Visionary Experience

August 1961

Presented at the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology. Aldous Huxley had been invited to the symposium by Timonthy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). The two had met some months earlier, when Tim invited the author of the first two major works of modern psychedelic literature (The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell) to participate in the Harvard research program. Huxley agreed and was “Subject no.11” in a group psilocybin session run by Leary in November 1960.




Ladies and gentlemen, tonight Mr. Huxley speaks to us of a world of visionary experience. Mr. Huxley.


I want to begin this talk with one of those questions which inquisitive children ask their parents and stump them completely—a question like, “Why is grass green?” This is a question about precious stones. “Why are precious stones precious?” And obviously, it’s extremely difficult to find any rational reason for this. It has certainly no economic reason, no biological reason why people should have spent an immense amount of time, energy, and money on collecting and cutting and setting colored pebbles. And there must be some much deeper psychological reason for this strange behavior.


Now, this question was asked many years ago by Santayana, who came up with what seems to me a partial explanation, but I don’t think it’s a complete final explanation. He said that, in his opinion, precious stones were precious because they seemed to man to be the nearest approach in this world of perpetual perishing, of passing away—it seemed to be the nearest approach to the permanent and the eternal. A precious stone does appear to remain exactly as it is, generation after generation, and Santayana assumed that it was because this was the nearest approach in our world to something that was intrinsically eternal: that the precious stone took on its precious quality. Well, I think there is something in this explanation, but I don’t think it’s by any means the complete story. I think there are other compelling psychological reasons why we value precious stones as we do.


I’m going to quote a passage from Plato, which I think throws a lot of light on this subject. It comes from the Phaidōn; the dialogue. In here, Socrates is talking about the ideal world, which he says is more beautiful and real than the actual world in which we live. And he says in this other [world], the colors are much purer and more brilliant than they are down here. The very mountains and stones have a richer gloss, and lovelier transparency, and intensity of hue. The precious stones of this lower world are highly prized carnelians, jaspers, emeralds, and all the rest are but the tiny fragments of these stones above. In the other world, there is no stone that is precious and exceeds in beauty every gem of ours. And he goes on to say: “The vision of this world is a vision of blessed beholders.”


But this is, it seems to me, a very interesting passage inasmuch as it makes perfectly clear that the ideal world of Plato is not a mere metaphysical construction, a kind of inference from the facts of our present world and its imperfection. It is a visible world, a world which can be seen with the inner eye, and which has certain describable peculiarities—such as the colors being much brighter and it being filled with stones which are very like our precious stones. And I find here probably what is the basic psychological reason for our immensely high valuation of precious stones, which is this: that these are the objects in the natural world which most nearly resemble things which are seen with the inner eye by people who have the gift of vision—and which even those who do not consciously have the gift of vision—have some kind of unconscious inkling of. It seems to, as it were, remind them of something going on in the back of their minds which, on a subterranean level, they know something about.


And we get a certain confirmation of this by the greatest of the Neoplatonic philosophers, Plotinus, who says that everything in the intelligible world—which is much the same as the ideal world of Plato—everything there shines. And he says that, for this reason, the most beautiful thing in this world is fire—which is a transference, as we see, from the inner facts of the visionary world into the outer fact. This is a transference of value from something which is highly esteemed in the inner world into the outer world. And says the most beautiful thing in this world is fire. And it’s interesting to find, for example, in Ezekiel’s description of the Garden of Eden [that] he speaks of it being filled with gems; filled with what he called “stones of fire.” As I hope to show later on, this richness of gem-like qualities which is found in the visionary world does explain many very strange facts about certain types of art, and many facts about the curious uniform quality of religious traditions, folklore traditions, traditions of the nature of the Golden Age and the afterlife, which are found all over the world—and we can talk about that later.


Meanwhile, let us speak about the accessibility of this visionary world. Well, we look at the records and we look around, and we find that a certain number of people can enter this visionary world spontaneously; where they can go back and forth between the two worlds without any real difficulty. And, probably, quite a lot of children inhabit the visionary world for quite a bit of the time. And, also, we find that this visionary world is very highly prized by people, and that they will go out of their way to get into it—that, if they do not get to visit it spontaneously, they do a great many things which help them to go into it artificially. The visionary experience is so highly prized that, throughout the ages of recorded history, people have done their best to induce visions: they try to go to this other world by various artificial vehicles. And there are a number of ways which have been worked out. There are psychological ways, there are physiological ways, there are chemical ways, and it’s worth—I think—describing a few of these methods.


For example, it is possible to go into the other world through hypnosis. Quite a number of people can, in a certain stage—or rather, deep stage of hypnosis—can and do enter some kind of visionary world. It’s a very interesting experience if one has ever watched people suddenly passing out of what seems to be a kind of sleep-like stage into a world where they are seeing very clearly very strange and interesting things. I think this hypnotic visionary world is probably not quite so brilliant and extraordinary as some of the other visionary worlds, the other aspects of the visionary world which can be touched in other ways.


And then, of course, there are the purely psychological methods: there are the methods of intensive concentration, which we find in the various yogas of the East and in the so-called spiritual practices of the West—which do, undoubtedly, produce these visionary states. Then there is the method which has been employed in many, many parts of the world: the method of complete isolation, the limiting, the cutting-down of sensory experiences to the greatest possible extent.


Now, this is a very interesting thing. Within the last few years, a number of experiments have been made in modern psychological and medical laboratories with what is called “limited environment.” That, for example, people like Hebb at McGill and Dr. Lilly at the National Institute of Health in Washington have employed various means for cutting down the input of sensory stimuli to the extreme limit. Lilly, for example, cut down external stimuli to such a point that there was nothing, practically, that was affecting him from without; he immersed himself completely in a bath of warm water at a temperature of 94°F (34°C), breathed through a snorkel so that his face was completely covered. Therefore, no part of his skin was feeling anything except a uniform temperature. He tied himself up in a harness which didn’t permit him to move more than a tenth of an inch. He was in a lightproof and soundproof room. Well, the interesting fact is that, within four hours, he and those colleagues of his who submitted to this extremely drastic treatment were seeing very, very strange visions. And where the deprivation of external stimuli is not quite so complete as it was in Hebb’s experiments, similar visions will be seen within 24 to 36 hours. Now, one of the interesting facts here is that the great majority of these visions were extremely unpleasant. They were so unpleasant that I’ve asked Dr. Lilly what they were, and he has always declined to tell me. I don’t know what the—they must’ve been very unpleasant, indeed.


But now, this is extremely interesting in view of the historical facts. We find—both in the East and the West—a long tradition of isolation; that hermits and would-be visionaries have retired to the most desolate places where they could cut off an enormous amount of external stimuli. In the fourth century, in the Thebaid in Egypt, immense numbers of hermits and cenobites lived in the desert, cutting themselves off as far as possible from external stimuli. And we see the same thing with the Tibetan lamas and the Hindu monks in caves and in remote places in the Himalayas. And they did it all for the same reason. And again, what is very interesting is that we find from the records that a great many of these monks of the Thebaid had visions, and had extremely painful and disagreeable visions. In virtually every picture gallery of the world you will see paintings of the temptations of St. Anthony, which are diabolic visions which are thronged in upon the saint. He did have a certain number of beatific visions, but he had also a great many of these very unpleasant visions. And it’s interesting to find the historical records confirming everything that has been found in recent years by laboratory work.


Over and above these psychological methods there are a number of physiological methods of inducing visions by changing body chemistry. One of the strange facts is that, by inducing certain changes in body chemistry, we do appear to open the door—so to say—which separates our ordinary, everyday selves from this remote, visionary area of the mind. One of the ways of the physiological methods is, of course, the method practiced in the Orient: the method of breathing exercises. But all breathing exercises culminate in one thing, which is prolonged suspensions of breath, which may last a minute—several minutes, even. But when there are such prolonged suspensions of breath, there is, naturally, an increase of carbon dioxide in the blood, and it is now well known that an increase of carbon dioxide—either induced in this way, or else brought into the blood by inhalation—does produce very strange visionary psychological experiences. So that we see again, here, that these time-honored yogic methods have been again confirmed by recent laboratory work showing that, if you do something which increases the CO2 in the blood, you do automatically give yourself access to this visionary world.


Then again, there’s the question of fasting. Here, in many cultural traditions, fasting has been used precisely for the purpose of creating a visionary experience. The Native Americans in this country habitually and systematically resorted to fasting for the express purpose of achieving visionary experience. It was one of the initiation rites of young men in many of the Indian tribes. And, of course, fasting has been used to a very considerable extent in all the major religions. Similarly, lack of sleep—cutting down on sleep—will also produce effects of this same kind. And even some of the more violent physical austerities such as self-flagellation also, I think, produce certain chemical changes which facilitate the coming of visions. For example, violent self-flagellation will release great quantities of histamine, great quantities of adrenaline—both of which may have profound psychological effects. When we look back on the history of religious practices and the desire for visions which has existed, I think, in all cultures, we see that these curious ways of facilitating the visionary experience have been employed. And we now know the reasons—in as far as they are biochemical—we know the reasons why these practices were adopted.


Beyond these methods of inducing visionary experiences there are the directly chemical methods. And here, again, there is an enormous history in this field. Anybody who wishes to know the detailed story of it, I recommend a very interesting book by the French anthropologist Philippe de Félice called Poisons Sacrés—“Sacred Poisons”—which is an account of all the purely chemical methods used in both civilized and primitive cultural traditions for the purpose of getting people into the visionary state. Every kind of substance has been used for this purpose, and the interesting fact is that, in the past, the majority of these substances—these mind-changing, vision-inducing substances—have been dangerous. Opium, of course, is a dangerous substance, even dear old alcohol is a dangerous substance when used to the extent which it has been in the various religious traditions. Coca is a dangerous substance,. Hashish is a fairly dangerous substance. And many of them have certainly been effective in producing visionary experience, but have been effective at very considerable cost to the physiology. People have paid a great price. Even the traditional Hindu drug, the drug soma, which is described in the Vedas, this produced certain visionary effects without any doubt, but it was so poisonous that even the great god Indra felt extremely ill after taking too much soma, and ordinary mortals could actually die of it.


The really startling fact about recent pharmacological developments is that a number of chemical substances have been discovered in recent years which permit the opening of the door into the visionary World without inflicting serious damage upon the body. Enormous changes in consciousness can be brought about without hurting the body. And this is an extraordinary fact. Some of these substances are related to substances existing in nature. For example, mescaline is the active principle, now synthesized, in the Indian peyote. And incidentally, peyote is one of the few traditional mind-changing drugs which has been taken for many centuries by the Indians—and whose use is spreading now throughout the western United States right up into Canada—has been taken without producing addiction, without causing degeneration among those who take it. And beyond this synthetic mescaline, there are various others: lysergic acid, the most recent of them being the active principle of the sacred Mexican mushroom, which was synthesized by Hofmann in Basel in Switzerland.


My friend—Professor Roger Heim of Paris; the mycologist—told me that he recently returned from Mexico and had gone down to visit an old witch doctress friend there, bringing her a number of the pills which Hofmann had synthesized, and had given her some of these pills—which she had taken and was quite delighted because they produced exactly the same effect as the mushrooms. And she was especially delighted that now she could practice her magic at every season of the year instead of having to wait for the mushroom season! So that this is one of the great triumphs of modem science: that the witch doctor in Mexico will be able to send a postcard to Dr. Hofmann in Basel saying, “Have important magic to do, please send one hundred capsules by air mail." You see? These are some of the chemical ways of opening this door which leads into the other part of the mind.


Experiments, of course, have been made by eminent psychologists for a long time. William James, for example, made considerable experiments with nitrous oxide—and, incidentally, was much blamed by some of his colleagues for such a frivolous undertaking, and for taking it so seriously; and was defended by Bergson in his Two Sources of Religion and Ethics, where he said: we must remember that the nitrous oxide was not the cause of Professor James’s remarkable experiences. It was the occasion in that it removed certain obstacles, which permitted this other material to come through. The obstacles could have been removed by purely psychological means, or by other psychophysical means, but this particular means did open the door. And the nature of the experience which came through is not affected by the nature of the key which is used to open the door. And this is a very interesting passage in Bergson. I think it’s fundamentally true that, although there seems to be something rather discreditable and unfair—so to say—about the possibility of opening the door by a means so simple as psilocybin or LSD-25, yet there seems to be no reason to doubt that what comes through is of the same nature as what comes through via breathing exercises, or fasting, or any other means.


Now, let us briefly talk about the nature of the experience. Of course, every visionary experience is unique as every human being is unique. But these things do not occur at random. Although they are unique, and although there are considerable variations, yet we do recognize in the majority of these experiences a kind of family-likeness. They belong to a certain class. And we realize this very well if we read such a book as Heinrich Klüver’s monograph on peyote (Mescal), and Beringer’s book (Der Meskalin Rausch), a whole mass of religious literature on visions, and so forth. We see that there is a kind of resemblance running through this whole family of experiences. And I think we can say that the highest common factor in all these experiences is the experience of light.


Now, the light experience is of several kinds. There is the experience—which is recorded in a great deal of the literature—of what may be called undifferentiated light: just an enormous burst of light, unembodied in any particular form; just a great flood of light. I think it would be true to say that this experience of the undifferentiated light is generally associated with what may be called a full-blown theophany, or a full-blown mystical experience: that experience which transcends the subject-object relationship, which produces a sense of solidarity between the experiencer and the universe, which gives the experiencer a sense of the basic alright-ness of the universe, an understanding of such a phrase as occurs in the Book of Job: “Yea though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” This is, it seems to me, a characteristic feature of the mystical experience. And this kind of experience—and the experience of the same order when associated and interpreted in terms of a theological frame of reference; when the experience is interpreted in Christian terms as the unity of knowledge of God—this kind of experience is, as a matter of fact, generally associated with this experience of undifferentiated light. And, of course, this kind of light-experience is recorded again and again in the literature. The most familiar case is the case of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. We find Mohammed’s call to being a prophet came when he woke up in the middle of the night perceiving a light so intense that it caused him to swoon away. Plotinus entered several times into the light and was, as he says, “swallowed up in divinity.” We find Dante describing paradise as being “illumined as though by two suns.” I mean, there is the ordinary sun, and then there is this other light which is like the light of a much more powerful sun coming through the ordinary sunlight. Then, in more recent times, we find the tremendous light-experience of St. John of the Cross when he was confined by his brethren to prison in Toledo. And Jacob Böhme records light-experiences of this same kind. And one could find, I think, without any difficulty hundreds—literally hundreds—of such experiences recorded by eminent or less eminent mystics.


Now, the interesting thing is that this kind of experience is by no means confined to the eminent people who have a great power of expression—as such collectors of experiences as Dr. Raynor Johnson, in his book The Watcher from the Hills, as he has shown—a great many perfectly ordinary people who don’t have this gift of expression and who have achieved no celebrity as religious leaders do, in fact, have experiences of exactly the same kind.


Now—let me go over this very briefly because we haven’t got very much time—but I received a letter from an unknown correspondent in England. She described herself as a woman in her sixties, and she was saying:

My whole life has been influenced by something that happened to me when I was a schoolgirl of sixteen. When I was in the kitchen I was cutting a slice of bread off a loaf to toast for tea, and suddenly I became aware of this tremendous light all around me with a sense of extraordinary happiness and bliss, and a sense of the complete alright-ness of the universe. I was absolutely overpowered by this. It was a dark November afternoon. The whole place was flooded with this light. The experience lasted—in clock-time—perhaps a minute. Then it went away. But the memory of it has sustained my life ever since, and it has completely abolished any fear of death that I may ever have had. I adore life but I am not in any way afraid of death.

Well, these sort of experiences, as one can find set forth in Raynor Johnson’s book, are really quite common, I think. A great many people have had these kind of experiences of the undifferentiated light which, as I say, is associated with something in the nature of the full-blown mystical experience. And here it is quite interesting to go into another cultural tradition and to find that—in the Buddhist tradition what is called the clear light of the void—this tremendous uncolored light is, again, associated with the ultimate liberation experience, and that the other lesser lights—particularly the lights which are embodied in forms—are associated with the lower so-called “pre-mystical” visionary experiences.


Well, let us now come down to what is strictly the visionary experience, which is the experience of light in its differentiated form when it is embodied in shapes, and in personages, in landscapes, and so on. And here, again, we find—curiously enough—a certain uniformity. We find likenesses running through the various descriptions of this. For example, the experience will very often begin with a vision of what may be called living geometries, geometrical forms brilliantly lighted, continuously changing. These may modulate into some kind of geometrical objects such as carpets, mosaics, and so on. There may then be tremendous visions of landscapes of an extraordinarily brilliant and glowing nature, of architectures often encrusted with gems. And the landscapes, too, are frequently recorded as encrusted with gems, which again throws a light on what Plato was saying in his dialogue, and the reason for our high estimation of precious stones, because we see these things in our visionary experience, and even if we don’t know them consciously, they in some way remind some area of our mind of this strange world, which I think exists in every mind—although often deeply buried. And then there are sometimes visions of figures, strange faces, and there’s a very interesting fact—which is recorded again and again both in the spontaneous cases and in the induced cases—that when faces are seen, they are never the faces of people that the experiencer knows. He docs not see the face of his mother, his father, his brothers, his friends. These are entirely new faces. And this, I think, casts a great deal of light on this whole conception of angelic figures. Of course. it’s entirely incorrect to suppose that the angels are the spirits of the departed; they are of another species altogether. And this is a very interesting fact: that, at the, sort of, antipodes of our mind—in this remote area of our mind—it is so far beyond the personal unconscious that we don’t see anything connected with our own private life, or even with the general life of mankind. We see something quite different.


When Blake saw these figures he said these are the cherubim and seraphim. And he knew all about them. They were very large. He said the seraphim are 120 feet high, and they live in these extraordinary landscapes. And he described the landscapes. He says the landscapes and the architectures in which they live are highly organized, they are articulated beyond anything which the mortal and perishing sight could possibly imagine; that they were in some sense super-real, they were more real than ordinary reality. And Blake saw these things all his life, except for a period in middle life when, for some reason, visions didn’t come to him. But this was a regular type of experience for him. And he was constantly seeing these faces, which were not faces of anybody he knew, but they were these strange figures from somewhere else. And another curious fact about these figures is that they were never doing anything. This is one of the things which recurs again and again in the descriptions: that these figures, when seen, are not in action, but sort of doing nothing in particular. And this again corresponds very closely to the conception of these angelic entities in the other world who are not engaged in action, they are engaged in the beatific vision, in contemplation. And I think this is one of the reasons why the most powerful and moving religious art is always static art. The great religious symbols—like the Khmer Buddhas, like the great Egyptian gods, like the primitive Greek statues—are static. They are not doing anything. The great pantocrators and madonnas of Byzantine art—they are also completely static, not doing things. And this is precisely the nature of these beings who are found in the other world, the world of vision.


Let me very briefly go into another very interesting fact about the visionary experience: that the Visionary Experience occurs by no means only behind the closed eyelids. In very many cases, the visionary quality—the quality of the vision, so to say—spills over into the external world so that the experiencer, when he opens his eyes, sees the outer world transfigured, sees it as incomparably more beautiful than he sees it at ordinary times, sees it as glowing with an intensity of light and significance and life, which is something he simply does not see at all in his ordinary state. Now, there are plenty—I think—plenty of poets and artists who have spontaneously seen the world in this way. You will find, for example, admirable descriptions of the nature of this transfigured vision of the world in some of the writings of the Irish poet Æ—George Russell—which I recommend very much. These are very subtle and psychologically penetrating descriptions of the kind of things that the visionary sees in the external world. And I think it would be true to say that quite a lot of children probably see the world in this transfigured way. They see it—very much, I think—as Wordsworth describes himself as seeing it as a child; describes it in the great ode on the intimations of immortality in childhood. As Wordsworth said, he looks at the outside world and it has the glory and the freshness of a dream. And he goes on to say that. as he grew up, this glory faded into the light of common day and, “This I know, where’er I go, / That there hath past a glory from the earth.” And the world became, so to say, very boring once again.


And, there’s a particularly beautiful passage in one of the Centuries of Meditation of Traherne, and I would like to quote this passage of Traherne’s which describes his experience as a child. He was brought up in Shrewsbury—I think it was—in a small town which had walls around it at that time, and he describes what it was like looking out from his home into the world around him. He says,

The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold. The green trees, when I saw them first through one of the city gates, transported and ravished me. Their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart leap and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The men, oh what reverent and venerable creatures did the aged seem, immortal cherubim, and the young men glittering and sparkling angels, and maids, strange, seraphic pieces of life and beauty. Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were like moving jewels. Eternity was manifested in the light of the day and something infinite behind everything appeared. And then, with much ado, I was corrupted and made to learn the dirty devices of the world, which now I unlearn and become as a little child again, that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.

And he goes on to say that the Kingdom of God is already here, if we would only allow ourselves to see it. He says,

The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a temple of majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of light and peace. Did not men disquiet it? It is the paradise of God. It is the place of angels and the Gate of Heaven.


Traherne, I think, describes a state of mind which is relatively common. I mean, I think there are many more people who have had—in childhood and even occasionally in their adult life—glimpses of this transfigured world, who realize that the world is incomparably more beautiful and more interesting than they normally give it any credit for.


You will find a number of these references to this kind of visionary experience of the external world in Wordsworth. There’s a very beautiful poem where he speaks of the effect of sunset: how this sort of added, extra transfiguring power evokes this sense of visionary otherness. His poem goes,

No sound is uttered,—but a deep

And solemn harmony pervades

The hollow vale from steep to steep.

And penetrates the glades.

Far-distant images draw nigh,

Called forth by wondrous potency

Of beamy radiance, that imbues

What e’er it strikes with gem-like hues!

In vision exquisitely clear.

Herds range along the mountain side;

And glittering antlers are described;

And gilded flocks appear.

Thine is the tranquil hour, purpureal Eve!

But long as god-like wish, or hope divine,

Informs my spirit, ne’er can I believe

That this magnificence is wholly thine!

From worlds not quickened by the sun

A portion of the gift is won;

An intermingling of Heaven’s pomp is spread

On grounds which British shepherds tread!


Let’s go very briefly, now, into the question of the relationship of these kinds of visionary experience with art and with traditional religion. In the sphere of art, why, I think it would be true to say that whereas by no means all art is of a visionary nature, there are quite important aspects of art which have a visionary quality and which owe their power precisely to this reminder which they bring to the beholder of the visionary world. It is very significant, for example, that the holy of holies in almost every religion, the furniture of the altar, is always composed of what may be called vision-inducing materials. It is composed of gems, of glittering metals, of polished marble, and so forth. And there is, evidently, something in works of art made of these vision-inducing materials which is itself vision-inducing. Another essentially vision-inducing art which played a great part at one time in our own civilization is the art of the stained glass window. Now, anybody who has been into the Sainte Chapelle in Paris or into Chartres Cathedral must realize the extraordinary visionary power which these windows have. It is possible, by means of stained glass windows, to turn the whole of a vast building into one single jewel. One is inside a great jewel. And the effect is, I think, most extraordinary, A very significant fact, recorded by the Abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, that in the twelfth and early thirteenth century there were always two collecting boxes in the churches: one for the poor and one for the setting up of stained glass windows. And whereas the boxes for the poor were often empty, the boxes for the stained glass windows were generally full, showing how highly these vision-inducing objects—of these stained glass windows—how highly they were prized.


I can’t go into many of the other types of visionary art. There are quite a number of them. And it’s not difficult to sort them out from the ordinary run of art. They have a peculiar quality, and I think they owe their great power to this capacity which they have for evoking within us a kind of memory, a kind of awareness of that which lies at the back of our minds, and which we then see realized in front of us in the external world. A very interesting and curious fact is that many of the popular arts have been, essentially, visionary arts. It’s as though the ordinary, unlettered people had a peculiar predilection for the visionary experience, as manifested in art. I mean, take some of the most ordinary and everyday of popular arts. Take, for example, the art of fireworks. Well, this goes back a very long way in China and it goes back into the later Roman Empire. There are descriptions in the poetry of Claudian of the most fantastic firework displays, which were at least as elaborate as any display we see today. But of course they were not as good as the displays today because there was not, at that time, the knowledge of chemistry which we now have, which permits us to put into our fireworks an immense range of colors, which was undoubtedly quite impossible for the Romans to duplicate.


Well, then, another popular art which has played a great part throughout history is the art of pageantry. And this has been used, of course, by kings and prelates from time immemorial to impress people. I mean, this is a visionary art and it impresses the beholders to such an extent that it has been regularly used by men in authority to transform de facto power into de jure power. I mean, they are, in fact, powerful, but the whole art of pageantry—the coronations of kings, the processions, the state entries, processions of popes, and so on—all these things are methods for persuading people by this kind of visionary magic that the brute fact of power is in some way power by right divine. And I think there is no question that the whole history of pageantry has played an enormous part in the consolidation of power. And, of course, in our own day we have seen the extraordinary power exercised by the pageantry devised by the Nazis. I never saw the Nuremberg rally each year but those who saw it say that this was possibly the most extraordinary “ballet” ever put on any stage by anybody; that this was one of the most magnificent, pure spectacles.


And closely related to pageantry and ritual, of course, is theatrical spectacle. The theatrical performances are of two kinds: there is the drama and then there is spectacle. And very often, I regret to say, in contemporary productions of old plays—of Shakespeare, for example—the spectacle is often made to interfere with the drama, but both have their legitimate place. If you look at the history of it, it’s very interesting to see what enormous time and trouble and money has been used, has been expended, on spectacles. The Elizabethan and Jacobean masques for example were fantastically elaborate and there’s a record of one masque put on for Charles the First by the Inns of Court which cost over £20,000 for a single night’s entertainment. This is an extraordinary fact that, quite senselessly, people would go to this immense trouble, spend this immense amount of money for this curious kind of experience, which—incidentally, the adjective which is often applied to it is very significant here—is called a “transporting” experience. It transports you, takes you out of this world, puts you into the other world. And, of course, the whole art of spectacle has developed with the advancing technology. The spectacles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were limited by candles. This was the brightest light you could possibly put on anything. And it was not even until the middle of the eighteenth century that you could have an oil lamp which would burn without smoking and stinking. The argon wick and the glass chimney are quite late inventions. But then, by the very end of the century and the beginning of the nineteenth, we begin to get tremendous technological advances which permit enormous increases of visionary spectacle. We get the invention of the parabolic mirror, first used in lighthouses, then very quickly used in theaters for projecting beams. We get gas—that would be about 1800. We get limelight about 1820. And then, by the 1880s, we get electricity and the possibility of creating prodigious effects of light which, to this day, fascinate people. I mean, after all, the successes of the modern musical are entirely successes due to the strange visionary quality of these performances. And another very significant name, the instrument which was invented in the seventeenth century by Athanasius Kircher: the magic lantern. This device for projecting colored images in a dark room upon a white screen received this name instantly. I mean, it was given this name and it has carried it ever since. It was felt to be an absolutely appropriate name, that it was something magical, something out of another world, which was thrown into this world.


Now let us still more briefly discuss the relevance of these facts of visionary experience to the literature of religion and folklore. In all the religious traditions, the paradises and other worlds have precisely the qualities which are given in the descriptions of the visionaries.


The paradise is a garden. It is gem-like, it is full of the stones of fire, as Ezekiel says. Where there are buildings, they are buildings made of precious stones as in the New Jerusalem. And in all the Buddhist and Hindu and Japanese paradises, again and again you will find these descriptions which correspond exactly to the descriptions given by Weir Mitchell and Havelock Ellis of the peyote experience, or given in various accounts of visionaries of their spontaneous experiences. So I think there is no doubt at all. All this kind of folkloric and popular religious tradition stems directly from this strange visionary experience, which has played a very important part, I think, in the creation of these ideas of the other world. And another quite interesting fact is: where precious stones are not common, but where glass is known, glass becomes an extremely important visionary adjunct. Even in the New Jerusalem; where the walls are actually made of precious stones, glass plays a very important part. There is a sea of glass in the center. The streets are made of transparent gold, glass-like gold. In the Celtic traditions, the Island of the Dead, where the dead go, is called Innisvetry, the island of glass. In the Teutonic tradition, the dead go to a place called Glasberg, the glass mountain. And again, these curious uniformities keep cropping up in all the various literatures. And to my mind there can be no doubt at all that all this can be fitted into this same picture which we found at the beginning of this lecture in the description of Plato of the Ideal World: that this is part of the natural history of the mind. That we have these kind of experiences—even those of us who don’t have them normally and only catch perhaps occasional glimpses, or perhaps never have glimpses of them—yet have some kind of obscure knowledge of them at the back of our minds, and that when we read about these things or see them represented in works of art, they do strike a chord and evoke something.


It’s a very strange thought, I think, that we see a continuous spectrum, running all the way from such popular arts as fireworks and pageantry and theatrical spectacle right through popular religion, right through the visionary experience of those having what are now called pre-mystical states, right through to the undifferentiated light which has, as a matter of historical and psychological fact, always been associated with the full-blown mystical state. So that, as I say, there is this full, complete spectrum, this gamut of experience from the simplest—what seem to be the most childish—to the extreme limit of the religious experience. And I, for one, find this fact profoundly interesting. It seems to me one of the most curious and fascinating topics which one can discuss in relation to this strange piece of work which is a man.

Thank you.

Aldous Huxley

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