The more important part of Huxley’s anatomy was his eyes. As a result of illness in his teen years, he lost much of his eyesight. And though he developed compensatory methods and carried a variety of aids to help him see, the world he perceived was quite probably different than mine and possibly yours.
Humans are incredibly visual creatures; I am terribly aware of and paranoid about my eyes. So while I can imagine a writer with troubled eyesight gaining some freedom, I can also imagine him struggling. Perhaps that explains the strong women Huxley partnered with over the course of his life. Or his fascination with perception.
By now, most people of a certain age know that The Doors took their name from Huxley’s 1954 book about mescalin (his preferred spelling), The Doors of Perception. But the drugs come closer to the end of a decades-long fascination with Eastern thought and alternatives to mainstream religions.
Almost every variant he touched has a tradition of mysticism and rapture. And although he evidently didn’t go looking for it, I’d note he could have found the same things in mainstream Western religions if he’d searched hard enough.
I know, the hands. While Aldous was exploring the possibilities of religious cacti with the help of an expatriated English doctor from Edmonton, he was also conducting weekly gatherings at his Los Angeles home. These soirees gathered like-minded people to discuss and demonstrate approaches to the paranormal. At one such soiree, a guest photographed attendees’ hands, including Huxley’s.
That guest photographer was the author’s father, Howard Thatcher. An engineer/draftsman/scientist/faith healer, he had devised a method of closely photographing hands, believing they might encode information. He might even, scientifically-speaking, have been on to something.
But that’s a whole other story, a point that gets right to the weakness of this book–it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s partly a group biography, especially with regards to Huxley’s LA years. It’s partly focused on the medical possibilities of drugs like LSD. It’s partly the story of an almost anonymous man and his obsession. It’s partly about exploring the paranormal. It’s partly a tale indicative of a time and place. It’s partly a memoir and process of discovery. If it were a state it would be California, rambling around a bit confused about how the pieces fit together.
This is where I feel conflicted. Our author, as she clearly tells us, spent 12 years of her life researching and writing this book. She’s worked as a journalist, in the trade publication end of the business. She has a publisher. I’m a guy with a cup of coffee and a laptop on a Sunday morning. Shouldn’t I just shut up and not find fault?
I think not. The author asked for my time and I gave it. I’m not duty-bound to fawn over what I’ve read. And though I’m self-published when it comes to my opinions, I do enough writing and editing in my day job to hold an informed opinion. It’s not that Ms. Symons can’t write, it’s that she needs help shaping what she writes.
For me, the strongest parts of the book were her conversations with her father and the sometimes painful, sometimes happy recollections of her childhood. The voice was more personal, the feelings real. The Huxley parts seemed too in awe of the man, a flawed human just like the rest of us. She fared better in describing her meetings with Laura Huxley. When she turns to the technical–and how can you not in talking about psychoactive chemicals?–the voice is pure trade writer.
As I started this book I ran into a neighbor, the father of one of my son’s classmates, who is a medical doctor. He gushed about the book he was reading, Michael Pollan‘s How to Change Your Mind, which covers the history of, and latter-day experiments into therapeutic uses of, these long-outlawed drugs. As I read of Huxley, I couldn’t help but wonder how a book written by Pollan using the same base material would read.
Maybe I should really be wondering why my time with this book was bound by encounters in which seemingly improbable people spontaneously decided to start talking about drugs.