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The Road of Excess: A History of Writers

by Marcus Boon
320 pages,
ISBN: 0674009142


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Writing Under the Influence
by Gordon Phinn

You might not know it, as you go about your daily business as an honest and upstanding citizen of the state, but indulging in and singing the praises of intoxicating plants, herbs and liquors has been one of mankind's favourite occupations. While it is only in the last twenty decades or so that our educated scribes have been furiously scribbling their schematics of bliss, the tribes down through the ages have rarely refrained from their holy frenzies. Whether partaking of some Bacchic or Dionysian agitation, absorbing the mysteries either Eleusian or Rosicrucian, or journeying shamanically through the nether regions of nature and spirit, men and women from every era have pushed at the envelope of normal consciousness with an uncommon zest.
Ancient cave scrapings in southern Algeria depict numbers of dancing fools, hands clasping mushrooms, and that unmistakable shimmy of ecstasy in the eyes. The nomadic peoples credited with this late neolithic artwork lived in the area, it is estimated, between seven and twenty thousand years ago. Whether the fungi pictured are the forerunners of Soma, the fabled concoction of the 3,000+ year old Hindu Vedas, is a matter for the scholars, but the Rig Veda, a collection of a hundred or so hymns to Soma, is undoubtedly the first written paean to intoxicated transcendence to survive: "Thy juices, purified Soma, all-pervading, swift as thought, go of themselves like the offspring of swift mares, the celestial well-winged sweet flavoured juices, great exciters of exhilaration, alight upon the receptacle."
Connoisseurs of high society will immediately recognize a certain tone, one that is often tolled by writers on, what Marcus Boon likes to call, The Road Of Excess. That was certainly the path of one Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose literary achievements can, it would appear, only be equalled by his relentless quest for drugged adventure. On top of his noted dependence on various over-the-counter opiated beverages, the poet of Kubla Khan was not unfamiliar with bhang, hashish, or nitrous oxide, some of which were consumed in an atmosphere of jovial experimentation with friends and colleagues, both scientific and literary. These were not doomed romantics, gamely flailing against soulless modern society in dingy damp rooms, but brave explorer boys, trying to map the antipodes of consciousness to see where reigning philosopher kings like Kant could be followed and maybe faulted.
Invited by letter, with his friend Robert Southey, to try out the new gas at Humphrey Davy's research facility just outside Bristol, the writers duly arrived, ready to party. Surprisingly, it's the discoverer's impressions which remain the most vivid: "I felt a sense of tangible extension, highly pleasurable in every limb, my visible impressions were dazzling...I heard distinctly every sound in the room....by degrees I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel...I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake 'Nothing exists but thoughts! The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!'" Even more remarkable experiences are detailed in his unpublished notebooks of the period, but we'll get to that later.
For now we'll wonder who would have guessed that such ecstatic reverberations would have linked the worlds of 18th century science and 20th century urban shamanism? I had my suspicions, but when I discovered here that a group of 19th century French psychiatrists had taken a lively interest in the therapeutic uses of hashish, probably eased into the country by Napoleon's famous swipe at Egypt, thinking it capable of mimicking the altered states experienced by the chaotically unstable citizens under their command I was taken aback, for this is precisely what Timothy Leary and his merry men attempted in the early messianic days of LSD therapy. Of such fascinating additions to the patchwork quilt of fringe cultural history is Mr. Boon's work made up. With seemingly encyclopaedic and virtually impeccable research, not to mention a bibliography to die for, he conveys the delighted reader through the labyrinths of phantasmagoria and elaborate paranoia digested and duly noted by that seemingly inexhaustible team of high flyers that populate our literary pantheon.
Boon's suggestion, that "the transcendental impulse, the desire to go beyond matter and mind and experience the whole, forms one of the principal reasons that people take drugs," is well taken. We are always trying to get out of ourselves, it would seem. And in our efforts we will use every conceivable concoction to do so. We will smoke, sniff, swallow, rub and inject. We will dabble and deal and wallow. We will do everything, it seems, but stop. The projected palace of wisdom, ever the haven in our paths of dutiful overindulgence, continues to stretch, mirage-like, slightly above and ahead of its seekers. And if they arrive, they find their blissful visit almost indescribable and usually, despite the requisite immersion in eternity, soon over, their fuel soon depleted and their body complaining. Some drugs quicken, some deaden; some expand the consciousness, some contract; some lead to an experience of luxurious profusion, others to a desolate emptiness. Perhaps all are versions of the same palace, modeled on different assumptions and constructed from the variable economies of language.
Who's really to know, when you're out there in space cadet munchkinland, with everything glowing and vibrating and talking at the same time? Some would say that to speak of the ineffable is to profane it. The mysteries, they say, are for the few not the many. And perhaps they are right; transcendence is not for the common man, especially if we are to keep him kicking in the economy, but writers and artists, slackers to the max, have always been adepts at skipping the queue and becoming the select who explore and map the scintillating chaos ingestion releases. They will neither take no for an answer nor moderation as an operating manual. Of the rugged explorers Boon quotes, and there are many, there are few who did not flood themselves with fabulous sensation.
Jean Paul Sartre, lord of the post-war undergraduate growing pains, gobbled amphetamines for breakfast, lunch and dinner as he carved his many weighty titles, cramming in downers to relax and sleeping pills to escape, yet few would call the Critique of Dialectical Reason the ravings of a stoner. But addicted he was, as deep in the rush as Kerouac and Ginsberg across the pond. As he said to Simone de Beauvoir, "While I was working, after taking ten corydanes in the morning, my state was one of complete bodily surrender. I perceived myself through the motion of my pen, my forming images and ideas." The down side, as Boon notes, of excessive stimulant use, is an infatuation with the very speed and flow of words which leads to loss of control "over the size and scope of his later projects, which are often large but incomplete (i.e. the five-volume life of Flaubert), with ideas proliferating without reaching closure or conclusion." Certainly all the Beats suffered from this type of hyper-ventilating: they may have justified it as a fusion of "jazz and Buddhist aesthetics" but the jam sessions end up as often in the emptiness of boredom as the void of bliss.
Of course, in such ecstatic dissolutions of identity, it is often difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to differentiate one from another. As Paul Simon once memorably sang "One man's ceiling is another man's floor." If heaven can indeed be discovered in a grain of sand and all eternity in one hour, it would appear that the base camp of rationality is the morse code of those condemned to three dimensions. Such morose speculations would seem inevitable in this world of self-medicating mysticism, and as each class of drug spawns its own brand of awareness, it boasts of yet another brave new world to be infiltrated, and secretes new metaphors as models of system management.
The metaphor of technology: Employing Heidegger's definition of the word, Boon suggests that all drugs are "technologies" because "they posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them." Thus we can speak of the opiates as "technologies of pleasure, cannabis as a technology of dreaming, and anesthetics as technologies of transcendence." The metaphor of speed, quoting Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: "All drugs fundamentally concern speeds, and modifications of speed." The metaphor of disembodied dictation, where with a variety of stimulants, including opium, which was thus considered until De Quincy, "the writer's body disappears as his mental faculties accelerate and the paper covers itself with ink." The metaphor of need/control, defined by William Burroughs as the "algebra of need", centred in the human body inside, where desire is birthed and baited by the economic structure outside, which thrives on control. The metaphor of excess, which Boon works over as a kind of uber-metaphor, a psychic umbrella which keeps the cosmic miscreants safe from the rain of boredom and restraint.
The author explores each of these models with what can only be described as exhaustive aplomb. No stone is left unturned in his quest as to "why literature and drugs came to be associated." As an ethnographer "studying how a society came came to believe certain things" he sees that "the histories of religion, literature and science all intersect in the production of the artifact of the writer on drugs." From Sir Walter Scott to Michel Foucault the pantheon expands and contracts, depending on mood and its concomitant modifiers.
One feels a bond of gratitude to Mr. Boon for carefully composing what is tantamount to a reviewer's dream: a scrupulously researched and splendidly written tome that is a joy to read and a challenge to digest, and leaving just enough loose ends for the amazed commentator to be critically constructive.
While it might have ballooned this trim exercise in source and exposition into the kind of unwieldy door stopper professors are justly famous for, his extrapolations of the altered state repeatedly abut onto two other areas of anomalous experience, those of channeling and out-of-body experience. As he notes, "Kubla Khan gave first expression to one of the fundamental tropes of literary drug use, that of dictation: the sense that thoughts are being dictated by some unknown agency without conscious effort." This is as precise a description of the compositional mechanism behind 'channeling' as one could ask for, and yet Boon avoids comparisons. Also comments that the field which "most resembles the literature of anesthetics [documented effects of Nitrous Oxide, laughing gas, etc] is that of near death experiences" beg for expansion. Ditto for out-of-body travel. If this sounds like reaching, consider for a moment the notebooks of Humphrey Davy, the discoverer of nitrous oxide, edited by Molly Lefebure, where he describes "experiences of interplanetary space travel, in the course of which, as he flew or floated amongst heavenly universes, he encountered all manner of incredibly strange beings."
Hallucination one might be tempted to harrumph, but as Boon elsewhere comments on the phenomenological problems posed by psychedelics, "In the hallucination the only thing that is not supposed to happen to materialist consciousness happens: one sees that for which there is no sensory data." And although this exemplary study employs that same sensory data to illustrate the exquisite traumas of writerly transcendence, it provokes the reader to realms where such data are superfluous. Only this world is limned in language.

Gordon Phinn is a writer whose works are vivified, in the main, by the convivial cult of caffeine.
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