Mysticism Sacred and Profane

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysticism Sacred and Profane [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by R C Zaehner.

Zaehner Mysticism Sacred and Profane

This book is not one which I can endorse. For illustration, I will provide a critique of the first chapter only. The entire chapter is a gloss on Huxley’s Doors of Perception that I found to be revoltingly parochial. So much so, in fact, that I picked up a copy of the Huxley, and discovered that Zaehner was massively misrepresenting Huxley’s actual text. (I have to hand a 1977 paperback of Huxley’s Doors, and it is those page numbers I will cite for Huxley, despite the fact that they do not match those cited in Zaehner, who would have to have been using an earlier edition.)

Zaehner wastes no time in casting aspersions and spinning rhetoric against Huxley. In his second paragraph, he remarks that “Mr. Huxley appears to have no … scruples [regarding the association of drug experiences with religion]” (1), but I would maintain that here, as in other places, Zaehner’s accusation of unscrupulousness applies more to himself than to his intended victim. The patronizing invective against “Mr. Huxley and his friends” builds until Zaehner climaxes his second page with the declaration that “Huxley’s ‘conversion’ to a Vedantin way of life was due to little more than a total rejection of everything that modern civilization stands for and to a deep-seated aversion to historical Christianity which, though it may not have directly given birth to the modern world, at least condoned it when it was born.”

Zaehner’s emphasis on Huxley’s interest in Oriental religions is not warranted by the text of The Doors of Perception, which uses illustrations from Western religion and philosophy (and particularly aesthetics) a great deal more than it does from the East. But it permits Zaehner to make Huxley’s thought seem alien and exotic, and to castigate it with remarks like these: “The vocabulary used by Huxley in this astonishing passage is largely borrowed from the Vedanta and from Mahayana Buddhism. To the normal, rational mind his remarks make no sense whatever, and might therefore be dismissed as the illusions of a lunatic.” (7) Not content to apply clinical generalizations to those under the influence of mescaline, Zaehner chooses to subtly stigmatize them as “mescalin-takers.” (5, 10)

Much of Zaehner’s derision for Huxley’s account centers around what Zaehner represents as the addled presumptuousness of Huxley’s views and judgments on some works of art. Zaehner represents the sequence of this art appreciation segment thus: Huxley looks at a Van Gogh and becomes “bored,” he is then “distracted from Van Gogh’s poor symbol to, of all things, the trousers draping his own crossed legs!” (7) In reviewing the Huxley, however, it is quite clear that the Van Gogh viewing led to a Botticelli viewing, and the representation of textiles in the latter provoked Huxley’s consideration of his own pants. Zaehner presents them out of order, so that it seems that Huxley’s mind wandered in an undisciplined and valueless manner from the Van Gogh to the pants to the Boticelli. Further on in this artwork episode, Zaehner relates, “…this world seemed to be epitomized by a portrait by Cezanne which was now handed to Huxley. Presumably because it was a good portrait and therefore brought out what was most ‘personal’ in the sitter, Huxey could only laugh derisively. ‘Who does he think he is?’, he indignantly exclaimed. How much better to return to the magical grey flannel of his trousers….” (9)

In contradistinction to the judgment that Zaehner says we should “presumably” hold on Huxley’s internal considerations, here is Huxley’s own full explanation from which Zaehner quoted: “At this stage of the proceedings I was handed a large coloured reproduction of the well-known self-portrait by Cezanne…. It is a magnificent painting, but it was not as a painting that I now saw it. For the head promptly took on a third dimension and came to life as a small goblin-like man looking out through a window in the page before me. I started to laugh. And when they asked me why, ‘What pretensions!’ I kept repeating. ‘Who on earth does he think he is?’ The question was not addressed to Cezanne in particular, but to the human species at large. Who did they all think they were?” (30, emphases added)

In general, Zaehner dwells on Huxley’s negative or incongruous reactions to the artists and artwork, entirely omitting the latter’s praise of Vermeer and Rembrandt. Then he declares that Huxley is “apparently oblivious to the absurd arrogance” of his mescalined opinions, and suggests that Huxley believed himself especially privileged by the drug “to pronounce Olympian judgments.” (9) I think that what Zaehner accused mescaline of having done for Huxley here, an academic soapbox has actually done for Zaehner.

But the most stunning feature of the chapter is its closing paragraph. While Huxley claimed that, drugs aside, “The mental species [of mystic visionaries] … is fairly widely-distributed even in the urban industrial societies of the present day,” (37) Zaehner does not note or argue against Huxley’s observation. Instead, he just provides a completely contrary postulate without acknowledging the conflict: “In the past mystics, even in India, have been few and far between, and praeternatural experiences of any sort have been well out of the reach of the average man; and no visible harm has been done by the small band of ecstatics who had, or thought they had, transcended good and evil.” (12-13)

We could dismiss this discrepancy as a tangential issue, but a similar unacknowledged contradiction follows hard upon it, one that reveals the extent to which Zaehner has been using a caricature of Huxley’s position as a straw man for his entire treatment. In presenting what he construes as the great dilemma of Huxley’s account, Zaehner writes: “If mescalin can produce the Beatific Vision here on earth, — a state that we had hitherto believed to have been the reward for much earnest striving after good, — the Christian emphasis on morality is not only all wrong but also a little naive.” (13)

And now Huxley: “I am not so foolish to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin or of any other drug, prepared or in future preparable, with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call ‘a gratuitous grace,’ not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available.” (58-9)

Voluminous as this critique has been, it is not even an exhaustive account of the problems that I found in Zaehner’s short maltreatment of Huxley’s Doors of Perception. Not that I entirely agree with Huxley’s conclusions or his premises, but he didn’t earn that kind of gross misrepresentation in what, I fear, has been a summary widely read by students of religious phenomena.