The noted scholar of world religions, Dr. Huston Smith, has recently published a collection of essays and other texts about drugs and their relationship to the mystical experience. Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (New York: Tarcher/Putnam 2000) follows Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception (New York: Harper 1954) and continues a titular motif borrowed from a William Blake metaphor:
"But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged: this I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks in his cavern."
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-1793.
As Blake was describing an act of engraving (applying acid to lines etched on a copper plate), a parallel may be made with Michelangelo, who is said to have regarded figures as imprisoned in a block of marble, and by removing the excess stone, the form was released. With his illuminated books Blake combined mystical poetry and the printer's art, a "marriage" he believed was essential. As we know, not all marriages work out, divorce happens, and sometimes an interim separation occurs. I suspect Cleansing the Doors of Perception, a reprinting of previously published material with some new commentary, is the result of separation anxiety and the author should consider taking a walk in the garden.
Smith's latest book is equal parts modern history and mystical introspection. That he knew and worked with most of the major players involved in the scientific and philosophical investigations of mind-altering chemicals during the last half of the twentieth century, makes his Cleansing the Doors of Perception both professional and personal. The essays, articles, and interview transcripts seem almost as much of a challenge to the author as to the reader. And, that's the way it should be… Smith offers sincere efforts and readers would do well to extend themselves accordingly. We may support or oppose the so-called "War on Drugs," we may approach God as fact or fiction, but we need to recognize the importance of investigation.
Humans enjoy language, regarding words as fashionable accessories, but we're victims as often as we succeed. Smith uses entheogen (God-within substance), as opposed to psychotomimetic (madness mimicking), Humphry Osmond's psychedelic (mind manifesting), or the common hallucinogen (mind wandering inciter). This distinction avows respect, acknowledges the mystery, and attempts to steer future investigations with a dye-tied rudder hewn from workable, yet hardy wood. Such inquiry is like falling in love, dying, or watching Monday Night Football, and must be personally experienced and, of course, no two experiences will ever be alike.
I must admit a positive bias toward Smith's discussion, review, antidotal asides, and memories of the "major players" of entheogenic research and popularization. Okay, I still get uncomfortable whenever I'm reminded Aldous Huxley wished mescaline, LSD, and other associated plant-derived chemicals be kept away from the masses and only used by the intelligentsia, artists, and those Huxley believed would honor the experience. Smith thought highly of the work of R. Gordon Wasson, and justifiably so, but admits Wasson's identification of Soma, the enigmatic "holy" substance of the Vedas, as the amanita muscaria mushroom, while argued well, is far from the definitive solution to the problem. [Note: The Tarim Mummies (J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, New York: Thames & Hudson 2000), p. 138, describes many ancient Tarim Basin gravesites as containing Ephedra sinica, a plant often mentioned by Indologists as either Soma or a substitute.] The essays and interviews mentioning the discoverer of LSD, Dr. Albert Hofmann, '60s drug-guru Timothy Leary, the celebrated ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, poet and scholar Robert Graves, and others (including Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, who used LSD in the '50s), are some of the last glimpses of these notables we may enjoy and be enriched by. Now, is it on the same level as the recently released fourth volume of The History of the Lord of the Rings ("The End of the Third Age," J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, New York: Houghton-Mifflin 2000) and our final dialogue featuring Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and all the rest? Tough question; read both…
Smith is proud of his past plant-derived chemical experiences, but admits he doesn't wish to partake again. He suspects a high fever can produce hallucinations equal to the effects of plant-derived chemicals, but more importantly Smith admits the results of entheogenic ecstasy are variable, fade and are forgotten like childbirth or orgasm, and remembered as occurrences, and nothing more. Moments of holiness seldom leave evidence. Well, there's a reason sex and drugs are repeated often…
Cleansing the Doors of Perception is listed as the fifth entry in The Entheogenic Project Series, works sponsored by the Council on Spiritual Practices, which includes Entheogens and the Future of Religion (edited by Robert Forte, San Francisco: CSP 1997), and a second, expanded edition of The Road to Eleusis (Wasson, Hofmann, Ruck, preface by Huston Smith, Los Angeles: Hermes Press-Dailey Rare Books 1998). These scholarly efforts are as far removed from High Times Magazine as Botticelli's 'La Nascita di Venere' is from a Playboy layout.
Though Smith declares "it has been decades since I have taken an entheogen" and would decline any offers to experience the "Clear Light of the Void" again, he then equivocates with: "I will take them again if need be, as I did with peyote, but the reasons would have to be compelling." Smith is surely familiar with the passing of Aldous Huxley on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day as the JFK assassination, and how Laura Huxley gave him LSD and read selections from Leary's then-unpublished translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (The Psychedelic Experience, Leary, Metzner, and Alpert, New York: University Books 1964). Not a bad way to check out!
I hope Huston Smith continues his personal journey, as well as his teaching and writing for many years to come. I also hope he finds a "compelling" reason to revisit the entheogens. Not all separations lead to divorce…
Opening a can of cream of mushroom soup.