The following is an expert from Primal Regeneration by neo-beat writer Nicolo Capelli in which the author talks about the historic role of “systematic derangement of the senses” as the key to creative inspiration.
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley once famously wrote: “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 through narrow chinks of his cavern.” In the same work, Huxley states the goal of mankind as to be “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large.”
Huxley’s view is that we human beings have allowed ourselves to view the world through the narrow and constricting prism of ordinary perception. In The Doors of Perception, he posits that if we could but “cleanse” our way of looking at the world—to get beyond, in other words, the tyranny of our scientific, pragmatic ways of understanding reality—new possibilities that are virtually limitless would open themselves up to us. The full potentials of our fantastic selves, in other words, would inevitably be unleashed.
So how exactly does one go about liberating his or her mind from its ordinary, mundane forms of perception? Actually, this has been a question that has intrigued artists and writers for most of the 20th century, but particularly during the 1950s and 60s in the United States, when a new consciousness was developing in the country and young people in particular were searching for ways to break beyond the conformist sensibilities of their parents’ generations. The figure that many of these iconoclastic visionaries looked to in particular was a young poet with a checkered past and some rather strange ideas about artistic liberation—the 19th century French bad-boy, Arthur Rimbaud.
Born in 1854 in the small French town of Charleville, Rimbaud had already begun winning awards for his writing by the age of 13. Attempting to flee the sterile conformism of his home life, he went to Paris and began a torrid affair with the poet Paul Verlaine, which ended badly for both of them. In 1873, he wrote his most famous work, A Season in Hell (Une Saison en Enfer), which had an enormous impact on the direction of modern poetry. By the age of 19, Rimbaud stopped writing poetry completely and left for Africa as a colonial tradesman. In 1891 he developed a cancerous growth in his leg; the leg was amputated, but the cancer continued to spread, and he died at the age of 37.
In letters that Rimbaud wrote when he was still only a teenager, he outlined his vision for the true poet:
Right now, I’m beshitting myself as much as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working to turn myself into a seer: you won’t understand at all, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to explain it to you. It has to do with making your way towards the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. The suffering is tremendous, but one must bear up against it, to be born a poet, and I know that’s what I am.
The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only one essence remains. He undergoes unspeakable tortures that require complete faith and superhuman strength, rendering him the ultimate Invalid among men, the master criminal, the first among the damned—the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the unknown! For, unlike everyone else, he has developed an already rich soul. He arrives at the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends up losing his understanding of his visions, he has, at least, seen them! It doesn’t matter if these leaps into the unknwn kill him: other awful workers will follow him; they’ll start at the horizons where the other has fallen.
As I mentioned, Rimbaud inspired many of his own contemporaries, but it was not until the 1950s, when he was “discovered” by Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Alan Ginsberg that Rimbaud’s vision truly began to take hold.
In particular Rimbaud’s view that true vision is attained by the artist though “a long…and systematic derangement of the senses” (dérèglement raisonné de tous les sens) would have an enormous role to play in the art, music, and culture of the Beats and the Counterculture. For Rimbaud, this disorganization took the form of wild evenings drinking absinthe and smoking hashish to excess and engaging in outrageous behavior that scandalized Parisian society. When the Beat writers encountered Rimbaud during their years at Columbia University they too attempted systematic derangement through excessive alcohol consumption, experimentation with narcotics, and anti-social forms of behavior (cohabitation, homosexual activity, the celebration of the criminal, the junkie, and in general all outcasts of society).
Later in the 1960s, Rimbaud provided the inspiration for the founding members of the Counterculture, who saw LSD as a way of achieving Huxley’s cleansing of the doors of perception. Individuals as diverse as Timothy Leary (a Harvard psychologist), Richard Alpert (later to become Hindu mystic Ram Dass), Huston Smith (theologian and author of The Religions of Man), and Andrew Weil (natural health guru) would unite to form the Harvard Psychadelic club, the aim of which was to use drugs like LSD to achieve personal and spiritual liberation.
There’s no doubt that some of the greatest achievements of 1960s Counterculture—in particular the wild, psychedelic music of the period—were fueled by the use of LSD. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Greatful Dead, The Doors, and Jefferson Airplane wrote some of their most original music while under the influence of the drug. Unfortunately, LSD proved to be a gateway drug that lead to the deaths of some of the brightest stars of the sixties music scene—most notably, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimmy Hendrix—and to serious rehab issues for many others.
The heavy toll that drug use took on young people during the 1960s would make the lifestyles of the Counterculture—and to a lesser extent the Beat Generation—seem somehow illegitimate as a result. But what exactly was the goal of those admittedly unconventional lifestyles? It was nothing other than the desire to liberate oneself from the tyranny of conformism, to explore one’s deeper potential as a human being, and to allow one’s innate and unique creative potential to reveal itself as a result. To the extent that human beings have fantastic selves buried within them, it seems evident that at least some members of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the Counterculture of the 1960s were extraordinarily successful in unleashing them and produced wild, uninhibited, often surrealistic creative work as a result.
Systematic derangement is certainly the key to breaking free of static, conformist, bourgeois notions of the self and is the catalyst for true creative inspiration. But this derangement, if it is to be sustainable and non-destructive, must take a form other than chemical. Hallucinogenic drugs may jolt the artist into perceiving the world around him in unconventional, spontaneous, and fluid ways, but the price he pays for such flashes of insight is often far too great—madness, debilitation, and ultimately premature death.
So how does one engage in systematic derangement without damning his soul at the same time? The answer lies in existential revolt. The artist must constantly be in a state of resistance against all those social mechanisms that would confine his spirit. He embrace the social outcast as his constant companion, he must spend his time in the dark places where the truly original minds lurk, he must pursue forbidden love, he must reject all static notions of the self, recognizing that he can be all things, that he is not limited by any essential nature. Revolt enables the artist to become Rimbaud’s “first among the damned; the supreme Savant.”
Such revolt against the status quo is never easy and often comes at a sharp price. But unlike chemical derangement, existential revolt offers the artist the possibility of transcendence without the total annihilation of the self. In this sense, it is the only true solution to the modern crisis of spiritual banality that we all face.