Michael Snow

This was originally published in the April 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

Reviewing, or even getting an overall picture of five highly productive decades of work by 72 year old Canadian film-maker, musician, writer, photographer, painter, sculptor and sound poet Michael Snow, is a daunting prospect. The recent release of a retrospective DVD-ROM devoted to cataloging and showcasing Snow’s work in just about every media known to man, comes as welcome relief to the novice approaching Snow’s work for the first time, and also provides an unusual example of a “multimedia” artefact, whose ability to skip and connect different media is actually warranted, and not just a gratuitous adding on of “interactive” bells and whistles. Digital Snow is built around a database of the Snow’s work that’s composed of 4,685 entries, including clips from his Albert Ayler sound-tracked 1964 experimental movie New York Eye and Ear Control to his recent feature length exploration of digital hyperspace Corpus Callosum. Put together by Montreal’s Daniel Langlois Foundation and media group Epoxy as a part of their Anarchive DVD series, there are recreations of sound, video and other kinds of installation work, as well as several hours of mp3s documenting everything from early youthful versions of Jelly Roll Morton tunes, to Snow’s work with pioneering Canadian improv unit CCMC, to a selection of his solo sound works. Everything can be accessed from a table of contents that consists of a film clip from a Snow film that features – guess what – an actual wooden table, whose “contents”, when clicked on, open pathways through Snow’s oeuvre, organized by theme, or medium. Snow started out as a jazz musician in the late 1940s, playing piano in Toronto based Dixieland and Swing groups. In the 1950s, he began exploring the visual arts, made his first film, and in 1962, moved to New York City with film-maker and companion, the late Joyce Wieland. A chance meeting with free-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, and a commission from a Canadian arts agency to make a film that mixed genres, led to Snow’s landmark 1964 film, New York Eye and Ear Control, with a soundtrack (later issued on ESP) by a stellar group including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Rudd, Garry Peacock and Sunny Murray. The film marks a bold departure from other experimental jazz movies, such as John Cassavetes Shadows or Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, in which the film-makers produce a “Beat” visual experience that matches or imitates the jazz sound. Snow, in what was to become one of his signature styles, places the raw churning sound of Ayler et al against static landscape sequences filmed by the sea, or in New York City, lingering portraits of the musicians, and whirling camera pans. Snow’s work consistently questions the way in which sound and image are associated with each other on film. He says that he “wanted to make a simultaneity of two different classes of things – the image is built around the filming of a static figure placed into live settings.

I thought of that as being something classical. Against that, I put freely improvised, very expressive, romantic music. I put together what I thought of as the best band imaginable – the only instruction I gave was that I wanted it to be all ensemble playing and I didn’t want any tunes.” The follow-up, Wavelength (1967), one of the most celebrated experimental movies ever made, comes as a shock after the ecstatic sound and classical imagery of its predecessor. Wavelength is essentially a single 45 minute shot taken in Snow’s downtown loft, in which the camera slows zooms in on a photograph pinned to one of the walls (the photo, of the sea, can be found on the cover of Steve Reich’s stunning 1970 LP Four Organs, and a euphoric letter from Reich to Snow regarding Wavelength is included in Digital Snow). A sine-wave generator produces a drone-like tone that moves slowly up the scales in a glissando that matches the zoom’s slow focusing, while color tints turn the film into a slow-motion psychedelic experience akin to visiting La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House. Wavelength demonstrates the strange affinity that film and music have, as media that by definition investigate time. “In film,” observes Snow”, “you have a control over duration – which is something that never existed before. It’s like a clock – 24 frames a second. It should be natural to think the medium involves composing with duration.”

By the early 1970s, Snow was back in Toronto, having made several more important films, all excerpted as Quicktime movies in Digital Snow, along with a variety of art projects. At the same time, he pursued musical activities with a group of Toronto improv musicians including extraordinary sound artist Nobuo Kubota and percussionist, with whom, in 1974, he formed CCMC. The group which currently includes sound poet Paul Dutton and plunderphonics master John Oswald, has been a solid fixture on the Toronto scene ever since, organizing the city’s still functioning premiere avant-music space The Music Gallery as a performance place for themselves, and performing with a who’s who of the avant garde including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Misha Mengelberg and the excellent Toronto sound poetry ensemble the Four Horsemen. A recent collaboration with Christian Marclay is captured on a playful recently released double CD put out by TO label art metropole. Fine as CCMC are, Snow’s solo soundworks, which show more directly the influence of his film soundtrack explorations, are perhaps of greater interest. Much of Snow’s work is concerned with investigating the way different artistic media frame perception, through exposing and amplifying particular mechanisms of perception. His 1974 Music for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder, with its speeded up and slowed down piano loops uses recording technology as an instrument, while the excellent The Last LP, a series of recording studio produced fake ethnographic “tribal recordings” sounds like the Sun City Girls minus the guitars. German art label suppose has recently put out Hearing Aid an audio catalog to a recent Berlin retrospective of Snow’s sound installation work, while, Quebec’s Ohm editions has released a 3 CD set of Snow’s solo piano work Snow Solo Piano Solo Snow [3 Phases]. Who – aside from Snow, who in conversation, gracefully and precisely describes each project that he has been involved in – can keep up with all of this? Recently, Snow has begun working with digital media. His 2002 feature length film Corpus Callosum (the title refers to the central region of the human brain which passes “messages” between the two hemispheres) takes a long slow journey around a wired office space as a jumping point for a voyage into a world of mutant digital effects and distortions where bodies and rooms can at any moment melt or disappear. During the private screening of the film that I attended, I became worried that the film was out of focus. Working with the projectionist, we tried to refocus, using a mirror on the wall in one of the movie’s more virtual scenes. At the very moment that we believed we had established a proper focus, the mirror suddenly caught fire and disappeared, leaving us adrift. So it goes – all to a queasy, humming soundtrack of amplified room sound that sounds like a hundred hard drives humming. Corpus Callosum is one of the first artworks that actually evokes what the parameters of the digital world, and its effects on perception are.

“Video in a sense is not optical,” explains Snow. “Video has an inherent instability, alterability, malleability. With digital animation and imagery one can changes shapes pixel by pixel. Film and photochemical photography recapitulate the way we see, especially film. It’s more organic than electronic imagery. We see by light falling on surfaces and they come back to the eye, and film projection is exactly that. Photographing, you’re filming for an eye, and it stays natural, even though it’s natural, because it still obeys the principles of vision, optics, going back to Descartes. Whereas electronic imagery is historically related to radar, in that it makes a reading, a molding of a surface. It’s more like making a casting of something rather than seeing something, the bounce of light. It’s more internally alterable than film ever was, because in a sense it’s constantly in flux and only stays in place long enough to represent this.” It’s this reflecting back to us of the ways in which media impose or call upon very specific conditions and structures of perception that makes Snow’s work so provocative. “Any form of recording alters what it is recording,” notes Snow. “You photograph something, print it and look at it. Well, what was 3D is now 2D. That’s a drastic change, but we’re so used t reading such things that we read right into the realism of it, so we stop seeing the photo and see … people at the beach or whatever. That’s fine. But one thing the arts can do is to bring to the listener or spectator the transformations that have been made. That this is something new – it does represent what you see, but it also has its own character as an invention. I’m interested in drawing ones attention to that as opposed to something more documentary.”

The Digital Snow DVD-ROM is available from www.digitalsnow.org. CCMC + Christian Marclay is out now on Art Metropole. Hearing Aid is out now on suppose.

The Eternal Drone

This essay was originally published in Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music in 2003. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”

Walter Benjamin

Once upon a time, there were enormous halls, which could be found in many cities, where you could go and listen to the raw blast of Just Intonation tuned drone music every week, under a cascade of multi-colored lights. It was said by those who had visited these halls that this was the loudest sound in the world, and people crowded into these halls week after week, to be saturated in sound and light, and have ecstatic experiences. I am not talking about the lofts of downtown Manhattan where in the early 1960s, La Monte Young, John Cale, Tony Conrad and friends created the colossal drones of the Theater of Eternal Music, from which the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and most of what is best in late twentieth century Western culture issued forth. Nor am I talking about the communes and basements of West Germany and Switzerland in the 1970s, where Can, Amon Duul and Ashra Tempel and company took keyboard driven raga rock into interstellar overdrive. I am not even talking about the legendary drum and bass, techno and trance clubs that sprung up all over the world in the 1990s, wherever you could find a power socket or a generator, where synthesizer-created drones provided a trance-inducing bedrock for a Dionysian festival of percussive and pharmacological experiment.

There was no electricity in the cathedrals of medieval Europe, like Notre Dame in Paris, where enormous pedal organs tuned to specific harmonically related pitches accompanied drone or sustained tone based vocal recitations written by composers such as Leonin and Perotin, or the Gregorian chant masters. Operated pneumatically, using a bellows, the organs were vast, and the cathedral functioned as a resonant chamber that amplified the organ so that the space was saturated with rich overtones, as strange psychedelic color effects created by the stained glass windows illuminated the walls and the faces of the crowd. An English monk, Wulstan, described the newly built Winchester church organ in 960 AD: “Twice six bellows are ranged in a row, and fourteen lie below … worked by seventy strong men … the music of the pipes is heard throughout the town, and the flying fame thereof is gone out over the whole country.” “No one,” it was said, “was able to draw near and hear the sound, but that he had to stop with his hands his gaping ears.”

This was not the underground. This was at the very center of European culture – the DisneyWorld of its time. But with the growing use of the keyboard in the fourteenth century, and the gradual adoption of standardized tuning systems, such as the equal tempered scale which has dominated Western music from the eighteenth century until this day, the drone disappeared from view. Because the equal tempered scale is slightly out of tune from the point of view of the natural harmonics of sound (it “equalizes” the differences in pitch between notes on a keyboard to simplify and standardize tuning), the matrix of harmonies that makes the drone so pleasing when a Just Intonation tuning system (i.e. one using the natural harmonics of sound, and the laws that determine which pitches are in tune with each other) is used, is lost. The word drone became an insult, an indication of boredom, repetitiveness, lack of differentiation. What happened?

It’s true: drones remain boring, irritating even to many people. When Lou Reed issued his dronework homage to La Monte Young and Xenakis, Metal Machine Music in 1976, it was reviled by most of the unsuspecting fans who bought it expecting the catchy pop tunes of Transformer. If by drones we mean music that is built around a sustained tone or tones, there is something about a sound that does not shift, something about the experience of a sound heard for an extended duration that nags at consciousness, interrupts the pleasure it takes in the infinite variety of notes, combinations and changes. Or pulls it towards something more fundamental. Which is more important? That which changes, or that which stays the same? It need not be a question of either/or. In fact, it cannot be. We cannot block out the fact that we exist as finite beings within eternity or infinity – that’s how it is, whether we like it or not. But at least when it comes to man-made sounds, to music, there is no such thing as a music that remains the same for an infinite duration. Even La Monte Young’s extended tone pieces, such as his sinewave tone pieces from the 1960s like Drift Studies, or the current 8 year Dream House: Sound and Light installation started and will stop — although, Young has made the silences at the beginning and end of some of his compositions part of the piece, thus extending them into eternity, and sound’s “eternal return”. And if the music did not stop, we would stop, or change. We are changing as we listen, both physically, as the cells of our body grow, die and are replaced, and mentally, as our concentration shifts from one aspect of the sound we are listening to, to another, as our position in the room subtly shifts, resulting in different combinations of tones heard.

Beneath all that changes, is there a constant sound that is to be heard? Can we experience eternity right now, in sound? In India, one way of saying drone is “Nada Brahma” – “God is sound”, or “sound is God”. What we call music is ahata nad – “the struck sound”, but behind, inside this sound is anahata nad – “the unstruck sound”: the sound of silence. The relationship between the struck and the unstruck sound can be modeled in different ways. Indeed, at the moment when the drone re-emerged after World War 2 in America, with La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings (1958), we can see divergent but complementary models very clearly in John Cage and La Monte Young’s attitudes to sound. As Kyle Gann has written: “In Cage’s aesthetic, individual musical works are metaphorically excerpts from the cacophonous roar of all sounds heard or imagined. Young’s archetype, equally fundamental, attempts to make audible the opposite pole: the basic tone from which all possible sounds emanate as overtones. If Cage stood for Zen, multiplicity, and becoming, Young stands for yoga, singularity and being.”

Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952), with its “silent” non-performance at the piano forces the listener to become aware of the persistent omnipresence of sounds within silence and vice versa, both inside the listener and in the environment of the concert hall. Young’s Composition No. 7 (1960), which consists of a notated B and F# together with the instruction “to be held for a long time”, provides a single constant sound that changes as what Young has called “listening in the present tense” develops. Freed, at least temporarily, from the distraction of change and time, the listener enters the stream of the sound itself and discovers that what seemed to be a single drone sound shifts and changes as the listener scans and focuses on different parts of it, opening up into a universe of overtones, microtones and combination tones. Of course, this experience is entirely dependent on correct tuning. A B and a F# on a conventionally tuned piano won’t sound that amazing – nor will a drone that’s tuned this way. Young’s interest in sustained tones and Just Intonation, which he grew increasingly fascinated by in the early 1960s, support each other, because Just Intonation brings out the full spectrum of overtones which make drones so satisfying to the ear. This music may be “minimalist” in terms of instructions, but the resulting sound, as Terry Riley quipped is actually “maximal” – or, to use a word that Young says he once preferred, it’s “meta-music”.

Why has the drone become such a key part of the contemporary music scene, from Keiji Haino’s hurdy gurdy and fx pedaled guitars to the spiritualized pop of Madonna, the ecstatic jazz of Alice Coltrane or film soundtracks such as Ligeti’s for 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why do we want to be immersed in what David Toop has called the ocean of sound? Marshall McLuhan defined the electronic universe that opened up after World War 2 as being one of participation, immersion, acoustics, in contrast to the predominately visual culture that dominated the west for the last 500 years, which was a culture of spectators, distance and writing. Drones, embodying and manifesting universal principles of sound and vibration, in a fundamental sense belong to nobody, and invite a sense of shared participation, collective endeavor and experience that is very attractive to us. It is this aesthetic of participation that connects them with the punk scene. In 1976, Mark P. in Sniffing Glue drew a chart with 3 chords on it and said “now go out and form a band” – and within a couple of years, guitar bands like Wire, and its side projects like Dome had spiraled off from these chords into sustained-tone drone space. But today, even one of those chords might be too much sound. “If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars,” quipped Lester Bangs regarding Metal Machine Music.

Just as the drone can cause powerful shifts in individual consciousness, so it also re-organizes traditional hierarchies of music production and consumption. Drones are ill-suited to commercial recording formats such as the CD, due to their length, the way they rely on the acoustics of the room in which they’re produced, and the paradoxically intimate relationship with visual culture that they often have. The CD of Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire, with it’s warm resonant humming tone, is gorgeous, but it hardly captures the original sound installation from which the sound recording was made – just as no sound recording of La Monte Young’s work can capture Marian Zazeela’s complementary light sculptures, and no movie soundtrack recording can supply the experience of actually seeing the film it comes from.

The battle between Young, Zazeela, Cale and Conrad and over who “owns” the recordings of the Theater of Eternal Music rehearsals and performances embodies basic contradictions contained in the rediscovery of the drone in Western culture. Young discovered sustained tones in a sense that could be covered by traditional notions of authorship and copyright, but, as he himself once asked, how do you copyright a relationship between two pitches? Or for that matter the mathematical principles governing just intonation pitch relationships which Tony Conrad pointed out to Young in 1964? From the point of view of the performers, the creation of drones, even according to someone else’s instructions, feels like an intense collective experience and endeavor. Newer groups like Vibracathedral Orchestra, or Bardo Pond, or the Boredoms have returned to the tribal spirit of drone creation, in which drones are collectively improvised. Meanwhile, the profusion of electronic drone based musics, of microsound, lowercase, minimalist house, ambient etc. on labels like 12k, Mille Plateaux or raster extends this idea of community in a different way, as the line between producer and consumer is blurred by limited edition CDs and CD-Rs, which are mostly bought or exchanged by those who are part of the scene, and themselves making drone based music.

Drones are everywhere, in beehives, the ocean, the atom and the crowd. La Monte Young speaks of tuning tamburas to a 60 hz pitch, which is the speed at which electricity is delivered in the USA (in Europe it’s 50 hz). Unless we live totally off the grid, our lives are tuned to this sound pitch, like instruments. The word “vibration” has come to stand in for all that people find loathsome about hippy, New Age, California spiritual vagueness, but, as a series of dogmatic but useful books like Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Nada Brahma: The World is Sound and Peter Michael Hamel’s Through Music to the Self have documented, from the point of view of physics, everything vibrates and therefore can be said to exist as sound, rather than merely “having a sound”.

The word vibration entered sixties culture through Sufism, and in particular through the work of an Indian musician and philosopher Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan, who traveled to New York for the first time in 1910. In his classic book, The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word, Khan sets out a doctrine in which sound, movement and form emerge out of silence: “every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations.” It’s important to state this clearly: according to Khan, matter and solid objects are manifestations of the power of vibration and sound, and not vice versa. Sound comes first, not matter. So, the universe is sound, and the drone, which sustains a particular set of vibrations and sound frequencies in time, has a very close relationship to what we are, to our environment, and to the unseen world that sustains us. Khan: “With the music of the Absolute the bass, the undertone, is going on continuously; but on the surface beneath the various keys of all the instruments of nature’s music, the undertone is hidden and subdued. Every being with life comes to the surface hidden and subdued. Every being with life comes to the surface and again returns whence it came, as each note has its return to the ocean of sound. The undertone of this existence is the loudest and the softest, the highest and the lowest; it overwhelms all instruments of soft or loud, high or low tone, until all gradually merge in it; this undertone always is, and always will be.” The traditional name given to this never-ending undertone, which has been repeated by musicians from Coltrane and Can to Anti-Pop Consortium is OM, and by saying OM, the monk or the musician tunes into perfect sound forever.

Drones can embody the vastness of the ocean of sound, but they also provide a grid, or thread, through which it can be navigated. La Monte Young has talked about using his sustained tone pieces as a way of sustaining or producing a particular mood by stimulating the nervous system continually with a specific set of sound vibrations – thus providing a constant from which the mind can move, back and forth. In a recent interview, one of Pandit Pran Nath’s disciples, Indian devotional singer Sri Karunamayee pointed out that the tambura, the four stringed drone instrument that accompanies most Indian classical music performances “gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahma, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, and is concerned less she, the goddess of music may be lost, inundated by it. So she places two gourds around her, in the form of Veena, and then she is guided by them into it.” Indian singers love to say that to be between two tamburas is heaven. They mean it literally, for the correctly tuned and amplified tambura contains a world of infinite pitch relationships. And to be perfectly in tune with universal vibration means to be one with God.

Do we have to believe in the drone’s spiritual qualities in order to experience them? The answer is no. Although in the Christian world, the sacred is thought of primarily as a matter of faith and belief, there is another view of the sacred that is concerned with practice, and the use of sacred technologies. Although the drone has often been used as a sacred technology, both in the East and the West, there is nothing that says it has to be so. Indeed, like all former sacred technologies in the modern era, including drugs, dance and ritual, erotic play or asceticism, musicians have appropriated and reconfigured the drone’s power in many ways that question traditional notions of the sacred. It has been said repeatedly that drones are, in the words of a Spacemen 3 record for “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.” The Theater of Eternal Music were famous for their use of hashish and other substances, which allowed for extended periods of concentration and sensitization to micro-intervals. The Velvet Underground made explicit this link, with Cale’s droning viola underpinning Reed’s vocal on “Heroin”. More recently, Coil, in their Time Machines, have produced a series of long drone pieces, each named after one of the psychedelics. Conversely, writers like René Daumal who have described their drug experiences, have reported experiencing their own identities as sustained tones.

In fact the drone is a perfect vehicle for expressing alienation from conventional notions of the sacred – either existentially, through a cultivation of “darkness”, as Keiji Haino, dressed in black, with his hurdy gurdy and fx pedals, has done; or through a music that emphasizes mechanism and dissonance in imitation of the drone of the machinery of industrial society (hence “industrial music” and Throbbing Gristle’s early work in alienated sound). In his essay on Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Lester Bangs dwelled on the “utterly inhuman” quality of Reed’s drone, and what he saw as Reed’s deliberate attempt at negating the human for “metal” and “machines”, and of the masochistic pleasure that he and other noise lovers took in the experience of depersonalization and subjugation to the sounds of machinery. Both of these kinds of alienation are present in the dark, negative, profane spirituality that we find in various recent mutant drone subgenres: dronecore, dark ambient, “isolationist”, with their moody horror film sound.

From the modern viewpoint, drones are effective because of their relationship to the void that existentialists believe surrounds human activity. In 1927 Georges Bataille spoke of the universe as “formless”, and all of “official” human culture as an attempt to resist this fundamental fact, which reduced the cosmos to nothing more than “a spider or a gob of spit.” There is something of this quality of formlessness at work in “dark” drones, with their dissonant tones, the endless decay, distortion and degradation of pure tones, in the name of entropic noise. This formlessness, which blurs and loosens the boundaries of individual identity, could be the source of the ecstatic, “high” quality that often comes with drone music. If we take away Bataille’s existential pessimism, we can see how the formlessness of the drone leads us to use words like “abstract” or “ambient” to describe it. Indeed, the word “drone” itself is used by reviewers and musicians alike to stand in for a whole realm of musical activity that is difficult to describe using words, because drones lack the series of contrasts and shifts that give music form or definition. But does that mean that drones are truly formless, or do they embody deeper aspects of musical form?

It would be easy to say that the sacred spiritual qualities of the drone were connected with harmony, and the consonance of different pitches – thus the saccharine sweetness of New Age music with its crude harmonies – and that the profane, modern drone is connected with dissonance, with the exploration and equalization of forbidden pitch relationships. But the Just Intonation system actually moves beyond such crude distinctions. To begin with, it should be pointed out that the equal tempered scale is itself slightly out of tune, i.e. dissonant, while certain pitch combinations that are in fact in tune according to the physics of sound will sound dissonant or “flat” at first to ears that have heard nothing but music in equal temperament. Just as there is a black magic and a white magic, so there are harmonious combinations of pitches that create all kinds of moods. Think of the diversity of ragas, all of which are tuned according to just intonation scales, from the sweetness of a spring raga like Lalit to a dark, moody raga like Malkauns. There are dark harmonies as well as light ones.

In fact, the feedback which is so key to alt rock’s embrace of the drone (My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realize” and Jesus and Mary Chain’s music for example), based as it is on the amplification of the resonant frequencies from a sound source, is by definition in harmony – the feedback being composed of naturally occurring overtones within a sound. What we call noise is often merely a different kind of harmony, and the celebration of it in post-Velvets guitar culture is a celebration of harmony. That’s why it feels so good. It’s the raw power of vibrations. Keiji Haino has talked of his desire, when he does “covers” of pop songs in his Aihiyo project, to “destroy things that already existed” and to liberate sound from the “constraint” of the song. But his noise-scapes can never truly destroy song, for the pleasures of song and noise enjoy secret common ground. Haino may replace banale clichéd sound relationships with powerful fundamental ones — but these are already actually contained inside many pop songs, waiting to be liberated by amplification, by being sustained over time. When it’s at its most satisfying, noise, like pop, embodies the laws of harmony, and universal sound.

Depersonalization, alienation, spiritual kitsch, immersive sacred sound: how do we reconcile the different uses to which drones can be put? I don’t believe, as Hamel and Berendt do, that anything good can come from lecturing people that they’re bad boys and girls who should eat their spiritual spinach. I don’t believe that theory should control practice and bully it with claims of expertise either. It was Cage and the minimalists (or Louis Armstrong maybe) that finally dispatched that notion after centuries of the composer’s hegemony. We know very well by now that expertise in music is a matter of coming up with the goods. Indeed, drones have always been as much a part of folk music as sacred or “classical” music – think of the bagpipes or the many stringed instruments that have a drone string. But in this respect, the lack of understanding of what sound is that informs much of the contemporary drone scene is revealing. A new piece of software is developed, a new synth, a new trick with an fx pedal, which sounds great for a few months, is quickly passed around and imitated, and then exhausted. Nothing is learnt, just the iteration of possible combinations surrounding happy accidents, and momentary pulses of novelty. In contrast, the drone school surrounding Young, which is notable for Young’s emphasis on setting the highest possible motivation and goals, and for the depth of the scientific and musicological research that it is based on, has been endlessly productive, both in the case of Young himself, and those who’ve studied with or around him (Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Jon Hassell, Rhys Chatham, Arnold Dreyblatt, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt, Catherine Christer Hennix, and at a secondary level, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen Three etc.) – precisely because it does not rely on happy accidents, but on a knowledge of the powers of sound.

In his notes to Young-protégé Catherine Christer Hennix’s newly issued just intonation drone masterpiece, The Electric Harpsichord, Henry Flynt says: “The thrust of modern technology was to transfer the human act to the machine, to eliminate the human in favor of the machine, to study phenomena contrived to be independent of how humans perceived them. In contrast, the culture of tuning which Young transmitted by example to his acolytes let conscious discernment of an external process define the phenomenon. The next step is to seek the laws of conscious discernment or recognition of the process. And the next step is to invent a system driven by improvisation monitored by conscious apperception of the process.” In other words: don’t just let the machines run. And don’t hide behind Cage’s culture of the accident, of chance. Become conscious of what music can be, dive deeper into that vast field of sonic relationships that, at least in the west, remains almost totally unexplored.

The drone, like drugs or eroticism, cannot be easily assimilated to one side of the divide by which modernism or the avant-garde has tried to separate itself from the world of tradition. Like the psychedelics, the drone, rising out of the very heart of the modern, and its world of machines, mathematics, chemistry and so on, beckons us neither forward nor backward, but sideways, into an open field of activity that is always in dialogue with “archaic” or traditional cultures. This is an open field of shared goals and a multiplicity of experimental techniques, rather than the assumed superiority of the musicologist or the naïve poaching of the sampler posse. How vast is this field? I recently asked Hennix what the ratio of the known to the unknown is, when it comes to exploring the musical worlds contained in different just intonation based tuning systems. She laughed and said “oh, it’s about one to infinity!”

Thanks to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Sri Karunamayee, Henry Flynt and Catherine Christer Hennix for their help in writing this article.

‘Writers on Drugs’: Vital Work of Literary Criticism

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.

No Happy Ending for the Literary Lush

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.

Literatura tóxica

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”.

Literary Highs

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.

Christian Bök Interviews Marcus Boon

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.

Junk Literature

A review of The Road of Excess by Richard Broderick for Fifth Column that was originally published in 2003.

The Road Of Excess: A History Of Writers On Drugs
by Marcus Boon
339 pages, $29.95
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0-674-00914-2

High Anxiety: Cultural Studies In Addiction
edited by Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield
University of California Press
222 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 0-520-22751-4

Pity the poor tobacco companies.

For decades they exemplified every virtue of consumer capitalism. They produce an item that’s cheap to make, literally “hooks” consumers, returns correspondingly high profits and not only receives federal subsides, but has even benefited from free government promotion in the form of millions of cigarettes distributed to members of the Armed Forces.

No wonder Big Tobacco was the darling of Wall Street!

But, alas, (at least for Big Tobacco) the morbidity and mortality rates associated with cigarette smoking, coupled with nicotine’s highly addictive nature, have transformed tobacco executives from Model Corporate Citizens into Evil Drug Pushers. No wonder they seem a little nonplussed, having discovering – too late – that it’s no longer acceptable to lie under oath about the lethal affects of smoking.

Cigarettes have only a walk on appearance in The Road Of Excess, and a single chapter devoted to smoking’s allure in High Anxiety, but both books attempt to shed light on different dimensions of our dynamic and often irrational attitudes toward drugs and addiction.

In Excess, Marcus Boon sets forth a fascinating and frequently surprising account of the foundational relationship between drugs and the highest peaks of Western literature in the past 200 years, from the use of opiates as a path to transcendental subjectivity by German romantic poets like Novalis to the better known impact of stimulants and psychedelics on the works of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs to the much less known impact of drugs on, say, the philosophical writings of Sartre.

His exploration of writers and thinkers who used drugs to stimulate their imagination or drew upon drug experience for inspiration comprises a who’s-who of luminaries – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Cocteau, William James, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley, Freud, Artaud, Ernst Junger, Paul Bowles, Arthur Conan Doyle, Foucault, Heidegger, almost everyone associated with the English fin de siecl? – and hapless wannabes like Ren? Daumal, a young Frenchmen who in the 1920s sought the mystic’s extinction of self through the reckless use of a wide selection of anesthetics including nitrous oxide, ether, and carbon tetrachloride (not surprisingly, Daumal died before his time).

Organized into five main sections, Boon’s book studies each category of drugs in chronological order. An unstated, though deeply suggestive, thesis of his work is that as we have moved forward in time, the psychoactive substances we ingest have evolved from drugs that are essentially agricultural in origin, like opium and hashish, to drugs that are increasingly the products of industrialization. As our scientific/industrial society led to the wholesale production of increasingly addictive (and often lethal) drugs – refining opium, coca, and ephedra, for example, into morphine, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine – something similar, Boon implies, has happened in literature, evolving from a kind of traditional, cottage industry to something that might be better described as a form of “cultural production.” If cigarettes are inescapably products of the assembly line, so, equally, is Being and Nothingness.

Boone details the link between each drug and the kind of literature produced by this meeting of the muse and the pharmacy. But the book really takes off in the sections dealing with cannabis and psychedelics, possibly because of all the drugs discussed in Excess, cannabis and psychedelics inspire the most compulsive flights of verbal expression – the pothead’s logorrhea, the acidheads ecstatic attempt to describe visionary states. In “Imaginal Realms: Psychedelics and Literature,” for example, he zooms in on the fundamental difficulty of trying to assign some objective or absolute quality to the interplay between drugs – in this case, LSD – and the imagination.

[Timothy] Leary repeatedly manipulated the imaginal space constructed around psychedelics. While he was a clinical psychologist at Harvard, LSD was an amazing therapeutic tool; for artists, it enhanced creativity; in his interview with Playboy in 1965, it was the ultimate sex drugs; for divinity students, it became the gateway to mystical experience; for radical students, it was revolution. On the one hand, this profusion of perspectives reflects the difficulty (or flexibility) in constructing cultural context for the psychedelic experience and the accompanying tantric insight that all contexts are “constructed” anyway. On the other hand, it suggests again the danger of what Baudelaire called theomania; the belief that “realities” can be reimagined and reconstructed at will through drugs, without such acts of “creation” entailing any responsibilities. The idea that reality is nothing but a set of recordings or imprints waiting to be tweaked lends itself to instant self-aggrandizement, particularly when authors such as Leary, and later Carlos Castenada, appeared to revise their stories about drugs according to the prevailing mood of the marketplace. The ego is a most potent configurer of imaginal spaces and, if not confronted directly, will turn even the most potent psychedelic experience into a self-serving and deceiving charade. (264)

Small wonder that Burroughs, who saw in narcotics an avenue of relief from the multiplicity of imaginal spaces, denounced psychedelics as “terminal sewage,” going on the say, “Their Immortality Cosmic Consciousness and Love is second-run grade B-shit…learn to make it without any chemical corn.”

Of the writers mentioned in Excess, only Burroughs and De Quincy make joint appearances in High Anxiety, a collection of essays about addiction’s shifting image in Western culture; Burroughs because his fictional Interzone, like all paranoid fantasies, is a projection of a distilled and reified state of anxiety; De Quincy because, as two very fine essays in High Anxiety argue, his Gothic treatment of opium addiction employed tropes of victimization and sexual ravishment by an Oriental Other that reflected similar tropes used by the British Empire to justify, in a general way, its subjugation of the East, and, in a particular way, its deeply compromised involvement in the first and second Opium Wars. In 19th century England – as in 21st century America – addiction, with its prerequisite loss of will, was entwined with the prerequisite will-to-power that fuels imperial ambitions.

Officially, the [Opium] war was fought against the kowtow; fought, as Marx phrased it, for “an alleged infringement of the fanciful code of diplomatic etiquette.” The demand that the free-born Englishmen prostate themselves to the Emperor of China as a condition of doing trade with him was declared insupportable, a dire violation of the national character. De Quincy declared that if Lord Amherst had made the kowtow, “the next thing would have been a requisition from the English Factory of beautiful English women, according to a fixed description, as annual presents to the Emperor.” “Victorian Highs,” by Marty Roth

High Anxiety is not without its dry stretches. The essay “The Rhetoric of Addiction: From Victorian Novels To AA” seems intent on replicating the interminable tedium of the average Victorian novel with an overlong and unrevealing exercise in “compare and contrast” between representations of drunkenness and addiction in 19th century fiction and the recovery stories related by alcoholics and addicts at 12 Step meetings. It’s a little hard to determine what the point is here, other than the opportunity to employ off-putting jargon like “narrativity.” Meanwhile, “An Intoxicated Screen: Reflections on Film and Drugs,” is an over-the-top, unintentionally hilarious attempt to argue an overdetermined thesis about movies not only reflecting but ultimately governing our changing perceptions of addiction.

Although bristling with ideas and observations, neither Road of Excess nor High Anxiety touch upon perhaps the central mystery of addiction and drugs, which is why in the Western world, and in particular America, we are so fixated, not to say obsessed, with addiction that the term has taken on an endlessly proliferating life of its own as a catchall word covering forms of compulsive behavior completely unrelated to substance abuse, from shopping to eating to gambling to promiscuity. Is it because the center of gravity for individual identity in the Western world lies in the will – the very attribute of which addiction makes a mockery? Or because psychoactive substances in general call into question our culture’s assumption of the unitary nature of reality?

Certainly the link between addiction and morality seems peculiar to the West. And here both books err slightly in claiming that the overt perception of such a link is recent. It is not. In the 17th century, religious reformers were already denouncing Man’s “addiction” to sin. And surely the following passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans could well have come from the pen of a present day heroin addict, lapsed smoker, or serial dieter.

“The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do. But every time I do what I do not want to, then it is not myself acting, but the sin that lives in me…What a wretched man I am!”

— Richard Broderick, a poet, essayist, and fiction writer, is an ex-smoker who feels morally superior to those still in the clutches of the evil weed

Novels and Nirvana

A review of The Road of Excess by Simon Ings for The New Scientist that was originally published in print on December 18, 2002.

SOMETIMES the world transcends our physical experiences and expectations. But we have lost the art of how to speak about that experience.

In The Road of Excess: A history of writers on drugs, English professor Marcus Boon suggests that drug-taking became a necessary literary experiment the moment writers found themselves living in a materialist world. When neither church and state nor tree-clad mountainside reflects the face of God, where but in the “negative, transcendental space” of drug experience can writers express the poetry of human smallness and purblindness in an immense universe? Boon uses literary, historical and cultural analysis to reveal “how a society came to believe certain things” about drugs, about writers and about itself. He justifies this approach by asserting that drugs have “dynamic historical properties” Historical meanings, he says, are part of the user’s experience.

And these have changed over time. In the 19th century, hidebound by institutionalised religion and a growing enthusiasm for mechanisation, a gulf seemed to separate everyday consciousness from the realm of the sublime. In the 21st century, that gulf is being healed. Where the radical early 20th-century critic Walter Benjamin, taking mescaline, experienced “a shower of gifts pouring out of gnostic darkness”, modern writers on drugs are more likely to write about the way human consciousness participates in the workings of an infinitely open and interconnected Universe.

Their rhetoric has its failings, chief among them the ease with which drug-taking can be medicalised. Why else would we be using normalising drugs like Prozac to steer us away from the bracing terrors of the sublime? On the other hand, a rhetoric that sites the sublime within the mechanisms of consciousness does allow writers to fulfil the original Romantic ambition: to contend with science in explaining how we think.

Best of all, Boon, an ambitious thinker, puts his money where his mouth is. To take just a handful of examples, he shows that anaesthetics reproduce the rhetoric of philosophical analysis; that writers who use cannabis produce parody and tend towards the Rabelaisian; that culture and chemistry together underpin the amphetamine-fuelled world of “shining machines and traumatised human bodies”; that the unchallenged ego will make a “self-serving and deceiving charade” out of psychedelic experience; and that under the influence of many drugs, the language function itself will reveal its “essential autonomy”.

Boon’s observations speak as much to our scientific understanding of the brain as to our literary appreciation of writers like Henri Michaux and Charles Baudelaire, William Burroughs and Will Self, and they deserve close criticism. This alone makes Boon’s ironic and perceptive book very welcome: it is that rare creature, a work of literary criticism that the scientific community can enjoy, contend with, and from which it can draw inspiration.

Simon Ings writes fiction and journalism about the senses.

Writing on high

A review of The Road of Excess by Nick Kre for the Toronto Star that was originally published in print on November 17, 2002.

There is a common trait among such intoxicating writers as William Lee Burroughs, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Paul Bowles and a number of other influential, literary talents: intoxication.

Such classic works as The Naked Lunch, The Seraphim and The Sheltering Sky were written while their authors were under the influence of some inhaled, injected or ingested stimulant. Some of those organic and chemical stimulants were medicinal, some mind-altering. Among some of the stimulated, drug addiction served as a creative catalyst as much as a route of escapism.

It fueled work habits, helped fire the imagination and provided temporary relief to whatever misery the tortured artistic soul was suffering at the time. It also often sentenced those creators to a form of purgatory, imprisoned by their dependence to suffer stunted health, severe depression and premature death.

Despite the drawbacks, the association of drugs and literature has been one of romantic chic. The drug-induced abstract stream of conscience spewed by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson isn’t pitied, it’s envied. The passionate pharmaceutical-stoked rants of rock critic Lester Bangs are viewed through the rose-coloured glasses of admiration, despite his eventual death by overdose. The futuristic psychoactive-inspired visions of sci-fi writer Philip (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) Dick are showered with praise and exploited as movies. Whether these tacit endorsements soothe or raise your moral heckles is moot, for the behavioural patterns matching certain writers with certain habits.