Literary Reviews, Literary Reviews: 2001- 2010

Literary Review: ‘High Society’ by Mike Jay

‘High Society – Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture’ by Mike Jay is due to be published on November 8th 2010.  Produced in conjunction with the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition of the same name (November 11th – February 2011) in London, the book is an enthralling mixture of text and image that charts the changing role and conceptions of drugs in society and culture from prehistory to the modern day.

Mike Jay has written High Society as an extension to his advisory and curatorial role with the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition. Having previously published works like Emperors of Dreams (2000), Blue Tide (1999) and an anthology of drug writing entitled Artificial Paradises (1999) he is well versed in the historical implications of culture and drugs. Whilst this book does touch on some episodes recounted in his earlier works, there is much more attention focused on global drug customs and trade. And coupled with the rich, multicultural imagery that underpins the international elements of his exploration, the book really brings the historical relationships of a High Society to life.

Underpinning the whole project is a belief in the universal impulse of inebriation, whether it be for healing, social, or ritualistic reasons, the phenomena stretches across cultures and far back into prehistory. Drawing initially on the ‘human universals’ list compiled by anthropologist Donald E. Brown, Jay unpicks the historical relationship by explaining how drugs evolved alongside humanity, that the two are inseparable within an environmental schema. The variety of chemistry in nature is ever-changing, from coniferous trees developing tannins to deter fungi, to capsaicin in chilli peppers and psilocybin in magic mushrooms, they are all somehow entwined in the processes of evolution and we, humanity, are no less involved now than at any other stage of our pre/history. Ultimately, we were most likely consuming drugs, in one form or another, long before our present Homosapien form.

The second chapter, entitled From Apothecary to Laboratory, concerns itself with the healing and medicinal use of drugs in society. Dealing initially with questions that still perplex the categorisers like what is a drug? the chapter carefully charts a history. Beginning with the ancient Egyptians and the medicinal text, the Ebers Papyrus, which dates from about 1600BC and chronicles, among others items, the poppy, through to the ancient Greeks and the development of the Hippocratic tradition and individuals like Theophrastus (371 – 287BC), Jay demonstrates clearly the move toward the medicinal categorisations of plant drugs we find today. Born in Asia Minor, it was Pedanius Dioscorides, whose text Materia medica first created a loose grouping of psychoactive substances; wherein narcotic, stimulant and depressant effects are separated. Dioscorides dominated the field for much of European history and it wasn’t until explorers began discovering plants from the New World and the enlightenment kick-started the rise of science, as we know it today, that our understanding was able to move on.

Jay discusses the emblematic figure of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541AD), who helped transform Western medicine by using concentrated and refined substances. With the advent of chemistry in the coming centuries many new substances were developed and/or discovered, which in the face of an increasingly global and capitalist economy set the scene for a global drug trade. Chapter three, The Drugs Trade, examines how the new global multiculturalism produced big money trade in coffee, tea, tobacco and opium, right through to the present day War on Drugs. It takes in geography from as far afield as India, the Americas and China, which beautifully cross-enriches the pictorial element of High Society. One particularly interesting episode that Jay explores is the drug trade-off between Indian peoples of the New World and the Old World explorers, tobacco for alcohol respectively. The is some stark and revealing imagery alongside the discussion, such as a base-relief sculpture of a Mayan priest smoking a cigar and a folio sheet of a chocolate-loving Aztec.


The front jacket is adorned with a French lithograph depicting a Romantic writer reclining back, smoking hashish through a pipe; seemingly on a voyage of dreams. When comparing this to the front cover of Le Petit Parisien (right) that depicts a seedy Chinese opium den, with several Frenchmen laid out, attended to by Chinese workers, one gets a real sense of the cultural and historical forces surrounding drugs and society. For instance, the hashish-smoker is framed alone, lazily and purposefully reclined, he gives the impression of a private world, created for his own amusement; whilst the opium den is a busy commercial centre, the smokers covered up as if ill. Interestingly, whilst the Chinese are depicted as the purveyors of Opium, France had a virtual monopoly on Chinese opium at the time. Whilst themes like representation are explored in lucid but fanning detail by Jay in the text, the images he has chosen to accompany them provide a depth of insight that brings to life the historical relationship between drugs and culture, in all its multiplicity. Overall, High Society is a fascinating and highly recommended book and I greatly look forward to the exhibition it accompanies.

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About Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a writer, author, and editor director of the Psychedelic Press UK

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