“The first task of the man who wants to be a poet is to study his own awareness of himself, in its entirety; he seeks out his soul, he inspects it, he tests it, he learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! . . . –But the problem is to make the soul into a monster, like the compachicos, you know? Think of a man grafting warts onto his face and growing them there.
I say you have to be a visionary, make yourself a visionary.
A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons and preserves their quintessence’s. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed–and the Supreme Scientist!” -Arthur Rimbaud to Charles Izambard
The Systematic Derangement of the Senses
The original sense of Arthur Rimbaud’s call to systematically disorganize all the senses as a means for knowing one’s self in the depths has been lost since he wrote these words in the 19th century. Since this call was taken up by the Surrealists, and later the Beats, it came to take on the singular connotation of experimenting with drugs. While it is true the precocious Arthur was an avid drinker of Absinthe and had the leather lungs of a Hashish smoker, the passage from his letter to Charles Izambard does not specifically mention the use of substances.
Poisons are mentioned, and drugs can certainly be classified as a poison. There is even a branch of magical/poetic praxis termed “the poison path” by Dale Pendell (best exemplifed by his own writings in the Pharmako trilogy, as well as by Daniel Schulke, speficifically in the latter’s Veneficium). I think that while the Poison Path may encompass a disciplined approach to the systematic derangement of the senses, all too often the person who intends to use a plant or a chemical as a tool ends up getting used instead. In the context of magical service “being used” or “ridden” may be a good thing. But when it comes to using drugs as a means for doing creative and magical work the person who is to do so must really Know Thyself beforehand, or else the relationship with a plant or substance as an ally is likely to be misjudged and instead form into a mutually destructive co-dependence.
Yet exploding the head is a time honored tradition among artists, and the use of plants in magic goes back all the way to its beginnings in shamanism. Yet drug use has exploded in previously undreamt of ways throughout the 20th century, alongside a black market that parallels the growth of Big Pharma. Part of this growth in users has been just another side effect of industrialization. There are simply more drugs available: soft, to hard, exotic entheogens, or designer creations from the laboratory. Most use falls into the recreational category. Drugs are simply one of the many ways people deal with the unique stresses of our time. An artist or magician, being no more special than anyone else, can fall prey to these as much as the next guy or gal.
Outside of the moral black, white, and gray zones surrounding discussions of drug use, the meme of the artist as a user or addict, and the lateral notion of creators being inherently mentally unbalanced or ill has had wide cultural ramifications. Witness the number of savants who become idiots the minute they take a toke and have a “brilliant” idea. I’ve been in this category more times than I care to recall, and by the same token my ideas on this matter are informed by my own experiences, and readings.
The myth of the mindfucked artist has been with us for awhile. We have Edgar Allan Poe’s depression, Sylvia Plath’s depression, Van Gogh’s depression. The schizophrenia of Louis Wain and John Clare who also spent time in an asylum. People as different as Joe Meek and Antonin Artaud. For those born without apparent mental or emotional aberration drugs have been used by the aspiring decadent aesthete as a means for overcoming this deficit. The question remains however, whether or not the scrambling of the sensorium will result in an enlightening synaesthesia or the (comfortably) numb feeling of anaesthesia? The answer to this question depends in part on what substances a person ingests and there individual reactions. While the broad effect of various classes of chemicals, plants and the like can be known, they interact with each persons system in subtle and unique ways.
The euphoric and overblown thought bubbles of a marijuana high for one person can turn into a flight of fear and paranoia in another, or even the same person depending on the situation. After repeated exposure to THC molecules the inner life of a smoker can turn slack and stagnate, despite the seeming elasticity of their imagination while stoned. Alcohol may relax the guard of our boundaries and inhibitions, disarming the sense of self. At low dosages this may be fine for the “social” drinker; yet as the number of beers, shots or glasses of wine increases behavior may become more erratic (though broadly predictable across the range of drunkeness). Stimulant uses engages the neuro-semantic circuit of consciousness, and are a favorite among writers and hackers.
For those who sample from the many dishes available at the Psychedelicatessin, prolonged hours of intense shoegazing or looking at the walls and floors as they breathe become the norm. Pattern recognition becomes heightened, aural perception overclocked. Trips can be intensified by intentional inner journeys that lead to “new” revelations, universal cognition or interpersonal insight. These somehow disappear for the most part after coming down. A period of reintegration follows. In the case of those predisposed to mental illness this reintegration may never happen. Other factors such as sheer quantity of a psychedelic ingested, or recent emotional disturbances, may also lend themselves towards fragmentation of the soul.
Hallucinatory drugs tend to dissolve the sense of self and being. While this can have long lasting positive influences on a person under the right circumstances, the dissolution of self can lead to more serious instances of Soul Loss. This is a danger any users should be aware of. It becomes increasingly common when experimentation turns into regular use, then dependence and addiction. I don’t mean to suggest that any and all use leads to addiction or Soul Loss but that those possibilities exist inside a spectrum of predictable outcomes.
The malady of addiction itself has been romanticized as the special domain of artist and mystic explorer. Addiction creates severe distortions in the mirror of self knowledge which prevent the seeker who started out earnest, from seeing a true inner reflection. Instead fantasizing-without-footwork replaces the more arduous and slow procedure of splashing ice water on the face and looking at your self in the cold light of day.
I will not deny my own experiences as a psychonaut. I have had powerful visions using LSD, DXM, and Marijuana. I did however experience Soul Loss as well. Luckily, these fragments of myself were recovered from a sewer-passage in the Underworld by means of Dreamwork. Other friends from those times have gone the route of the acid casualty, a famous example of such being Syd Barret. There is nothing casual about hallucinogens.
Astral parasitism is another danger. The parasites will feed off the energy produced while a person is high, inducing the addictive behavior, all so they can get a meal. Furthermore, my visionary experiences while on drugs were not any more earth shattering than the ones I have received sober. It takes more discipline to cultivate the means of receiving of waking and magical visions, but it is worth the effort. While some of the inspiration from certain trips went into writing poetry and making music, the use of substances did not help me to establish the good work habits and self-discipline necessary to be a working artist.
Many are the artists whose mental stir fry has been laid on the canvas or the page in an explosive fury of creation. The explosion may produce something beautiful or throw light onto an interior realm long closed. Yet after the explosion the artist is spent, and the social landscape around them may also be damaged by their actions. I feel that using drugs as a doorway to creativity is like skipping foreplay with your partner and jumping straight to the orgasm. It may feel good for a moment, but it leaves neither person fully satisfied. The overemphasis on the culminating moment of pleasure redefines the experience of making love. Tearing down the doors of perception to peer behind the veil of reality may induce a feeling of elation on having reached a mountaintop or plateau only you arrive at the top with all of your baggage still attached, when it was supposed to have been jettisoned along the way. The little skills that would have been learned in training, in building psychic muscle, in climbing up the foothills, in taking the long route with many burdens, is bypassed in the instant approach. The user is catapulted into a psychic state or realm they have not been prepared to navigate. Furthermore, the usual safety nets are gone, leaving the person open to the less savory denizens of the astral commons. And if one of these fuckers gets their hooks into you, it may take some time to undo the damage.
A case in point may be the work of Kenneth Grant. I think he is at times brilliant, other times completely inaccessible and of no use to the beginner. He pushed his New Isis Lodge in directions other versions of the O.T.O. feared to go, building on Aleister Crowley’s foundation of Thelema, rather than allowing it to become a fossil. In Richard Kaczynski’s masterful biography of the Beast, Perdurabo, he speaks of The Master Therion teaching Astral Projection to Kenneth Grant by the administration of Ether. That this method worked as a way of abstracting the astral body from the physical I do not dispute. But did this foundation of practice later lead to some of the wilder magical ideas he put forth in the later volumes of the Typhonian Trilogies? (Please note, these particular comments are not intended to disparage the great works Grant did do, such as popularizing the work of Austin Osman Spare, upholding the work of Frater Achad and Nema, or his creation of a unique and highly personal system of magick. I just have a hard time grappling with many elements of his work myself -but that would require another critical article.)
Knowing the difference between exploration, work, recreation or addiction when using substances to derange the senses is difficult for even the most astute funambulist. Consider how many resources drug use eats up -time, money, physical health, concern or distancing from within family/community. In a country where access to critical resources will become the prime concern for most people, this area of research may be better off left at arms length. Furthermore, the energies directed to using could be better put into making and doing. As supply chains break up, whether unofficial black market drug dealings, or legit transactions at the pharmacy or seven-eleven to purchase pills and booze, there will be many dry drunks and addicts forced to go cold turkey without wanting to. This is a potential area of service for many people to become involved in and it will require their own level headed sobriety to help clean up those who get that way out of necessity rather than desire. Art therapy and spiritual counselling are two ways the artist or priest/ess & magician may be of help.