Drugs and Literature
Drugs and Literature
For thousands of years artists and writers have turned to intoxicants in the belief that these substances enhance their artistic abilities and output. Illicit drugs, including laudanum, opium, heroin, marijuana, mescaline, and LSD have held special appeal for certain writers wishing to expand the boundaries of their perception and of their work. Widely used as pain killers throughout Asia, Egypt, and South America, drugs such as opium and hashish were staples of early medical practice, and continued to play an important part in medicine around the world through the early twentieth century. Drugs were also commonly used in religious ceremonies because of their alleged ability to intensify the visionary experiences sought by the devout. Portrayals of drug use in literature can be traced back to the earliest examples of written stories; the classical Greek poet Homer depicts Helen of Troy using the opium derivative nepenthe as an antidote to her overwhelming grief. Opium and hashish became known to western Europe when medieval Christian Crusaders brought poppies and hemp plants back from the Middle East, Greece and Turkey. Western writers including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare mention drugs in their works. In the Romantic period of the early nineteenth century, a virtual explosion of drug use erupted among writers, a phenomenon perhaps most famously recorded by Thomas De Quincey in his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and John Keats all produced what many critics consider their best works while under the influence of opium and laudanum (a liquid form of opium commonly prescribed as a pain killer in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Nineteenth-century French writers such as Théophile Gautier, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire became known collectively as the Hashish Club because of their drug experiments, and the American poet and horror writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote of drug-induced hallucinations in some of his short stories. Although laudanum and morphine were frequently prescribed to women during this period for a variety of physical and perceived emotional ailments, and many women are known to have become addicts as a result of their medical treatment, women writers-with the notable exceptions of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all of whom were familiar with drugs and wrote of them-rarely wrote about drug use except in nonfiction criticizing the so-called cures then used to treat women's "illnesses." Such treatments were usually designed to keep the patient in a constant stupor. In the twentieth century, as debates raged in the United States and Europe over possible causes of and treatments for widespread drug addiction, writers sought new means of exploring what they considered different planes of reality, mostly through hallucinogenic drugs. Aldous Huxley maintained that religious ecstasy could be reached using hallucinogens, and he recorded his attempts to prove it in his book The Doors of Perception, which became an important inspiration for other writers trying to attain euphoria or conversion. Writers of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, influenced by Huxley and wishing to explore what they believed were untapped areas of the human mind, wrote of their own drug experimentation in Beat outposts in San Francisco and Mexico. Among the best-known writers of this era were William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe, and Ken Kesey, all of whom employed their drug use as a starting point for some of their best works. Timothy Leary, perhaps the most famous proponent of the use of LSD, also published accounts of some of his experiments with psychedelic substances. The hope that drug use can stimulate creativity and open new vistas for the imagination continues among many writers and artists; however, late twentieth-century literature also includes a number of cautionary tales about the dangers of addiction, which often end in destitution and death.
Les Fleurs du mal (poetry) 1857
Les Paradis artificiels [contains "Le Poème du haschisch" and "Un Mangeur d'opium"] (poetry) 1860
Entretiens, 1913-1952, avec André Parinaud (interviews) 1952
Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Christabel" (poetry) 1816
"Kubla Khan" (poetry) 1816
"The Pains of Sleep" (poetry) 1816
Thomas de Quincey
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (autobiography) 1822
Laughing Gas (drama) 1915
Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural (drama) 1916
"Club des Haschischins" (essay) 1846
Antic Hay (novel) 1923
The Doors of Perception (nonfiction) 1954
The Will to Believe (essays) 1897
Under the Volcano (novel) 1947
Cain's Book (novel) 1960
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (nonfiction) 1968
Meditations in Green (novel) 1983...
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SOURCE: "Drugs and Ecstacy," in Myth and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H. Long, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp. 327-42.
[In the following essay, Jünger examines the influence of drugs on personality and the portrayal of this influence in literature over several centuries.]
Qu'elle soit ramassée pour "le bien" ou pour "le mal," la mandragore est crainte et respectée comme une plante miraculeuse—En elle sont renfermées des forces extraordinaires, qui peuvent multiplier la vie ou donner la mort. En une certaine mesure donc, la mandragore est "l'herbe de la vie et de la mort."
Mircea Eliade, "Le culte de la mandragore en
Roumanie," Xalmoxis, 1938
The influence of drugs is ambivalent; they affect both action and contemplation, will and intuition. These two forces, which seemingly exclude each other, are often produced by the same means, as everyone knows who has ever observed a drinking party.
It is, however, questionable whether wine can be considered a drug in the strict sense of the word. Perhaps its original power has become domesticated in the course of millennia of use. We hear of its greater power, but also of its greater mystery, from myths in which Dionysus appears...
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Anuradha Dingwaney and Lawrence Needham
SOURCE: "A Sort of Previous Lubrication: DeQuincey's Preface to 'Confessions of An English Opium-Eater'," in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 71, No. 4, November, 1985, pp. 457-69.
[In the following essay, Dingwaney and Needham examine the "rhetorical strategies" of Thomas de Quincey's preface to his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.]
We shall endeavour to bring up our reader to the fence, and persuade him, if possible, to take a leap which still remains to be taken in this field of style. But, as we have reason to fear that he will "refuse" it, we shall wheel him round and bring him up to it from another quarter. A gentle touch of the spur may then perhaps carry him over. Let not the reader take it to heart that we here represent him under the figure of a horse, and ourselves in a nobler character as riding him, and that we even take the liberty of proposing to spur him. Anything may be borne in metaphor. . . . But no matter who takes the leap, or how; a leap there is which must be taken in the course of these speculations on style before the ground will be open for absolute advance.
De Quincey, "Style."
As a master prose stylist, Thomas De Quincey is most celebrated for the dream sequences of his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Suspiria de...
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A. Carl Bredahl
SOURCE: "An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's Acid Test," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter 1981-82, pp. 67-84.
[In the following essay, Bredahl evaluates the differences between Tom Wolfe and the Merry Pranksters he wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, noting that the Pranksters's rejection of the physical world as a hindrance to the development of perception, rather than a tool to aid in reaching a higher level of perception, was their downfall.]
Tom Wolfe's writing is the most vivid instance of the role of the journalist in American literature, a role that has played a major part in the development of twentieth-century prose fiction. Unfortunately, even Wolfe himself, in his introduction to The New Journalism (1973), seems content to distinguish his work from that of novelists and to look for influences in "examples of non-fiction written by reporters." He does not but should recognize that the novel is a dynamic form, that in the hands of such journalists as Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway the novel has developed in this century just as it did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the novel the imagination has always been concerned with particulars of a real world, a concern that has only been intensified in the twentieth century. The journalist, once depicted in literature as a mere observer...
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Haining, Peter, ed. The Hashish Club: An Anthology of Drug Literature. 2 vols. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1975, 406 p.
Includes excerpts from works of drug literature. Volume One covers "The Founding of the Modern Tradition: From Coleridge to Crowley," while Volume Two covers "The Psychedelic Era: From Huxley to Lennon."
Abrams, Meyer Howard. The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson, and Coleridge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934, 86 p.
Discusses the opium addiction of four major nineteenth-century English writers and its effects on their work.
Black, Donald C, M.D. "Doyle's Drug Doggerel." The Baker Street Journal 31, No. 2 (June 1981): 90-103.
Examines the marginal writings in Arthur Conan Doyle's medical school textbooks to elucidate the author's later depiction of drugs and poisons in his mystery writings.
Burress, Lee A. III. "Thoreau on Ether and Psychedelic Drugs." American Notes and Queries XII, No. 7 (March 1974): 99-100.
Brief note on Thoreau's familiarity with ether as a perception-altering substance and speculation of the author's possible response to the later popularity of drugs such as marijuana and LSD.
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