Is Utopia a State of Consciousness?: Drugs and Literature (Part 1)

Focusing on Aldous Huxley’s 1954 text The Doors of Perception, this 3-part essay will try to elucidate the ways in which an individual’s utopia can be considered a state of consciousness when considering language and drugs as a monitored combination.

At 11am one misty May morn in 1953, Aldous Huxley took 4/10ths of a gramme of mescaline and documented his experiences throughout the day. As a result we have a rich prosaic account of his experiment inspiring countless others in the process, including notable American psychologist and existential hippy Timothy Leary.

Most prominently in the sixties counter-culture; society and literature in the century of ideologies, censorship and the development of the mass media grew conscious that drug use was instrumental in shaping reality and utopian potential. The traditional understanding of drug use was as an escapist system, dreamily enhancing or distorting the outside world and enabling us to interpret our experiences. But this, as a method of communication, which in turn allows us to accumulate knowledge, was irremediably shaken. Rather, the diversity of world-views culturally produced, and the unprecedented use of substances to seduce, lure or distort reality and attain “internal freedom”[1] and spread the idea that drugs had been, if not harmed by misuse, then at least exposed as an unreliable vehicle of truth and knowledge.

Aldous Huxley’s claims that: “other chemical Doors in the Wall are labelled Dope and their unauthorized takers are fiends”[2] and “by taking the appropriate drug, I might so change my ordinary mode of consciousness as to be able to know, from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about”[3] in the The Doors of Perception are to be taken in this context of a growing mistrust in drug use. They essentially rely on two assumptions:

  1. language is our way of making sense of the world, and thus determines our perceptions
  2. the “ego-filter” is an imperfect tool in filtering reality and limiting the individual’s understanding of the world, and our perceptive reality is therefore contingent.

Firstly we must formulate a distinction between all the utopian definitions in an attempt to clarify a standing in this exploration. The Greek origin for the term as “no place” sways strongly away from any spatial points, whilst the Oxford English Dictionary also defines Utopia as “an imaginary island” or most significantly “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect”, with the crucial term ‘ideally’ implying an attempt to satisfy one person’s perception of what is perfect. Thus when presented alongside each other and combined for this essay’s purpose, we can draw a definitive outlook on something ebbing towards what can be successfully labelled a subjective state of consciousness, not an objective physical point in space.

Furthermore to this point, since “the urge to escape from self-hood and the environment is in almost everyone almost all the time”[4], one must endeavour to alter their everyday state of consciousness, and through Huxley’s inspiring text and subsequently various university experiments conducted by Timothy Leary and another American Terence McKenna,

“Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescalin, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience”.[5]

However as Huxley has illustrated, that last point is not necessarily true but I will address that later on.

Contextually, McKenna states that he was introduced to the psychedelic concept purely through The Doors of Perception,[6] whilst Leary and fellow Harvard professor Richard Alpert founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1964, Leary co-wrote the book titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and dedicated it to Aldous Huxley by interpolating a brief opening citation from The Doors of Perception.

Leary’s manual also inspired John Lennon to write ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ for the Beatles’ album Revolver, the musical epitome of the psychedelic sixties and the ultimate portrayal of an acid trip. 1965 saw Timothy Leary share Huxley’s interest in analysed drug use observing that he had “learned more about… (his) brain and its possibilities… (and) more about psychology in the five hours after taking these [psilocybin] mushrooms than… (he) had in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology.”[7]

Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady, the basis for the Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On The Road.

Consequently Leary’s infamous experiments began with a research project documenting the effects of the psilocybin on human subjects (prisoners and eventually students), attracting the services of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and subsequently single-handedly bridging this invaluable connection between the artistic and intellectual movements.[8] Emulating Huxley’s monitored guidelines, Leary insisted one could alter criminal behaviour in beneficial fashion with the help of drugs. What was later branded as the Concord Prison Experiment, illustrated that after six-months on parole astonishingly only twenty-five percent of the 32 subjects were sent back to prison.[9] However, principally the results were questioned in a retest years later.[10]

[1] Cohen, Joel, The Harvard Crimson, ‘Drugs and Innter Freedom’, accessed 13/05/10

[2]Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, p.43.

[3] Huxley, p.5.

[4] Huxley, p.43.

[5] Leary, Alpert, Metzner, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, p.19

[6] Terence McKenna Interview, Part 1. Accessed on 7/05/10.

[7] Ram Dass Fierce Grace, 2001, Zeitgeist Video

[8] Goffman, K. and Joy, D. 2004. Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House. New York: Villard. Pg 250-2

[9] Leary, Timothy, Flashbacks.

[10] Doblin, Rick,, accessed 10/05/10.

-James Godwin, May 25th, 2011