The Drug User by John Strausbaugh (Ed)
Printed in 1991, ‘The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960’ is an anthology of drug-related literature that dates from before the beginnings of the psychedelic counterculture movement. Edited by John Strausbaugh and Donald Blaise, with a forward by William S. Burroughs, ‘The Drug User’ is filled with a literary flair so often missing from later psychedelic literature.
The anthology’s editors have amalgamated an extremely impressive collection. It includes both complete pieces and selected passages from larger works. Such diverse writers as Twain, Freud, Baudelaire and Daumal to Ludlow, Michaux and Lee, are presented. With such an eclectic mix of great writers and thinkers there is imbued within some wonderful, challenging and, at times, scary perceptions of the drug experience.
One of my favourite passages is taken from ‘Really the Blues’ by “half-cat jazz musician” Mezz Mezzrow. Just before playing a gig Mezz and his compatriots smoked some cannabis:
“The other guys in the band were giggling and making cracks, but I couldn’t talk with my mouthpiece between my lips, so I closed my eyes and drifted out to the audience with my music. The people were going crazy over the subtle changes in our playing; they couldn’t dig what was happening but some kind of electricity was crackling in the air and it made them all glow and jump.”
There are also battles going on in the individuals; especially those writing on using opiates. Burroughs would later write on the topic succinctly in Junky but Antonin Artaud had already begun to surmise the dark power of opiates in his most literary of ways:
“We, whom pain makes journey into our souls in search of a calm place to cling to, in search of stability in evil, as the others search for it in good – we aren’t mad, we’re marvellous doctors, we know the necessary dose for the soul, for sensibility, for the marrow, for thought.”
The anthology challenges the reader to think about an individual’s relationship with drugs, from a time when the social hysteria had yet to emerge and cast its own shadow over the experience. Though, having said that, one can see the seeds for the psychedelic movement during this period in the writings of Aldous Huxley, Albert Hoffman and Gordon Wasson (it was Wasson who first discovered the ancient religious use of psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico.)
For those interested in the drug experience/culture as a literary movement this is an extremely valuable anthology. Not only is it a gateway into other works but it also beautifully contextualizes various perspectives. I’ll leave you with some words by Aldous Huxley, taken from ‘Drugs that shape men’s minds’ and that goes someway to explaining the course that the newly seeded psychedelic movement would pass into post-1960:
“My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available.”