A literature under the influence: Writers’ odysseys into the drug world

A review of The Road of Excess by Rebecca Shannonhouse for the Boston Globe that was originally published in print on May 4, 2003.

”Confessions of an English Opium Eater” may be the best-known narrative in the rich history of drug literature, but Thomas De Quincey is clearly not the only author to mine the depths of drug-inspired writing. In Marcus Boon’s ambitious book, ”The Road of Excess,” De Quincey is but one player in a massive ensemble of notable writers whose work is informed by their use – or study – of mind-altering substances.

In an impressive display of scholarship, Boon meticulously chronicles the connection between writers and drugs. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Jack Kerouac, writers’ personal odysseys into the dizzying world of drugs are depicted with a novelist’s eye for detail. Boon, an assistant professor of English at York University in Toronto, creates order of this heretofore largely uncharted history in five well-rounded essays examining how literature has been influenced by narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics.

Through liberal use of anecdotes, Boon helps transform what could have been a dry recitation of cultural and literary artifacts into a feast of historical surprises. In the opening pages, Voltaire, besieged by pain on his deathbed in 1778, becomes delirious after taking opium. Although his death could not be attributed to the opium alone (the cause was most likely prostate cancer), the drug was clearly being used in ample doses well before De Quincey so boldly publicized it in his autobiographical ”Confessions,” published in 1821.

Drawing from yet another corner of obscure drug history, Boon notes that Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), a noted physician and grandfather of Charles, also had his day with opium long before De Quincey first took the drug. The elder Darwin not only prescribed opium as an antidote to hundreds of ailments but also wrote poetry about the poppy and other plants in his ”The Loves of the Plants” (1789). During that same period, a fellow physician and the author of the widely read medical text ”Elementa Medicinae,” John Brown (1735-1788), also touted the medicinal virtues of opium. Offering another shade of context to the opium saga, Boon reminds us that even William Shakespeare cast the drug in the pages of ”Othello.”

In consistently engaging writing, Boon also describes the popularization of morphine. Named after Morpheus, the god of dreams, morphine first entered the lexicon of drug literature in 1805, when a German pharmacist named Friedrich Serturner recorded his experiences in taking the drug orally. Even the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning partook of the oral morphine tradition that continued throughout the first half of the 19th century. With the discovery of the hypodermic syringe in 1850, morphine quickly won a following as an injected drug.

Boon introduces a modern sensibility in noting that the concept of addiction did not emerge until the 1870s, when German psychologists identified some of the more lugubrious effects caused by frequent drug use. Soon, the notion garnered support in France, where such notables as Prince Otto von Bismarck, General Georges Boulanger, and the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were already addicted to morphine. In 1877, one of the first addiction specialists, Edouard Levinstein, offered his ”authoritative” – yet short-sighted – opinion by noting that morphine had no long-lasting, detrimental effects on one’s ability to function.

Though Boon could have easily focused his book more narrowly on, say, the impact of drugs on 19th-century literature, it’s gratifying to see that he’s given us much more than a mere historical account. The modern-day heroin chronicler Ann Marlowe, author of the 1999 drug classic ”How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z,” is featured in the book. To demonstrate the influence of drugs on 20th-century writers, Boon introduces, among others, the Beat writers Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whose drug-induced writing comes closer than any other written work to capturing the wild and ultimately indefinable nature of the human thought process.

If one reads between the lines, Boon’s chapter on stimulants presents us with a compelling explanation for today’s pervasive Starbucks culture. Much like our highly commercialized coffee hangouts, the early coffeehouses promoted what Boon so aptly labels a ”culture of conversation.” But in the private lives of individual writers, the almighty stimulant served a more utilitarian function. We learn that Honore de Balzac, who was said to have consumed 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime, attributed much of his speedy writing technique to its effects. Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jean-Paul Sartre also relied heavily on coffee.

In setting the stage for cocaine’s emergence, Boon points out that exhaustion was a frequent complaint among cocaine users when the drug was first popularized in the 1880s. As evidence of its salutary effects, sober medical accounts noted that cocaine delivered a powerful form of relief from fatigue. Sigmund Freud praised cocaine even more enthusiastically, noting that the drug cured morphine addiction as well as an assortment of medical ailments. Later, of course, it became apparent that cocaine was, in fact, addictive – a pesky detail that forced Freud to reconsider his zealous promotions of the drug.

Though it is a scholarly endeavor, Boon’s new work reads more like a wide-eyed, joyous romp through a literary statesman’s funhouse, where each room contains a masterfully told tale of opium or morphine, peyote or LSD, coffee or cocaine. We see a gallery of our most prized literary lions, many of them stripped bare of their pristine reputations. It is mind-teasing exercise that is well worth the trip.

‘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.

No Happy Ending for the Literary Lush

A review of The Road of Excess by Lynn Crosbie for The Globe and Mail that was originally published in print on January 25, 2003.

‘I don’t have a drinking problem. I get drunk, fall down, no problem.” This joke may not scintillate the sober amongst us, but for Edgar Allan Poe, who had it laminated over his Baltimore rec-room wet-bar, it was more compelling than the relentless screaming of his diabolical Raven. Next month, Lou Reed, who is no stranger to toxicity, releases a tribute to the writer and his irritating bird with The Raven, a double CD that features dramatizations of Poe’s stories, scored with unholy noises and other germane sound effects. Poe’s work still resonates strongly with artists, and stands as a template for any number of genres, including crime fiction, the contemporary gothic, and essentially everything neo-decadent and macabre. Unfortunately, his tragic life and death also exemplify what York University professor Marcus Boon, in his study of writers and substance abuse, deemed The Road of Excess. Over a century and a half ago, Poe was found in a red-light district alley, poisoned to death by alcohol and enacting the final days of Roderick Usher. Poe’s literary reputation is impeccable: He influenced a wide variety of writers, from the relatively lighter-hearted Oscar Wilde to the corpse-loving Charles Baudelaire, who could really get behind Poe’s infamous notion that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” His life, on the other hand, can only be summed up by what Jack London, also an alcoholic, referred to as “a long sickness,” filled with hours of “the white logic” that speaks to danger, and certain doom. When we think of writers as a community, we imagine that they are linked by shared sensibilities, like T. S. Eliot’s notion of the Metaphysical Poets; by a common interest in the great vowel shift; or by an exquisite sensitivity to the role of sibilance in poems about snakes. The truth is sadly more prosaic: Writers, in the main, are drunks, and always have been. I am surprised more AA meetings do not double as workshops or granting agencies, that entire microbreweries are not devoted to the production of “dark and stormy” beer. According to Donald W. Goodwin, author of Alcohol and the Writer, and chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Kansas Medical Center, writers are second only to bartenders in contracting, and dying from, cirrhosis of the liver. While social scientists have tried to link writers with madness, with little success (in spite of the overabundance of published lunatics), there are very few, if any, definitive scientific or statistical links between writers and the bottle. The known catalogue of alcoholic writers is virtually Homeric: Lord Byron, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Delmore Schwartz and Jean Stafford are but a few writers who have paid closer attention to last call than to the composition of le mot juste. Critic Roy Porter, who has studied mad artists extensively, notes that it was Plato who argued “for the existence of a mystical, heaven-sent spirit or furor, through which a select few could be inspired.” It is this precise furor that the inebriate writer seeks, paradoxically, at the bottom of every glass: the inspiration that will transform a man such as The Lost Weekend’s Don Birnam from someone who is draining a bottle to someone who is hard at work on his novel The Bottle. If writers are unusually susceptible to dipsomania, it may be the nature of the enterprise. Eternally sitting at a desk feels less like the labour of an adult than the punishment of a child, who, while grounded, can only imagine the world going by. Albert Camus cited Sisyphus as classical mythology’s most potent symbol of artistic suffering and resignation. Odysseus too springs to mind: Lashed to the mast of their endeavour, most writers are not hale enough to resist the siren’s call of liquor, the call that suggests both surrender and satiation. Sadly, there is an enormous ocean between what alcohol inspires and what transpires when it is consumed. “Resignedly beneath the sky/ The melancholy waters lie,” Poe wrote in 1831, in The City in the Sea. The poem continues, to observe that “no ripples curl, alas!/ Along that wilderness of glass.” When Poe was found staggering the streets in 1849, he was not constructing rhymes or reason. He was speaking gibberish, intoxicated with a furor that is rooted in the obscene simplicity that underlies The Purloined Letter — the logic of alcoholism, the hidden condition of so many writers, lies right before their faces. It is antithetical to creativity, conjoined with tragedy: It is a “twofold luxury” that annihilates the artistry it seeks to enhance. Writers drink to lose their inhibitions, to conjure more freely and to uncork the genius believed to lie latent beneath sobriety. “Yet it is dreadful to believe in such atrocity,” in Poe’s words — words that failed him, and countless others, during their slow march toward the long sickness unto death.

Literatura tóxica

A review of The Road of Excess by Carlos Graieb for Veja Online that was originally published on January 22, 2003.

Empregada originalmente como anestésico para cavalos, a ketamina transformou-se em Special K, uma droga popular nas raves, aquelas festas que duram até de manhã e são movidas a música tecno. Seu efeito mais marcante é produzir breves estados de apagão, durante os quais os usuários são sugados para o que chamam de “dimensão K”. Ainda não se conhece nenhum poema ou ficção que trate dessa experiência, mas o crítico inglês Marcus Boon não tem dúvida de que eles logo surgirão, assim como já existem romances sobre o ecstasy. “Neste momento, algum adolescente está escrevendo um romance com o título Dimensão K”, afirma ele. E isso acontece porque 200 anos de escrevinhação inspirada pelas drogas ou a respeito delas acabaram por consolidar um gênero literário. Em The Road of Excess (A Via do Excesso), Boon reconta a história desse gênero de maneira inovadora e cativante, apesar de acadêmica. Recém-lançado nos Estados Unidos, o livro aborda textos famosos e outros nem tanto, assim como fala de viciados confessos e de autores que preferiram não se alongar sobre suas experiências com substâncias clandestinas.

O fundador da literatura tóxica, diz Boon, foi o inglês Thomas De Quincey, que, em 1821, publicou Confissões de um Comedor de Ópio. Depois dele, outras figuras registraram suas viagens. O francês Charles Baudelaire criou a expressão “paraísos artificiais” em 1860, para descrever o estado induzido pelo haxixe e pelo láudano. Seu conterrâneo Henri Michaux, já no século XX, explorou os efeitos da mescalina. O alemão Walter Benjamin filosofou sobre o haxixe. O romancista inglês Aldous Huxley fez testes com psicodélicos. E os beats americanos, como Jack Kerouac e William Burroughs, banquetearam-se num verdadeiro smorgasbord de substâncias. Boon, no entanto, não se limita às figuras mais conhecidas.

The Road of Excess mostra que, se De Quincey inaugurou o discurso literário sobre as drogas, anteriormente já havia autores bastante íntimos delas. No século XVII, por exemplo, o poeta inglês John Dryden zombou em versos de um dramaturgo adversário por seu vício em ópio – um “remédio” que o crítico Dr. Johnson, na mesma época, também usava. Os românticos ingleses Keats, Byron e Shelley foram consumidores ocasionais do láudano – ao passo que seu colega Samuel Coleridge viciou-se realmente, de 1790 até sua morte, em 1834. Seu poema Kubla Khan, de 1816, é antecedido de uma nota que revela como “um sono induzido por droga” levou à composição. Na Alemanha, o poeta Novalis (1772-1801), apreciador do ópio, especulava filosoficamente sobre seu uso na criação de “um novo corpo”. E até o extraordinário Goethe, uma das maiores figuras do século XVIII, pode ter dado um tapinha no haxixe – segundo um manuscrito descoberto recentemente na Áustria.

Marcus Boon também discute casos pouco explorados do período “pós-De Quincey”. Um dos mais interessantes é o do francês Marcel Proust, autor de Em Busca do Tempo Perdido, um monumento literário modernista. Acometido de asma e problemas do sono, desde a adolescência ele tomou coquetéis que incluíam barbitúricos, ópio, morfina, heroína e éter. Embora louve a maneira como Proust refletiu, por exemplo, sobre o problema da percepção do tempo, a crítica até hoje negligencia o fato de que seu corpo “estava sempre inundado de substâncias que produzem exatamente as reações cognitivas descritas em seus livros”. Outro exemplo curioso é o do filósofo Jean-Paul Sartre. Nos anos 50, ele se entupia de anfetaminas. Isso resultou num estilo palavroso e desordenado de escrita, e em obras virtualmente impenetráveis como Crítica da Razão Dialética e Saint Genet. Além desses estimulantes, Sartre também fez uso de um psicodélico, a mescalina. Seus colegas pensadores Martin Heidegger e Michel Foucault o imitaram nesse ponto, embora tenham preferido o LSD.

Segundo Marcus Boon, drogas diferentes produziram diferentes efeitos literários. Narcóticos como o ópio deram origem a uma espécie de gnosticismo – a crença de que o homem está preso num mundo corrompido, e de que a droga proporcionaria o vislumbre de um outro universo, autêntico, onde reside a verdade. O haxixe engendrou utopias de transformação social. Os psicodélicos ficaram associados a experiências esotéricas. Já os estimulantes, como a cocaína, são as drogas menos ligadas a idéias de transcendência ou espiritualidade. Desde cedo, elas foram tão-somente “ferramentas de trabalho” – a imagem clássica é a do beat Jack Kerouac ligadíssimo, datilografando dia e noite o romance Na Estrada num rolo de papel de parede. O poeta inglês W.H. Auden era outro que recorria a anfetaminas para trabalhar. Mas, nesse campo, ninguém bate o escritor de ficção científica Philip K. Dick, autor de Minority Report. Ele estava em permanente excitação química. Os estimulantes parecem ter-lhe sugerido vários personagens que são homens-máquina – e alguns que não sabem se são deuses ou aleijões.

Em momento nenhum Marcus Boon defende o uso de drogas. Pelo contrário, ele combate a idéia de que elas conduzam a uma experiência estética. Criada pelos românticos, e associada depois aos temas da rebeldia e da transgressão, essa idéia seria responsável por boa parte da mística em torno dos tóxicos. De fato, a leitura de The Road of Excess faz duvidar muito da capacidade das drogas de transformar alguém em artista. De Paraísos Artificiais, de Baudelaire, a Trainspotting, do escocês Irvine Welsh, passando por Uivo, do beat Allen Ginsberg, escritores chapados produziram alguns bons textos, mas nenhuma obra-prima – a menos que se queira creditar toda a produção de Proust ao éter ou à morfina. Mais ainda. “Desde 1950 não há avanços na literatura sobre narcóticos”, escreve Boon. “Os mesmos relatos confessionais de vício e desintoxicação continuam sendo escritos. Os ambientes são diferentes, mas a história é a mesma: prazer, sofrimento, redenção ou perda.” Como diria o doidíssimo William Burroughs, no fundo “nunca acontece nada no mundo das drogas”.

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.

Christian Bök Interviews Marcus Boon

A interview with Christian Bök on The Road of Excess for YorkU Magazine that was originally published in print in 2003.

CB:  The Road of Excess discusses the literary heritage of numerous coteries inspired by at least one of five  pharmaceuticals: narcotizing drugs (like junk), anaesthetic drugs (like huff), cannabinoid drugs (like hash), stimulating drugs (like coke), and psychedelic drugs (like acid). Your research almost implies that each drug corresponds to a different style of writing. Does each drug induce its own “poetics” in the writing of the user? How might you characterize each of these chemically fabricated styles?

MB: You’re right that it’s possible to tease out a “poetics” for each class of drugs, although my goal was broader than that – namely, to describe the totality of relationships between specific classes of drugs and writers.  This would also include the effect on the lives of writers (and readers), the kinds of stories that were circulated about either the drug or the writer and so on, and the degree to which literary descriptions became part of scientific knowledge or history.  As for the details of a pharmako-poetics specific to each group of drugs, I would say that with opiates tend to produce writing that is fragmentary, arbitrarily ordered, arrogant, narcissistic and fascinated by destruction; anesthetics users often produce transcendental philosophical ruminations on their experiences and attempt to write down the “secret of the universe” at the moment of re-entering daily life; cannabis texts often take the form of short stories concerned with the blurred line between the dream world and the real world; stimulant-influenced literature is often composed of euphoric, long, single sentence or paragraph rants, again with a narcissistic twist to them, and an obsession with death and machinery; psychedelics in general make writing very difficult, and tend to produce religious/philosophical texts that question the established patterns of language and knowledge by which we orient ourselves in the universe.

CB:  The Road of Excess almost seems to imply that writing constitutes a use of drugs by other means. Does writing merely record psychoactive experiences, thereby piquing the curiosity of the reader who then goes on to try the drug? Or does writing in effect try to induce these psychoactive experiences, thereby slaking the curiosity of the reader who now has no need to use the drug? Do writers get addicted to their own literary delirium?

MB: All of the above, and more, I’m sure!  Especially in the case of opiates, writers often decide to write about their experiences and/or addictions as a way of escaping addiction.  By writing, they attempt to create a new self that stands outside the machinery of addiction.  Before 1800, writers like Samuel Johnson took opium and apparently found nothing worthy of writing about there.  That changed with De Quincey.  Since the Romantics, writers, readers and drug users have all had an interest in achieving altered states of consciousness through the media of pen and paper, printed word and certain chemicals.  So there’s an overlap in terms of the goals of writers and drug users.  For me, the big question is: what does it say about the modern world that books and chemicals have become the most prestigious ways of attaining such altered states?

CB:  William Gibson has remarked in a recent weblog that “writers  who imagine [that] they ‘use drugs to write’ really only manage to write in spite of the drugs [that] they use.” How might your own research endorse or dispute this hypothesis formulated by a writer famous in part for repeatedly portraying his own futuristic underworld of imaginary narcotics.

MB: This is a variation of the old chestnut “do drugs make people write better?”  My own belief is that first of all, we have to affirm that almost every human being throughout history has taken some form of drug, whether it be tea, cigarettes, beer, wine, anti-depressants or LSD.  Thus it is difficult to say that there is any aspect of the history of literature which is not at least peripherally connected to the history of drugs.  I don’t believe there’s such a thing as pure literary inspiration – there are always mediating factors, and drugs, along with childhood experiences, nature, the whole social world, act as mediators that influence writers in their literary efforts.  To say that they were solely responsible for a particular book would be absurd.  To say that they were wholly absent would be equally absurd.  So, the question we have to ask is: “what kind of effects do different, specific substances have on writing?”  And my book is an effort to begin to answer that question.

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.