Read time: 4 minutes
"By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes." – Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954)
The title of Huxley’s account of his experimentation with psychedelic drugs was inspired by a quote from William Blake about the opening and closing of the human mind. Sixties rock group The Doors reputedly took their name from Huxley’s book.
Inspired by recent events related to public and private concerns, I've been thinking about doors a lot lately. How and why were they first constructed? What did they mean? What do they say about us today?
Behind invisible doors
Musings about doors led me to wonder which cave person first dragged brush into the mouth of their dwelling to bar entrance, not just to hungry beasts but to unwanted guests. Who first uttered the notion of "unwanted guests," "solitude," or “privacy”?
Surely hunched hominids 200,000 years ago were devoid of hiddenness, and were as communal as wolves. When and why did that change?
Perhaps it was about 50,000 years ago, humans began to transfer their thoughts to cave walls. It may have occurred to the clan that there were things inside, unseen things, formerly unexpressed. Today, we might say these things were kept behind “invisible doors” that only opened from the inside. Moreso, this revelation led to the first ponderings about the soul.
Doors and other barriers may have become more common as food scarcity among the hunter-gatherers strained communal ties. When "ours" became "mine." When "domination" supplanted "cooperation." Maybe “doors” were used to divide, distinguishing what belonged to Grog’s clan from what belonged to others.
For the record
Historians assure us that doors, as we conceive of them, are ancient. False doors have been discovered carved in Egyptian tombs that date back 6,000 years. Experts say they were believed to be portals to the afterlife.
Swiss archaeologists found a well-preserved door in Zurich that dates back to 3,000 B.C.E., which was probably built to keep out harsh Alpine winds.(Stone Age door unearthed by archaeologists in Zurich - BBC News)
We use doors today not just for entrances and exits or to keep out the cold but to mark boundaries, to make concrete our proprietary spaces, to say what we are responsible for and others are not, and to say I am here and you are there.
Etymologists tell us “boundaries” originally referred to how far one might rightfully go without infringing on another. Boundary markers don’t get much clearer than doors. Few infractions short of physical assault are so universally condemned as opening a closed door without permission and, most distressing, breaking down a door. That’s not just a breach (literally) of the social contract but a violation of our freedom to be hidden, if we wish, in our own "island universe,” as Huxley described it.
The same would be true for immaterial boundaries that mark our rights and obligations from those of others.
Doors and privacy
Unlike other protections explicitly referred to and assured in the U.S. Constitution, “privacy” is an implied freedom, but that doesn’t make it any less valued. Privacy was upheld by the nation’s highest court as part of the fabric of the Bill of Rights. “The right to be left alone” was established in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut. [right to privacy | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute (cornell.edu)]
“Privacy” was a matter of legal contention 60 years ago because it was not seen at the time as a guaranteed right, and clarity was needed or perhaps, the door needed fortification.
This might also suggest that “privacy” had not always been a universal desire or expectation, particularly when compared with matters of national concern. Surveilling the conversations of private citizens, peeking through keyholes of closed doors, might have been tolerated by many in the interest of national defense, especially during World War II and the Red Scare that followed.
Even so, others have always objected to intrusions and pressed to protect “doors” that blocked what the government could know about us. Today, these concerns have been extended to social media and the world of online commerce.
Out of doors
The 2018 independent film Leave No Trace includes a brief but crucial exchange between a father and daughter living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. The father, played by Ben Foster, has PTSD from military service, and the daughter, played by Thomasin McKenzie, is a teenager who knows little beyond the life he's carved out for them. She’s beginning to want more.
The father is suspicious of social controls and governmental intrusion, but a series of events brings them out of their self-imposed seclusion into public spaces and eventually indoors. The adjustment is difficult for the father, and he soon returns to the wilderness, leaving his daughter to pursue her own path.
Despite their separation, father and daughter share a common understanding that even though the world might intrude on a person, limit movements and impose other restrictions, “we can still think our own thoughts."
This resonant moment might prompt audience members to wonder what it would be like if that were not permitted – if we were not free to open and close the door to our thoughts.
I hope we never find out.
1 “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell