The Road of Excess by Marcus Boon
Originally published in 2002 ‘The Road of Excess – A History of Writers on Drugs’ by Marcus Boon explores what he describes as the age-old relationship between literature and drugs. As a comprehensive survey of drug literature, the text is both an entertaining read and an invaluable well of source information, which crafts modern, scholarly technique with a hitherto poorly explored area of writing.
Boon employs an interdisciplinary, cultural approach to the historical connections between drugs and literature, borrowing much from a Deleuzian model and in doing so he creates an effective ethnography. This postmodern approach, free of any rigid conceptual framework, lends itself to a lucid exploration and an engaging narrative: “What interested me was to reveal more subtle, micropolitical histories of everyday interactions between human beings and particular psychoactive substances and to find out whether these histories had left their traces in literature” (Boon 9). As such, he deals with both authors and drugs as mechanisms for socio-historical and cultural forces, which has the effect of drawing out many interesting ideas.
As you would expect there are both benefits and drawbacks in an exploration of this type. In the first instance, the reader is confronted with a plethora of information, which at times seems disparate but that in actual fact creates an entertaining, multifaceted web. The real skill in drawing lines of flight between, for instance, nineteenth century Parisian writers and “the blunt-smoking thugz of gangsta rap” (Boon 144) is in creating cultural zeitgeists that seamlessly roll into one another. However, this approach is not without its problems. The reader, in being taken on this rollercoaster ride of information by Boon, could easily appear to be forgotten. The sheer gulf between the seeming simplicity of the project – a history of writers on drugs – and the frantic relaying of words, flights and motifs leaves a void one could easily slip into. Nevertheless, a sure footing in form, albeit in five chapters, does go some way to avoiding this pitfall.
The book is divided along roughly scientific classifications in that the five chapters are concerned with literature and narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants and psychedelics. Each relationship manifests through their various social, cultural and historical appearances. For example, opium (narcotic) is taken up by the 19th century romantics like de Quincey and Coleridge and is described in one sense as a device in their literary work, yet is simultaneously a widespread medicinal agent in society, which also effected their lives; for better or for worse. Indeed, usually for worse when one takes into account that the majority of the authors denied opium a creative value in itself and recognised its arrival in their lives was due to health problems. Treading the lines, Boon explores this narcotic dichotomy of health and ill-health down to Burroughs and maps it very well. Though it must be said, I personally enjoyed Mike Jay’s tackling of the nineteenth century more in his book Emperors of Dreams (2000), which seemed to me to be more well structured.
It is interesting to note the variety of traditional genres that drug writing (and drug writers) straddle. Whether pseudo-medical texts by Humphry Davy, a case history by Constance A. Newland, travel by Burroughs, biography by de Quincey and so on and so forth. In this diversity, drug writing presents the theorist with a problem. Without its own unique historical time period, specific form or object, drug writing is diffused and subsumed into compartments. In many respects I believe that’s why Boon wanted to look at “micropolitical histories” for it was one of the few ways in which the narrative could have been constructed from the outset. Writers look at drug aesthetics differently, contingent as they are to cultural forces and one is faced with competing discourses and truth-claims rather than any simple notion of author and drug. In some respects most of the drugs discussed are linked by social and political transgression but again it is often a leap of faith to then assume the same of the authors themselves; instead Boon applies culture as a blanket concept.
In his chapter on psychedelics and writing, Boon utilises a tool he names the “imaginal realms” and says that psychedelics open up these realms in “all their complexity” (Boon 222). The imaginal realm, which in a sense is analogous to a creative potential though not definitively, becomes a field of manipulation in the hands of authors on drugs and to illustrate this he draws a distinctly political line of flight. Boon says that writers on psychedelics between 1945-60 tended to be conservative and right-wing, and that the drugs gave them a private imaginal, away from “the vulgar intoxication of the masses” (Boon 258). He then talks about the Sixties and by implication, not explicitly stated, this era becomes defined by a left-wing cultural swing, which prefigures the late-sixties counterculture. A good example would be Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience (1964), a guide book to take people through the LSD experience on a predetermined path. It is designed as an externality, a force impinging on the experience socially, rather than a revelation of a private internality.
In his epilogue Boon discusses antidepressants and in particular Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1995). He calls this situation more complicated because “psychoactive substances, rather than producing experimental or extraordinary states of consciousness, can now produce normative states, and a normative literature” (Boon 277). Is it right to draw this comparison between normative and altered? And indeed between consciousness and literature? This seems to be a riddle wrapped up in a mystery. For what is normative as opposed altered? And what is the consciousness that comprehends the literature? Perhaps this skirts the obvious, but it seems to me that this entails the very conundrum that cultural, historical and social forces weave. Perhaps Boon’s greatest achievement is that he successfully charts the inseparability of the individual, the social and its drugs, without falling foul of any particular dogmatic strata.