Symons (Communications and Media Studies/Santa Ana Coll.; Nostradamus, Vagabond Prophet, 2011, etc.) explores Aldous Huxley’s quest to expand consciousness.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the author’s father, Howard Thrasher, an aircraft engineer, pursued what he called the Hand Project: photographing human hands and examining them for insights into personality traits and even mental illness. Like phrenologists feeling bumps on the skull, he believed the hand was “a mirror of the mind.” Symons was surprised to discover a photograph of Huxley’s hands among her father’s collection and even more surprised to learn that Huxley had invited Thrasher to his dinners and gatherings, which sometimes featured séances and/or hypnosis. Always interested in “fringe-of-science ideas,” Huxley, his nephew once remarked, “liked the company of large minds with obsessions.” Huxley’s obsessions included consciousness-altering experiences through the use of psychedelic drugs. With his colleague, physician Humphry Osmond, he conceived Outsight, a project whose goal was “to advance human consciousness and…draw attention to a chemically induced way of accessing some higher dimension.” To gain credibility with potential funders—the Ford and Rockefeller foundations rebuffed him—he envisioned gathering a group of “gifted people” willing to take the drug and form “a kind of mescalinized think-tank.” Meanwhile, he wrote about his experiences in The Doors of Perception (1954), from which Symons draws, along with correspondence and interviews. Although his visionary quest has been well-known through his writings, Symons creates candid portraits of Huxley and his circle—his wife, Maria, who ministered to his every need, though dying of cancer; Gerald Heard, founder of a 300-acre spiritual retreat in rural California; and the hardworking Osmond. Unfortunately, the author’s account is weakened by imagined conversations about what “probably” happened.
An overly speculative but sympathetic look at Huxley’s cadre of determined investigators probing the mind.