Opening the Doors: William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation

Howl: The War of this World against Vision and Imagination

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Old New York

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Introduction: Blake & the Beats

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Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) in front of the opening lines of Howl, referencing Blake in its opening section

William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,

I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.

Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.

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Opening the Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley

William Blake, Mescaline, and the end of Time

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Huxley cited his fascination with Blake as a primary factor in his decision to take mescaline, which he hoped would help him transcend the self and see the world without the usual filters on reality: “the drug would admit me at least for a few hours, into the kind of inner world described by Blake.” His book of the experience, The Doors of Perception, is itself eye-opening: one of the most careful and precise deconstructions of “normal” perception ever written: “The function of the brain and nervous system is in the main eliminative”, he observed, “leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful”. The drug allowed him to see that what we normally call “reality” is in fact the product of a massive filtering out of reality, a systematic closing of the doors, leaving only the programs of measurement (“ratio-ing”) and utility – reality as it would necessarily appear “to an animal obsessed with survival.”

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