Drugs, addiction and literature

by on Wednesday, 30 December 2009 Comments

It is now common place to link drugs to the world of Arts and Literature.From the 19th century onwards, many writers have taken over the subject to describe either its psychical or physical effects. French poet Baudelaire published an essay on hashish and opium in Les Paradis artificiels (Artificial Paradises, 1860) inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In the mid-20th century, writers from the Beat Generation in the US put the use and the experimentation of drugs at the center of their works, as for example with William Burroughs’ novels Junky and The Naked Lunch. Since then, the subject has also been exploited abundantly by film directors who have adapted novels such as Requiem for a Dream realised in 2000 by Darren Aronofsky from the eponymous novel by Hubert Selby Jr. published in 1978.

 
It is certainly very difficult and maybe impossible to objectively assert or analyse the relation between the taking of drugs and creativity, although many writers have evoked their own use of hallucinogenous substances to stimulate their imagination. Indeed, the use of drugs is known for its power of transgression, of modifying the perceptions and also sometimes making the body and the mind more efficient and productive. Drugs could tally with the fantasy of a creator who would not need to sleep or stop in order to achieve his work. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was reported to having used mescaline and amphetamines by his companion Simone de Beauvoir (in The prime of life); he would have injected himself with mescaline while writing L’Imaginaire because he wanted to study and observe the process of hallucinations while being himself the subject of these visions. In fact, apparently Sartre was also distinguishing different uses for different drugs: he would take mescaline when writing literary works while he would take amphetamines for philosophical works. Pascal Nouvel, the author of Histoire des amphetamines (The History of Amphetamines, 2009) recalls that Sartre would have written La critique de la raison dialectique under the influence of amphetamines as apparently, for him, philosophy was the development of an idea that he already had; then the amphetamines would help him to produce more energy in order to develop this idea when mescaline would be more reserved for the stimulation of creation. Pascal Nouvel also quotes another original use of amphetamines by science fiction author Philip K. Dick. The latter took these drugs to reach a state of paranoia (also called ‘amphetaminic psychosis’) which would inspire him to reproduce this atmosphere of fear and paranoia in his novels.

 

These alterations and modifications of perception once under the influence of a drug are described by Baudelaire in his essay on hashish and opium, Les Paradis artificiels. In the first part of the book entitled “le Poeme du hashish”, he relates his own experience of hashish; in the second part of the book, named “the Opium Eater”, he analyses the book written by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), a British writer who related his addiction to opium. Baudelaire describes precisely the different steps of his intoxication, starting with the physical symptoms and the behaviour changes which result. And Baudelaire mentions a hallucinatory phase which he himself compares to poetic analogies, when the senses seem to take a more distinct power:

“It is, in fact, at this period of the intoxication that is manifested a new delicacy, a superior sharpness in each of the senses: smell, sight, hearing, touch join equally in this onward march; the eyes behold the Infinite; the ear perceives almost inaudible sounds in the midst of the most tremendous tumult. It is then that the hallucinations begin; external objects take on wholly and successively most strange appearances; they are deformed and transformed. […]The enthusiast eye of the hashish drunkard will see strange forms, but before they were strange and monstrous these forms were simple and natural. The energy, the almost speaking liveliness of hallucination in this form of intoxication in no way invalidates this original difference: the one has root in the situation, and, at the present time, the other has not." (’The Theater of Seraphim’, Chap.3, translation by Aleister Crowley, 1895)

But the final judgment of Baudelaire is not positive: after the acme of the drug’s influence, there is the ‘comedown’ which he qualifies as “terrible”:

“But the morrow; the terrible morrow! All the organs relaxed, tired; the nerves unstretched, the teasing tendency to tears, the impossibility of applying yourself to a continuous task, teach you cruelly that you have been playing a forbidden game. Hideous nature, stripped of its illumination of the previous evening, resembles the melancholy ruins of a festival. The will, the most precious of all faculties, is above all attacked. They say, and it is nearly true, that this substance does not cause any physical ill; or at least no grave one; but can one affirm that a man incapable of action and fit only for dreaming is really in good health, even when every part of him functions perfectly?“ (’The Moral’, Chap.5)

At the end, Baudelaire condemns this drug because it forces one to abdicate their will and takes away the control of one’s thoughts. Drugs may be a way to reach a certain ideal and to increase one’s imagination but this ideal remains “artificial”, “fake” as the creator should be the master of its own creation and realisation.

Here we can suggest an approach to the definition of addiction. If drugs usage is necessarily a transformation of oneself which is not necessarily a bad experience in itself, the negative ontological effect of using drugs could rely on its potential addictive power, as addiction would be the dissociation of the subject from its autonomy through the alteration and the submission of oneself. Heir of the Beat Generation, Hubert Selby Jr. describes in a very striking way the mechanism of addiction in his novel Requiem for a Dream. The book follows the four seasons of one year to depict the relentless decay of the four main characters: Sara, the mother of Harry, his girlfriend Marion and his best friend Tyrone. The latter are all young heroin users. The addiction of Harry is evoked since the very first pages of the book: in order to get money to go buy drugs, he has established a ritual during which he takes his mother’s television set to the pawn shop where Sara has to re-buy it. It is summer; Sara is a widow who spends her days watching the same television show and eating chocolates. She receives a phone call which announces to her that she may participate in the television show. She becomes obsessed with her appearance as she wants to wear a special red dress on the day of the show and, in order to slim fast, she starts a regimen of amphetaminic diet-pills. It is probably in the middle of the book that the reader becomes conscious of Sara’s addiction when she calls her doctor’s office to complain that she doesn’t feel the effects of the pills, then after the physical addiction comes the mental one almost inevitably follows.

All characters share the same craving for an ideal of happiness which they see as attainable at first. The youngsters have entrepreneurial dreams which define their ideal of success while Sara dreams of seeing herself on television. Harry’s leitmotiv is that there is never anything to worry about: whether it’s when they do not find their dose, when they get into trouble, when he recognizes his mother’s addiction she’s unwilling to admit it etc. But their passivity is what also condemns them; all four are waiting: Sara for the confirmation letter from the television show, the three kids for the stroke of luck which will decide their future. Their will is totally annihilated by the use of drugs and their habits, the automatism of their daily lives which is symbolized by the television set. Whether it is to relax after taking drugs or to feed one’s fantasies, the television is the symbol of this artificial paradise created by addiction. Actually, the author doesn’t only relate the addiction to drugs, he tells more the story of people who have renounced their will and, somehow, their ability of living together and acting their own lives. All their addictions could be exchangeable (Sara for example exchanges her bulimia for anorexia); the drugs are the means and the symptoms of the characters’ meaningless life, which reinforce somehow the idea that anything can be an object of addiction.

So one cannot say that literature, or art, have participated in normalizing the use of drugs as one can see that drug usage and addiction, whether the actor or the object of the writings, belong first to the social sphere: literature and philosophy might be able to help put into words the ‘language of drugs and addiction’ but it is also a matter of knowing what kind of society we want, how we want to consider the margins of our society, if we want to stigmatize them or to help the distressed instead.
 
 

Read a study on cocaine (in French)

 
 
 
 
 

 


Additional information
There is no doubt that rehabs for drug addiction can help treat drug addicted people from all walks of life.
 
Cerise Phiv (張俐紫)

Former Managing Editor of eRenlai.com

前e人籟執行主編

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