Drugs and Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.