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The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs

by Marcus Boon
Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard, 2002
ISBN 0-674-00914-2. $29.95

Reviewed by George Gessert


As an art student I learned to use oils, acrylics, vodka, marijuana, and mescaline. I also tried video and morning glory seeds. My education in art was partly an education in drugs, which was rather common in the 1960s, and probably is even more common today. What is the significance of drug use among artists? According to Marcus Boon in The Road of Excess, visual artists, writers and musicians, by experimenting with drugs and by recording and reflecting on drug experiences, have aligned drugs with scientific-materialistic culture in such a way that they have become indispensible to its functioning.

The word "drugs" has several meanings, two of which are important in The Road of Excess. Drugs can mean illegal consciousness-altering substances. According to this marijuana is a drug, but tobacco is not. A second, less politically-circumscribed meaning is substances that people take to alter consciousness, irrespective of legal status. Boon recognizes both meanings of the word. His primary concern, however, is not politics, but the effects of consciousness-altering substances on writing and culture. In this review, I will use the word drugs in the broad sense.

According to Boon, modern constructs of drug use began in late 18th century Germany. German romanticism was a rebellion against scientific-materialistic culture, but a rebellion rooted in the belief system it rejected. A key feature of German romanticism was search for transcendence without resort to traditional religion. Novalis, who had tuberculosis and used opium medicinally, came to believe that sickness and opium, which arose from nature, could lead the soul beyond nature. "All sicknesses resemble sin in that they are transcendences," he wrote. He associated his own sickness with "excess sensibility", or extravagent soulfulness which, like opium, was a way of becoming God, hence a sin.However, sickness and opium use were also ways of perceiving the world anew.This interpretation of drug experience, as a material path that partakes of sin and death, but transforms perceptions, and can renew life, has been with us in one form or another ever since.

Novalis sought a realm beyond nature. English romanticism tended to be less idealistic, having arisen as much in reaction to the horrors of industrialism as to philosophical materialism. However, in Britain drugs answered many of the same needs as in Germany. De Quincy tried opium because he suffered from neuralgia, one of those vague 19th century afflictions that may or may not have been psychosomatic. The drug relieved his symptoms, but also produced sublime visions, which he found irresistable. In Confessions of an English Opium Eater he evokes the German romantics, and presents opium as a gateway to hells and paradises free of the theological trappings of institutional religion. De Quincy also used opium to enhance the pleasures of music and social life, but even his recreational use partook of the sublime, because of extreme highs and lows, and addiction.

During the 19th century many writers and artists experimented with opium, and after 1840 with hashish, and coca. Boon mentions Coleridge, Delacroix, Daumier, Sir Walter Scott, Poe, Baudelaire, Balzac, Alexandre
Dumas, Rimbaud, Conrad Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Yeats, among many others. Opium and hashish not only tied romanticism to science, but spanned Europe and its colonies, infusing into Western consciousness molecules of the mysterious East. Records of opium and hashish dreams during this period are overrun with Orientalist imagery.

Science added to the possibilities. By 1850 surgery and dental work often involved laboratory-derived anaesthetics. Emerson established the Transcedentalist position on anaesthetics (and all drugs), as "quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar", but when Oliver Wendell
Holmes experienced chloroform on a visit to his dentist, he was thrilled by the philosophical possibilities. Thoreau and Margaret Fuller also had chloroform experiences, but were more circumspect. Other writers explored ether, and William James considered nitrous oxide a door to the Hegelian absolute. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James wrote "Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man."

Most nineteenth century writers conceptualized drug experience as travel through exotic and dangerous realms. Such travel was only for people outside of ordinary life: the desperately poor, the sick, aristocrats, and artists. The height of Western opium culture was in early 20th century Paris. Among the smokers were Debussy, Satie, Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Colette, Proust, and the young Picasso. According to Boon, this was a culture devoted to "pleasure, passivity, control, measure," whose core values were 19th century. World War I was the watershed. It put an end to the aesthetization of opium and other drugs, and brought the contemporary legal-medical apparatus into play. Prohibition in one form or another has been with us
ever since.

After World War I, a culture devoted to power, speed, and death emerged. Its drugs, such as morphine and heroin, were stronger than opium, darker, and more dangerous. The image of the drug user as an aristocrat or aesthete was replaced by new stereotypes: innocents seduced and ruined, evil Orientals, potent blacks, human parasites, zombies. Drugs became weapons in race and class wars, yet the typical addict in the 1920s remained the same as in the 19th century, a middle-aged or elderly person who had become
habituated in the course of medical use. Boon writes that "There has been no major advance in the narcotic literature [writing about opium and its derivatives] since the 1950s - or even the 1930s ... [because] ... the situation of addicts is roughly the same as it has been since World War I."

Boon divides drugs into five major categories: narcotics, that is, opium and its derivatives; anesthetics, such as ether and sodium pentathol; cannabis, especially marijuana and hashish; stimulants, which include coca, cocaine, crack, caffeine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines; and psychedelics, which include peyote, LSD, psilosybin, DMT, and in certain circumstances hashish and opium. Some artists specialize. Paul Bowles and Louis Armstrong favored cannabis, while Jules Verne, Ibsen, Zola, Victor Hugo, and Rodin preferred coca. However, many artists use a variety of drugs. For example, Proust used ether, belladonna, aconite, opium, morphine, heroin, barbituates, caffeine, and injections of adrenhalin. (We don’t know
what was in that madeleine.)

Many writers create under the influence. Kerouac wrote Mexico City Blues and Doctor Sax on marijuana, and On the Road on benzedrine. Ginsburg wrote the second half of Howl on peyote. Sartre took barbituates, caffeine, and corydrane (a mixture of amphetamine and aspirin), and wrote The Critique of Dialectical Reason "under the effects of contradictory drugs." In 1963 and 1964 Philip Dick wrote eleven novels while on Semoxydrine, a methamphetamine. One of these, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, is among Dick’s most powerful works. W. H. Auden used benezdrine every day for twenty years, beginning in 1938. Voltaire is said to have consumed 72 cups of coffee a day, but the first writer to fully exploit caffeine was Balzac. He recognized that to make a living from writing, quantity of words was at least as important as quality. Coffee fosters relentless production through what Boon calls "technologically assisted dictation". Balzac reportedly consumed 50,000 cups over his lifetime and apparently used coffee to write almost all of his works. Coffee brings up a question: why ask which works of literature were created under the influence of drugs? Isn’t the more relevant question: which works were not created under the influence? The list might be short, at least after World War II. I should say that I’m writing this review on Mountain Dew, a mixture of caffeine and refined sugar.

Although the literature of drugs contains many instances of nonmaterial transcendence, the imagery and techniques of what Boon calls "chemically configured" writing tends to favor a purely material outlook. What drugs offer is not escape from matter, but control, reevaluation, and reconciliation. Drugs achieve this by dissolving rigid or overly simple ways of organizing experience, and by flooding consciousness with new constructs (or, in the case of anesthetics like sodium pentathol, by revealing the nonexistence that coexists with the flow of consciousness.) This may explain why many mammals and birds seek intoxication: new ways of looking at things sometimes improve the odds.

Today people take drugs not only to experience extraordinary states of consciousness, but to feel normal. Prozac is only one of a host of consciousness-smoothers. I read in the newspaper recently that an epidemic of depression is sweeping the world, costing billions in lost productivity every quarter, so antidepressents may be the wave of the future. Boon speculates little about the future, although he mentions Brave New World, A Scanner Darkly, and The Three Stimata of Palmer Eldrich, all of which envision societies shaped by drugs. He might have added Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, in which an invisible world government dispenses drugs through air and water to create mass hallucinations of everything from food and social mobility, to free choice, and, for those rare souls who seek it, drug-free reality.

The Road of Excess contains a few errors. According to Boon the concept of addiction did not exist before the 19th century. However, addiction was well known much earlier in the East. Boon writes that recreational drug use was invented by DeQuincy, but in Europe and the Americas tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco were well-established as recreational drugs long before the 19th century. The Road of Excess might have been strengthened with a discussion of the British opium trade, which could have provided perspective on opium use in Europe. However, here Boon may have faced a choice between saying almost nothing, and writing another book, given the enormity of British crimes in Asia, and their unfamiliarity to most readers. Fortunately these omissions and errors do not compromise The Road of Excess as a whole. This is an important book about the role of drugs in our culture. The Road
of Excess is also quietly hopeful. At least, that’s how I interpret Boon’s story of ongoing exploration, experimentation, and discovery.


Updated 1st May 2003

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