Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.
- Marcus Boon's ambitious, lucid, and far-ranging cultural history of the connection between literature and drugs
eschews a "single chronological history of drugs" and seeks instead "to reveal more subtle, micropolitical
histories of everyday interactions between human beings and particular psychoactive substances to find out
whether these histories had left their traces in literature" (9). The answer, as any reader of De Quincey, Coleridge, or
Burroughs knows, is that they have. And how. More pointedly, Boon's impressive study asks--and takes a valiant stab at
answering--"how it came to be that aesthetics and transgression, and the literary genres associated with them, came to be
associated with drug use" (5).
This is a bigger question, and a tricky one to tackle in one book, even one as sprawling and learned as Boon's. Any
convincing answer would have to address not only the dynamic interrelationship between writing and the history of
pharmacological science--something Boon does well, and with often breathtaking range--but also the co-evolution of drug
writing with both theories of the aesthetic and the variety of genres, anti-genres, and subversive literary gestures that
could be called transgressive. Boon's catholic style of historicism would seem well-suited to this task, since it is
cultural studies written "the way an ethnographer would," and sees literature in sublunary fashion, as just "one out of
many forms of human activity" (5). Yet for all of Boon's anecdotal connoisseurship and dazzling intellectual
roaming--especially across the domains of the literary-historical and the scientific--his study has surprisingly little to
say about the literary, or about new (or old) ways of talking about literary transgression. Theories of the avant-garde,
or conventional critical stories about modernism's formal subversions and its forays into the interior and the
transcendent, or indeed any sustained discussion of how drug use spawned challenges to mainstream aesthetics or bourgeois
expressive forms like the novel--all of this is conspicuously absent in Boon's study. So, while Boon claims that
literature and drugs are two "dynamically developing domains of human activity," the literary is often the unsexy,
occasionally inert partner in Boon's narrative, waiting passively to receive the traces of its psychoactive counterpart
(5). Boon's writers are on drugs, but his approach to literary history and theory is often way too square.
Perhaps this is a consequence of Boon's decision to forego a "particular conceptual framework beyond that of a set names
of substances around which stories, texts, practices have clustered, and that of chronology," used for convenience (9).
Boon allows himself a single, but effective, dose of theory in his introduction, drawing on Bruno Latour's provocative
argument about the transcendental in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). Recall that in Latour's anatomy of the
modern constitution, modernity works by erecting a divide between nature and culture, one designed to liberate man from
the superstitious mana and murk of the premodern but one that effectively produces a modern society "permeated by
the very hybrids of nature-culture that it officially claims it has eradicated" (11). Drugs, Boon argues, are hybrid in
the Latourian sense--"material and at the same time constructed," Trojan horses of the modern transcendental impulse (11).
In a world without God, drugs fuse soma and spirit, allowing the moderns to have their otherwordly hashcake and eat it
too. Latour thus helps Boon "to affirm an inclusive polyvalent movement around the boundaries that modernity has built for
itself that would integrate transcendental experience within the realm of the possible" (12).
While Boon confesses that he has "no particular version of the transcendental to push," he is sympathetic to "our
legitimate desire to be high" (12, 13). What's more, though he works to disabuse us of the myth that drug use is a modern
phenomenon, he believes the desire for transcendence--and for drugs, its material agents--was forced into a crisis of
acuity in the shadow of Enlightenment modernity, and shortly thereafter achieved its first full flowering in early German
Romanticism. In this fashion, Boon hopes, on the one hand, to call into question the "Romantic vision of drugs as an
aesthetic experience" independent of history, scientific practices, and market forces and, on the other, to challenge the
classical notion of literature as "drug free" (5).
However laudable Boon's desire to embed the Romantic attitude towards drugs in "a more complicated matrix of historical,
cultural, and scientific developments" (6), who, truth be told, believes otherwise anymore? Literary scholars peddling
non-ironic, ahistorical, or non-materialist versions of Romanticism, or its modernist and postmodernist strains, are in
short supply. Even rarer are those making claims for writing "as a kind of pure activity of consciousness or tradition"
(5). The strength of Boon's study is not to be found in its revisionist notes, which sometimes ring hollow, but instead in
the discursive breadth and synthetic power of his synoptic approach. As Boon himself notes, "the whole weight of my
argument consists in separating drugs from each other, showing how each has quite specific historically emergent
discourses attached to it, and avoiding theoretical generalizations on the subject" (14). Here, Boon proves especially
instructive. He is able to trace a series of specific discursive tropes entangled in each drug category with sufficient
consistency so as to reveal in each chapter what we might call, following Matei Calinescu, the five stoned faces of
modernity: narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics.
The narcotic modernity of his first chapter is one set in darkness and marked by the force of a relentless negativity, of
revolt against the profane world of science, industry, and reason. Boon observes that "the evolution of opium in
nineteenth-century European culture follows a series of displacements," shifts he traces nimbly in the chapter from the
fields of "medicine to philosophy, philosophy to literature, literature to social mythology, and mythology to politics,"
where the drug "rejoins a radically transformed medicine at the end of the century in the Decadent movement and the theory
of degeneration" (32). Boon explains how the "specifically literary use of opium" begins with the influence of
eighteenth-century physicians Erasmus Darwin and John Brown first on neoclassical poetic discourse, then on the Jena
Romantics, Novalis, and Coleridge, whom Darwin introduced to opium through Thomas Wedgwood (23). Brown understood illness
to be caused by a lack of stimulation, one that could be cured by wine or opium. Brunonian science thus allowed the
Romantics to "broker a compromise between the Newtonian mechanism they detested and a vitalism that was otherwise
dismissed as superstitious or unscientific" (27). For Novalis, opium became a "technology of the self," a mode of
producing sickness as, paradoxically, an "unnatural state of health--of revolt against the limits of the animal body"
It is also Novalis, for Boon, who helps originate a modern Gnostic approach to drugs, which sees the material world as
fallen and corrupt, to be abandoned for a space of transcendental authenticity. And it is this Gnostic dimension of
narcotics that Boon explores in Coleridge's enthusiasm for Spinoza and laudanum; in the evident proximity, in De Quincey
and elsewhere, between the narcotic abyss and the Romantic sublime; in Baudelaire's critique of modernity's paradis
artificiels; in the nihilism of Cocteau and Artaud; in certain surrealists' quest for the chemical trigger of the
marvelous; and in the post-WWII figure of Beat junkie as both Gnostic and saint. This brief list testifies to the
often-stunning erudition of Boon's study, whose scope, even in this chapter, is capacious enough consider the role of
poppy in Chaucer's "A Knight's Tale," the discursive links between opium and orientalism, the cult of morphine in
fin-de-siècle Europe and America, the legalization of narcotics use and the rise of the detoxification
diary and addiction memoir following the Great War, and the post-WWII literary connection between rebellious youth the new
psychopathology of the addict.
If narcotics are discursively enmeshed in the poetic night of Romantic negation and gnosis, anesthetics, "with their
ability to shut down the body and mind in a single swift movement," are particularly apt doubles of the transcendent (91).
Yet anesthetic literature, as Boon's second chapter demonstrates, is decidedly less poetic than opium-infused reveries,
encouraging a clinical, philosophical attitude that is, surprisingly, Idealist. In fact, anesthetics, for Boon "remain an
anomaly in the history of drug use: the only drugs for which the major cultural reference points are Hegel and
transcendental philosophy" (119). And Boon earns this provocative claim by observing, for example, the specter of Kant
presiding over the experiments with nitrous oxide performed in 1799 by British chemist Humphry Davy (a friend of
Coleridge), and later, the influence of American chemist James Paul Blood, the "chief proponent of the philosophical use
of ether," on William James, for whom anesthetics and Hegel alike "offered a false version of the infinite that remained
entirely in the realm of thought, without ever actually engaging the phenomenal world" (111).
Surprisingly enough, it is his chapter on the cannabis user that allows Boon to engage most directly with the question of
modern sociality--its disjointed contours and possible reimaginings. Potheads are poets of the social, since the cannabis
user "is not content to rest in the transcendental state" of anesthesia, or to fall into the asocial swoon of the opiate
user, but rather experiences more modest shifts of consciousness that allow him to exist on the boundary of transcendental
and social subjectivity, on the profane cusp of modernity's dreamworld, poised for illumination (127). Intoxicated by
hashish, one "wants to and is capable of introducing esoteric secrets into the domain of the social" (127). For this
reason, hashish literature is particularly given to the "utopian musings on the transformation of the world" that one
finds in Rabelais, Rimbaud, and the hashish writings of Walter Benjamin, and to the "fractal social spaces" joining the
medieval Islamic Assassins to their modern, bohemian variants in the Parisian Club des Hachichins, the cultic world of the
jazzman, and the North African Beat scene presided over by Paul and Jane Bowles (166, 167).
Boon's writing and conceptualization are at their tightest and most productive in his chapter on stimulants. Where the
privileged hybrid tropes of first three chapters slowly coalesce to unveil modernities of poppied decadence and
imaginative retreat, Idealist transcendence, and utopian transformations, respectively, the fourth chapter speaks
breathlessly to the coked-up modernity of intensification, speed, and cyberpunks; of man-machinism, Sartre's speed habit,
and the existential force of will. This is the prosthetic modernity that would find a home for Italian Futurist F.T.
Marinetti, famously dubbed "the caffeine of Europe" even though, as Boon notes, Marinetti disapproved of drugs and got
sufficiently high on dreams of war and violence. This is, finally, modernity as technique: "the stimulants," Boon
notes, "which appear to offer us an almost mechanical increase in productivity . . . pose the problem of technology at a
more fundamental level" since they are McLuhanesque "'extensions of man,' extensions of our capabilities" (174).
Following this tour de force, the final chapter, "Imaginal Realms: Psychedelics and Literature," comes as
something of a downer, and contains some of book's more underwhelming thinking about the literary and its relationship to
psychoactive substances. As in the other chapters, Boon's wide swath verges on the disorienting--from the premodern drugs
of Milton's Comus to the non-literary happenings of sixties psychedelia, from European encounters with Native
American and Siberian shamanism to postmodern returns to shamanistic ethnography in work of Michael Taussig and Terence
McKenna, with stops in Wonderland, the mescaline experiments of Sartre, Heidegger, Jünger, and Artaud,
and the broader post-WWII interest in the virtual, microscopic, or extraplanetary spaces accessed by drugs. The chapter
aims "to show how the history of what we now call the psychedelics is intimately linked to the evolution of literature in
the West, insofar as literature provided a set of maps or blueprints for the imaginary, and a place to situate and explore
the imaginal realms, when this was impossible elsewhere" (222). Let's set aside the chapter's impossible ambition, and
consider the substance of this claim about substances: Drugs are like literature because they provide space for
the faculty of the imagination, harboring humans' transcendental aspirations in a disenchanted modernity. Boon makes
similar analogical claims throughout the book. What, then, do psychedelics teach us about literature or the mind? Answer:
"Psychedelics point out in a very direct and dramatic way that radical, rapid shifts in consciousness are possible" (273).
No argument there. Or: "Psychedelics offer a perspective on the process of symbol formation, revealing the way that the
creative flux of the imagination is frozen into particular forms, concepts, words. Literature . . . is necessarily a
method of capturing the flux of the mind" (274). That is, to be sure, one way of thinking about literature, but
is it Boon's? Apparently so: "The important thing to understand here is creativity, its source and its power. Literature
and psychedelic experience are both fundamentally acts of poiesis--poiesis not as representation but as creation itself"
(275). These are rather airy claims about the literary that, for this reader, become increasingly less compelling until
they run aground on romantic or belletristic clichés about the imagination. When the lesson learned from Huxley on
acid is the same as Bloom on the Bard, the reputations of drug writing and old-school literary humanism suffer equally. In
moments like these, Boon is furthest from his stated goal to explain the association between aesthetics, transgression,
and drug use.
Boon is abstemious when it comes to theory, but his book might have benefited from more of it, since his book is in silent
dialogue with a recent explosion of relevant scholarly work in modernity studies--work on the concept of experience
(Krzysztof Ziarek's The Historicity of Experience, Martin Jay's recent Songs of Experience); on
theories of affect, boredom, and expressivity (Charles Altieri's The Particulars of Rapture, Sianne Ngai's
Ugly Feelings, Patricia Meyer Spacks's Boredom, or Elizabeth Goodstein's Experience
without Qualities); on attempts to materialize aesthetic modernity and uncover the everydayness of the modern
(Miriam Hansen's influential work on "vernacular modernisms"); and especially work on modernity's host of related
transcendent outsides: spiritualism, anthropological magic, secular (and technological) enchantments, etc. I'm thinking
here of Helen Sword's Ghostwriting Modernism, Michael Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity (Taussig
does make brief appearance in the final chapter), Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels's Magic and Modernity, or Simon During's
Modern Enchantments. Finally, given Boon's sympathy for the quintessentially modern desire for transcendence,
and his explicit "call for a proliferation of alternative methods of obtaining gnosis," more attention might have been
paid to the specific political horizons that have historically given rise to and constrained the moderns various attempts
to imagine its transcendent outsides (86). How might the position of drugs and other transcendent "hybrids" on the map of
Latour's modern constitution be shifting in our post-9/11 climate; put another way, who needs opium when you've got Jesus
or Allah? If never quite intoxicating, Boon's important, lively, and well-researched study is consistently stimulating. In
fact, the book proves that the best cultural histories--and The Road of Excess is surely that--are rather
like stimulants, charging their users with renewed energy and clarity, and later leaving them with the sense that, after
the rush and the inevitable letdown, there is still more work to be done.
Department of English
Michigan State University
COPYRIGHT (c) 2006 BY Justus Nieland.
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