May 4, 2017

In an article that draws on research presented at The IAFOR International Conference on Global Studies 2016, Mongia Besbes discusses psychedelic substances and their influence on literature and popular culture, with a particular focus on the work of US authors of the Beat Generation.


Taking drugs is beheld as a vile habit that has been either outlawed or banned by different governments and communities. “Drugs are addictive”, “drugs damage your senses”, “drugs are viral and destroy your cells” – the incriminating labels go on and on. However, hallucinogenics are not considered narcotics or opiates, but rather mind-altering substances; an important distinction.

“Promising research has shown that psychedelics can in fact cure traumatic behaviour and heal many forms of addiction.”

The psychedelic movement sprung from the inculcation of drug-induced hallucinations in every aspect of culture and life. Nowadays music videos are laden with explosive colourful and surreal imagery, films such as Inception or Pulp Fiction document the journeys inside the mind and the senses – the list is endless. It is fair to say that psychedelics have opened the door to a magical world of kaleidoscopic imageries. Now theories are even elaborated to examine the stages by which the psychedelic trips and the way they affect the mind. Promising research has shown that psychedelics can in fact cure traumatic behaviour and heal many forms of addiction. Hallucinogenics are not addictive drugs, as their effects evaporate once the journey ends, and they by no means cause cellular dependency in the way that opiates do. They are simply stimulators of an altered consciousness that will take you “places you have never been before”, as the famous American psychedelic writer Ken Kesey authentically describes it.

Psychedelics and divine transcendence

Psychedelics are synthetic substances based on chemical compounds; LSD, for example, is more fully known as lysergic acid diethylamide. Albert Hofmann synthetized LSD as a uterotonic enhancer to boost delivery, but when he decided to try the substance himself he started seeing an uninterrupted stream of kaleidoscopic images. But before Hofmann accidently discovered this magical portal to perception, prelapsarian tribes all over the world like the Aztecs, Sauma, Mayan and Australian aborigines had used hallucinogenic mushrooms, herbs, or Peyote as divine nirvana-like substances to commune with their Gods. Witch doctors known as shamans would even induce these journeys through chanting and rhythmic drumming, taking the inhalers into an indescribable state of trance. The Christian world deemed these substances as pagan witchcraft, banning any research about their effect or their ingestion.

“The famous Harvard professor Timothy Leary did experiment with one of these substances, LSD, himself and became its spokesman, calling for its legal use.”

It was not until the end of the Second World War that the CIA decided to use these synthetic substances to develop “weapons of mass disorientation”. Suspected spies were injected with the substances to reveal the secret information they had been withholding. Trials were even conducted in prestigious universities like Berkeley, Harvard and Columbia, where students would ingest the substance and describe their journey to a psychologist who would record the process. The famous Harvard professor Timothy Leary did experiment with one of these substances, LSD, himself and became its spokesman, calling for its legal use. He even coined the slogan, documentary film and album, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, an anti-conformist calling for embracing an alternate state of consciousness, immersing oneself in the psychedelic journey and dropping out of societal chains and stifling expectations. The slogan was deemed a call for societal degradation and was strongly rejected by conservative parents, who saw LSD as a corrupting substance.

Kent and the birth of artistic chaos

James L. Kent, a neurologist, considered LSD an intriguing substance and elaborated a theory explaining how information is generated in the course of the psychedelic trip. Kent defines the psychedelic experience as a generator of artistic creation through undergoing what seems to be visionary hallucinations. Art emanates from the remodelling and the reconceptualization of the psychedelic output into concrete creations. He devises accordingly five stages that describe this journey. The psychedelic trip starts with the ingestion of the substance, followed by its internal transmission, internal integration, and lastly becomes culturally transmitted and integrated. “Psychedelics create new information via spontaneous activation and organization of sensory and perceptual networks”. Interestingly, this chaotic surge of information is in fact artistically meaningful. Thus many writers who claimed to be under the influence produced masterpieces that have altered perhaps forever the face of literature. Spaces that were inexplicable were visible in these journeys and presented to us readers to reflect on our own reality.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Naked Lunch, Doors to Perception and On the Road, along with many other works, sketch realms in which the psychedelic experience of the writer, a psychedelic alter ego and a psychedelic hero provide keys to words that are already there. The writer’s drug-induced hallucinations give birth to a vision that is soon remoulded into a plot laden with aliens, non-humans, strange beings, talking animals and crazy characters that are merely reflections of distorted imagery reshaped by drugs.

In Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs in takes the reader on a journey to two contradictory realms: Annexia, the world of endless paperwork, and the Interzone, where a colourful market exists that sells the most unimaginable substances from humans to weaponry. The Interzone is an Orgy Land where love-making rituals are spread through every house, drowning the city in orgasmic states of ecstasy. Kerouac, in On the Road, however, takes readers to the vastness of America, a land where he meets people from different walks of life, each with a colourful story to tell, in a jazzy atmosphere where the bebop rhythms make Moriarty and his gang bask in the joy of life and forget about their hoboism.

To describe these mystical interzones, the unlikeliest of narrators is given the task of ushering the reader into this fragmented world of floating epiphanies. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey assigns a heavily medicated, schizophrenic Native American to tell the story of a world that only exists in his consciousness. A world in which different smells come to him, and his worst enemies take the shape of wired robots. He takes the reader to the times of idyllic Native American life in the Dales, where the harmony between man and nature is enriched by the wisdom of the shaman. Finally, a substance-like hero would influence the course of events and lead the reader’s mind to virgin territories stranded from the rest of their consciousness.

A psychedelic hero is thus invented in the likeness of this substance: cheerful, crazy, an outlaw, and a precursor for change. Characters such as McMurphy, Lee or Moriarty take readers to new places and instil the values of change, defiance and tolerance. Thanks to these heroes, Kesey’s Native American Chief is able to heal and talk after twenty years of silence. Kerouac’s Paradise is able to see the world as he had never experienced it, and Burroughs’ Lee ventures into realms that no one knew existed. They were utterly liberated from the strains of their conscious and bleak reality. The realm of mugwumps, centipedes, books of the dead, crazy markets and infinite roads unveil the existence of alternative modes of expression that are colourful and daring, destroying the perception of what its normative, likely and acceptable. Instead art channels strangeness, surrealism and peculiarity as the secret doors to novel perceptions on life and culture.


Pyschedelics are controversial substances that have touched almost every aspect of human existence, whether religious to attain divine ascendance, social to inspire anticonformism, psychological to induce healing, or artistic to recreate unattainable universes. Psychedelics revolutionized generations of thinkers like the Beats and social groups such as the hippies, as well as have laying the ground for the postmodern artistic movement. Life has become more colourful since the exploration of these substances, which have fuelled the materialization of artistic creations and revealed a deeper meaning to the world we live in.

Image | aitoff, Pixabay

Mongia Besbes first presented this research, in greater detail, at The IAFOR International Conference on Global Studies 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Select Bibliography

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About Mongia Besbes

Mongia Besbes is currently an aggregated English teacher at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Sfax, Tunisia. Born in Monastir, Tunisia, she was educated at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Sousse, and graduated from her Master's degree in Postmodern American Fiction with honours. Currently, she is enrolled in the Research Lab at the University of Sfax, where she is embarking on her thesis while simultaneously teaching at the faculty.

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