Under the Influence
By Jason Sholl
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." So begins Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem "Howl." But it was never just his generation. Since the dawn of recorded history, creative individuals have sought inspiration through mind-altering substances. In Writing on Drugs, Sadie Plant sets out to show how drug users' agile fingers have left their prints all over the Western world.
The first half of Writing on Drugs is a literary history. Drug-inspired creativity is one of the writer's most cherished pieces of lore, and much of Plant's material isn't new. Hashish informed Charles Baudelaire's poetry, and mescaline Aldous Huxley's prose. Thomas De Quincey had a fondness for opium, and William Burroughs one for just about anything he could lay his hands on.
But there are also a few surprises. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, coined the word "intensify" to describe opium's effects on his thought. His contemporary Robert Southey greatly enjoyed nitrous oxide, and once remarked that "the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this Gas." Wilkie Collins, whose novel The Moonstone is widely considered the first full-length modern detective story, was dependent on laudanum. Frankfurt School luminaries Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse believed that hashish "fueled the dreams that revolution could bring true." Sigmund Freud once forewarned his wife of the pleasures she could expect from "a wild man with cocaine in his body." Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the course of a six-day cocaine binge; a century later, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a seven-day benzedrine bender. And during World War II, amphetamines stoked nearly every speech Churchill and Hitler drafted.
In Plant's view, drugs provided these writers with new insights into the working of the mind, newly discovered fragments of the self, and a new awareness of the limits of conventional ideas. Drugs granted them access to the twilight zones between dreamworld and reality, between the conscious and subconscious minds. But even Plant concedes that no writer fully succeeded in translating these insights onto the printed page. Arthur Koestler could have spoken for the bunch when, following a particularly intense acid trip, he declared: "I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was." Soon after, he decided to stick to booze.