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.