Confused by Symbols; meditations on Aldous Huxley 1

Confused by Symbols

For most people in this century Aldous Huxley was a utopian and dystopian writer and a dabbler in mescaline and later the newly available psychedelic consciousness-changer LSD. Author of that bible of intellectual understanding of drug induced visionary and mystical experience “Doors of Perception”.

He was more, a visionary in his own right, and perceptive analyser of man’s understanding of, and dealing with, reality itself.

Consistently and pervasively throughout Aldous Huxley’s work he describes how we are misled by our web of words, along with other symbols which purport to represent reality, the world ‘out there’. We allow ourselves to think and thus ‘see’ their ‘this or that’, ‘either/or’ ‘black and white’ as being the actuality. In fact words are social constructions, abstractions, creations, symbols which allow us to share perceptions and meanings but should not overpower and diminish our view. They have great practical everyday utility but they are ultimately flawed cultural representations of ‘what is out there’, so they also deceive.

“Human beings…naively believe that culture-hallowed words about things are as real as, or even realer than their perceptions of the things themselves, these outdated or intrinsically nonsensical notions do enormous harm.”

 This awareness of the gap between what is and what we ‘see’ through the ‘mesh’ of cultural conditioning leads him to constant references to our ‘misshapen culture’, as we are persuaded into misperceptions of what is, and what is possible and worthwhile.

Alexander T Shulgin points out in his introduction to ‘Moksha’ how Huxley repeatedly expresses themes of desperation and hope. The utopian hope in his fictional fantasy ‘Island’ is that:

 “a substance akin to psilocybin could be used to potentiate the non-verbal education of adolescents and to remind adults that the real world is very different from the misshapen universe they have created for themselves by means of their culture-conditioned prejudices”

 The despair is that this mismatch can even lead us disastrously to war if we blindly follow the persuasive arguments of a few Generals and others with immense concentrated power:

“the few powerful men in whose clutch (like Gulliver in the paw of the Brobdinagian monkey) mankind now impotently writhes, are themselves the victims of their society’s alienation from present reality”.

This is all “thanks to the pernicious nonsense drummed into every individual in the course of his acculturation”.

A little consideration of the meanings of highly politically charged concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘communism’, ‘defence’, ‘threat’ ‘patriotism’ and so on reveals their distortive potentiality and dangerous ambiguity.

 He was of course writing at the height of the ‘Cold War’, at the time of the stand-off between President Kennedy and Kruschev over rockets inCuba, with nuclear Armageddon around every corner:

History is the record, among other things of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity. And the hideous game goes on.” 

Updating this thesis to today, we easily see we are in the grip of a new ‘hideous game’ lead by bankers and ‘global financial markets’. This new ‘game’ is similarly flaunting a deceiving vocabulary in pursuit of misguided aims, “greed is good”, but with disastrous real-world consequences. The deceptive symbolic concepts are ‘money’, ‘interest/s’, ‘value’, ‘market discipline’, ‘confidence’, ‘currency’, ‘investment’ and of course ‘returns’.

Employing futurology, can we see how this ends? Some commentators judge we must now choose between surrendering to the power of ‘global markets’ and the money-men, capitulating, or true democracy, with money doing the bidding of the majority via elected governments. For instance Johnathan Freedland: 

“Democracy’s humbling has been most dramatically visible in Greece and Italy, where elected leaders have been pushed aside in favour of technocrats and fixers, elevated without so much as shaking a single voter’s hand. Their mission will include the surrender of much economic sovereignty, putting those decisions further out of the reach of their own citizens. What Greeks and Italians endure today, other eurozone nations might well face tomorrow as they are told to make similar sacrifices of autonomy to save their economic skin.” 

Freedland sees the ‘command’ undemocratic authoritarian regimes of Russia, China and Saudi Arabia as better placed to ‘turn on a dime’ and deal with market threats while sensitive market oriented democracies like the US and Europe must search for painstaking ‘consensus’. But to survive democracies must “reassert themselves, they might have to break from the rules now choking them, and insist that it is people, not markets, that are sovereign.”

That new powers were becoming revealed was apparent as a shock to President Bill Clinton as revealed to Bob Woodward says Freedland:

“That it is these men, not those we elect, who are all-powerful is not new: Bill Clinton discovered as much nearly two decades ago when, in a spitting rage, he shot back at advisers who warned he had to trim his economic plans: “You mean to tell me that the success of my program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?

Huxley’s truth that we allow ourselves to confuse symbol with reality stands apart from his visionary insights employing psychedelics. It does however encourage us to re-evaluate those too, and his prescient views on ecology and demography as he surely seems to be spot on with how easily we are subtly deceived into dangerous byways by misguided powerful men. And it is mostly men.

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