Tuesday, December 16, 2014

R. S. Deese's "We Are Amphibians"

R. S. Deese teaches history at Boston University. His work has been published in AGNI, Endeavour, Aldous Huxley Annual, MungBeing, and Berkeley Poetry Review.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, We Are Amphibians: Julian and Aldous Huxley on the Future of Our Species, and reported the following:
Just as some films are only remembered for one or two lines, some authors are only remembered for one or two books. Often this winnowing of our collective memory is just, but sometimes it is not. For example, the human race will probably get along just fine when the only thing that anyone can recall from the ill-fated Godfather, Part III is the line that Al Pacino made famous in the trailer: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” In contrast, the world would be a poorer place if the only books that anyone recalled from Aldous Huxley’s massive body of work were Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. Dystopian novels and psychedelic drugs are fine as far as each of them goes, but there is so much more to the life and thought of Aldous Huxley. This was a man who maintained a childlike interest in just about everything until the bitter end, and his ideas concerning such subjects as science, religion, and the future of our species still possess the power to surprise and enlighten curious readers more than half a century after his death.

We Are Amphibians explores the lifelong dialogue between Aldous Huxley and his brother, the biologist Julian Huxley, about all of these big, chin-scratching subjects. When I put this book to the Page 99 Test, however, I suddenly imagined Aldous Huxley stealing that line from Al Pacino (though with less lockjawed anger and more ironic aplomb). The problem is this: Although my book is only a little bit about drugs, page 99 is wall-to-wall tripping tales, thus throwing Aldous right back into to the same bin with Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna and other lesser lights who made their reputations as gurus of pharmaceutical mysticism. On the bright side, the tales of altered states recounted on page 99 of We Are Amphibians are not from the well-explored terrain of sixties psychedelia, but concern the mind-expanding experiments of people who predated Aldous Huxley by decades, such as William James, Havelock Ellis, and Mabel Dodge Luhan.

Aldous was aware that William James had experimented with nitrous oxide and he shared the philosopher’s notion that other worlds of consciousness lay in wait for us just beyond the edges of our quotidian experience. He also drew inspiration from the physician and pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis, who dosed himself with peyote in his gas-lit London flat in the 1890s and wrote an essay expounding on the significance of his experience. That essay, “Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise”, was published in 1898, and it may have played a role in inspiring others to repeat the experiment. On the eve of the First World War, the wealthy American bohemian Mabel Dodge Luhan conducted what she called ‘an experiment in consciousness’ in her Greenwich Village apartment by ingesting peyote buttons with friends in an improvised recreation of a Native American spiritual rite.

After recounting these antecedents to Aldous Huxley’s initial experiment with mescaline in 1953, page 99 of We Are Amphibians points out that his interpretation of the psychedelic experience owed a great deal to the thinking of the French philosopher Henri Bergson.
In a letter dated April 10th, 1953 to Humphry Osmond (the psychiatrist who would soon give him his first dose of mescaline), Aldous cited Bergson’s conception of how the human brain processes our experience of the world around us. This Bergsonian paradigm would guide his interpretation of his experiments in The Doors of Perceptions and of his subsequent essays and lectures:
It looks as though the most satisfactory working hypothesis about the human mind must follow, to some extent, the Bergsonian model, in which the brain with its associated normal self, acts as a utilitarian device for limiting, and making selections from, the enormous possible world of consciousness, and for canalizing experience into biologically profitable channels. Disease, mescaline, emotional shock, aesthetic experience and mystical enlightenment have the power, each in its own way and to varying degrees, to inhibit the functions of the normal self and its ordinary brain activity, thus permitting the ‘other world’ to rise into consciousness.
Although there is only a passing mention of Julian Huxley on page 99 of We Are Amphibians, this reference to the thinking of Henri Bergson points to the common intellectual heritage that Aldous Huxley shared with his brother. As descendents of T. H. Huxley (a.k.a. “Darwin’s Bulldog”) both brothers tended to view every question that commanded their attention from the broad perspective of evolutionary biology. Bergson’s expansive musings on evolution and human consciousness were a source of inspiration for Julian Huxley’s earliest essays on the life sciences, and proved to be a seedbed of ideas to which Aldous Huxley would return throughout his career.
Learn more about We Are Amphibians at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue