Saturday, April 10, 2010

Puharich Nexus 3: the door in the wall

I first came across the expression "door in the wall" in Jay Stevens' fantastic social history Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream. Stevens uses the term throughout as an evocative synonym for the psychedelic experience. I'm not sure of the precise origins of the expression, but as a motif it is particularly redolent of children's literature. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is lead by a robin to the location of the ivy-covered door that leads into the titular walled garden. In 1949, Marguerite de Angeli wrote a medieval romp for children called The Door in the Wall, in which the door is posited rather blandly as a conceptual model for problem solving by a kindly friar named Brother Luke. (Brother Luke sounds like a prototype of the self-help movement.)

What probably inspired Stevens' use of the term, however, was a remarkable short story of the same name by HG Wells. (Wells' "Door" also leads into a potentially regenerative secret garden, and it was first published just a year after Francis Hodgson Burnett's novel. Whether this is a case of direct influence, or some variety of strange archetypal synergy, I know not.) The Door in the Wall begins in the classically suggestive manner of innumerable weird tales: "One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned, it was a true." Immediately, we have a second-hand narrative of a fantastic nature which may or may not be true; naturally a couple of paragraphs later, we learn that we will have to factor the mysterious circumstances of Mr. Wallace's death into our evaluation of the veracity of his tale.

This tale, however, is as far from the charnal houses of Lovecraft as you could get, adopting instead the manner of a sentimental, but undeniably poignant fable. Wallace, it turns out, was a wealthy and highly accomplished Member of Parliament. His life has been characterised by hard-work, self-sacrifice, and public service; however, it remained haunted throughout by a incident from his childhood. At the age of five, a precocious Lionel wondered off by himself around the district of West Kensington. Thereupon he finds a green door set in a white wall which elicits a peculiarly strong emotion in him: "As his memory of that remote childish experience ran, he did at the very first sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire to get to the door and open it and walk in."

Wallace goes through the door, and, leaving West Kensington and routine time and space behind, finds himself in a magical garden. Always noted for his prescience, Wells' garden behind the door captures in poetic shorthand the psychedelic experience of the postwar period: "It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of the garden into which he came. There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, and gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad - as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there....It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home."

Wallace finds two playmates in the garden: a pretty girl and a "little Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of ruddy brown and kindly hazel eyes." Together, they play a series of games which Wallace can never again fully recall. Finally, a "sombre dark women" in a purple robe arrives. She shows him "a living book" which "was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born..." The book follows his life all the way to the green door, but in the book there is no enchanted garden, only West Kensington, and the suddenly flat and grey reality he had left behind. In this fashion, the young Wallace is returned to the real world.

The memory, however, haunts him, and the door itself continues to reappear at crucial points in his life: "I was leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable things." Each time the door appears, it clashes with a worldly responsibility that Wallace must fulfil, and each time he resolves that his duties in the real world outweigh the increasingly dim memory of his happiness in the garden.

The Door in the Wall, needless to say, facilitates a variety of interpretations. At its most basic level, the door is an evocation of roads not taken and opportunities missed, with a specific emphasis on the loss of childhood. More pointedly, however, Wells evokes an idea which is common to all the mystic traditions, and is expressed in its most extreme form by the Gnostics: that the everyday world of apparent experience is at best a dim reflection of true reality. "Thrice I had my chance - thrice! If ever that door offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in out of this dust and heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities. I will go and never return."

The loss of childhood and the weary, nostalgic trudge into middle-years is a metaphor we are often apt to apply, or project, unto the experience of history by our species as a whole. When we speak about the consciousness of our distant ancestors, we tend to envision their mode of awareness as corresponding to that of infants or children. In Primitive Culture (1871), the influential anthropologist Edward Tylor defined animism as "the theory of the universal animation of nature". Tylor regarded this as indicative of "cognitive underdevelopment", and established the popular tendency of referring to primitive societies as childlike in nature. Alongside other anthropological theorists such as Andrew Long and Herbert Spenser, Tylor held a linear, progressive view of societal evolution which mirrored many aspects of the emerging science of biological evolution. The related concept of "the social organism" popularised by Emile Durkheim also suggests the possibility of a conceptual parallelism between the growth cycle of the individual and of societies as a whole.

One natural implication that follows from regarding our ancestors as children is the rather dreary prospect that we ourselves, no matter what age we are individually, are part of an ageing society. In certain respects, we exhibit many characteristics of this. The much discussed "divided sensibility" of modern consciousness expresses itself in an intense nostalgia for virtually all aspects of pre-modern culture and awareness - a close enough parallel to the often acute nostalgia individuals feel for their own childhood. (At the level of individuals, this nostalgia is not merely for the relative ease of childhood, but follows the intimation of a prior and different mode of consciousness. In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley refers to the "perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept.") At the level of society as a whole, there is a very prevalent desire to retain animistic, magical, or mythological conceptions of the world - a desire which is difficult, if not impossible, to synthesize with our increasing scientific maturity. According to Tylor's school of thought, this nostalgia constitutes a "survival", or a residual habit of an older social form maintaining its existence beyond its innate usefulness. Something, in other words, like an adult social organism sucking its thumb.)

If we follow the outline of this metaphor, it may be then that Wells' story embodies a collective as well as an individual sense of the loss of childhood. Wells himself was a trenchant advocate and proselytiser of the socialist, scientific Utopia. His life work was animated to a profound degree by the belief that rationalism and scientific progress could improve, and ultimately perfect mankind. Some commentators have suggested that The Door in the Wall may express a certain ambivalence or conflict in Wells' otherwise unflagging avowal of Enlightenment positivism, a sense that would no doubt be exacerbated by his dual role as both rational social reformer and imaginative mythographer of modern experience.

Imagine then that we jump forward some forty years after the publication of The Door. Wells himself has died; his last work, the revealingly titled Mind at the End of its Tether, expressed an utter despair in the prospects of the rationalist Utopia. In the wreckage left by the World Wars, the dreams of the Enlightenment have never appeared at such a low ebb. For many thoughtful individuals in this period, the loss of belief in a "universal animation of nature" seemed to have by no means achieved a demonstrable maturation of the species. Human beings scarcely seemed more rational, only more technologically accomplished and ingenious in the means by which they expressed their fundamental irrationality. What would it have been like to be drifting into middle age in those years, in the air of a world that appeared itself mournfully cut off from the promise and innocence of its youth? If ever there was time fortuitous for the appearance of a door in the wall, it would have been then....

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 a blank wall. And beyond that door, a garden of infinite dimension, infinite adventure.
Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven.

The phenomenon of direct, personal religious experience via the ritual consumption of hallucinogenic plants was an order of data which was either openly repugnant, or of little interest, to the Christian and scientific orthodoxies which had dominated western culture throughout much of its history. Hence, such things were largely ignored, suppressed, and confined to the margins of that culture. Nevertheless, the existence of these natural technologies constituted a persistent buzzing undercurrent - a "visionary rumour" as Jung labelled the UFO - in the hidden history of the world. Scholars puzzled for many years over the identity of soma in the Rig Veda, and the precise nature of the Eleusinian rite which was said to vouchsafe the initiate a return passage to the afterlife.

Western psychedelic research and experimentation experienced a quiet, serendipitous watershed in the forties and fifties, and it would be two respectable middle-aged intellectuals - Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary - who ultimately channelled that watershed to the wider world. (It is then arguable, I think, that it was a mixture of personal and collective mid-life ennui and crisis that combined to render psychedelics such a potent cultural explosion.) In 1943, Albert Hofmann was lead by a "peculiar presentiment" to revisit a five-year old synthesis from the ergot fungus. On Monday, the 19th of April, at 4:20pm Hofmann dosed himself with his new creation, and preceded on his bicycle through Basel, and beyond the Infinite. (Here's a weird coincidence: 4:20 would later become a popular underground synonym for smoking pot which eventually flourished into an annual countercultural holiday. Apparently, the term began in San Rafael High School, California, 1971, where a group of teenage potheads called the Waldos used the meet everyday by a statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 to smoke pot. Because 4/20 in US date notion falls on April 20, that puts it a day after bicycle day.)

Meanwhile, the author Aldous Huxley had for some years been vaguely following the slow emergence of the new discipline of psychopharmacology. Early in '53, he happened to chance upon an article in the Hibbert Journal by two psychiatrists, Humphrey Osmond and John Smythies, which contained the following line: "No one is really competent to treat schizophrenia unless has experienced the schizophrenic world himself. This is possible to do quite simply by taking mescaline." Huxley dashed off Osmond a note, expressing an interest in such an experience. Hence, on the evening of May 5, 1953, Huxley found himself the latest initiate of a rapidly emerging western mystery cult, a new Eleusis taking shape, aptly enough, in the hot Californian sun. Huxley's words in The Doors of Perception echo Hofmann's sense of serendipity: "By a series of, for me, extremely fortunate circumstances I found myself, in the spring of 1953, squarely athwart that trail." (Three interesting Huxley facts: 1). Everybody who has read The Doors of Perception no doubt recalls the section where Huxley's grey flannel pants become "a labyrinth of endless complexity". In actuality, Huxley had been wearing a humble pair of blue jeans. It was his wife Maria, apparently concerned with decorum, who had encouraged Huxley to make the sartorial substitution for the final published manuscript. 2.) In the thirties, Huxley was earning some extra pocket money as a Hollywood script-writer, and associating with such luminaries as Chaplin and Harpo Marx. At one point, he proposed to Harpo the notion of making a film about Marxism, in which Groucho would play Karl, and, somewhat incongruously, the face of Harpo would be seen to appear on the moon. Harpo, needless to say, assured Aldous that should an idea would never fly in Hollywood. Had the movie actually been made, it would have proved eerily prophetic of the Cold War fear of a Red (Marxist) Moon. 3). Aldous Huxley died of cancer on November 22, 1963, after requesting, and receiving, two massive LSD injections from his second wife Laura. November 22 was, of course, the day John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. But curiouser and curiouser, that same day also witnessed the death of the author of perhaps the most iconic door in the wall in all of children's literature: C.S. Lewis. )

But precisely what kind of trail did Huxley find himself "athwart" in 1953? Jay Stevens describes it as a "peculiar movement, part religious, part scientific, which for the first time since the 1880s was mounting a concerted assault on Mind at Large". Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina felt that their quest for the visionary Sacred Mushroom made them like "pilgrims seeking the Grail". Andrija Puharich was looking for a natural substance which might intensify ESP, and re-open an ancient Stargate of sorts to the numinous Other Worlds of the Egyptian Pyramid texts and the secretive initiation rites of the Eleusinian mysteries. As Huxley wrote of his sojourn at the Round Table Foundation: "It was all very lively and amusing, and, I really think, promising; for whatever may said against Puharich, he is certainly very intelligent, extremely well read and highly enterprising. His aim is to produce by modern pharmacological, electronic and physical methods the conditions used by the shamans for getting into a state of travelling clairvoyance and then, if he succeeds, to send people to explore systematically the Other World."

As at every juncture in the psychedelic story, behind the cosmic hyperbole lay a judicious degree of anarchic hedonism. Eileen Garret describes a scene at one of Puharich's mushroom soirées which seems ripped straight from Reefer Madness: "I was startled. Without any shame, a middle-aged couple - both psychiatrists - were copulating wildly. The woman's legs thrashed violently in the air while she shouted that love would save the world from destruction. Paul Jones was violently ill, throwing up all over the place. Another man, whom I had never seen before, was singing an aria from the opera Aida. As I enjoyed his beautiful voice, I was suddenly grabbed from behind and thrown on the floor. Before I realized what was happening, Bob, an anthropologist from Stanford University, and a good friend of us, was on top of me. He had a crazy look in his eyes and his body moved convulsively. Fortunately other observers quickly came to our rescue."

The postwar period also witnessed the massive expansion of another door in the wall - a visionary technology that interacted with the nervous system to produce a multiplicity of complex consensual hallucinations. As our loose narrative begins to enter the Space Age, it also enters the age wherein daily reality is increasingly refracted through the swirling static of the television screen:

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