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.