Wednesday, 6 February 2013

'If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite'

The theme for our next issue is ‘Perception’, a theme which I feel is paradoxically very easy, yet frustratingly difficult to respond to (in written form). Really, any and every piece of creative writing ever composed is about perception; of the author, the protagonist, the world. Concurrently, it can be extremely difficult to know where to start (how does one even begin to tackle such an expansive and fundamental thing). Here I have tried to narrow the scope slightly, and included some examples from some well-known novels that tackle the tricky issue of ‘perception’ with flair, ingenuity, and originality. 

The excerpts I have chosen, largely, discuss heightened or troubled perceptions, respectively; a story-book tale of reality turned upside-down by a little girls day-dreaming fantasies; a strange and alienating picture of a dystopian landscape; the documentation of a heady trip full of trips (of the drug-induced variety); two - first-hand - accounts of the effects of mind-altering substances; the mental-meandering of a protagonist with a remarkably keen sensual-perception; and finally, the musings of a mind troubled by the paradoxically liberating and oppressive power of synesthesia.  In each of these novels, the ‘uncanny’ plays a significant role; the selected authors focusing on that which is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, of this world and outside of it, factual and fictional. You may also notice that all the excerpts I have chosen have a strong focus on the senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell), accompanied with and manifested by; richly imagery, extreme metaphors, palpable contrasts, antithetical juxtaposition, dripping adjectival detail, pointed alliteration, multitudinous tongues, fusing of dialects and languages: everything in these passages works to exaggerate, to draw our attention to the out-of-the-ordinary within the ordinary. 

So, without further ado, here's some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing: read, absorb, enjoy... 

Carroll’s Alice visits a topsy-turvy wonderland filled with inexplicable happenings and strange encounters -

Presently [Alice] began again. 'I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward! The Antipathies, I think--' (she was rather glad there WAS no one listening, this time, as it didn't sound at all the right word) '--but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma'am, is this New Zealand or Australia?' (and she tried to curtsey as she spoke--fancy curtseying as you're falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?).

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll. 

Huxley imagines a strange, distorted future - 
The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single window. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley. 

And, in a different context, but with equally rich detail, he recounts the tumultuous emotions (now despairing, now enlightened) of an experiment with Mescaline in a book (aptly) entitled The Doors of Perception
I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing--but of a breathing without return to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning. Words like "grace" and "transfigu- ration" came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things, they stood for. My eyes travelled from the rose to the carnation, and from that feathery incandescence to the smooth scrolls of sentient amethyst which were the iris. The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss-for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to. 
The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley. 
Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing’ is a drug-fuelled whirlwind of a text, which picks the reader up and carries them off in its pages -
Stand in front of this fantastic machine, my friend, and for just 99c your likeness will appear, two hundred feet tall, on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. Ninety-nine cents more for a voice message. "Say whatever you want, fella. They'll hear you, don't worry about that. Remember you'll be two hundred feet tall."
Jesus Christ. I could see myself lying in bed in the Mint Hotel, half-asleep and staring idly out the window, when suddenly a vicious nazi drunkard appears two hundred feet tall in the midnight sky, screaming gibberish at the world: "Woodstock Uber Alles!"
We will close the drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping-pong ball. Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson.

The Shulgins’ PiHKAL similarly details experiences with drugs; yet their experiences are far more controlled, calculated with a chemist’s precision. However, the literature produced is just as mesmerising and profound - 

There I felt myself at baseline and accepted (unusual for me) a little marijuana. And with the utmost quiet and delicacy, a rather incredible change of state took place. The most memorable event was the awareness of a clarinet playing somewhere, and the sneaky sounds from it actually coming along the carpet out of the dining room and into the hallway and through the door and into the room where I was, and all of them gathering at my feet like docile kittens waiting for me to acknowledge them. I did, non-verbally, and I was amazed at the many additional follow-up sounds that came from the same clarinet along the same twisty path along the floor and through the door and into my space, over what seemed to be the next million hours. I ended up with a marvelous collection of notes and phrases at my feet, and I felt somehow honored. My speech sounded OK to me, but I knew that it would be odd to the ears of others, so I kept quiet. A final measure of the weirdness of the ALEPH-6/LSD/Pot combination was the viewing of the Larkspur ferry at its dock, abandoned for the evening and with no one aboard it, and with all that clean, dry sleeping space going to waste with so many people sleeping on the streets these days. Once home, I slept soundly and for a long while. Incredible experience.

PiHKAL - Dr. Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin. 

Miller’s Tropic of Cancer - obscene, majestically pornographic, extremely hard to follow - achieves an unparallelled quality of graphic description - 
Tania is like Irene. She expects fat letters. But there is another Tania, a Tania like a big seed, who scatters pollen everywhere – or, let us say, a little bit of Tolstoi, a stable scene in which the foetus is dug up. Tania is a fever. too – les votes urinaires. Cafe de la Liberte, Place des Vosges, bright neckties on the Boulevard Montparnasse, dark bathrooms, Porto Sec, Abdullah cigarettes, the adagio sonata pathetique, aural amplificators, anecdotal seances, burnt sienna breasts, heavy garters, what time is it, golden pheasants stuffed with chestnuts, taffeta fingers, vaporish twilights turning to ilex, acromegaly, cancer and delirium, warm veils, poker chips, carpets of blood and soft thighs. 

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller. 
Nabokov’s Fyodor is a brilliant young poet, who experiences synesthesia, (the neurological condition in which one or more sensory modalities become strangely linked) - 

After this I would voyage for more than an hour through the dark of my bed, arching the bedclothes over myself, so as to form a cavern, at whose distant exit I glimpsed a bit of oblique bluish light that had nothing in common with my bedroom, with the neva night, with the rich, darkly translucent flounces of the window curtains. the cave I was exploring held in its folds and fissures such a dreamy reality, brimmed with such oppressive mystery, that a throbbing, as of a muted drum, would begin in my chest and in my ears; in there, in its depths, where my father had discovered a new species of bat, I could make out the high cheekbones of an idol hewn from the rock; and, when I finally dozed off, a dozen strong hands would overturn me and, with an awful silk-ripping sound, someone would unstitch me from top to bottom, after which an agile hand would slip inside me and powerfully squeeze my heart. or else I would be turned into a horse, screaming in a mongolian voice: shamans yanked at its hocks and lassos, so that its legs would break with a crunch and collapse at right angles to the body – my body – which lay with its chest pressed against the yellow ground, and, as a sign of extreme agony, the horse’s tail would rise fountain-like; it dropped back, and I awoke.
the glistening facings
of the stove to determine
if the fire has grown to the top.
it has. and to its hot hum
the morning responds with the silence of snow,
pink-shaded azure,
and immaculate whiteness.
time to get up. the stove-heater pats

Vladimir Nabokov - The Gift. 

Of course, a piece of writing about ‘perception’ need not be about such extreme topics (or involve as many drugs), as the ones I have mentioned. However, I hope to have highlighted how all of these writers share a remarkable sensitivity to the various modes of human perception, and translate them into beautiful and disturbing verse. A good writer on ‘perception’ is expertly attuned to the minute fluxes of the mind, the power of the senses, and, most importantly - the way in which these factors influence and transform our perception of the world in which we live. 

(Title quotation is from William Blake 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' - "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern".) 


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