Aldous Huxley on upwards and downwards self-transcendence
Last week, I went to an exhibition on Goya, in Boston. It was filled with his bizarre and fantastic dream-drawings, exploring the strange manias and nightmares that fill humans’ minds when their reason is switched off - as in the classic engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
The museum bookstore had an excellent selection of books exploring this theme, including Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which I picked up on a whim. It’s a non-fiction book about a famous case of mass demonic possession among a group of nuns in 16th century France (the book was the inspiration for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils.)
Huxley uses the incident to explore our urge for self-transcendence, and how this can lead us not upwards but downwards, into the irrational and unhealthy parts of the subconscious. Humans, he says, have a ‘deep-seated urge for self-transcendence’. They ‘long to get out of themselves, to pass beyond the limits of that tiny island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined.’
This urge comes from our sense of boredom, claustrophobia, loneliness and cosmic smallness when we're stuck in the closed and repetitive loop of the ego. But also, more positively, ‘if we experience an urge to self-transcendence, it is because, in some obscure way, we know who we really are. We know (or to be more accurate something within us knows) that the ground of our individual knowing is identical with the Ground of all knowing and all being...When the phenomenal ego transcends itself, the essential Self is free to realize the fact of its own eternity...This is liberation, this is enlightenment, this is the beatific vision.”
That’s putting it in quite Christian / Hindu terms. An atheist like Sam Harris would put it slightly differently - the urge to self-transcendence is the urge to go beyond our painful self-absorption, self-pity and ceaseless craving, so we realize the blissful non-existence of self and interdependence of all things.
However, here’s the risk, according to Huxley: ‘Self-transcendence is by no means invariably upwards. Indeed, in most cases, it is an escape either downward into a state below that of personality, or else horizontally into something wider than the ego, but not higher, not essentially other [like art, science, politics, a hobby or job]. Needless to say, these substitutes for upward self-transcendence, these escapes into subhuman or merely human surrogates for Grace, are unsatisfactory at the best, and at the worst, disastrous.’
In the epilogue to The Devils, Huxley lists some of these ‘Grace-substitutes’ or varieties of downward self-transcendence.
First, narcotics and alcohol: ‘millions upon millions of civilized men and women continue to pay their devotions, not to the liberating and transfiguring Spirit, but to alcohol, to hashish, to opium and its derivatives, to the barbituates, and other synthetic additions to the age-old catalogue of poisons capable of causing self-transcendence. In every case, of course, what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement.’
Then there is self-transcendence through sex, ‘the perennial attraction of debauchery’, the delicious sense of surrender to an other, a la 50 Shades of Grey. Worst of all, in Huxley’s opinion, is self-transcendence through ‘crowd-delirium’.
The fact of being one of a multitude delivers a man from his consciousness of being an insulated self and carries him down into a less than personal realm, where there are no responsibilities, no right or wrong - only a strong vague sense of togetherness, only a shared excitement...Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited herd secretes [eh?], they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility.
Authority figures in politics often recognize the danger of drugs and debauchery, but are dangerously seduced by the lure of controlling crowds through forms of mass hypnosis: ‘Pilgrimages and political rallies, corybantic revivals and patriotic parades - these things are ethically right so long as they are our pilgrimages, our revivals and our parades.’
Related to these downward self-transcendences through sex, drugs and crowd-intoxication is the downward self-transcendence through ‘rhythmic movement’ and ‘rhythmic sound’, ‘for the purpose of inducing a state of infra-personal and sub-human ecstasy’. History ‘records many sporadic outbreaks of involuntary and uncontrollable jigging, swaying and head-wagging’, which are involuntary means of escaping from ‘insulated selfhood into a state in which there are no responsibilities, no guilt-laden past or haunting future, only the present, blissful consciousness of being someone else’. Huxley was writing in 1951, just before rock and roll would burst onto the scene.
Huxley suggests that the demonic possession of the nuns of Loudun was really an outbreak of these forms of downward self-transcendence. The head nun became sexually obsessed with a hot priest, the contents of her unconscious started to spill out and haunt her consciousness, and then the other nuns gave in to a sort of crowd-intoxication, letting all of the contents of their inhibited sexual fantasies out under the guise of being possessed by demons. This collective orgy was actively encouraged by the exorcist priests, keen to put on a show for the glorification of the Church and the destruction of its enemies (the hot priest was accused of being a sorcerer and eventually burnt).
Here's the trailer for Russell's film, which seems to suggest that the excesses of the 60s counter-culture was comparable to an outbreak of mass hysteria:
The way up is also the way down?
The book gives you a vivid sense of the irrational and dangerous power of religion. But what of upward self-transcendence?
Huxley speaks much less of upward self-transcendence in this book, but he explores it at length in The Perennial Philosophy, written six years earlier. He appears to believe this path is only open to a handful of mystics and contemplatives, who use meditative techniques to liberate themselves from their many selves (the ego, the subconscious) until they finally reach the Ground of Being. It’s an individualist, intellectualist and elitist vision of spirituality. He sees all crowds as ‘the social equivalent of a cancer’ - an extreme if understandable position in a world recovering from fascism.
Here’s the Big Question: ‘To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of a descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence?’
Huxley admits that ‘a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent.’ He writes:
When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being. So long as we are confined within our insulated selfhood, we remain unaware of the various non-selves with which we are associated - the organic non-self, the collective not-self of the psychic medium...and the immanent and transcendent not-self of the Spirit. Any escape, even by a descending road, out of insulated selfhood makes possible at least a momentary awareness of the not-self on every level, including the highest.
So all these downward paths out of the ego may become upward paths to the Spirit - people can become awakened through drug experiences (Huxley would of course write a lot more positively about this later in The Doors of Perception, published three years later), through sex (he is a fan of DH Lawrence’s exploration of sex-mysticism) and through crowd-intoxication: ‘Some good may sometimes come out of even the most corybantic of revival meetings’, he says rather condescendingly.
His idea of upward and downward transcendence reminds me of the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s concept of the ‘pre-trans fallacy’: we can mistakenly believe that any journey beyond rationality or beyond the ego is spiritual. However, often these journeys are a reversion to earlier, primitive irrationality - speaking in tongues or uncontrollable giggling could be seen as a reversion to infantile baby-talk rather than spiritual transcendence. We’re not going forwards, we’re going backwards.
This is why the spiritual path is so difficult. I wonder if the way up doesn’t inevitably involve the way down too - to reach the ‘heart’, or the ‘ground of Being’, you journey through the mist of the psychic realm, through the swamp of your unconscious with all its fantasies, resentments and longings. And at every step, your ego can reappear and try to assert its fantasies of self-glorification.
In our skeptical era, we tend to write off both upward and downward transcendence as childish flights into irrationality. But that doesn’t work, because the human urge for self-transcendence does not go away. And there are profoundly positive things we can get from self-transcendence - healing, creativity, group-bonding, self-actualization.
The negative vision shown in Goya’s Sleep of Reason is not the whole story. In fact, the original for the engraving was called The Vision of the Artist, and is arguably a more positive vision. The full title is ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels’. We shouldn’t simply ignore the subliminal self and its gifts, rather, we should learn how to balance them with our critical rationality.