The Other side of the
A contemporary fable by Jacques Nel
â€œThe man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend. And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must be like to be mad.â€? - Aldous Huxley ~ The Doors of Perception
“You boys ever hear the one about the philosophy professor who ate the Lotus flower?” We’re sitting in A.J’s room waiting for the mescaline to kick in. Talking shit and smoking grass, eagerly anticipating the plastic phosphorous stars stuck on his ceiling to rain down on us and the psychedelic posters on the wall to drip down on the floor. “Uh –Uh,’ we lethargically reply, somewhat out of chorus. A.J.’s the storyteller in our group. He has that gift, you know of taking you places with his voice. He assumes that “I’m-gonna-tell –you-boys- astory- you-won’t-fucking-believe” position. The one where he leans over and crosses his legs and folds his arms together and even if you were deaf you’d be able to follow the tale, because he didn’t just speak it, he told it with his eyes. “Come on. The story of Professor Huxley and Odysseus’ box? Goddamnit boys. Well gather round and listen close, because this isn’t hear-say, no this comes from the lips of a man, who’s a friend of a friend who has seen the secret journals of this very institution.” A.J and his imaginative bullshit, what can you say? The boy at least had talent. I pass the reefer to Johnny. He tries to take it, but his vision must already be going funny ‘cos he misses twice before managing to get hold of it. “Go on then A.J,” he says. “Spin us a song.” We all burst out laughing. “A yarn you dumbass!” shouts Gilly from the corner. “That’s what I fucking said you monkeys! Your needles are just spinning on the wrong groove.” I love my friends. We laugh and banter for a while, until A.J goes all Timothy Leary on us and says: “Right boys, now listen close. Shit’s kicking in. Time to turn on, tune in and drop out.”
Christ A.J. its 2008. I think it. I want to say it, but there’s no time; A.J had already gathered us, his fellow space cadets, his pliable putty disciples. And so the story begins: “It was late sixties, early seventies. The Beatles had just recorder Sgt. Peppers, the Beats were trying to stay just on the other side of sober long enough to pen the revolution to paper and thoughts of idealism and utopia were starting to grow within the very walls of this Institution.” Funny thing about A.J. He never called it the University. Always the Institution. “It was taking root, clinging,” he continued, “like moss and ivy on the stone walls outside. It was everywhere. Except for in the office of Professor Huxley. He was a funny little man. Taught philosophy outdoors whilst smoking his cherry-wood pipe and often walked around the campus muttering to himself only to stop and stare at a flock of doves or a stray cat for hours on end. His thesis, his masterpiece, his magnum opus so to speak only concerned one thing; the purpose and meaning of life. He slurped up Plato and Socrates with his Oaties for breakfast. He snacked on Hume and Kant for lunch and for dinner he gobbled down Nietzcshe and Descartes with a glass of Marx. He was obsessed. When it was time for him to hand his thesis in, he had written 600 pages, 600 hundred pages boys, (we all let out a little obligatory whistle) and he had still come no closer to the crux of it. Dejected and broken, he did what most men would do, he found the darkest seediest bar and sat in its corner drinking whiskey and puffing hard on what he thought was failure in that cherry-wood pipe of his.” I was starting to get into the story now, or the story was getting into me. It was hard to tell. I pictured the bar, I smelt the stale alcohol clinging to the chairs and ceilings and the haggard old owner’s wife, leaning over
the beer taps to flirt with one of the wrinkled regulars. A strange, but enjoyable tingle ran down my spine. “It must have been close to midnight when the stranger came over. Huxley felt a strange tingle run down his spine. Had the man been there all along? Surely he would have noticed if he had. The stranger pulled a chair away from the table and gracefully draped himself over it. Huxley stared into what he considered the most ordinary face he had ever seen. It was so ordinary in fact, it was extraordinary. There were no distinguishing features, nothing out of place; it was so ordinary that Huxley had to squint; because he was sure if he blinked he would forget what the man looked like. Good Lord, he thought, have I had that much to drink? ‘Can I help you sir?’ he asked the man. ‘No Professor, although it is kind of you to offer,’ replied the man in a gravelly voice. The silence stretched awkwardly. Huxley thought of something else to say. ‘Do you come here often then?’ ‘Only when I am needed.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘And you are needed tonight?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Oh’ ‘By you.’ Huxley let the last statement linger. It was late and this conversation was getting a little awkward. It was time to go home. The man held up a hand: ‘Before you go, I have something for you Aldous. Something you have been searching for, for a very long time.’ Huxley looked down at his glass. He was sure he had finished his whiskey, but there it was, a full glass with the ice crackling in front of
him. ‘I’m listening.’ ‘You know the story of Odysseus, Aldous?’ ‘The Odyssey? Sure. Ancient literature isn’t my field of expertise, but I know it well enough.’ ‘There is a chapter that is missing. It was forbidden to sing it and death to the man who wrote about it. When Odysseus came upon the island of Lotus Eaters he was enchanted and so were his men. Here were people who had no care for the politics of the world, nor of the gods. They lived in harmony with their surroundings and all was peaceful. Odysseus’ curiosity was intrigued; he had to eat some of the flowers as well. He did and what he saw on the other side scared him. There was a truth hidden within the flower, a primal cardinal knowledge. He became jealous at the thought of his men all sharing in the sights he had seen. He forbade them to eat it, but of course some of them did. In all the stories you’ve ever read, they refuse to come with him. It is a lie. Odysseus left them there, scared that they would spread the word of the things that they had seen. He left them there to die, slipping away in the middle of the night, but not before he gathered a handful of the flowers and hid them within an enchanted box. After the celebrations finished upon his return home, he found that the box was stolen by one of his men. That man was found dead three days later, strung from a tree by bandits. The box was never seen again.’ ‘It’s a nice little story. Why are you telling me this?’ ‘I wish to give you a key professor.’ ‘A key?’ The stranger nodded. ‘To your questions.’ From the folds of his jacket he pulled a plain wooden box and put it on the table. ‘A favour, for a man who needs it.’ ‘Is this a joke? Did my students put you up to this? I assure you it is not
funny. Not at all. Thank you, but I think I’m going to go home now.’ ‘This is no joke Aldous. Take the box. Take it home. Eat the contents. You will see for yourself.’ ‘What’s in it for you?’ ‘A small concession from your side my friend. You will want to write about what you see and experience. My request is a strange one. I only wish that you do it under my name instead of yours.’ Professor Huxley sighed. He had nothing to lose. This was surely a crude hoax by one of his insensitive students. And if it was not...the chances of a book were slim and if all of this were really true he would probably never see this man again. ‘Very well. What is your name stranger?’ ‘Sammael. But you can just call me Plain ol’ Sam.’ “Hold the fuck on!” Gilly’s voice interrupts A.J.’s and pulls all of us back into the present. “Sammael? Fuck A.J. Why do you have to spoil everyone’s vibe with talk of the devil? Why you gotta bring Satan in to this?” The mescaline is kicking in. We had all forgotten we were still in the room. Everyone groans at Gilly. From one of the corners a voice says: “Shut up Gilly, we’re into this. And we’re all into this together. So relax!” I recognise the voice. It is mine. A.J. looks at all of us and gives a loud whoop: “Hang on boys. Shit’s gonna get twisted now.” Fucking classic A.J; loving the attention. “After the strange encounter Professor Huxley rushed home. He had been married once before, but his wife passed away, leaving him to raise his only son on his own. Julian was still awake when he arrived. Huxley showed Julian the box and together they opened it. Inside lay a bright red Lotus flower, its scarlet petals beautifully crisp as if it had been picked but moments before.
Julian begged his father not to eat it, but Huxley was curious and determined. He would hear nothing of it. To stifle the sound of Julian’s objections he locked himself in his study and consumed every last bit of the bitter Lotus. He tried to remember what Sam looked like, but every time he managed to form a mental image, it’s as if his face simply turned away. And so Aldous Huxley descended down the rabbit hole. Unlike Alice though, this was not per chance. He was on a mission. The room faded away. The brick walls and wooden cupboards and furniture dissolved. Aldous was in a lush green field. The sun was setting. Flowers of colours not usually conceivable to the human eye were everywhere. It was as if someone had mixed every single pot paint they could find and first covered the horizon in broad strokes and afterwards splashed the excess out over the field. It was truly, astonishingly beautiful.” All the guys in the room are sitting with their eyes closed. All of them, except for me and A.J. We look at each other and he gives me a wink. I grin and nod at him to continue. Sometimes he reminds me of The Mad Hatter. “For a while Huxley simply stood there. Where would he go first? He saw a creature approaching from the other side of the field. It was a tiger! As it came closer he could see that it was covered in precious stones; diamonds and sapphires and emeralds. It was the most beautiful creature Huxley could have ever imagined. It was frightfully exquisite. It didn’t speak. It didn’t need to. The professor knew it had come to fetch him and lead him to his answers. It was only when they were well on the way that Aldous Huxley noticed a small dog trailing them at a distance. It was a mongrel, nothing to look at really. Not when you were in such a glorious place in any case. Soon he forgot that it was even there.” A.J.’s voice becomes soft and measured. I see him struggling to focus his
thoughts on telling the story. He’s standing on the edge, holding back, trying to remain lucid. Slowly he continues: “Plain ol’ Sam was a crafty bastard though. The Lotus flower only lasted so long. Huxley’s journey through that incredible land had only begun, before he was summoned back to reality. When he awoke from his dream state however, a whole day had already passed. His son had broken down the door and was slumped on the couch waiting for his father’s return. They embraced each other. Julian sick with worry knew his father well though and begged him not to see the man called Sam again. Huxley refused. He went back to the bar and sat in the corner and just before midnight Sam appeared as if he had been sitting in the opposite corner all along. Huxley tried to track his features and make a mental imprint of it, but as soon as he thought he had it, the lines became fuzzy again and dissolved into bland ordinariness. Anxious and irritated Huxley disregarded of pleasantries: ‘Have you got any more of the Lotus flowers?’ Sam grinned. ‘I shall make you a deal professor. In return for another flower you must promise me everything you own.’ ‘I see you only promise the flower now, but do not guarantee the answers. Your price is too steep.’ ‘The answers that you’re looking for; the purpose of life, the meaning of it all,’ Sam waved his hands with a dramatic flourish, ‘they do not come cheap professor. Very well, consider our deal binding only if I manage to show you what you seek.’ Huxley sighed. His whole life had revolved around answering these questions. This was a quest every philosopher dreams of. To transcend the mundane, to peel back the layers and reveal what is truly hidden beneath the thick veils of “reality.”Without the answer, without truly “knowing,” all these material goods did not mean anything. He also knew that for the first time in his life, he was so close, so near
that he could not turn around now. Everything felt so real and so good in this Other world where he had been. If one could live there you would surely die from being euphoric all the time. There was no place on earth that felt like that. It surely held the answers he had been looking for his whole life. ‘Fine. We have a deal.” ‘Excellent Professor. Now go home. The Lotus flower you so desperately want is already there.’ Huxley raced home again. Out of breath, he barged through the door and avoiding Julian he snuck up stairs to the attic. He opened the box and inside was not a red Lotus but a brown, ochre coloured one. Its bitter taste did not discourage him from greedily gobbling it down. This time his descent into the Other world, as he called now, was not gentle and smooth. The floorboards dissolved beneath him and he fell right through the house and right through the ground, even though such things were meant to be impossible. He yelled, but no sound came out of his mouth. When he opened his eyes the jewelled tiger was already there. This time it spoke: “Come. It is a long way still.” It seemed as if the Other World was caught in a state of perpetual sunset. The colours deepened, changed and shifted, but darkness never came. With a swish and a sparkle of its tail it disappeared into the forest. Aldous noticed that the dog was still there as well. It was looking even worse for wear than the previous time. Its coat was matted and it continuously stopped to scratch at a flea. And yet, it looked as if it had grown bigger since the previous time. ‘Do not go into the forest.’ ‘Excuse me?’ Huxley turned around. It was the dog. ‘If you go into the forest, there will be no turning back.’ ‘I do not intend to turn back little dog.’ It cocked its head to the side: ‘Why do you think Odysseus left his men on
the island of the Lotus eaters?’ ‘Because they had come upon the Universal truth. The most primal of knowledge and memories. He was selfish and did not want to share it with the world.’ The dog barked: ‘Naive fool. He couldn’t take them with if he had wanted to. They were men no more after their time spent in the dream world. The place had made them soft and left them without discipline or will. They had lost their souls. All of them.’ Huxley faltered for a moment. Could this be true? What was true? What was real? Here he was in this Other world, where the sun never set following a jewelled tiger and arguing with a talking dog. But he could not turn around now. Everything felt so good, so right. The dog was lying. It had to be. Aldous Huxley turned his back on the dog and disappeared into the forest. Aldous spent what seemed like an eternity in a forest full of strange and exotic plants he had never seen before. It was as eerie as it was beautiful. There were no birds to be seen, no song to be heard, not even the whisper of an insect wing upon the wind still air. He would have easily gotten lost had it not been for the tiger. Never in full sight, was it the sparkle of a diamond tip tail that served as Huxley’s compass. When they finally emerged into a clearing, Huxley gasped for his breath; not that he was tired, but before him stood a mountain of magnificent proportions. If there were gods, he thought, then surely they must live at the top. The tiger turned around: ‘What you seek is up this mountain. There is a cave, you will know it when you see it. At its end, set within the heart of the mountain, stand the Doors of Perception. Open them and behold the Truth you seek. Alas, it will not happen now.’ ‘What? No! I am so close! I must...’
But it was too late. Prof Huxley had already returned to the attic room of his house. He found Julian downstairs staring out the window. ‘Son...’ ‘You were out for two days father. Two days! Who do you think gave you water? Who trickled porridge down your throat to preserve your strength? ‘Julian...I am sorry. I have to do this. One more time. I am almost there! I cannot explain this place to you...It is magic. Everything is perfect, untouched. There is such peace and serenity there son. It is magical.’ ‘Then take me with you!’ cried Julian. ‘I cannot Julian, not now; the price I have paid for me has already been too steep. But if it is possible, if I can make it so, you will come with one day.’ Harsh words were spoken between father and son, but Julian could not sway the stubborn Professor from his intent. Huxley left and waited for Sam at the bar. This time Plain ol’ Sam, was late. Huxley had given up hope. It was almost half past twelve before the unmemorable man appeared, but when he did he seemed smug and pleased. Huxley was curt: “What do you want for it this time?” ‘What do you have to give old man?’ replied Sam. ‘You have my name and all I own. What more can a man give?’ ‘Your soul.’ The penny dropped for Aldous Huxley. It rolled around in his head, spinning around and finally fell flat. Heads up. The mangy mutt was right after all. ‘What good would the Truth do me if I had no soul? Nothing. You would take over my life and pretend to be me. You would masquerade yourself around in my body, with my book, with my life.’ Huxley sighed. He had been on the verge, on the cusp of greatness; so close to being more than just a mere mortal.
‘I am afraid I have to decline,’ he said, defeat hanging thick in his voice. ‘Well, your soul or another, it doesn’t matter. Your son Julian, will do just as well.’ ‘You cannot touch Julian! He has made no deals with you.’ ‘Then why does he find himself on the island of the Lotus-eaters Huxley? He could not resist your curiosity. And now he has gone to see for himself. Your soul or his. Like I said. It does not matter.” Aldous Huxley had no choice. Like a badly played game of chess he had to the sacrifice the Queen to save the game. ‘Very well. I shall go again one last time.’ Aldous returned home, sick with dread and fear. He didn’t believe Sammael at first. Who would? When Huxley had promised him his name and his belongings he wasn’t being serious. It was easy words fuelled by curiosity that had slipped off his tongue. But he had seen the Other side now. He knew that there was truth hidden there, information so valuable, coin could not buy it. You had to purchase it with your soul. But he could not let his son pay the price for his obsession. When he got home Julian was lying on the couch. Little bits of scarlet flower lay on his chest. Aldous ran to the attic where the box was hidden. He opened it and saw that his Lotus was black. The colour of midnight clung to its leaves. He ate it and closed his eyes. To live is to die. And to die is to have lived. He didn’t know where these thoughts come from. He started having an inkling of what it must be like to go mad. When he opened his eyes he was already halfway up the majestic mountain. A cold wind whipped around him. On the lip of this world the sunset had been replaced with dark thunder clouds. Ahead the tiger roared and beckoned him to follow it up the trail. ‘Your mind is a stormy place Aldous.’ He looked around at the dog. It had grown again since last time. It was the first time Huxley was so close to it. It was now an animal of mammoth
proportions, thick with matted hair. ‘You are bigger.’ ‘I am as big as you need me to be. So is the rest of the world you can see around you. This is your mind Aldous. Even the devil is yours.’ Huxley thought about this. The devil was his. The devil was his! ‘We must hurry!’ The two of them ran after the tiger. They snaked up the narrow little path, following the creature. The clouds had taken the sparkle out of its jewels. They were now merely coloured rocks. It did not seem as magnificent as it had once before. The path eventually levelled out. Huxley could see the entrance of the cave before him and in front of it stood Plain ol’ Sam. Julian was by his side. The tiger lay down and curled his tail around Sam’s feet. ‘Aldous! What a journey you have made and now you stand on the edge of everything.’ Sammael shouted over the roar of the wind. The truth is at the end of that cave my friend. What will it be? Your soul or the boy’s?’ ‘Julian!’ ‘He cannot hear you Aldous. This is not his world, it is yours.’ ‘Precisely, so what truth can there really behind The Doors of Perception Sammael? The truth of me? I do not need to open it to know that I have been a foolish man. You trick and cheat me here to the top. You promise me something which is only half true. There is no universal truth behind that door. Only the things I have forgotten about myself. For every man, the Doors lead to something different, something they don’t want to know about themselves.’ ‘Nonetheless, here we stand. Whose soul will it be Aldous?’ ‘Yours,’ replied Huxley. The Tiger growled. It leapt to its feet. The hair on its back bristled and the jewels scraped against each other. Aldous Huxley had never fought another man in his life. He despised violence, but he knew here that there
was no other option. He recalled one of the most primal memories hidden within his cells. The urge to survive. The dog was the first to leap forward. It ran straight for the tiger and tried to tear at its neck. The two beasts rolled around snarling and clawing. Aldous ran forward as well and grabbed Sammael by the shoulders. What happened next was the most epic struggle never written about. The two of them wrestled and fell down and got back to their feet again and punched and blocked and struggled. The fight lasted three days in total. By the end of the third day Aldous had managed to wrestle Sammael into the cave and right up until the Doors themselves. There was a moment when he thought that he could go on no more. The strength had left his body and his mind was weak. There was but one thing left to do. He flung the Doors open and with a last mighty heave he cast the devil through them. He lingered and looked upon the Other side. Then he smiled and flung them shut. As soon as the Doors were closed again, he tried to remember what Sammael looked like, but he had already forgotten. It was as if he had never even been there. When he woke, Julian was already awake. Father and son embraced and held each other. When Aldous Huxley wrote his book he put his own name on it. He had written about a possible future he had seen on the other side. He called it a Brave New World. And that as they say, is the end.” I open my eyes and look at the guys sprawled around the room. I can see the relief on A.J’s face, now that he did not have to speak anymore. The mescaline was harsh and strong. For the last twenty minutes reality and fiction have started blending seamlessly. We were now all in our Otherworld, looking for some truth. Who knows what we will find there. The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense. I think somebody said that, but I just can’t remember who.* *John Rivers in The genius and the Goddess – Aldous Huxley