The Doors of Perception - Reception


The book met with a variety of responses, both positive and negative, from writers in the field of literature, psychiatry, philosophy and religion. These included a symposium published in The Saturday Review magazine with the unlikely title of, Mescalin – An Answer to Cigarettes, including contributions from Huxley; J.S. Slotkin, a professor of Anthropology; and a physician, Dr. W.C. Cutting. For the Scottish poet, Edwin Muir “Mr. Huxley’s experiment is extraordinary, and is beautifully described”. Thomas Mann, the author and friend of Huxley, believed the book demonstrated Huxley's escapism. He thought that while escapism found in mysticism might be honorable, drugs were not. Huxley's 'aesthetic self-indulgence' and indifference to humanity would lead to suffering or stupidity, and he concluded the book was irresponsible, if not quite immoral, to encourage young people to try the drug. For Huxley’s biographer and friend, the author Sybille Bedford, the book combined sincerity with simplicity, passion with detachment. “It reflects the heart and mind open to meet the given, ready, even longing, to accept the wonderful. The Doors is a quiet book. It is also one that postulates a goodwill – the choice once more of the nobler hypothesis. It turned out, for certain temperaments, a seductive book.” For biographer David King Dunaway, The Doors of Perception, along with The Art of Seeing, can be seen as the closest Huxley ever came to autobiographical writing.

Psychiatric responses included those of William Sargant, the controversial British psychiatrist, who reviewed the book for The British Medical Journal and particularly focused on Huxley's reflections on schizophrenia. He wrote that the book brought to life the mental suffering of schizophrenics, which should make psychiatrists uneasy about their failure to relieve this. Also, he hoped that the book would encourage the investigation of the physiological, rather than psychological, aspects of psychiatry. Other medical researchers questioned the validity of Huxley's account. The book contained "99 percent Aldous Huxley and only one half gram mescaline" according to Ronald Fisher. While Joost A.M. Meerloo found Huxley's reactions "not necessarily the same as... other people's experiences." For Steven J. Novak, The Doors Of Perception (and Heaven and Hell) redefined taking mescaline (and LSD, although Huxley had not taken it until after he had written both books) as a mystical experience with possible psychotherapeutic benefits, where physicians had previously thought of the drug in terms of mimicking a psychotic episode, known as psychotomimetic. The popularity of the book also affected research into these drugs, because researchers needed a random sample of subjects with no preconceptions about the drug in order to conduct experiments, and these became very difficult to find.

In the field of religion, Huxley’s friend and spiritual mentor, the Vedantic monk Swami Prabhavananda, thought that mescaline was an illegitimate path to enlightenment, a "deadly heresy" as Christopher Isherwood put it. Martin Buber, the Jewish religious philosopher, attacked Huxley's notion that mescaline allowed a person to participate in "common being", and held that the drug ushered users "merely into a strictly private sphere". Philosophically, Buber believed the drug experiences to be holidays "from the person participating in the community of logos and cosmos—holidays from the very uncomfortable reminder to verify oneself as such a person." For Buber man must master, withstand and alter his situation, or even leave it, "but the fugitive flight out of the claim of the situation into situationlessness is no legitimate affair of man."

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