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.

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.