Drug Hysteria: U.S.A.


Drug Hysteria: U.S.A.

John Strausbaugh & Donald Blaise eds, foreword by William S. Burroughs,
The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960.
New York: Blast Books, 1991.

This collection of 29 reports on experiences with intoxicants could serve as introductory reading on a subject that would seem to be of great concern these days, the actual subjective effects people seek from drug-taking. Too often the allure of drugs is treated as if it was a paradox, as if the desire to use them was nothing but a compulsion with no willful decision involved, as if the pleasure they provide most users was an abnormal response. To realize that an established tradition of literary and scientific fascination with drugs has existed for nearly 200 years should place the issue in a different light. Whether these writings are regarded as scientific reports or as romantic literature, they provide cultural contexts for understanding the heritage of drug use. Since very few entire works are devoted to this subject, the anthology form is ideal for sampling the range of recorded experiences. Most of these pieces are therefore excerpts from longer works. The discourse of personal drug experience is a strange genre, and not just because of the subject matter. It occupies a place somewhere in between fiction and autobiography, since there is no way to verify subjective encounters with hallucinations, manias, and dreams, nor are there any objective literary criteria that distinguish between types of drug narratives on the basis of motive. Most current tales of drug use have only one purpose, as moral fables preaching the fatal error of any involvement with these diabolic substances. The editors believe that since this anthology includes nothing written after 1960, it excludes that sort of thing, but in fact that sort of thing has been around too long to pretend that such an attitude was a modern invention. Appropriately, two of the essays here do in fact represent this point of view: One from the perspective of an anonymous reformed drug addict in the early 20th century, the other from the perspective of a visitor, H. H. Kane, to a 19th century hashish den in New York. But most of the excerpts were not written to inspire fear, and a few (especially the selections from James Lee and Jean Cocteau) even manage to explain how drug addiction can in fact be a good thing – a viewpoint nothing short of heresy in this age of addiction to everything. However, the bulk of the work here avoids wholesale glorification or condemnation of drug use, concentrating instead on detailed descriptions of encounters with hallucinations of one type or another. The classic work of this kind is of course De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which many writers have used as a model for their accounts; it also established conventions for this discourse in its development over the past 140 years. That influence appears most strongly in this book in writings by Fitz Hugh Ludlow and William Blair.

The other model which is used by numerous writers in this anthology, notably Freud, Ludlow, Wasson, and Hoffmann, is that of the scientist investigating the effects of a given drug. The classic of this type is Freud’s monograph On Cocaine, a portion of which is included in this book. Assuming that the drug was an effective treatment for physical and mental ills, Freud and other physicians used it on their patients (and on themselves) until the inevitable occurred; one of his colleagues nearly died from its use and Freud was forced to retract his praise three years later. Another good instance of an essay that uses this model is “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” by R. Gordon Wasson, which describes participating in a sacred mushroom ceremony in the Mixeteco mountains of Mexico. Use of the scientific approach to describe the effects of hallucinogens is repeated throughout the book, in writings by Robert S. de Ropp, Albert Hofmann, James Mooney, Heinrich Kluver, Henri Michaux, and Stanislaw Witkiewicz. Hofmann and Huxley both allow themselves to wax cosmic on the future possibilities of psychedelic drugs, proposing their use for such utopian benefits as reuniting the mind/body split in western culture (Hoffmann) or administering LSD like a sacrament to give the spiritually barren a taste of the ineffable in order to gain permanent therapeutic insights (Huxley).

One virtue of the book is that it brings together such a diversity of perspectives. Writings that are widely available elsewhere, such as De Quincey’s Confessions, are omitted in favor of other works that are have received less publicity. Examples of excerpts from lesser-known books or essays include selections from The Underworld of the East by William Lee, the autobiography of Herbert Huncke, “A Fundamental Experiment” by Rene Daumal, “The Turning Point of My Life,” by Mark Twain, and An Essay on Hashish by Victor Robinson. Many of the other excerpts are from the conventional canon of drug literature, such as Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradise, Artaud’s “General Security: The Suppression of Opium,” Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s “The Hasheesh Eater,” Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, Freud’s On Cocaine, and Cocteau’s Opium.

The special focus of this book is on narratives written before the drug culture of the sixties and the drug hysteria of the eighties removed the entire subject from the realm of calm deliberation. By presenting works that were written before this hysteria became general in the US, the compilers hope to counter the tendency of drug hysterical discourse to suffer from denial – denial of history and of human nature. That drugs (or means of altering awareness) have been used throughout history, that they have been used often in moderation to achieve desired states, and that they have not always and everywhere been abused, are just some of the nasty secrets that the anti-drug activists fear to acknowledge. The Introduction is a cogent summary of the global use of drugs by humans and animals (though it borrows heavily from R. Siegel’s Intoxication, without crediting that book) and also explains intelligently how the history of drug use in America led to the current hypocritical panic, and how the hypocrisy of condemning drug use darkly suggests that this hysteria ought to be seen more properly as a method of mind control.

As the editors point out, “Free minds mean problems,” and they explain this by referring to the spectacle:

Insurgent or rebellious imagination means problems. The effect of corporate/political/media axis activities in the late twentieth century has been not only to control the imagination but to make it passive and receptive and docile – an open channel for media and advertising and propaganda, a receptor of prepackaged dreams (TV, movies) and lowest-common-denominator fantasies (…) In the last twenty years the all-pervasive, all-invasive communications-infotainment media have escorted American minds farther and farther into a total fantasy environment: national and international politics as TV, with TV actors acting like politicians acting like TV heroes;(…) Real sex and real joy in the real world as dangerous, life-threatening perversions to be sublimated into the polymorphous fantasy realm of an advertainment environment throbbing with unfulfilled desires (because the fulfilled consumer is not a buying customer) … (p. xxi)

Fortunately, these writers (all of whom are male, except three) are from such different cultural, historical, and economic backgrounds that nothing could demonstrate better the universal appeal of intoxicants. Anais Nin, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and “Boxcar Bertha” (the note by her contribution says she may have been a fictional character) are three women whose experiences with drug use are included in the anthology. Their experiences cover a limited range: Nin dismisses the effects of LSD as inferior to her own imaginative powers, and takes the position that drug use is a form of masturbation for those whose “natural access” to creativity is not as privileged as hers. (Compare Huxley’s essay, which argues that psychedelic drugs could legitimately be used to give those without other means of access a taste of the transcendent.) Her arrogance is matched by the immature vacillation and deceitful cowardice of Mabel Luhan Dodge, who eagerly invited friends over for a peyote ceremony and then pretended to participate; the episode ended with the mental breakdown of a friend who sincerely did try the drug. “I had apparently been the only one who had known enough not to seize the stuff and swallow handfuls of it!” Dodge whines, leaving the reader to wonder why she bothered with the drug in the first place. The excerpt from Boxcar Bertha (supposedly an autobiographical account of a woman’s life as a hobo during the 30’s) is sketchy, but indicates that drugs were rarely used by women hoboes, except for prostitutes whose income allowed it.

The two accounts that give lurid moral warnings against drug use both seem largely fabricated, raising the question of whether there is any way to distinguish between factual and fictional descriptions of drug experience. Interestingly, both accounts rely on the assumption that drugs deprive users of control over their actions, an assumption still widely held today. The idea that a substance can remove individual responsibility is one of the dogmas of drug hysterical discourse. However, many of the writers in this collection display an attitude towards the hazards of drug use that has disappeared, but that did exist at one time – the belief that everyone is responsible for their actions, and only the individual can decide whether taking an action is worth the risks. In the Foreword to this book William Burroughs advises the young to “Just Say No to Drug Hysteria,” but in order to do so, the young must also ignore the whining of liberal fascists, who insist that we give up some of our rights so that we can all enjoy zero tolerance, urine testing, and random search-and-seizure. The underlying belief is that individuals cannot be trusted to make decisions about what they do with their own bodies, which is certainly not an acceptable idea in other realms, such as reproductive rights and the growing movement to legalize euthanasia. The hysteria seems to come from a fear not of the physical effects of the drugs, but of the effects of drugs on thought and imagination.

Unfortunately, the variety of drug experiences described in this book is not that broad, since accounts concerning hallucinogens predominate (even excluding those concerning hashish): fully half the accounts describe the effects of peyote or mescaline, mushrooms or psilocybin, or LSD. The rest are evenly divided between hashish and opiates/cocaine. Only two accounts deal with the use of stimulants, and there’s nothing about barbiturates or tranquilizers at all. The emphasis on hallucinogens is perhaps meant to attract new age readers, but in fact hallucinogens are substances of minor value in most contemporary American drug subcultures. Our drugs of choice tend to be those that change levels of arousal – stimulants or depressants, such as speed, cocaine and heroin – rather than drugs which alter patterns of information processing. The low value hallucinogens command in the drug market is evidence for this preference; LSD still costs about the same as it did in the seventies, while marijuana and cocaine bring higher prices.

Although this book is supposed to fight the hypocrisy of drug hysteria, some of these documents promote myths about drugs that have been partly to blame for this hysteria. For instance, one tenet of drug hysteria holds that drugs are instantly addictive, making it impossible for anyone to resist them; in fact, as William Burroughs points out in the Foreword, “many people simply don’t like these drugs” (italics in original). The accounts by the anonymous opium addict, by the visitor to the hashish den, and even the one by Dodge, all represent distortions which have become part of the mythology. The opium addict testifies how the drug corrupted him morally, making him prefer crime to decency; the visitor to the hashish den describes how he saw, in a vision, drug users in hell; Dodge’s account leaves the impression that peyote will cause insanity. And although descriptions of psychic bliss are found here, so are descriptions of awful suffering; the terrors visited on Michaux by mescaline and Witkiewicz by peyote are simply repellent.

The real problem with drug use is that it is outlawed, and that sends all questions about individual decisions to take drugs to a second remove. This illegality prevails over other factors. The epidemic of violence that plagues the US is one direct result of making illegal drugs the most profitable commodity on earth. Many have died in the War on Drugs, and even police say it is beginning to resemble the Vietnam War – a war that cannot be won. Eighty percent of the homicides in Washington D.C. are “drug-prohibition related,” in Barbara Ehrenreich’s phrase. “So why don’t we kick the prohibition habit?” Ehrenreich asks. Indeed, why not? Because drug hysteria has destroyed every possibility that more humane approaches to controlling the use of intoxicants will receive objective consideration. No amount of reasoned argument has any effect on this debate in the US. Not even the Surgeon General commands enough respect to be taken seriously on the topic, and she only suggested that legalizing narcotics should be studied.

Clearly, there is no point in trying to make another reasoned appeal. Drug hysteria is not susceptible to rational arguments. Perhaps reading history would help. Perhaps not.

Critical Art Ensemble (C.A.E.) is a collective of six artists of different specializations committed to the production of a new genre art that explores the intersections among critical theory, art and technology.