Monday, May 9, 2011
WRITERS ON DRUGS
Norman Mailer on whiskey and marijuana
What is it with these writers? If they're not drinking--like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, Cheever, Denis Johnson, Poe, Lowell, Lowry, Sexton, Mailer--they're smoking dope--like Baudelaire, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kesey and Mailer again--not to mention taking antidepressants like David Foster Wallace, snorting coke like Jay McInerney and Sigmund Freud (who rationalized that "repeated doses of coca produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further; on the contrary one feels a certain unmotivated aversion to the substance"), dropping acid like Kesey, Aldous Huxley, Anais Nin and Robert Stone, shooting heroin like William Burroughs, and drinking lots of high-octane coffee like everyone else. (And let's not forget Hunter S. Thompson, whose pharmacology alone could fill a book)
It's a wonder they ever got anything written. But they did. In 1822, nearly two centuries before the Oprah showcased a generation of confessors, and long before we were inundated with tell-all rehab memoirs, Thomas de Quincey spilled the beans in "Confessions of an Opium Eater." He admitted he'd written of Xanadu and Kubla Khan under the influence of opiates. Kerouac wrote "On The Road" in a furious Benzedrine binge in less than three weeks. Ken Kesey was high on psychedelic drugs and working in a mental hospital when he wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." With or without drugs, these were extremely talented writers to begin with and only a fool would believe the drugs were doing the necessary heavy lifting, but perhaps these altered states allowed them to see things from a different angle. Alcohol is a constant companion of writers, and there is an almost mythical connection between the two, but rather than a search for a transcendent epiphany most drinking writers seem to be self-medicating, using the booze to relax after a hard day's work. Of course, with some the drinking got out of hand. Cheever used to drink after work, and then he started drinking at lunch--looking forward to noon as he worked in the morning--and finally he would wake in the morning with his hands shaking, ready for a drink before breakfast. That was an extreme case, a real "Lost Weekend," but Cheever wasn't alone. Malcolm Lowry chronicled his struggle with the bottle in "Under the Volcano," a booze and blood-soaked nightmare in hell during the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
If this sort of thing interests you, Marcus Boon wrote a fascinating book on the subject, "The Road of Excess" (Harvard; $29.95). Is the link between drugs and literature purely circumstantial? Drugs have certainly affected literature, but can they actually aid the writing process?
"Each of the book's five chapters focuses on writers (e.g., Baudelaire, Burroughs, Coleridge, Freud, Huxley, Kerouac, and Southey) and works associated with a particular class of drugs: narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics. Boon originally intended to confine himself to writers from the Romantics to the present but expanded his scope when after questioning the apparent lack of drug literature prior to Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater [sic] (1822). This is an ambitious effort, but as Boon himself notes in his chapter on cannabis, readers 'will notice a tendency in my writing toward digression.'" -The Library Journal