A History of Writers on Drugs
By Marcus Boon
Harvard University Press
There is something
a little bit scary about reading The Road To Excess –
this meticulous exploration of the influence of narcotics on literature
is like a late night literary overdose.
The author, Marcus Boon, is Assistant Professor of English at York
University in Toronto, and his academic background shines through
without bogging down this intriguing subject.
Where is becomes scary is in the strange ebbs and flows of Boon’s
writing. Depending on which drug he writes about the tone of language
shifts. If it is amphetamines, the tone is speedy and manic, if
it is marijuana, things slow down. It is highly unlikely that Boon
tried all of the drugs he discusses, otherwise this would be a posthumous
tome, but there is no doubt that the literature he discusses has
been affected by the drug of choice and this is reflected in Boon’s
The Road to Excess is broken down into five sections based
on a specific realm of drug; opiates, anaesthetics, cannabis, stimulants
(coffee, cocaine and amphetamines) and psychedelics.
There is a historical logic to the structure which reflects both
the social norms and the scientific discoveries of the time. It
is this that makes Excess a riveting read as Boon describes the
high fashion accessory of hand-crafted syringes to inject morphine
in public or the introduction of opium via the presence of Chinese
workers in Europe. Boon has explored the cultures around his literary
figures with methodical devotion, creating a colourful, if at times
frightening, sense of time and place. At one moment we are in the
salons of Victorian London smoking opium with Coleridge before charging
into more contemporary times watching Jack Kerouac hitting the Benzedrine
and the typewriter.
We travel from the use of opium by the British romantics (Keats,
Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, DeQuincy) through to the use of cannabis
by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Paul Bowles through to the psychedelic
era of the beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Leary et al). Naturally there
is a great deal of crossover as many of these writers tinkered with
or became seriously addicted to a number of drugs.
Not surprisingly the grand old figure of William S. Burroughs dominates
the book and given his appetites appears in almost every chapter.
But there is surprisingly light-weight discussion of Philip K. Dick
whose use of speed and hallucinegens informed his vast body of work
extensively. As Boon points out, Dick’s intensive use of Semoxydrine
– essentially speed – led to him writing eleven sci-fi
novels along with essays and short stories in the space of one year.
There are also some odd omissions such as J.G.Ballard’s Cocaine
Nights and Jack O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh and most
importantly David Foster Wallace’s amazing novel of addiction,
Infinite Jest. This may be because these writers have not publicised
their drug use, if there is any, but they should rate at least a
mention in a book about literature and drugs.
In his prologue Boon describes his approach as being that of an
“ethnographer” and indeed his ability to cover the digressive
aspects of politics, law, religion, science and literature is awe
inspiring. He also avoids romanticising his subjects; his description
of the death of Voltaire would make one think twice before dabbling
Boon’s subjects are quite clearly influenced by their activities.
Sometimes this works; Burrough’s Naked Lunch and
Kerouac’s On The Road are contemporary classics and
few would dispute the creative impetus behind the works of Coleridge
and Keats. When it comes to his chapter on Cannabis, Boon tends
to wander. Indeed, as he says: “As I detail the history of
writing about cannabis, you will notice a tendency in my writing
toward digression… [a] tendency to drift…” Interestingly
this chapter contains few gems of literature. In Boon’s words,
Ginsberg under the influence “meanders” and Baudelaire
was dismissive of his hashish experiences. Ironically, however,
this is one of the better chapters when it comes to the history
of a substance, including discussion of a key text created in Melbourne
by Marcus Clarke under the influence of marijuana in 1868.
Boon does not moralize about the use of drugs by writers. Indeed
this is a highly objective history and where drug use has debilitated
the author discussed – either creatively or physically –
it is duly reported, sometimes in gruesome detail. At the same time
he admits to discovering ‘drug lit’ in London in the
1970s through the lyrics by, and interviews with, such figures as
Lou Reed and John Lydon (aka Rotten) when heroin became a lifestyle
choice for a generation.
At the end of the day it is surprising that Boon is the first historian
to write such a tome. And for all the inherent dangers, Boon’s
writing is largely a clear, calm and extraordinarily researched
discussion of strange visions, odd lives and often marvellous writing.