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