A busy time of the year for me, but I have a backlog of posts re. copying that I’m working on. In the meantime, here are few interesting recent reviews of In Praise of Copying. First off Amy Ione in Leonardo Digital. Then David Banash in Postmodern Culture. Finally Mark Fisher in The Wire. All well worth a look …
A review of The Road of Excess by Rebecca Shannonhouse for the Boston Globe that was originally published in print on May 4, 2003.
”Confessions of an English Opium Eater” may be the best-known narrative in the rich history of drug literature, but Thomas De Quincey is clearly not the only author to mine the depths of drug-inspired writing. In Marcus Boon’s ambitious book, ”The Road of Excess,” De Quincey is but one player in a massive ensemble of notable writers whose work is informed by their use – or study – of mind-altering substances.
In an impressive display of scholarship, Boon meticulously chronicles the connection between writers and drugs. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Jack Kerouac, writers’ personal odysseys into the dizzying world of drugs are depicted with a novelist’s eye for detail. Boon, an assistant professor of English at York University in Toronto, creates order of this heretofore largely uncharted history in five well-rounded essays examining how literature has been influenced by narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics.
Through liberal use of anecdotes, Boon helps transform what could have been a dry recitation of cultural and literary artifacts into a feast of historical surprises. In the opening pages, Voltaire, besieged by pain on his deathbed in 1778, becomes delirious after taking opium. Although his death could not be attributed to the opium alone (the cause was most likely prostate cancer), the drug was clearly being used in ample doses well before De Quincey so boldly publicized it in his autobiographical ”Confessions,” published in 1821.
Drawing from yet another corner of obscure drug history, Boon notes that Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), a noted physician and grandfather of Charles, also had his day with opium long before De Quincey first took the drug. The elder Darwin not only prescribed opium as an antidote to hundreds of ailments but also wrote poetry about the poppy and other plants in his ”The Loves of the Plants” (1789). During that same period, a fellow physician and the author of the widely read medical text ”Elementa Medicinae,” John Brown (1735-1788), also touted the medicinal virtues of opium. Offering another shade of context to the opium saga, Boon reminds us that even William Shakespeare cast the drug in the pages of ”Othello.”
In consistently engaging writing, Boon also describes the popularization of morphine. Named after Morpheus, the god of dreams, morphine first entered the lexicon of drug literature in 1805, when a German pharmacist named Friedrich Serturner recorded his experiences in taking the drug orally. Even the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning partook of the oral morphine tradition that continued throughout the first half of the 19th century. With the discovery of the hypodermic syringe in 1850, morphine quickly won a following as an injected drug.
Boon introduces a modern sensibility in noting that the concept of addiction did not emerge until the 1870s, when German psychologists identified some of the more lugubrious effects caused by frequent drug use. Soon, the notion garnered support in France, where such notables as Prince Otto von Bismarck, General Georges Boulanger, and the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were already addicted to morphine. In 1877, one of the first addiction specialists, Edouard Levinstein, offered his ”authoritative” – yet short-sighted – opinion by noting that morphine had no long-lasting, detrimental effects on one’s ability to function.
Though Boon could have easily focused his book more narrowly on, say, the impact of drugs on 19th-century literature, it’s gratifying to see that he’s given us much more than a mere historical account. The modern-day heroin chronicler Ann Marlowe, author of the 1999 drug classic ”How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z,” is featured in the book. To demonstrate the influence of drugs on 20th-century writers, Boon introduces, among others, the Beat writers Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whose drug-induced writing comes closer than any other written work to capturing the wild and ultimately indefinable nature of the human thought process.
If one reads between the lines, Boon’s chapter on stimulants presents us with a compelling explanation for today’s pervasive Starbucks culture. Much like our highly commercialized coffee hangouts, the early coffeehouses promoted what Boon so aptly labels a ”culture of conversation.” But in the private lives of individual writers, the almighty stimulant served a more utilitarian function. We learn that Honore de Balzac, who was said to have consumed 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime, attributed much of his speedy writing technique to its effects. Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jean-Paul Sartre also relied heavily on coffee.
In setting the stage for cocaine’s emergence, Boon points out that exhaustion was a frequent complaint among cocaine users when the drug was first popularized in the 1880s. As evidence of its salutary effects, sober medical accounts noted that cocaine delivered a powerful form of relief from fatigue. Sigmund Freud praised cocaine even more enthusiastically, noting that the drug cured morphine addiction as well as an assortment of medical ailments. Later, of course, it became apparent that cocaine was, in fact, addictive – a pesky detail that forced Freud to reconsider his zealous promotions of the drug.
Though it is a scholarly endeavor, Boon’s new work reads more like a wide-eyed, joyous romp through a literary statesman’s funhouse, where each room contains a masterfully told tale of opium or morphine, peyote or LSD, coffee or cocaine. We see a gallery of our most prized literary lions, many of them stripped bare of their pristine reputations. It is mind-teasing exercise that is well worth the trip.
A review of The Road of Excess by Steven Rosen for The Denver Post that was originally published in print on January 26, 2003.
The first thing to say about Marcus Boon’s “The Road of Excess” is that he has certainly done the research. That is not to imply he is himself a writer on drugs. There is no indication of that in this valuable, philosophically provocative and sometimes quite moving work of literary criticism. But Boon, an assistant professor of English at Toronto’s York University, has read everything from Homer’s “Odyssey,” with its description of the lotus plant, to the underground comics of Robert Crumb. And he can step outside literature to show a knowledge of a far wider cultural world. He begins with a quote from Mark E. Smith of the band The Fall: “The palace of excess leads to the palace of excess.” His book shows how writers’ fascination with “the palace of excess” that is drugs has not just mirrored but preceded society’s. But that, like so much else, may have changed in the 1960s. While this is a survey of literature – Western literature, basically – from throughout history, it is of most interest for its look at 20th-century writers. Post-World War II ones, especially. Boon points out how writing about drugs, be it first-person accounts like Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures, once was primarily about the effects of the drugs. (De Quincey, by the way, associated with the English Romantics, is a critical figure in drug writing. His book is the first about recreational use.) Once laws against narcotic use became popular around the time of World War I, the nature of writing about drugs, and use of drugs by artists, began to change. It wasn’t just about the effects of the drugs. “Writers who used narcotics viewed themselves as social rebels for whom narcotic use was an entree to the criminal underworld that sprang up as soon as narcotics were not legally available,” he says. A pivotal figure was William Burroughs, who in 1953’s “Junkie” (and 1960’s “Naked Lunch”) wrote about his drug-outlaw lifestyle. A close friend of the Beats, his junkie-eyed view of life was appropriated by Allen Ginsberg in his 1957 poem “Howl.” The Beats saw drug users as part of the saintly coalition of hipster-outsiders protesting society’s conformity. And that coalition, eventually a counterculture, and its legacy have had an enormous impact. Boon spends much too little time with psychedelics, given their importance to his literary history. He believes they changed nothing less than our relationship to art. Psychedelics, or hallucinogens, had always lured a few writers, literary ones like Aldous Huxley as well as anthropologists interested in shamanistic and mystical religious practices. But in the Cold War, they became of value to governments seeking mind-related drugs that could disrupt the ego’s control of “truth.” “Psychedelics became a part of Western culture at the moment when the manipulation and control of the imaginal realms, no longer something to be left up to God or Romantic poets, was perceived as something useful,” Boon writes. Boon credits Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) for helping to popularize the use of psychedelics. He especially credits Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism portrait of Kesey in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for making them exciting. But once psychedelics became popular, writers no longer were the cultural avant-garde when it came to drug use. The youth culture, seeing the ego disruption brought on by the drugs as a good thing, decided to experience transcendence for itself. It was hard for the “symbolic” experience of literature to match the “actual” altered states of psychedelic use, Boon says. Some, like Carlos Castaneda and Hunter S. Thompson, did a good job trying. But writers and artists have struggled ever since to find their place in a popular culture that likes to lead as much as follow, and where “experience” matters as much as what’s good or bad.
Steven Rosen is a former movie critic at The Denver Post.
A review of The Road of Excess by Lynn Crosbie for The Globe and Mail that was originally published in print on January 25, 2003.
‘I don’t have a drinking problem. I get drunk, fall down, no problem.” This joke may not scintillate the sober amongst us, but for Edgar Allan Poe, who had it laminated over his Baltimore rec-room wet-bar, it was more compelling than the relentless screaming of his diabolical Raven. Next month, Lou Reed, who is no stranger to toxicity, releases a tribute to the writer and his irritating bird with The Raven, a double CD that features dramatizations of Poe’s stories, scored with unholy noises and other germane sound effects. Poe’s work still resonates strongly with artists, and stands as a template for any number of genres, including crime fiction, the contemporary gothic, and essentially everything neo-decadent and macabre. Unfortunately, his tragic life and death also exemplify what York University professor Marcus Boon, in his study of writers and substance abuse, deemed The Road of Excess. Over a century and a half ago, Poe was found in a red-light district alley, poisoned to death by alcohol and enacting the final days of Roderick Usher. Poe’s literary reputation is impeccable: He influenced a wide variety of writers, from the relatively lighter-hearted Oscar Wilde to the corpse-loving Charles Baudelaire, who could really get behind Poe’s infamous notion that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” His life, on the other hand, can only be summed up by what Jack London, also an alcoholic, referred to as “a long sickness,” filled with hours of “the white logic” that speaks to danger, and certain doom. When we think of writers as a community, we imagine that they are linked by shared sensibilities, like T. S. Eliot’s notion of the Metaphysical Poets; by a common interest in the great vowel shift; or by an exquisite sensitivity to the role of sibilance in poems about snakes. The truth is sadly more prosaic: Writers, in the main, are drunks, and always have been. I am surprised more AA meetings do not double as workshops or granting agencies, that entire microbreweries are not devoted to the production of “dark and stormy” beer. According to Donald W. Goodwin, author of Alcohol and the Writer, and chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Kansas Medical Center, writers are second only to bartenders in contracting, and dying from, cirrhosis of the liver. While social scientists have tried to link writers with madness, with little success (in spite of the overabundance of published lunatics), there are very few, if any, definitive scientific or statistical links between writers and the bottle. The known catalogue of alcoholic writers is virtually Homeric: Lord Byron, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Delmore Schwartz and Jean Stafford are but a few writers who have paid closer attention to last call than to the composition of le mot juste. Critic Roy Porter, who has studied mad artists extensively, notes that it was Plato who argued “for the existence of a mystical, heaven-sent spirit or furor, through which a select few could be inspired.” It is this precise furor that the inebriate writer seeks, paradoxically, at the bottom of every glass: the inspiration that will transform a man such as The Lost Weekend’s Don Birnam from someone who is draining a bottle to someone who is hard at work on his novel The Bottle. If writers are unusually susceptible to dipsomania, it may be the nature of the enterprise. Eternally sitting at a desk feels less like the labour of an adult than the punishment of a child, who, while grounded, can only imagine the world going by. Albert Camus cited Sisyphus as classical mythology’s most potent symbol of artistic suffering and resignation. Odysseus too springs to mind: Lashed to the mast of their endeavour, most writers are not hale enough to resist the siren’s call of liquor, the call that suggests both surrender and satiation. Sadly, there is an enormous ocean between what alcohol inspires and what transpires when it is consumed. “Resignedly beneath the sky/ The melancholy waters lie,” Poe wrote in 1831, in The City in the Sea. The poem continues, to observe that “no ripples curl, alas!/ Along that wilderness of glass.” When Poe was found staggering the streets in 1849, he was not constructing rhymes or reason. He was speaking gibberish, intoxicated with a furor that is rooted in the obscene simplicity that underlies The Purloined Letter — the logic of alcoholism, the hidden condition of so many writers, lies right before their faces. It is antithetical to creativity, conjoined with tragedy: It is a “twofold luxury” that annihilates the artistry it seeks to enhance. Writers drink to lose their inhibitions, to conjure more freely and to uncork the genius believed to lie latent beneath sobriety. “Yet it is dreadful to believe in such atrocity,” in Poe’s words — words that failed him, and countless others, during their slow march toward the long sickness unto death.
A review of The Road of Excess by Carlos Graieb for Veja Online that was originally published on January 22, 2003.
Empregada originalmente como anestésico para cavalos, a ketamina transformou-se em Special K, uma droga popular nas raves, aquelas festas que duram até de manhã e são movidas a música tecno. Seu efeito mais marcante é produzir breves estados de apagão, durante os quais os usuários são sugados para o que chamam de “dimensão K”. Ainda não se conhece nenhum poema ou ficção que trate dessa experiência, mas o crítico inglês Marcus Boon não tem dúvida de que eles logo surgirão, assim como já existem romances sobre o ecstasy. “Neste momento, algum adolescente está escrevendo um romance com o título Dimensão K”, afirma ele. E isso acontece porque 200 anos de escrevinhação inspirada pelas drogas ou a respeito delas acabaram por consolidar um gênero literário. Em The Road of Excess (A Via do Excesso), Boon reconta a história desse gênero de maneira inovadora e cativante, apesar de acadêmica. Recém-lançado nos Estados Unidos, o livro aborda textos famosos e outros nem tanto, assim como fala de viciados confessos e de autores que preferiram não se alongar sobre suas experiências com substâncias clandestinas.
O fundador da literatura tóxica, diz Boon, foi o inglês Thomas De Quincey, que, em 1821, publicou Confissões de um Comedor de Ópio. Depois dele, outras figuras registraram suas viagens. O francês Charles Baudelaire criou a expressão “paraísos artificiais” em 1860, para descrever o estado induzido pelo haxixe e pelo láudano. Seu conterrâneo Henri Michaux, já no século XX, explorou os efeitos da mescalina. O alemão Walter Benjamin filosofou sobre o haxixe. O romancista inglês Aldous Huxley fez testes com psicodélicos. E os beats americanos, como Jack Kerouac e William Burroughs, banquetearam-se num verdadeiro smorgasbord de substâncias. Boon, no entanto, não se limita às figuras mais conhecidas.
The Road of Excess mostra que, se De Quincey inaugurou o discurso literário sobre as drogas, anteriormente já havia autores bastante íntimos delas. No século XVII, por exemplo, o poeta inglês John Dryden zombou em versos de um dramaturgo adversário por seu vício em ópio – um “remédio” que o crítico Dr. Johnson, na mesma época, também usava. Os românticos ingleses Keats, Byron e Shelley foram consumidores ocasionais do láudano – ao passo que seu colega Samuel Coleridge viciou-se realmente, de 1790 até sua morte, em 1834. Seu poema Kubla Khan, de 1816, é antecedido de uma nota que revela como “um sono induzido por droga” levou à composição. Na Alemanha, o poeta Novalis (1772-1801), apreciador do ópio, especulava filosoficamente sobre seu uso na criação de “um novo corpo”. E até o extraordinário Goethe, uma das maiores figuras do século XVIII, pode ter dado um tapinha no haxixe – segundo um manuscrito descoberto recentemente na Áustria.
Marcus Boon também discute casos pouco explorados do período “pós-De Quincey”. Um dos mais interessantes é o do francês Marcel Proust, autor de Em Busca do Tempo Perdido, um monumento literário modernista. Acometido de asma e problemas do sono, desde a adolescência ele tomou coquetéis que incluíam barbitúricos, ópio, morfina, heroína e éter. Embora louve a maneira como Proust refletiu, por exemplo, sobre o problema da percepção do tempo, a crítica até hoje negligencia o fato de que seu corpo “estava sempre inundado de substâncias que produzem exatamente as reações cognitivas descritas em seus livros”. Outro exemplo curioso é o do filósofo Jean-Paul Sartre. Nos anos 50, ele se entupia de anfetaminas. Isso resultou num estilo palavroso e desordenado de escrita, e em obras virtualmente impenetráveis como Crítica da Razão Dialética e Saint Genet. Além desses estimulantes, Sartre também fez uso de um psicodélico, a mescalina. Seus colegas pensadores Martin Heidegger e Michel Foucault o imitaram nesse ponto, embora tenham preferido o LSD.
Segundo Marcus Boon, drogas diferentes produziram diferentes efeitos literários. Narcóticos como o ópio deram origem a uma espécie de gnosticismo – a crença de que o homem está preso num mundo corrompido, e de que a droga proporcionaria o vislumbre de um outro universo, autêntico, onde reside a verdade. O haxixe engendrou utopias de transformação social. Os psicodélicos ficaram associados a experiências esotéricas. Já os estimulantes, como a cocaína, são as drogas menos ligadas a idéias de transcendência ou espiritualidade. Desde cedo, elas foram tão-somente “ferramentas de trabalho” – a imagem clássica é a do beat Jack Kerouac ligadíssimo, datilografando dia e noite o romance Na Estrada num rolo de papel de parede. O poeta inglês W.H. Auden era outro que recorria a anfetaminas para trabalhar. Mas, nesse campo, ninguém bate o escritor de ficção científica Philip K. Dick, autor de Minority Report. Ele estava em permanente excitação química. Os estimulantes parecem ter-lhe sugerido vários personagens que são homens-máquina – e alguns que não sabem se são deuses ou aleijões.
Em momento nenhum Marcus Boon defende o uso de drogas. Pelo contrário, ele combate a idéia de que elas conduzam a uma experiência estética. Criada pelos românticos, e associada depois aos temas da rebeldia e da transgressão, essa idéia seria responsável por boa parte da mística em torno dos tóxicos. De fato, a leitura de The Road of Excess faz duvidar muito da capacidade das drogas de transformar alguém em artista. De Paraísos Artificiais, de Baudelaire, a Trainspotting, do escocês Irvine Welsh, passando por Uivo, do beat Allen Ginsberg, escritores chapados produziram alguns bons textos, mas nenhuma obra-prima – a menos que se queira creditar toda a produção de Proust ao éter ou à morfina. Mais ainda. “Desde 1950 não há avanços na literatura sobre narcóticos”, escreve Boon. “Os mesmos relatos confessionais de vício e desintoxicação continuam sendo escritos. Os ambientes são diferentes, mas a história é a mesma: prazer, sofrimento, redenção ou perda.” Como diria o doidíssimo William Burroughs, no fundo “nunca acontece nada no mundo das drogas”.
A review of The Road of Excess by Carlin Romano for The Chronicle of Higher Education that was originally published in print on January 10, 2003.
It’s easy to name all the professionals we wouldn’t want nursing a drug problem. We’d like our airline pilot not to amble giddily toward the cockpit, his mind on the pleasure palaces of Kubla Khan. We value the surgeon whose war experience with morphine makes him extra sensitive to side effects, but somehow prefer his drug-free judgment when he has scalpel in hand. We fear that the lawyer who shows up with one toke too many will metamorphosize into Al Pacino in … And Justice for All, suddenly frothing at the mouth and ranting that it’s his client who’s a dirty, rotten, guilty son of a bitch. Ah, but the writer! Short of stocking the literary wannabe with a lousy childhood, hormonal imbalances, brutalizing parents, and easy adolescent access to a library of classics, what better equipment for the next imaginative giant of letters than mind-expanding, horizon-inducing pharmaceuticals of his choice? Doesn’t the Romantic tradition regale us with tales of Coleridge and De Quincey, the Modernist with the binges of Cocteau and Artaud, the Beat with the antics of Burroughs and Ginsberg — psychological adventurers all? Literary culture usually sees them as guinea pigs for creativity, explorers of the cerebral beyond, voyagers to a usually inaccessible internal planet. And because our everyday activities don’t depend on imaginative writers, we needn’t substitute a designated driver if we find ourselves uncomfortably in their thrall. We just put down their books and pick up others. Marcus Boon, an assistant professor of English at York University, in Toronto, tilled the well-seeded territory of druggy writers in his NYU dissertation and now brings it to fruition in The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard University Press). His feat suggests that even in a literature department, a lively empirical topic can survive years of deconstructive indoctrination and cultural-studies overkill. On the evidence here, it can also profit from the demigodish influence of Bruno Latour, benefiting from his insights about conceptual hybrids (half nature, half cultural construction) without irritating the reader too much with the Latour nomen-klatura’s nomenclature. At least most of the time. To read Boon’s own initial account of his project might frighten away non-theory types faster than bad street-cut junk. “What interests me,” he remarks unpromisingly, “is to affirm an inclusive, polyvalent movement around the boundaries that modernity has built for itself that would integrate transcendental experience within the realm of the possible.” Relax — it’s plainly a leftover votive offering to his committee. Boon’s phantasmagoric trip through a gallery of historic horror stories provides a fine mix of sardonic apercu and higher drug gossip despite the occasionally stuffy academic underlining. When the unnecessary abstractness recedes, his governing understanding of drugs as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” makes sense. Boon acknowledges straight off that a “discourse of the obscene lingers around drug books, a discourse of voyeurism, of a pleasure taken in other people’s experiences, leading to inevitable moral corruption.” Like drugs themselves, Boon submits, drug-connected books have “transgressive allure.” But his own aim is to write about the association of writers and drugs “the way an ethnographer would, studying how a society came to believe certain things.” He wants to “historically situate literary drug use.” He calls into question several commonplaces, among them the “Romantic vision of drugs as an aesthetic experience,” and the more classical notion that literature, pace Romantic misconceptions, should be “drug free,” and writing “a kind of pure activity of consciousness.” Boon’s enterprising research soon takes the reader to intoxicating places, with no conceded chemical assistance except two or three daily cups of English breakfast tea. (That counts, as the author makes plain in his passages on caffeine.) He proceeds incisively, his double-helix narrative intertwining a fine strand of scholarly detail with an ongoing argument for transcendental subjectivity’s importance to literature — so powerful an influence it almost behooves writers to experiment with drugs. (It’s easy, again, to imagine us smirking at the writer who waves away drugs at a party, yet understanding the soon-to-be-on-duty nurse who does.) Some of the old anecdotes are simply irresistible department-party stuff. Sir Walter Scott, for instance, began downing opium “to fend off abdominal complaints that would leave him roaring like a bull.” But his habit picked up, and by the time he “read the proofs of his novel The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), he claimed that he did not recognize a single character, incident, or conversation found in the book.” Boon’s wry packaging of such jewels comes across in his account of Goethe, Schiller, and three Jena students reportedly smoking hash, then experiencing “possibly the first recorded case of ‘the munchies.'” Boon’s most important achievement is taxonomic and almost Linnaean: to strictly classify and distinguish different drugs, their histories, and cultural associations, while resisting a one-interpretation-fits-all view. When he writes that what “makes marijuana a drug and coffee a beverage has little to do with the pharmacological effects of each substance,” he’s thumbnailing the myriad ways historical happenstance controls substances and their cultural addresses: the link between cannabis and crime, for instance, that the federal Narcotics Bureau Commissioner Harry Anslinger helped mold into U.S. law in 1937, or the association of anesthetics with 19th-century philosophical efforts to access the Hegelian Absolute. The most arresting strain of Boon’s book is thus its vast historical sweep. Like the pal in the park believed to have “tried everything,” Boon appears to have read everything concerned with writers and drugs. He takes us back as far as Helen giving nepenthes, a “pain-relieving drink,” to Telemachus, as back to the future as ketamine, the rave candy of the 1990s. In between, in keeping with his disciplined desire to “discriminate between different drugs” and their separate truths, he offers reflections on the development of addiction as a concept and phenomenon, and rich stretches on literature’s link to narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics. As Boon traces the rise of both recreational drug use and the “growing hostility of Western culture to narcotic use,” he locates excellent ironies: “The materialist transcendental experience that drugs like morphine and cocaine offered was paradoxical, because the body was transcended only to be replaced by another kind of body, that of a morphine addict, which, far from being freed from the repugnant qualities of the material world, was ever more reliant on precisely the set of forces that it sought to escape.” At times, Boon’s commitment to articulating his constructivist philosophical bent leads him to silly-sounding sentences: “The hybrid artifacts that we call drugs now appear because of the evolution of highly complex systems of economic, scientific, religious, and aesthetic production at the end of the 18th century.” Well, yes, drugs are socially constructed, like everything else outside of Kant’s noumenal realm. But when that points Boon to a further declaration — “I believe that the association of drugs with literature may already now be a thing of the past” — it sounds as if we’ve seen the final upshot of methodological overintensity: the good acolyte of French thought who deconstructs himself and his project before it can even make a splash. Maybe just as certain dormitory parties can’t take off without controlled substances on hand, some university-press books can’t make it through the eye of the editorial board without homage to “meta” considerations. One can certainly welcome, with Boon, the idea of “opening up new realms of excess so that drugs no longer carry the whole weight of our legitimate desire to be high.” Depending on how one interprets that line, it might draw the kind of attention from state legislators that greeted Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex last year (“Just what is this guy recommending?!”), or position him as a decidedly peculiar drug foe. Despite his sensational subject, Boon seems to have inoculated himself against minor politicians by his multiple citations of exciting drug-free artistic credos, like Breton’s strain of Surrealism. In an era when critics warn that the literary monograph may soon die of its own nonelevating dust, one can only laud Professor Boon for his infinite resourcefulness.
Carlin Romano, critic-at-large for The Chronicle and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is currently a Fulbright professor of philosophy at St. Petersburg State University, in Russia.
A interview with Christian Bök on The Road of Excess for YorkU Magazine that was originally published in print in 2003.
CB: The Road of Excess discusses the literary heritage of numerous coteries inspired by at least one of five pharmaceuticals: narcotizing drugs (like junk), anaesthetic drugs (like huff), cannabinoid drugs (like hash), stimulating drugs (like coke), and psychedelic drugs (like acid). Your research almost implies that each drug corresponds to a different style of writing. Does each drug induce its own “poetics” in the writing of the user? How might you characterize each of these chemically fabricated styles?
MB: You’re right that it’s possible to tease out a “poetics” for each class of drugs, although my goal was broader than that – namely, to describe the totality of relationships between specific classes of drugs and writers. This would also include the effect on the lives of writers (and readers), the kinds of stories that were circulated about either the drug or the writer and so on, and the degree to which literary descriptions became part of scientific knowledge or history. As for the details of a pharmako-poetics specific to each group of drugs, I would say that with opiates tend to produce writing that is fragmentary, arbitrarily ordered, arrogant, narcissistic and fascinated by destruction; anesthetics users often produce transcendental philosophical ruminations on their experiences and attempt to write down the “secret of the universe” at the moment of re-entering daily life; cannabis texts often take the form of short stories concerned with the blurred line between the dream world and the real world; stimulant-influenced literature is often composed of euphoric, long, single sentence or paragraph rants, again with a narcissistic twist to them, and an obsession with death and machinery; psychedelics in general make writing very difficult, and tend to produce religious/philosophical texts that question the established patterns of language and knowledge by which we orient ourselves in the universe.
CB: The Road of Excess almost seems to imply that writing constitutes a use of drugs by other means. Does writing merely record psychoactive experiences, thereby piquing the curiosity of the reader who then goes on to try the drug? Or does writing in effect try to induce these psychoactive experiences, thereby slaking the curiosity of the reader who now has no need to use the drug? Do writers get addicted to their own literary delirium?
MB: All of the above, and more, I’m sure! Especially in the case of opiates, writers often decide to write about their experiences and/or addictions as a way of escaping addiction. By writing, they attempt to create a new self that stands outside the machinery of addiction. Before 1800, writers like Samuel Johnson took opium and apparently found nothing worthy of writing about there. That changed with De Quincey. Since the Romantics, writers, readers and drug users have all had an interest in achieving altered states of consciousness through the media of pen and paper, printed word and certain chemicals. So there’s an overlap in terms of the goals of writers and drug users. For me, the big question is: what does it say about the modern world that books and chemicals have become the most prestigious ways of attaining such altered states?
CB: William Gibson has remarked in a recent weblog that “writers who imagine [that] they ‘use drugs to write’ really only manage to write in spite of the drugs [that] they use.” How might your own research endorse or dispute this hypothesis formulated by a writer famous in part for repeatedly portraying his own futuristic underworld of imaginary narcotics.
MB: This is a variation of the old chestnut “do drugs make people write better?” My own belief is that first of all, we have to affirm that almost every human being throughout history has taken some form of drug, whether it be tea, cigarettes, beer, wine, anti-depressants or LSD. Thus it is difficult to say that there is any aspect of the history of literature which is not at least peripherally connected to the history of drugs. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as pure literary inspiration – there are always mediating factors, and drugs, along with childhood experiences, nature, the whole social world, act as mediators that influence writers in their literary efforts. To say that they were solely responsible for a particular book would be absurd. To say that they were wholly absent would be equally absurd. So, the question we have to ask is: “what kind of effects do different, specific substances have on writing?” And my book is an effort to begin to answer that question.