Strange trips: Drugs, writers, and the chemistry of style

By James Parker. Originally published on October 27, 2012 in the Boston Globe.

THIS IS A WRITER. This is a writer on drugs. Can you tell the difference? Is there any difference? We’re still not sure. When the poet Geoffrey Hill – to take a local case – revealed in interviews a few years ago that he had been taking antidepressants, including lithium, to treat what he described as ”undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder… the terror of utterance,” there was a fluttering in the critical coop. ”Is style chemical?” clucked William Logan in the New Criterion, reviewing Hill’s collection ”Speech! Speech!” (2000). ”Can swallowing an amine neurotransmitter change the comprehensions of syntax a life has earned?”

Swiftly and skeptically the link was made between Hill’s newly-achieved chemical balance and his increased productivity; his output, after all, once a famously agonized trickle, was now (relatively speaking) a torrent. A new book every two years! Formerly ”constipated” (as Logan wrote), the chemically emancipated Hill was now ”jabbering like a maniac.” Coming clean about his medication, Hill groaned in an interview with the Guardian of London, had ”of course given ammunition to those who don’t like me…. They say, `Hill has just turned the tap on and now he can’t turn the tap off.”’ A block had been dissolved, but at what cost? Had Hill’s authority as a poet been compromised?

Well, not on the page. In his latest collection, ”The Orchards Of Syon,” Hill’s poetic voice remains commanding and unmistakable, and – if not stable – then at least reliably volatile. As usual, difficulty hangs over the verse like incense, conferring the odor of a deep and private tradition. And as usual, nature flashes out of it with effortless intensity: ”Wintry swamp-thickets, brush-heaps of burnt light. /The sky cast-iron, livid with unshed snow.” There’s been no diminution of power here.

But the lithium question remains, because behind the high-flown anxieties that have been expressed about Hill’s medications lies something more basic, even childish: disappointment. Poets, we feel, aren’t supposed to take anti-depressants. Of the poet above all is expected a certain fidelity to misery and muddle – he must keep the clouds in his house, not shoo them away. And it can be dispiriting to see a poet present himself to the doctor with ”symptoms” and then obediently join in the gray trudge toward wellness, the herd-movement toward mental health. Is this imagination’s defeat, at the popping of a pill?

Hill himself framed the question with astonishing precision in ”Speech! Speech!”: ”How is it tuned, how can it be un-/tuned, with lithium, this harp of nerves?” He adds: ”Fare well/my daimon, inconstant/measures, mood- and mind-stress, heart’s rhythm/suspensive; earth-stalled/the wings of suspension.” Gerard Manley Hopkins – a man to whom lithium was not available – is present in these lines, humming piously in mid-air. Is Hill saying goodbye and good luck to his daimon, with its extremes of ecstasy and terror? To its wacky ”inconstant measures” which he has now ”earth-stalled,” i.e., with lithium (an element)?

But writers have been taking drugs as long as there have been drugs to be had, and – as we learn from Marcus Boon’s fascinating and meticulous ”The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs” (forthcoming from Harvard University Press) – the line is blurred, in fact invisible, between those writers who take drugs to inflame or exalt their daimons and those who simply need, in Aldous Huxley’s phrase, ”a chemical vacation from intolerable selfhood.” (There is a third category, too – those who take drugs to stay awake so they can write more and make more money.) ”The Road Of Excess” does the field of drug studies a great service by providing a clear narrative of literature’s long romance with drugs, and by relating each substance to a specific creative enterprise. All the big names are here – the opiated or narcotized (Baudelaire, De Quincey, Coleridge, Poe), the stimulated (Philip K. Dick, the Beats), the psychedelicized (Michaux, Huxley), and the smokers (almost everyone). Boon also includes among his speedfreak theorists the great rock critic Lester Bangs, whose insights into the interplay between drugs and music were extraordinary and – more important – extraordinarily well-written.

Unlike his fellow academic Sadie Plant, author of ”Writing On Drugs” (1999), Boon is not about to declare that substances hold the key to history. Plant’s book seemed to be leading us gently (by the nose, but gently) toward a point where we might accept that it was amphetamines, not certain convulsions in international affairs, that started the Second World War – that speed itself was hungry for new machines and better bombs, bigger noises, faster deaths. Drugs for Boon are not Plant’s ”meta-messengers,” writing their own story through largely bewildered, out-of-it human agents. In his argument, and it is a literary argument, drugs correspond to particular areas or moods of the imagination: opium to the Romantic plunge into darkness and exoticism, Benzedrine to the Beats and their wide-eyed gluttony for kicks and high-velocity typing. There is a groundbreaking chapter, for example, on the consonance between anaesthesia (first used surgically in the 1840s, in Boston) and the developing philosophy of the American Transcendentalists – infinity glimpsed from the dentist’s chair.

Boon finds that at certain moments drugs and the imagination are indeed interchangeable: ”If De Quincey’s Miltonic evocations of the sublime,” he writes, ”or Coleridge’s use of color, are the symptoms of opium addiction, then the literary imagination itself must be considered pathological.” It was part of the Romantic mission, he continues, to ”cultivate” this pathology. Was the mission a success? Coleridge is the test case: a man – a genius – enfeebled and laid low by his dependence on laudanum (opium in liquid form), who nonetheless seems to have produced great poetry under its direct inspiration. Who held the pen, the man or the drug? Of course not everyone thinks it’s such great poetry; Boon quotes an unforgiving female professor from 1928 who declared that ”the whole body of his poetry is drug work, shows drug mentality, bears the stigmata of the drug imagination.” No one since then has been quite that sure on the Coleridge/opium question. ”About, about, in reel and rout/The death-fires danced at night; /The water, like a witch’s oils/Burnt green, and blue and white.” Is that drug work, drug coloring?

The British poet Ted Hughes didn’t think so. Hughes regarded Coleridge’s battle with laudanum as a sideshow, a sublimation of the more essential, lethal conflict between his heathen nature-worshipping heart and his Christian intellect. ”Kubla Khan,” with its singing gulfs and its choked-off chants, presented for Hughes not a dreamy fragment but a precise diagram of this psychological crisis: ”And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, /As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, /A mighty fountain momently was forced: /Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst/Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail….” Coleridge’s poetic career, so full of the half-states of dread and longing, stalled – in this view – not because he became addicted, but because he hadn’t the nerve to continue it.

The question of nerve is an interesting one. Just how courageous is it to get high? Daniel Pinchbeck, a Manhattanite in his mid-30s, has just published a book called ”Breaking Open The Head” (Broadway), which describes his travels through Mexico, Ecuador, Gabon, and certain cultural backwaters of the United States, on the trail of drug-induced revelation. Iboga, ayahuasca, DMT, name your mushroom – Pinchbeck got them all down and kept his cool, or at least his ability to write English. His journey is a classic one: ”I fell into a spiritual crisis. I fell, and I could not get up.” And off he goes like Henderson the Rain King – the crumbling monumental Western ego, the baroque heap of subjectivity, looking to get zapped, tottering into the tribelands in search of something, anything. Pinchbeck would doubtless say it was desperation, rather than audacity, that led him to the feet of the Gabonese shaman (a dubious figure who shouts ”When is he going to see the fabulous castles? The cities of the spirits?” and then goes off in a huff); still, you can’t help admiring the hardness of the man’s head.

Our need for drugs remains – the sense that they complete or at least assuage us, that they come right out of the fissure of the human condition. On this matter, as so often in drug literature, it is the bitter, hallucinated voice of the expelled Surrealist Antonin Artaud that rings out most clearly. Artaud had a rare commitment to opiates (hard to argue with a man who writes thus to an ex-lover from inside a lunatic asylum: ”You must find heroin at any cost and if necessary be killed in order to bring it to me here…”). He insisted simultaneously on their pointlessness and on his absolute right, as a matter of necessity, to access this pointlessness. ”It is not opium which makes me work but its absence,” he wrote. ”And in order for me to feel its absence it must from time to time be present.” Punctual reminders of ”that state outside of life” sharpened Artaud’s taste for the here and now. And on behalf of self-medicators everywhere and for all time, from the wino on the street to the high-achieving user, he entered the following plea: ”We are not mad, we are wonderful doctors, we know the dosage of soul, of sensibility, of marrow, of thought. You must leave us alone, you must leave the sick alone….”

No glamour there, no beautiful illusion. The most surprising thing about drugs is how very boring they can be. For all their technical interest there is an air of superfluity, almost of futility, to many of the testimonies and descriptions collected in Boon’s book. Oliver Wendell Holmes, he reports, coming round from a revelatory experience on ether and searching for les mots justes, managed only the following: ”A strong sense of turpentine prevails throughout.” One longs for more details like this; after 200 pages in the company of deadly-earnest self-injectors and inner-space buccaneers one longs for bathos, deflation, the irruption of the normal. I was coarsely gratified to learn, for example, that the California ketamine researcher John Lilly, after becoming ”the void beyond any human specification,” had his studies curtailed by a ”serious accident while bicycling.”

The thought occurs, even allowing for their near-universal impact, that drugs might just be a monstrous irrelevance in the history of human consciousness, a colossal red herring – that the real business of living demands from us that we ”learn to make it without any chemical corn.” That was William Burroughs, in a post-narcotic mood, but let’s end where we began: with Geoffrey Hill. ”Redemption,” he writes in ”The Orchards Of Syon,” ”is self-redemption and entails crawling/to the next angle of vision.” Crawling is the word – humiliated, horizontal, no shortcuts or sudden leaps, no vaulting into bliss. And with an unassisted effort of self we see that the next angle is already there, appointed for us whether we make it that far or not.