‘Writers on Drugs’: Vital Work of Literary Criticism

A review of The Road of Excess by Steven Rosen for The Denver Post that was originally published in print on January 26, 2003.

The first thing to say about Marcus Boon’s “The Road of Excess” is that he has certainly done the research. That is not to imply he is himself a writer on drugs. There is no indication of that in this valuable, philosophically provocative and sometimes quite moving work of literary criticism. But Boon, an assistant professor of English at Toronto’s York University, has read everything from Homer’s “Odyssey,” with its description of the lotus plant, to the underground comics of Robert Crumb. And he can step outside literature to show a knowledge of a far wider cultural world. He begins with a quote from Mark E. Smith of the band The Fall: “The palace of excess leads to the palace of excess.” His book shows how writers’ fascination with “the palace of excess” that is drugs has not just mirrored but preceded society’s. But that, like so much else, may have changed in the 1960s. While this is a survey of literature – Western literature, basically – from throughout history, it is of most interest for its look at 20th-century writers. Post-World War II ones, especially. Boon points out how writing about drugs, be it first-person accounts like Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures, once was primarily about the effects of the drugs. (De Quincey, by the way, associated with the English Romantics, is a critical figure in drug writing. His book is the first about recreational use.) Once laws against narcotic use became popular around the time of World War I, the nature of writing about drugs, and use of drugs by artists, began to change. It wasn’t just about the effects of the drugs. “Writers who used narcotics viewed themselves as social rebels for whom narcotic use was an entree to the criminal underworld that sprang up as soon as narcotics were not legally available,” he says. A pivotal figure was William Burroughs, who in 1953’s “Junkie” (and 1960’s “Naked Lunch”) wrote about his drug-outlaw lifestyle. A close friend of the Beats, his junkie-eyed view of life was appropriated by Allen Ginsberg in his 1957 poem “Howl.” The Beats saw drug users as part of the saintly coalition of hipster-outsiders protesting society’s conformity. And that coalition, eventually a counterculture, and its legacy have had an enormous impact. Boon spends much too little time with psychedelics, given their importance to his literary history. He believes they changed nothing less than our relationship to art. Psychedelics, or hallucinogens, had always lured a few writers, literary ones like Aldous Huxley as well as anthropologists interested in shamanistic and mystical religious practices. But in the Cold War, they became of value to governments seeking mind-related drugs that could disrupt the ego’s control of “truth.” “Psychedelics became a part of Western culture at the moment when the manipulation and control of the imaginal realms, no longer something to be left up to God or Romantic poets, was perceived as something useful,” Boon writes. Boon credits Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) for helping to popularize the use of psychedelics. He especially credits Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism portrait of Kesey in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for making them exciting. But once psychedelics became popular, writers no longer were the cultural avant-garde when it came to drug use. The youth culture, seeing the ego disruption brought on by the drugs as a good thing, decided to experience transcendence for itself. It was hard for the “symbolic” experience of literature to match the “actual” altered states of psychedelic use, Boon says. Some, like Carlos Castaneda and Hunter S. Thompson, did a good job trying. But writers and artists have struggled ever since to find their place in a popular culture that likes to lead as much as follow, and where “experience” matters as much as what’s good or bad.

Steven Rosen is a former movie critic at The Denver Post.