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.