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The Buzz: Writing About, and On, Drugs

Jeremy Townley

Marcus Boon
The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs
Harvard University Press, 2002
339 pages

What casual reader knew Yeats was a hash smoker? Who would have guessed Proust had a penchant for opium? Maybe Sartre’s mad, tangential ramblings betray the fact that he was a speed freak; but who knew he indulged, on occasion, in mescaline hallucinations? Marcus Boon’s new critical study The Road of Excess documents these trips as well as those of the usual suspects of ‘Drug Lit’: De Quincey and Coleridge, Baudelaire and Michaux, Burrows and Kerouac, Phillip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe.

In lucid, energetic prose, Boon captivates us with the history of ‘literary’ substance (ab)use, describing, ‘for the first time, the history of the connection between writers and drugs’. He is able to uncover historical obscurities and untangle theoretical arguments with poise and eloquence. Boon’s tone, often healthily sceptical of the very literature he is implicitly legitimising, reveals more often an enthusiast’s exuberance. He can be coy, too: ‘In the process of writing this book I have been asked numerous times how much “research” I have done’, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Boon is not particularly interested in writers who used drugs merely as literary conventions, symbolic, metaphorical, or allegorical. Rather, he documents those writers who, through personal experimentation and literary description, have shaped our understanding of what ‘drugs’ are. He is after the users and their testimonies, which come in a variety of forms. In this regard, the book’s subtitle is misleading. Excess is less ‘A History of Writers on Drugs’ than several interdependent histories of drugs, with sources primarily though not exclusively consisting of writers who used. Each of the book’s five chapters explores the chronological history of a particular category of drug and its literary manifestations. The categories examined are narcotics, anaesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics. (The absence of a chapter on depressants, such as alcohol, is notable, though inclusion might have pushed Excess over the edge.) Boon is committed to differentiation: ‘The notion that all drugs are the same … continues to fuel the fantasies … that dominate contemporary society’s treatment of drug users and drugs themselves’.

It’s clear from his massive bibliography and hundreds of footnotes that this is serious scholarship. Some of his evidence is painfully obscure even for those heavily addicted to Naked Luncheons and amphetamine-driven sci-fi dystopias. Trained in comparative literature, Boon has sifted through slews of texts in English, German, and Romance languages. Frequently, however, the dearth of writing on a particular drug or category of drug creates problematic imbalances. Perhaps because the psychedelic experience does not lend itself to textual description, not much has been written about it, literarily speaking. So Boon makes an unfortunate stretch. Based upon ‘drug knowledge’ he believes Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson picked up in his reading, Boon posits a ‘far-out’, though unlikely, theory about the Alice books. They are, he asserts, projections of the psychedelic’s hallucinatory logic onto a child’s imagination. Boon’s argument is interesting but not convincing. Moreover, in the anaesthetics chapter, Boon gives equal weight to William James’ nitrous-oxide induced refutation of Hegelian dialectics and yoga guru Marcia Moore’s ketamine-fuelled lunacies. These incidents are hardly isolated; the author all too frequently fails to discriminate, fuelling his own fantasies. What, to Boon, is literature?

All ‘scientific texts about drugs’, the author contends in the Prologue, ‘are “literary” to some degree’. Such a statement, though hard to swallow, prepares the reader for the masses of medico-legal texts Boon analyses, from abstruse chemistry dissertations to legal briefs to psychological reports. Nonetheless, he tries to make use of such information only to construct the socio-historical contexts within which he can deal with more traditionally-defined literature, including poems, stories, novels, philosophical treatises, and memoirs. Boon’s explanation for his methodology is convoluted: ‘I have mixed “high” and “low” cultural texts as I see fit’, he avows. Yet, somehow, simultaneously, ‘I have confined myself to … works believed by those who read them to have a marked aesthetic value’. This is egregious self-contradiction. Surely we can’t be expected to believe that anyone considers Iceberg Slim’s gangsta memoir Pimp: The Story of My Life a work of literary cultivation.

If grasping the ‘literary’ in Boon’s account is often a slippery affair, the same is true for ‘drugs’. The latter’s mutability, not unlike the former’s, is a result of both historic and contemporary cultural ambivalence, a point the author drives home. Drugs, for Boon’s purposes, are both legally proscribed substances and all agents which exert ‘psychoactive’ effects on the mind and body. These definitions – one legal, the other physiological – are admittedly problematic. As Boon demonstrates, the legal, medical, and social attitudes to practically any given substance shift over time according to breakthroughs in scientific research and the whims of politicians.

While Boon avoids dwelling on the deleterious effect drug use and addiction have had on myriad writers’ relationships, financial standing, and health, he equally avoids romanticising controlled substances – though, undoubtedly, Excess will be misread by many along just such lines. Another possible mistake is to claim that the whole topic of drugs and literature is unworthy of serious scholarship or criticism. In the New Yorker, John Lanchester contends, ‘When you take a broad overview of what has been written about drugs, you can’t resist the conclusion that it doesn’t add up to much’. He’s wrong, of course. From Baudelaire’s Les Paradis artificiels to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there are lots of great books – exploring gnosis and transcendence, social repression and personal liberation – about drugs, and by writers on drugs. The real accomplishment of Excess, however, is not in assembling a canon of Drug Lit. The book’s strength lies in its attempt to chart, in literary terms, why we have come to think about psychoactive substances in the ways we do. Boon vigorously lays a critical foundation from which to consider the connections among drugs, drug use, and creativity. Even more importantly, Excess works to demystify – or, at least, to challenge – our conventionally narrow conceptions of literary genius: ‘The important thing to understand here is creativity, its source and its power’. Whatever its flaws, Excess asks us to reconsider how we think about creativity and the human imagination.

That alone is enough to give anyone a buzz.

Jeremy Townley is a postgraduate at University College, Oxford. His interests include cosmopolitan literature in English, literature of the Americas, and critical theory. He is a caffeine addict.