Sunday, February 16, 2014

Drugs in literature

I had originally titled this post "Drugs in art," but decided that I would have to have spent too much time explaining why I didn't really want to discuss music written/performed/enjoyed under the influence of drugs -- and the same thing with certain movies (Apocalypse Now, The Wall).  While a number of the great Abstract Expressionist painters were raging alcoholics, it is less clear how many of them were addicted to other types of drugs.

Just restricting the topic of drugs to writers should still be more than enough for this blog post.

The original impetus was reading Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.  I'm not going to mince words -- this ending up being pretty disappointing, a totally disjointed novel that kept introducing and dropping characters.  The plot, such as it is, starts (in the mid 1970s?) with a customer of a modernized opium den who introduces a fairly renowned poet to opium (the poet claims that he is only interested in alcohol).  They have a few of those "deep" conversations that most people stop having after moving out of a college dorm.  I think a novel along these lines would have been ok.*  However, then we spent quite a bit of time going into the back story of the opium den, including the eunuch who prepares the best pipes and how s/he learned her technique from a Chinese man.  Then we spend quite a bit of time following the Chinese man and go back through his backstory all the way to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Then things shift to the actual owner of the opium den and his struggles in a relatively low-level drug war.  Finally, we return to the original opium smoker character returning to his old stomping grounds, finding that the crack epidemic of the late 80s has reached India as well and has pushed aside all the "classy" opium dens.  If it hadn't jumped around so much and had settled on a  small number of characters, then I would have liked it a lot more.

What is somewhat interesting is how few modern writers tackle opium addition.  Now opium in its purest form is not generally seen that much in the U.S. or Canada, but opiates more generally are certainly abused.  This group contains morphine, codeine and a bit further removed down the chemical chain, oxycodone (or OxyContin).  Now Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries talks about being on a wide variety of uppers and downers, and I'm pretty sure that his list included codeine, but I'll come back to Carroll shortly.

More generally, you need to go back to an earlier era when opium was quite legal (and often sold in liquid form as laudanum) to see it popping up in literature.  Of the major poets of the Romantic Era, Coleridge was by far the biggest laudanum addict, though I assume Byron and Keats dabbled a little.  But no one wrote as extensively about (to say nothing of writing under the influence of) opium as Thomas De Quincey, whose Confessions of an English Opium-Eater caused quite the scandal in 1821 when it first came out.

Now I have had a copy of this book since roughly 1996.  I picked it up in a used bookstore in Detroit (or more likely Ferndale, MI).  The reason I remember the general circumstances is that my mother had failed a drug test for a job she had applied for because of her "addiction" to opiates.  After racking her brains, she decided this must have been because she had a poppy seed muffin most mornings.  Apparently, the drug test was overly sensitive.  The prospective employer refused to let her submit a different test including hair sampling from a more reputable lab.  So this was definitely a low point in her life, and I thought that picking up the book would have just been rubbing it in, but I bought it anyway, trying to be a bit subtle about the transaction. 

So now nearly 20 years later, I finally read it, directly after Narcopolis.  The truth is I think I should have read it back then, when I was more under the sway of English literature (and still thought I would become an English professor).  The first half is kind of boring where De Quincey writes about his early adulthood and explains that this period of living rough in Wales (because he couldn't get his hands on his inheritance) led to troubles with his digestive system, which in turn induced him to turn to opium for purely medical reasons.  Like most addicts, he doth protest too much, though there are some interesting passages here and there.  The second half of the book is actually quite dry where he tries to come up with a typology of the pleasures and pains of opium.  I didn't find this interesting at all nor his attempts to describe some of his opium-influenced dreams.  Apparently, at the time the dreams were considered the most interesting part of book, but they certainly pale in comparison to some of dreams/visions recounted by Jim Carroll, to say nothing of William Burroughs.

Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries is perhaps the most interesting story I've ever read of a guy who could have had a successful career (as a basketball star) but threw it away, not just due to drugs, but because his love of the downtown art scene and Beat poets led him to adopt the pose of an outlaw poet.  I can't recall if Carroll talks about being influenced by William Burroughs, but he is clearly in debt to Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  What is a bit different is that these are essentially true memoirs shaped into a fairly conventional morality play.  Carroll does not shrink away from describing the lows of being a drug addict, including just the tedium (mixed with a bit of terror) in trying to score drugs before the withdrawal symptoms kick in.  (Lou Reed's Waiting for My Man is also pretty good on this score.)  One of the more amusing/pathetic scenes in the book is when he (and some other members of his basketball team) takes downers instead of uppers right before a game and they get totally blown out.  It just doesn't strike Carroll as remotely odd that drugs were completely pervasive in his school, but then again, he grew up in New York City (and I had a friend who grew up in NYC 15 years later who had a pretty casual attitude towards drugs).**  No question I could have gotten into drugs had I wanted to, even in my suburban surroundings, but they weren't so in-your-face as Carroll (and my friend) recounts.  Lanford Wilson often did set his plays in this same free-for-all setting, particularly Balm in Gilead and The Hot L Baltimore.  It is fair to say that there is a bit of the same feel of a morality play here as well with drug deals often ending in death

While cocaine was the drug of choice for most of the Brat Pack (Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York, and Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero), there is a similar pattern of trying to have it all, and really fucking up because the drugs always end up kicking your ass.  (At least that's how I read these late 80s novels.)

In that sense, I think William Burroughs the most radical author who writes extensively about drugs, since he doesn't write stories that (necessarily) end up with the main character brought down by drugs.  People's lives may be difficult and tragic, but it isn't just because of drug use or abuse.  Again, this is just my reading of his work and life.  And for that matter Arthur Conan Doyle definitely seemed to think that Sherlock Holmes' occasional cocaine usage was actually a help to his investigations, but he was writing in a very different time when drugs were hardly as demonized as they are today.

At any rate, I could certainly go on with many other examples, but this covers the main ones on my mind.  I do know about a few science-fiction novels where mood altering drugs have a more positive or at least less demonized role, but that is pretty far afield from where I started.  Furthermore, I have not touched on drugs that were medically prescribed, like the ones to calm a housewife deeply afraid of death in DeLillo's White Noise or the ones to force Alex to behave and drop his droog-like ways in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

The biggest gap is surely not saying anything about ganja.  I think there are two inter-related reasons.  First, there are no novels that I can remember where marijuana use leads to tragic death or even the loss of a job (though I assume there must be at least a few in the later category) and when it pops up it is usually 1) played for laughs or 2) not really a big thing, i.e. a character smokes a joint or two but this doesn't define them as a drug-user.  Second, because it is not made into such a big thing by the author, I don't find marijuana usage a particularly memorable part of any novel.  I mean there must have been joints smoked in On the Road and certainly S.R.O., but I would have to go back through to find these references, which I don't really care to do.  I am fairly sure that ganja is played for laughs in John Nichols' The Nirvana Blues, and it definitely plays a small role in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, where each new boarder at 28 Barbary Lane gets a hand-rolled joint from the landlady Anna Madrigal.

Still if you would like to point out any of my egregious omissions, feel free to do so in the comments.

* Actually, S.R.O. by Robert Deane Pharr is more along these lines with a fairly complex character in the form of a white drug user hanging out in Harlem and sort of spouting off quasi-profound statements about life.  Nearly everyone in the run-down S.R.O. is abusing one drug or another, though the narrator is basically an occasional wino and doesn't seem to do any harder drugs.

** One of the most moving (and saddest) poems by Audre Lorde addresses the many children of New York who have fallen prey to drugs: 
"To My Daughter The Junkie On A Train"

Coming home on the subway from a PTA meeting
a long-legged girl with a horse in her brain
slumps down beside me
begging to be ridden asleep
for the price of a midnight train
up and down across the aisle
women avert their eyes
as the other mothers who became useless
curse their children who became junk.

(The entire piece can be found in Lorde's Chosen Poems or Collected Poems.)

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