The Door in the Wall
Psychedelics in the 1950s. An excerpt from
Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Harper & Row Publishers, ©1987 by Jay Stevens. ISBN 0-06-097172-X
There is no way of determining who was the first American to take
LSD. But one of the earliest was a Boston doctor named Robert
Hyde, who practiced at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.
One of Hyde's colleagues, a psychiatrist named Max Rinkel, had
obtained some LSD and was curious whether it really did make a
normal person crazy for a few hours. Rinkel didn't phrase it quite
that way, of course. What he was interested in was model psychoses,
test-tube schizophrenias that might shed a little light on the
etiology of madness.
Hyde was Rinkel's first guinea pig. With the others gathered around,
he emptied the brown ampule of Delysid into a glass of water and
sat down to wait. And wait. Growing impatient, Hyde announced
he was going to do his evening rounds; the others could tag along
if they wished, but it certainly didn't feel like anything much
was going to happen. What followed was fascinating. Right before
their eyes, Hyde, the even-keeled Vermonter, turned into a paranoiac,
as a swarm of little suspicionsWhy are those people smiling?
Was that a door closing?began eating away at his composure.
Rinkel reported on his LSD work at the 1951 APA Convention in
Cincinnati. He had found, he said, remarkable congruence between
LSD-inspired model psychoses and schizophrenia:
We noticed, predominantly, changes similar to those seen in schizophrenic
patients. The subjects exhibited preeminently difficulties in
thinking, which became retarded, blocked, autistic, and disconnected....
Feelings of indifference and unreality with suspiciousness, hostility,
and resentment also approximated schizophrenic phenomena. Hallucinations
and delusional disturbances were much less prominent...
But these were relative conclusions, Rinkel was quick to stress.
For every person who became autistic, another turned manic, making
jokes and puns that were completely out of character; for every
bout of hostility, there was a corresponding moment of deep ecstasy.
About the only generality that could be made was that normal people
did not remain normal after taking LSD: they changed, and in that
sense what happened could be classed as abnormal.
But were they crazy? Were these true model psychoses? Or were
the researchers projecting their own desires onto what they were
seeing? These weren't easy questions to answer, but as time went
on, and as more and more researchers began studying LSD, they
discovered that they were creating a lot of the negative reaction.
LSD made one remarkably sensitive to nuance. If the examining
psychologist was cold or abrupt, then the patient often responded
with hostility or hurt. Conversely a warm, gentle doctor could
provoke assertions of love and well-being that went far beyond
the bounds of respectability.
The tests were a particular sore spot. Just as the LSD state reached
full throttle, out came the personality tests, the Rorschach,
the TAT, the Bellevue Blocks, and Draw-A-Person Test. Frequently
the research subjects became angry and intractable at this point,
claiming, just the way schizophrenics did, that the questions
were boring, stupid, irrelevant. "In the LSD test situation,"
warned Rinkel, "subjects appeared more interested in their
own feelings and inner experiences than in interacting with the
examiner, confirming behaviorally the test results, which indicated
increasing self-centeredness." Many years later, a former
school psychologist named Arthur Kleps, appearing before a Congressional
hearing, offered one of the better explanations for why people
taking LSD found tests irritating: "If I were to give you
an IQ test and during the administration one of the walls of the
room opened up, giving you a vision of the blazing glories of
the central galactic suns, and at the same time your childhood
began to unreel before your inner eye like a three-dimension color
movie, you would not do well on the intelligence test."
But a science has to use the tools available to it; besides, the
tests bore out what everyone hoped, that LSD really was creating
model psychoses. Researchers began referring to it not as a hallucinogen,
which was its proper medical classification, but as a psychotomimetic,
a mimicker of madness.
By the early Fifties there were a dozen pockets of LSD research
around the country. Most followed Rinkel's work with model psychoses,
although a few confined themselves to animal toxicology studies,
and at least one was pursuing Sandoz's other suggestion and using
LSD in a therapeutic setting. But all were impressed by the drug's
sheer power and the astonishing effects it produced, not just
in normal folks, but in crazy people as well. Startling things
happened when you gave LSD to mental patients. One catatonic took
the drug and three and a half hours later began bouncing around
the ward, laughing uproariously. In the afternoon she played basketball.
That night she danced. But the next morning she was her old catatonic
self again. Or there was the case of the hebrephenic schizophrenic
that usually spent her days giggling and chattering inanities
about the birds and the flowers. Thirty minutes after receiving
100 micrograms of LSD she became dead serious, all the laughter
gone from her voice. "This is serious business," she
told her ward doctor. "We are pathetic people. Don't play
with us." Later she assaulted the hospital aides and made
sexual overtures to the chief nurse.
It was fascinating stuff. But what did it all mean? What happened
after LSD or mescaline passed through the blood/brain barrier?
Did it interfere in some fundamental way with the normal neurochemistry?
And if it did, might not the brain produce its own LSD-like metabolites?
This, anyway, was what a lot of researchers were asking themselves.
Was there an organic basis for madness, and if there was, who
was going to find it?
A number of theories were ventured, but the one that concerns
us here is the adrenochrome theory of two English psychiatrists,
Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies.
The first schizophrenic Humphrey Osmond ever treated was a girl
who told him that whenever she looked in the mirror, what she
saw was an elephant. As soon as she left, Osmond trotted off to
find his superior and tell him of this very odd delusion. "Well
you know she has schizophrenia," his boss had said. "What's
that?" Osmond had asked. He'd heard of it, of course. What
he wanted were the answers to the usual first questionssymptoms,
treatment, etiology. But what he discovered was that nobody could
tell him anything substantive. There were lots of theories, but
no hard data that did for schizophrenia what Freud and his followers
had done for the mechanism of repression, for the dynamics of
neuroses. Tired of his questions, Osmond's boss finally suggested
that he look up a Jungian analyst named Anthony Hampton, who in
turn suggested that he read a book by Thomas Hennell called The
Alongside Clifford Beers's The Mind That Found Itself,
Hennell's book was one of the more evocative descriptions of what
it was like to suffer and recover from extreme psychosis. Hennell
captured perfectly the gradual inflation of his own disease. The
nocturnal noises. The odd subjectivity of objects. The contradictory
feeling of great personal destiny coupled with a growing certainty
that one's ego was shredding away. The symptoms were a bit like
an orchestra tuning up, first the strings, then the woodwinds,
last the brass. As anyone who has attended a concert knows, the
tuning up is nothing compared to the full orchestral blast. For
Hennell the crescendo came on a day when he decided to walk into
Oxford. He noticed that the other pedestrians were giving him
meaningful looks, as though they knew something he didn't. As
dusk arrived, Hennell saw that the fields beyond the hedgerow
were beginning to boil, a bit like a Van Gogh painting, while
up in the sky the stars were wheeling about, again a bit like
a Van Gogh painting. Hennell only had a second to savor these
weird perceptions before a squad car of secret police roared up,
clapped him into a van filled with meat, and drove him off to
a secret prison.
Although Osmond reread The Witnesses many times, its net
effect was to leave him more perplexed than ever about the nature
After his apprenticeship ended, Osmond took a job at St. George's,
one of London's famous teaching hospitals. There he met a rather
exoticexotic in terms of Osmond's Scotch upbringing in the
Surrey downsjunior resident named John Smythies. Smythies had
grown up in India during the twilight of the Raj, where his father
had been chief forestor. It was Osmond's impression that young
Smythies had had numerous exotic adventures before being dispatched
to Rugby and Cambridge, for the intellectual tempering all proper
English gentlemen underwent. Smythies's passion was the nature
of mind, and he was not at all reticent about the fact that he
considered psychiatry merely a handy way to investigate what was
really a philosophical problem. This, plus his habit of speaking
in brisk declaratives prefaced by the phrase "it's obvious,"
did not endear Smythies to his superiors, most of whom were old-time
clinicians with a deep distrust of theory. But Osmond thought
Smythies "not much less bright than he thought he was,"
and they got on famously.
Smythies had a number of eccentric enthusiasmsparapsychology
was oneand one day he showed up at St. George's with a book
by Alexandre Rouhier, a contemporary of Beringer's, who had written
a book on peyote called Le Peyotl. On one of its pages
was a molecular formula for mescaline.
The formula reminded Smythies of something, but he couldn't put
his finger on what it was. Osmond also had a feeling of vague
recognition. Then they showed the picture to a former biochemist
who said it looked sort of like thyroid and sort of like adrenaline,
with the nod probably going to the latter. This similarity between
adrenaline and mescaline suggested an intriguing hypothesis: what
if, in stressful situations, adrenaline got transformed into something
chemically akin to mescaline. Wouldn't that account for Hennell's
boiling fields and whirling skies, for the elephant in the mirror?
It was known that certain plants were capable of such a metabolic
transformation, known as transmethylation, but there was no evidence
that animals were capable of transmethylation.
Obtaining some mescaline from Lights Chemical, Osmond and Smythies
began testing their hypothesis. Osmond took 400 milligrams of
mescaline one afternoon in Smythies's rooms, which were down a
back alley off Wimpole Street. A tape recorder had been borrowed
to record his thoughts. Osmond found it menacing. First it glowed
a deep purple, then a cherry red. Putting his hand close to it,
it felt as though someone had thrown open the door to a blast
furnace. For the first time Hennell made sense. Schizophrenics
weren't talking in similes and metaphorsthere was no as
if involved in the mad statethey were talking about reality,
and it was scientific arrogance to dismiss it as delusion.
Once his astonishment had cooled, Osmond turned to the philosophical
ramifications. If what we took to be objective reality was so
fragile that it could be swept away by 400 milligrams of mescaline,
then perhaps the vitalists who had argued that the brain was merely
a mechanism to stabilize an anarchic world were correct. Perhaps
the notion of objective reality was a paradox.
Smythies and Osmond published a small essay on these matters in
1952 called "A New Approach to Schizophrenia." In it
they theorized that the body, confronted with an anxious state,
might react by producing an endogamous hallucinogen, in this case
one derived from adrenaline. The hallucinogen would cause the
perceptual world to change, leading to more stress, more adrenaline,
more of the natural hallucinogen, and ever deeper levels of psychosis.
The only way to break this cycle would be for the sufferer to
literally turn off reality: to retreat into another world. This,
paradoxically, was the body's only way, short of death, of preserving
its own sanity.
What was particularly elegant about this theory, which they called
the M factor theory, was the way it combined both a neurological
and a psychological dynamic, thus marrying what were usually two
mutually exclusive bodies of research.
Having imagined this hypothetical chemical, the M factor, the
next step was either to isolate it in its natural state or to
make some up in the lab. It was a dilemma not unlike that faced
by the American astronomer W. H. Pickering, when he had deduced
in 1919 that the solar system had to contain another planet, as
yet undiscovered, which Pickering confidently named Pluto. Eleven
years later Pluto was found exactly where Pickering had predicted
it would be. But the tools of astronomy, as Osmond and Smythies
quickly learned, were far more sophisticated than the tools of
neuropharmacology. The mysteries of outer space were child's play
compared to the complexities of inner space. They approached some
chemists at Imperial Chemical"the chaps who had done the
original work on synthesizing penicillin"and asked them
to work on a series of compounds intermediate between adrenaline
and mescaline. The chemists tried, but soon gave up: however slight
the differences were on paper, they were insurmountable in the
So they decided to concentrate on the amenochromes, which were
formed when adrenaline decomposes naturally. One of these amenochromes,
adrenochrome, seemed a likely candidate, as it had a molecular
structure surprisingly similar to mescaline.
Osmond swallowed his first adrenochrome in 1952. After ten minutes
the ceiling changed color, and whenever he closed his eyes he
was overwhelmed by a swarm of dots, which merged and fled with
the kind of shifting pointillism one finds in schools of fish.
Someone pulled out a pack of Rorschach cards, and Osmond astounded
himself with the inventive shapes he was able to discover. Walking
back down the corridors of the hospital, Osmond was amazed at
how sinister they seemed: what did all the cracks on the floor
mean? And why were there so many of them? His colleagues were
delighted with his behaviorthis certainly was a model psychosisand
Osmond watched them celebrating as though from behind a thick
Osmond was no longer in England when he had his adventure with
adrenochrome. In mid-1952 he had accepted a job in the Canadian
province of Saskatchewan, as Clinical Director of Saskatchewan
Hospital. The place was touted as the finest mental hospital on
the prairies, although this was something of a joke since it was
the only mental hospital on the prairies. Actually the
place was so rank, so depressingly nineteenth-century-madhouse,
that when Osmond and his colleagues received the APA's Silver
Plaque award for most improved mental hospital, American customs
declared the "before" pictures to be obscene and special
dispensation had to be obtained before they were allowed into
It was Osmond's job to clean up this mess without unduly rattling
the Old Director, who was supposed to remain on as a patriarchal
figurehead until retirement. But the Old Director resented this
new crop of bright boys, with their talk of insulin treatments
and electroshock and the search for the mysterious M factor. Whenever
possible he countermanded Osmond's innovations.
Work on the M factor was proceeding slowly. In the absence of
Smythies, who was scheduled to arrive in Saskatchewan in a few
months, Osmond had begun working with a psychiatrist affiliated
with Saskatchewan University named Abram Hoffer. Hoffer had a
passing acquaintance with Heinrich Kluver, who had suggested that
sometime he might want to look into mescaline as "quite the
most interesting thing around." When Smythies finally arrived
he brought along some notes for an essay, which, after some input
from Osmond, was published under both their names in the Hibbert
Journal. Smythies had been reading up on eighteenth-century
medicine, a period of fanciful theories and bitter polemics, with
little regard for the facts. It was, Smythies thought, a period
with remarkable similarity to twentieth-century psychology. What
was needed was a new model of scientific progress, one along the
lines that Karl Popper had suggested, which saw science proceeding
from Orthodoxy (the accepted theory of the known facts) to Heresy
(a new ordering of the facts, often of greater inclusiveness)
and thence to a New Orthodoxy, and so on through further heresies
and better orthodoxies.
Mescaline was mentioned exactly twice. The first instance came
in the context of an analysis of the psychobiological explanation
of schizophrenia. "No one is really competent to treat schizophrenia
unless he has experienced the schizophrenic world himself,"
they wrote. "This is possible to do quite simply by taking
mescaline." The second mention was in the context of a new
theory of mind, which henceforth would have to account for three
new sets of facts:
A) The recent development in the study of the design and behaviour
of electronic computing machines, and the study of analogous brain
B) The recent advances in parapsychology. We refer to the establishment
of Extra-sensory perception as scientific fact.
C) The nature of the phenomena witnessed under the influence of
mescaline. One would have thought that anyone, concerned in devising
systems of psychology based on the concept of the unconscious
mind, would have utilized such a prolific source of material as
mescaline offers, but no one has yet done so, although Rouhier
made this suggestion as long ago as 1922.
One day, out of the blue, a note arrived from Aldous Huxley congratulating
them on their sound reasoning and inviting them to drop by and
see him should they be in Los Angeles in the near future. Huxley
also expressed a willingness to try mescaline.
Although Osmond and Smythies were flattered by praise from such
an illustrious intellectual, the probability that either would
be passing through Los Angeles in the near future was almost nil,
however willing they might have been to escape the bitter Canadian
winter. But then fate intervened. Tensions at the hospital had
reached such a level that the politicians in charge of the Saskatchewan
mental health program felt it was time to have it out with the
Old Director. For practical reasons, it was felt that Osmond should
be absent during this confrontation and arrangements were made
for him to attend the upcoming APA convention in Los Angeles.
Which was why, in early May 1953, Osmond found himself flying
south, carrying not only a rare invitation to stay at the house
of Aldous Huxley, but a small vial of mescaline as well.
Aldous Huxley was fifty-eight when he dashed off that characteristically
enthusiastic note to Osmond and Smythies. He had been a featured
player on the literary stage for thirty-two years, his reputation
secured by a quartet of satirical novels begun when both he and
the century were in their twentiesexercises of such brilliance
that André Maurois, the French belle lettrist, lauded Huxley
as "the most intelligent writer of our generation,"
by which he meant Huxley's mind held more information in perfect
equilibrium than anyone else around.
He was supposed to have read, while still in short pants, the
entire Encyclopedia Britannica, which was certainly conceivable
from the volumes of essays that flowed from his pen, and paid
his rent for most of his life. He seemed to know something about
everything, which might lead one to think he was either a bore
or a dilettante, but he was neither. His opinions, whether the
subject was molecular biology or the Renaissance painter Piero
della Francesca, were so precociously sharp that art critic Kenneth
Clark once groused that after a lifetime studying Piero, in the
end he seemed to know "far less than Aldous had learnt in
a few weeks, by some miraculous combination of intellect and intuition."
Once, vacationing in Italy, Huxley happened to stumble across
the filming of Helen of Troy, one of those excessive Hollywood
costume dramas of the 1950s. Now this production, on this particular
day, had a particularly pressing problem: the script called for
a bacchanale. But neither the director, a midwesterner,
nor the assistant director, a New Yorker, were exactly sure what
a bacchanale was. Enter Aldous Huxley. Who, as the assistant
director later told the story, "went on for hours relating
what he knew about bacchanales. As a result our bacchanale was
so successful that the crowd people could not stop when the director
That was the quintessential Huxley: amusing, full of exotic lore
made even more exotic by his own exotic physique: six four and
so thin it was as though a flagpole had animated itself. When
Aldous was young most of his friends thought he looked like a
grasshopper, but as he matured he was usually compared to a waterbird,
a heron or egret. He had a long, wide face that was always a decade
younger than his calendar age, topped first by brown, then silver
hair. But his most compelling features were his blue eyes, one
sightless, the other nearly so, and his conversation, which flowed
with such grace it was easily the most athletic aspect of a decidedly
unathletic man. Huxley would lean back in his chair, fix his myopic
blue eyes above and beyond one's head and then let his thoughts
unwind "without interruption until he had turned over every
stone to discover the strange facts hidden beneath them, or had
followed the labyrinth... and had unraveled the truth at the
end of it." Unlike a lot of champion talkers, he was also
an avid listener, with an insatiable appetite for information,
for gossip, stories, books, politics, science, scandal, and facts,
the more exotic the better, murmuring "most extraordinary"
whenever a choice tidbit presented itself.
Had Aldous Huxley died at thirty-five, shortly after the publication
of his fifth novel, Brave New World, his place in English
literature would have been secure. Somerset Maugham might have
placed him alongside himself, in the first seats of the second
row; Scott Fitzgerald could have lamented the premature closing,
after a rousing first act, of another promising career. But Huxley
didn't diehe changed, which is sometimes worse. From the mid-Thirties
on he immersed himself in mysticism and oriental philosophy. His
novels, when he stirred himself to produce one (which he did at
regular intervals for the simple reason that novels earned more
than essays), were really philosophical essays dolled up in fictional
garb, like something Voltaire or one of the other philosophes
might have written. "Nobody since Chesterton has so squandered
his gifts," wrote the critic Cyril Connolly in Enemies
of Promise, which was ironically, an inquiry into why he,
Connolly, had squandered his own gifts.
But the feeling that something alarming had happened to Aldous
was widespread. To André Maurois, the new incarnation was
"an astonishing reversal of his thought, and disturbing to
anyone as close to the earlier Aldous Huxley as I had been."
Few of his early admirers dared or cared to follow him down the
paths that led first to The Perennial Philosophy, his compilation
of the mystical components underlying all religion, and thence
to his suggestion to Osmond and Smythies that he was not adverse,
indeed he was most eager, to try mescaline, a drug that presumably
made one crazy.
The consternation over this transformation dogged Huxley until
the day he died, which was the same day John Kennedy died, November
22,1963. When the obituary writers came to summarize his life
in the twenty or thirty column inches reserved for the passing
of Great Men, their inability to rationalize the whole was obvious.
What they didn't realize was that Huxley's life was less a career
than a quest for... what? The perfect synthesis of science,
religion, and art? The uniting of the inner man and the outer
man? "My primary occupation," Huxley once wrote in one
of his approximately ten thousand letters, "is the achievement
of some kind of over-all understanding of the world... that
accounts for the facts."
He was born Aldous Leonard Huxley on July 26, 1894, in the county
of Surrey, England, the third son of Dr. Leonard Huxley, educator,
editor, and minor literary figure, and the grandson of T. H. Huxley,
eminent biologist and one of the most famous men in Victorian
England. Known as "Darwin's Bulldog," T. H. was the
man who had demolished Bishop Wilberforce in the famous Oxford
debates over Darwin's theory of evolution. He personified the
scientific rationalist, and he eloquently argued its case in newspapers
and magazines, and from lecterns throughout the English-speaking
world. His collected essays, filling nine volumes, began appearing
in the year of his third grandson's birth, and just a few months
before his own death at age seventy.
"Clear, cold logic engines," were what T. H. demanded
from his son and grandsons. As Aldous's older brother, Julian,
once defined it, the Huxley tradition was one of "hard but
high thinking, plain but fiery living, wide intellectual interest
and constant intellectual achievement."
Huxley's mother, Julia, came from equally impressive stock. She
was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold and granddaughter of the
moralist and educator Dr. Thomas Arnold, one of the eminent Victorians
later eviscerated by Lytton Strachey in the book of that name.
Julia Huxley was an educator who founded Prior's Field, a girls'
school just a few meadows away from Hillside School, where young
Aldous received his first education.
He was, by all accounts, a brilliant, unathletic, aloof student,
whose capacity for detachment unnerved his peers. "Aldous
possessed the key to an inviolable inner fortress," said
his cousin Gervas, who also attended Hillside. "Never can
I remember him losing his control or giving way to violent emotion
as most of us did." He "possessed some innate superiority
and moved on a different level from us other children," according
to his older brother, Julian. He was always thinking, measuring,
comparing, assessing. Once his godmother, after observing him
staring fixedly out a window, asked what on earth he was thinking
about and received the single word skin in reply.
So he was an odd child, even a little scary. Some years later
the English science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon published a
book called Odd John, which was an attempt to imagine what
an intellectual superman, a true Übermensch to use
Nietzsche's much debated term, would really be like. The resulting
portrait bears a striking resemblance to the adolescent Aldous
Huxley, with the profound qualification that Odd John was never
tested by personal tragedy the way Huxley was. Beginning with
his entrance to Eton, Huxley's detachment was shattered by three
tragedies. When he was fourteen his mother died. When he was sixteen
he contracted a streptococcus infection that destroyed the cornea
in his right eye and left the other clouded to the point of blindness
The condition was so serious that Huxley was forced to learn Braille
which he shrugged off with the wry joke that now he could read
with impunity after lights out. He was also forced to give up
his dream of studying biology, in preparation for a medical career.
Adapting a typewriter with Braille keys, he began tapping out
poems and stories.
Finally, two years after his blindness lifted and a year after
matriculating at Balliol College, Oxford, in the same August that
saw the beginning of World War One, Huxley's middle brother, Trev,
"There is, apart from the sheer grief of the loss, an added
pain in the cynicism of the situation," Aldous wrote to cousin
Gervas. "It is just the highest and best in Trev, his ideals,
which have driven him to his death, while there are thousands
who shelter their weakness from the same fate by a cynical, unidealistic
outlook on life. Trev was not strong but he had the courage to
face life with idealsand his ideals were too much for him."
This was not a mistake Aldous intended to make. At Oxford he buried
his idealism under a cloak of aesthetic dandyism, affecting yellow
ties and white socks, and instead of the usual classical reproduction
above the fireplace, installing a poster of bare-breasted bathing
beautiesFrench of course. He moved a piano into his room and
began banging out American jazz. And he started spending weekends
at Garsington, a manor house some six miles from Oxford that Phillip
and Ottoline Morrell maintained as a country retreat for the Bloomsbury
crowd. A typical Garsington houseparty mingled the likes of Maynard
Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, the WoolfsLeonard
and Virginiawith assorted other aristocrats of the artistic
and intellectual beau monde. Young Huxley held his own amid this
galaxy of wits, and was considered by them an intellectual comer
and promising poet. When he published a chapbook of poems entitled
The Defeat of Youth in 1918, tout Garsington joined in
Garsington was also where Huxley met his future wife, Maria Nys,
a waifish Belgian war refugee who was one of Lady Ottoline's charges.
Besides being more than a foot shorter than her future husband,
Maria's temperamentintuitive, magical, sensuouswas the exact
opposite of Aldous's clear cold logic engine. Igor Stravinsky
once said of Maria: "knowing nothing, she understands everything."
And one of the things she understood was people. Maria had great
psychological acuity, something her husband was almost totally
without. Aldous called her his "personal relationship interpreter,"
and he used to quiz her thoroughly about the people they met at
Their partnershipthey began living together in 1919 and were
married a few months laterproduced one child, a boy, Matthew,
and at least eight novels. The first of these, Chrome Yellow,
was published in 1921, and was followed at two-year intervals
by Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point,
Counterpoint. Opening the boards of that first book, none
of Huxley's friends could have been prepared for what they found
inside. The gentle, abstracted poet of lines like
turned into an assassin when he wrote fiction. ("I have done
an admirable short story," Huxley once wrote to his brother
Julian's future wife. "So heartless and cruel that you would
probably scream if you heard it: the concentrated venom of it
is quite delicious.") Sure the writing sparkled and the plot
unfolded with professional ease, but there was something acid
and unsettling about the way the stories portrayed the emptiness,
the artistic and moral pretences of the very friends who were
now reading the book. The only thing that saved Huxley from the
anger that later greeted Evelyn Waugh's similar lampoons was the
fact that Huxley dissected his own pretensions with equal ferocity.
He never stinted on himself.
|No dip and dart of swallows wakes the blank|
Slumber of the canal:a mirror dead
for lack of loveliness remembered
Huxley's fiction had a liberating quality that the poet Stephen
Spender once described as "a kind of freedom which might
be described as freedom from: freedom from all sorts of things
such as conventional orthodoxies, officious humbug, sexual taboos,
respect for establishments." But there was also an undercurrent
of yearning beneath Huxley's mocking detachment, a yearning for
a new and more fulfilling orthodoxy, and this too caught the spirit
of the times. It was a thirst many quenched with Marxism or fascism
or extreme aestheticism, while others turned to science and the
religion of progress. But these apparently weren't options for
Huxley. It would be too strong to say that he was an unhappy man,
here at the height of his literary success, but he was a deeply
dissatisfied one. He had become "a kind of amphibious creature,
rejecting emotional contacts with skillful evasions, using his
intellectual equipment as a shield."
Huxley dealt with this angst by moving frequently, living in Belgium,
France, Spain, and Tunisia, and Italy, where Maria and he became
friends with D. H. Lawrence. As the Twenties drew to a close they
semipermanently established themselves at a villa in Sanary, France,
among the mix of artists and idle rich lucky enough to live on
the Côte in the years immediately preceding the Crash of
'29. From Marseilles to Antibes, the Midi was an expanded version
of a Garsington weekend. It was familiar fauna, and one might
have expected a continuation of what the London Times described
as "the many-toned wit... the learning, the thought, the
richness of character."
But Huxley gave his readers instead the anti-utopian Brave
New World. Brave New World was Huxley's first
stab at themes that would occupy him for the rest of his life:
the gap between technology and human wisdom; the misapplication
of evolution; the failure of education to create a whole man;
the increasing centralization of power, with its elevation of
ends over means. It was also his most savage book, consigning
the human species to the trash heap, albeit a comfortable, pleasureful
trash heap. In a world in which science allows you to customize
the ultimate in bread and circuses, argued Huxley, the concept
of coercion becomes meaningless. One of the brilliant elements
of Brave New World, indeed the one that made the whole
vision of state-controlled euphoria plausible, was the drug soma.
In terms of pharmacological reality, soma was a combination of
three different kinds of mind drugs: on one level it was a pleasant
and entertaining hallucinogen, on another a tranquilizer like
Librium or Valium, on a third a sleeping pill. There was nothing
coercive about soma use: diehard individualists had the option
of relocating to several offshore islands.
But soma was only a symptom of Huxley's larger theme, which was
the machining of human nature. The genius that had allowed the
smart monkey to tame the natural world was beginning to focus
on itself. And unless something was done to alter the monkey's
fundamental psyche, the consequence was going to be a scientific
hell that called itself paradise.
Huxley's intellectual companion during these years, and perhaps
his mentor, certainly one of the fulcrums upon which his interests
were shifting, was a London literary boulevardier named Henry
Fitz Gerald HeardGerald to his friends. Five years older than
Huxley, Heard was the son of an honorary canon of the Church of
England. Educated at Cambridge, with a degree in history, he had
spent the First World War in Ireland, helping Sir Horace Plunkett
in his attempt to organize the Irish farmers into agricultural
cooperatives, a scheme that foundered when a bomb placed by Irish
freedom fighters destroyed Sir Horace's residence and very nearly
destroyed Gerald, who had been working in the house alone. Concluding
that a civil service career was uncongenial to his health and
his nature, Heard decided to concentrate on writing, and in the
mid-Twenties published an eccentric but erudite little tome called
Narcissus: An Anatomy of Clothes, which traced the
historical relationship between architecture and clothing.
Anyone wishing to dip into the yellowing pages of Narcissus will
discover the donnish Gerald, the one who could stun everyone to
silence with his ability to remember everything he had ever read
about everything and his willingness to explain it all to you
in great detail. It was a recipe for a boorish windbag, and that
might have been Heard's fate had he not also been one of those
classically racy English eccentrics who pen mysteries in which
Anglican clerics use Arabian spells (authentic, of course) to
destroy their rivals. To one segment of the reading public he
was Gerald Heard, mystic and philosopher, the author of Pain,
Sex and Time, Is God Evident, A Preface to
Prayer; while to another, less exalted group of readers he
was H. F. Heard, creator of such macabre entertainments as The
Black Fox, the Great Fog, and Doppelgangers,
a book which the Saturday Review described as "strange
and terrible... as repellently fascinating as the discovery
of a cobra in one's bed."
Perhaps it was the actor in Gerald who made the intellectual such
a compelling presence, but an astonishing number of people considered
Heard to be the most brilliant man they had ever met, outshining
even Huxley, who himself gave Heard the compliment of "knowing
more than any one I know." A typical Heard soliloquy rambled
"like a river over a vast area of knowledge... past the
shores of pre-history, anthropology, astronomy, physics, parapsychology,
mythology and much else." Christopher Isherwood, who knew
him slightly in London and became better acquainted after both
emigrated to Los Angeles in the late Thirties, once described
Gerald's life as "an artistic performance expressed in a
language of metaphors and analogies."
Unfortunately, the brilliant Heard, the voluble Heard, was missing
from the written Heard. His writing tended to be pedantic, "practically
unreadable" according to Huxley.
Heard met Huxley in 1928, when he was working as editor of the
Realist, a literary magazine whose contributors included
H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, Arnold Bennett, and the two Huxleys,
Julian and Aldous. Heard began accompanying the successful young
novelist on nocturnal strolls across London, from which he deduced
that his young friend was suffering from a routine literary affliction:
The style is formed, the specific frame of reference and interpretation
of life is clear, and a public has gathered to buy the wares this
craftsman knows how to produce in steady supply. And then suddenly
the formula seems false, the angle hopelessly inaccurate, the
analyses contemptibly shallow. Huxley's family mores and his ancestral
genii were challenging his own personal genius. Satire could entertain;
it could not assure. The sardonic, to keep its edge, must sharpen
on the whetstone of the full truth of manman, the one unfinished
animal; man the incomparably teachable; untaught, less than a
beast; ill-taught, worse than a beast; well-taught, the one creature
of infinite promise, of superhuman potential.
Those last sentences are classic Heard, and they point us toward
the real significance of Huxley's affection for this potentially
rival polymath. Because what was about to happen between the two
men was a form of intellectual seduction, and an ironic one at
that, as T. H. Huxley's grandson was seduced by a deviant form
of the evolutionary argument.
Without bogging down in a lengthy discussion of scientific politics
in the late nineteenth century, it is important to understand
that there were two interpretations of evolution. The first, following
Darwin, believed that natural selection was directionless, the
product of random mutations; man was a biological fluke. The second
interpretation, deriving from Lamarck and championed by the French
philosopher Henri Bergson, smuggled teleology back into the evolutionary
drama. Bergson called his philosophy vitalism, and argued that
evolution was not directionless but was controlled by a creative
life-force, an elan vital which sought ever higher expressions
of complexity and competence. In the insect world, for example,
this elan vital achieved its highest state with ants and
bees, while among mammals it was that ever-curious, ever-experimenting
species Homo sapiens who best expressed this upward drive.
Of course once it had been decided that there was a pot of gold
at the end of the evolutionary rainbow, it was hard not to speculate
about the nature of this treasure. Friedrich Nietzsche meditated
on the elan vital and came up with the Übermensch,
the overman, a race of supermen who, depending on the luck of
the variables, would either be mystic-saints or tyrant-creators.
For Bergson only the first was a possibility: the universe was
"a machine for the production of gods," he wrote.
But how was man going to become like unto gods? Further physical
transformation was doubtful and pretty much beside the point,
but what about further mental development? The growth of psychology
in the late nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the unconscious,
prompted a number of intellectuals to theorize that consciousness
was the probable area of emergent evolution. Just as man had gone
from simple consciousness to self-consciousness, perhaps at some
point he would jump from self-consciousness to... cosmic
consciousness? At least that's what a Canadian psychologist
named Richard Bucke proposed in 1901. From a state of "mere
vitality without perception," Homo sapiens had evolved
to simple consciousness, which was characterized by perception,
and thence to self-consciousness, whose distinguishing feature
was the ability to image thoughts using language, and that refinement
of language, mathematics. Bucke believed that Homo sapiens,
having attained self-consciousness some three hundred thousand
years ago, was now at a point where his ability to process concepts
was such that he was about to push through to a new level, to
the cosmic level.
Speculating that certain members of the species would probably
make the jump to each level of consciousness before the rest,
Bucke compiled a list of those whom he felt exhibited cosmic consciousness:
the Buddha, Jesus, Plotinus, William Blake, Honore Balzac, Walt
Whitman. Using eleven criteria, Bucke attempted to prove that
each of these forerunners had undergone a comparable mental experience:
that each, usually in their thirties, had experienced an intense
white light followed by a massive intellectual and moral illumination.
Bucke's own brush with cosmic consciousness happened late one
night after an evening of philosophical debate with his friends.
He was returning to his lodgings in a hansom cab when he found
himself "wrapped in a flame-coloured cloud":
For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere
close in that great city; the next, I knew the fire was within
myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation,
of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an
intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other
things, I did not merely come to belie re, but I saw that the
universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary,
a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life.
Bucke's book, Cosmic Consciousness, made a deep impression
on William James, America's foremost psychologist. While the average
individual was under no compulsion to accept these extraordinary
mental states as superior, wrote James, a blanket denial of their
existence was equally ridiculous. "No account of the universe
in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of
consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the questionfor
they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they
may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and
open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they
forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."
James also noted, in passing, that in India the pursuit of cosmic
consciousness, of mystic moments such as Bucke's, was a well-established
Although it was Darwin's interpretation of evolution that triumphed
in the laboratories and the classrooms of the twentieth century,
the heresy of Bergson and Bucke kept resurfacing in odd configurations.
After the First World War it turned up in Europe in the guise
of gurus from the East, men like Krishnamurti and Georges Gurdjieff,
who advertised practical techniques for tapping into the mind's
higher powers. For a few years London and Paris, Berlin and Vienna,
were virtual supermarkets of the esoteric, boasting dozens of
semisecret schoolstheosophists, Buddhists, Vedantists, dark
occultists in the Alistair Crowley mold. In Germany the mysterious
Thule Society gave birth to the National Socialist Party and Adolph
Hitler, who had his own special interpretation of the evolutionary
curve Homo Aryan should follow.
In England, among the Oxbridge demimonde that Heard and Huxley
were part of, this evolutionary romance generally took the form
of believing a way had to be found to heal the gap between Homo
faber, man the wielder of increasingly ingenious and dangerous
tools, and Homo sapiens, man the conceptualized man the
smart monkey who had mastered the planet but not his own inner
flawsflaws that were now threatening to bring the whole evolutionary
game to a precipitous close. It was one thing for the smart monkey
to pick up clubs and spears and go about bashing craniums over
questions of power, territory, and sexual prerogative. But to
exhibit the same behavior when the clubs had turned to machine
guns and Big Berthas was the maddest kind of folly.
Whether by accident or design, there was no shortage of gurus
who seemed to speak directly to this desire. When Ouspensky, the
chief disciple of the mysterious Armenian teacher Georges Gurdjieff,
arrived in London, he advertised himself with a series of lectures
called The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution. Man is not
a completed being, Ouspensky told his audience. "Nature develops
him up to a certain point and then leaves him, to develop further,
by his own efforts and devices... evolution of man in this
case will mean the development of certain inner qualities and
features which usually remain undeveloped, and cannot develop
So this was the riddle Heard placed before Aldous Huxley: was
there a mechanism that could be tripped, a sense that could be
awakened, a door that could be found that led to these higher
Starting in the late Twenties (and ending only with their deaths)
the two polymaths embarked on a grand tour of the esoteric. They
chanted and meditated, they counted breaths and tried to shed
their old conditioning; they studied hypnosis and the Gurdjieff
technique"too much nirvana and strawberry jam" was
Aldous's airy opinion of Ouspensky, indeed of most of the gurus
they met. Of course, as Robert de Ropp, a follower of Ouspensky
observed, neither Heard nor Huxley were ideal students, both being
rather "too fond of their own opinions to work under the
direction of someone else."
They began formulating their own philosophy in the late Thirties,
beginning with Heard's Third Morality, followed by Huxley's
Ends and Means and The Perennial Philosophy.
Their system, greatly compressed, went something like this: detachment
is the essence of wisdom. The wise man participates passionately
in the game of life, but at the same time remains aloof, free
of entangling emotional or material ties. This science of detachment
forms the basis of all religion, and it reaches its culmination
in those moments of brilliant illumination that the mystics speak
Like Bucke, Huxley was impressed with the similarities between
widely divergent mystical experiences: if you filtered out the
particular religious dogma, what you had left was a physiological
occurrence that appeared to be universal, that appeared to be
wired into the very structure of the mind itself, waiting for
a moment of deep meditation, fever or death, perhaps a blow to
the head, perhaps the reflection of a cloud in a stream...
there was no rhyme nor reason to what could trigger these astonishing
Following Bergson, Huxley also believed that the brain and the
central nervous system operated as a vast filter that reduced
the flood of sensory data to a manageable trickle. This was not
a difficult or even a debatable concept. We have all experienced
moments, pausing in the midst of reading the newspaper or tying
our shoelaces, when we become aware that a bird is singing nearby.
Then, turning back to our task, the bird again disappears. The
soundwaves of birdsong still enter the ear, but the brain edits
them out, thus allowing us to concentrate on the task at hand.
No doubt such an editing process had been vitally necessary for
us to survive on a hostile planet. But by the twentieth century
(felt men like Huxley and Heard) it had become a detriment to
further evolution. A way had to be found to bypass the reducing
valve and tap the unlimited potentials of the brain's 20 billion
neurons. This was where the saints and mystics became important.
Somehow, along with the occasional artist and scientist, they
had chanced upon a way of circumventing the brain's central program.
Whether the answer turned out to be a form of physical therapy
like that of the Indian yogis, or something entirely different,
Huxley believed that a way could be found to standardize the mystical
experience. As Heard described it, "His biological background
made him believe it must be physiological; his metaphysical aspiration
let him hope it would transform the psyche."
That the answer might come from the field of psychopharmacology
was a possibility that Huxley did not rule out In an essay written
at Sanary around the time he read Lewin's Phantastica. Huxley
had mused that should he ever become a millionaire he would "endow
a band of research workers to look for the ideal intoxicant."
If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or
six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, attune
us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make
life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely
beautiful and significant... then, it seems to me, all our
problems would be wholly solved and earth would become a paradise.
This was grand, heady stuff. But unfortunately it was only theory.
At no time, despite their exertions, did Heard or Huxley find
the key that unlocked the overmind. As Huxley later confided to
Humphrey Osmond, "It seems the great Huxley brain is exceptionally
Huxley and Heard left England for America in 1937, eventually
settling in Los Angeles, where they became familiar presences
on the local spiritual scene, studying Vedantic Hinduism at an
ashram in Hollywood. The ashram was under the supervision of a
canny, charismatic teacher, Swami Prabhavananda, who some years
earlier had been ordered to Los Angeles by his teacher to fulfill
the larger karma of introducing the inner disciplines of the East
to the materialistic West. To leave not only his native land,
but the contemplative solitude of the ashram, for Hollywood, Californiait
was not a task Prabhavananda had welcomed. But he had come and
prospered, confirming the shrewdness of his teacher's foresight.
The ashram, in classic Southern California fashion, was shaped
like a miniature Taj Mahal, and was surrounded by lemon trees
and young girls meditating in saris. Prabhavananda was fond of
tea parties, during which he would debate Huxley and Heard, and
later Alan Watts, on various doctrinal points. The swami counseled
asceticism in all things, including sex. And Gerald agreed wholeheartedly.
Los Angeles represented a sea change for him, a chance to re-create
himself in a more appropriate image. He grew a goatee and discarded
his suits and flannels in favor of dungarees and work shirts.
He became obsessed with meditation, hastily terminating conversation
so he could prepare for his twelve o'clock contemplation, or his
six o'clock contemplation, or whatever contemplation was impending.
He was ridding himself of the three main obstacles to enlightenment,
he told Huxley: addictions, possessions, and pretensions. But
for his lack of personal humility, Gerald would have been an excellent
monk. Indeed the one quibble he regularly had with Huxley was
over the latter's sociability: Gerald felt that time was too precious
to waste on those who were not on the same path, a fundamentalist
perspective that was very impractical for a novelist with a limited
gift for characterization to begin with. "I am some kind
of essayist sufficiently ingenious to get away with writing a
very limited kind of fiction," Huxley ruefully admitted in
one of his letters.
Actually, writing was the one constant in both their lives. With
the exception of several film scripts, Huxley kept to his routine
of a novel every two years, with a book of essays in between.
And H. F. Heard scored his greatest literary success in 1946,
when he won the three-thousand-dollar Ellery Queen Prize for a
futuristic whodunit called The President of the United
They wrote and they waited; and then in early 1953 Huxley happened
to read an article by Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies in the
"But Aldous, what if we don't like him? What if he wears
a beard?" was Maria's comment when Huxley announced that
he had invited an unknown chap named Osmond, a psychiatrist no
less, for a visit. The offer of room and board chez Huxley was
a rare ticket; even Julian, when he was in town, stayed at a local
The possibility that Osmond might be a tedious bore hadn't occurred
to Huxley, and after a few moments' thought he arrived at a simple
solution. "We can always be out," he said.
Osmond, some three thousand miles away, was having similar fears.
What if he couldn't play in Huxley's intellectual league? What
if he came off as a tedious bore? "You can always arrange
to stay late at the APA," his wife said.
He need not have worried. The one thing Huxley prized most in
a fellow conversationalist was intellectual breadth, and Osmond
had plenty of that. Like Heard, he could turn on a conversational
dime and launch into a disquisition on, say, scurvy, that was
so vivid one would almost swear he had shipped with Da Gama when
half of that gentleman's crew perished. Maria, watching Aldous
warm to the younger man, confided to Osmond: "I knew you'd
get along. You're both Englishmen."
Huxley accompanied Osmond to several APA sessions, which he found
deadly dull, and amused himself by genuflecting whenever Freud's
name was mentioned. The subject of mescaline didn't arise until
two days before Osmond was to leave, and then it was Maria who
broached the subject, having decided that the famous British reticence
was going to prevent the two men from discussing what was certainly
uppermost in Aldous's mind. Osmond admitted that he had brought
some mescaline with him; while Huxley conceded that he had borrowed
a tape recorder to preserve a record of the experiment.
The next day, May 4, 1953, Osmond dissolved some mescaline crystals
in a glass of water and nervously handed it to Huxley. Outside
it was one of those perfect LA mornings, blue and warm, with just
a trace of smog hanging over the San Bernardino valley. What if
the drug worked too well, Osmond thought to himself. Although
Smythies and he had begun to appreciate that there was more to
the mescaline experience than simple psychosis, that didn't diminish
the possibility that the next six hours might be absolutely hellish.
And Osmond didn't relish the possibility that he might become
infamous as the man who drove Aldous Huxley crazy.
On the other hand, what if nothing happened? It was beginning
to dawn on Humphrey that Huxley had some rather idiosyncratic
notions about what he hoped to achieve in the mescaline state.
Nowhere was this more explicit than in the letter Osmond had received
confirming his invitation to stay with the Huxleys while at the
APA. After the usual pleasantries, Aldous had launched into a
critique of what he called the Sears & Roebuck culture:
Under the current dispensation the vast majority of individuals
lose, in the course of education, all the openness to inspiration,
all the capacity to be aware of other things than those enumerated
in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue; is it too much to hope that a
system of education may someday be devised which shall give results,
in terms of human development, commensurate with the time, money,
energy and action expended? In such a system of education it may
be that mescaline or some other chemical substance may play a
part by making it possible for young people to "taste and
see" what they have learned at second hand, or directly but
at a lower level of intensity, in the writings of the religious,
or the works of poets, painters and musicians.
Osmond was using mescaline as a mimicker of madness; Huxley wanted
to incorporate it into the curriculum.
The minutes passed slowlytoo slowly for Huxley, who told Osmond
he expected to enter what he called the Blakeian world of heroic
perception. What actually happened was much more mundane. The
lights danced. The insides of his eyelids dissolved into a complex
of gray squares that occasionally gave birth to a blue sphere.
Then, ninety minutes into the experience, Huxley felt himself
pass through a screen, at least that's what it seemed like, and
suddenly he was seeing "what Adam had seen on the morning
of creation." It was as though, born myopic, he had just
put on his first pair of glasses. The colors, the shapes, the
sensuous mysteriousness of his flannel trousers. Later Aldous
would pun that he had seen "eternity in a flower, infinity
in four chair legs, and the Absolute in the folds of a pair of
He kept murmuring, "This is how one ought to see."
Mescaline, Huxley decided, intensified the visual at the expense
of the temporal and spatial. There was a pronounced loss of will,
which gradually expanded into a loss of ego. And as the ego relinquished
its grip, all sorts of useless data, biologically speaking, began
to seep into the mind.
From the house, with its suddenly cubist furniture, they wandered
into the garden. For the first time Huxley felt the presence of
paranoia, and beyond that, madness. "If you started the wrong
way," he told Osmond, "everything that happened would
be proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating.
You couldn't draw a breath without knowing it was part of the
"So you think you know where madness lies?" Osmond asked.
"And you couldn't control it?"
"No, I couldn't control it," Huxley said. "If one
began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have
to go on to the conclusion."
But then the shadow passed. From the garden they moved to the
street, where a large blue automobile touched off gales of laughter.
Fat and self-satisfied, it seemed to Huxley that the car was a
self-portrait of twentieth-century man; for the rest of the day
he giggled whenever he saw one. Aldous was having a wonderful
time. After years of theorizing that each of us carries a reservoir
of untapped vision and inspiration, he had suddenly stumbled across
it at the advanced age of fifty-eight.
It was a little like that classic moment in children's literature
when the hero walks outside one morning and discovers a door,
where yesterday there was only blank wall. And beyond that door,
a garden of infinite dimension, infinite adventure.