Saturday, April 9, 2016

Aldous Huxley's Hands



We like typologies (as an outbreak of MBTI 'lite' testing in the office this week reminded me). Can we find a pattern that gathers up a phenomena and helps us better navigate some aspect of the world?
Virtually anything can probably be put to use: what about hands?

This is the unlikely, and fascinating, starting point of Allene Symons' 'Aldous Huxley's Hands: His Quest for Perception and the Origin and Return of Psychedelic Science'. Her father, an aircraft design engineer (and alternative healer), during the Second World War, had to design a screening mechanism for quality draughtsmen to assist the war effort. This he did successfully and in the process began asking himself was there anything in a person's hand that indicated their characteristics. This led him to develop an unique photographic process that allowed him to beautifully reproduce all the unique detail of a person's hand, that then, comparatively, allowed him to seek patterns of commonality.

It was, at this point, that his life intersected with the Huxleys'. They both lived in California and on Tuesday evenings, the Huxleys held a gathering of diverse people interested in non-mainstream approaches to psychological, social and scientific understanding - the parapsychological, the alternative, the merely flakey! Symons' was invited to these gatherings and photographed both Aldous' and Maria's, his first wife's, hands.

The book unfolds as a three fold, interlinked exploration - Aldous Huxley's life and her father's life as exponents of 'excluded' understanding, the fate of both hand research and psychedelic research as an exemplar of this; and, of a daughter's quest to better understand her father's obsession, an obsession that led to family breakdown and a belated reconciliation between them.

Whether the three entirely sit comfortably together is a mute point but the book covers fascinating ground.

First, the fate of the hand research is a compelling example of how convention excludes exploration. Symons' father's research was taken up by a professional, tenured psychologist and together they conducted a study of people suffering schizophrenia against a control. They discovered a common pattern of a particular palm feature that belonged to people with schizophrenia but not to the control. This was presented at the appropriate (and prestigious) conference with, sadly, predictable results where, in a rare moment of collusion the Freudians and the Behaviourists (this is 1950s America), refused to listen - the environment was all, inheritance nothing - the tenured psychologist, fearful of his career, abandoned the research, Symons' father, likewise discouraged, did too.

Second, and ironically, the 'schizophrenic pattern' was shared by another group, 'the psychic' but that is a story that too disappeared into indifference...

Third, and the most fascinating part of the book, is the exploration of the psychedelic. This is a term that Humphrey Osmond, the psychiatrist that administered Huxley's first psychoactive drug trip, and Huxley coined together. The book explores the history and biography of how two English psychiatrists, with a desire to explore mental illness from a biological and spiritual point of view came, to collude with Huxley in what resulted as 'The Doors of Perception' and a classic account of the possibility of psychoactive drugs as a pathway towards illumination and healing. 

It, also, tracks how this exploration came temporarily undone - the popularity of the book and the subsequent championing (and perceived scandal) of 'tuning in and dropping out' that Timothy Leary championed and that helped inaugurate 'the Sixties' (that Huxley et al would rather have avoided) led to the forceful reaction of convention (and Nixon's continuing horror of the 'war' against drugs) such that valuable research was put on ice, until now, where slowly it is being resurrected - for addiction, trauma and hospice care most impressively. Where the 'loosening' effect of a visit towards transcendence within a carefully supported therapeutic environment allows people to see (and act) beyond the narrow, repetitive cycles of their fixation into renewing possibilities.

Meanwhile, you come away from the book with a reinforced sense as to how delightful Huxley (and both his wives were), how prescient and how expansive. 

By expansive, I mean that Huxley's mind and spirit strikes me as an exceptionally open one - let anything in - and yet, as balance, rigorously discriminating. Without that fundamental tolerance, you cannot be sure of not noticing or seeing the valuable, without that rigour, you cannot sift to find the truly valuable. The world so often conspires to invert this such that the rigour excludes possibility. 

Huxley was a saintly patron of wonder and wisdom (in that order)!





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