Artificial Paradises by Mike Jay (Ed)

Originally published in 1999 ‘Artificial Paradises’ is a collection of passages from across the far-reaching genre of drug literature and was collated and edited by Mike Jay. Jay is one Britain’s leading drug writers and his works include ‘Blue Tide’, ‘Emperors of Dreams’ and, more recently, ‘The Atmosphere of Heaven’ and ‘High Society’.

The title of this anthology – Artificial Paradises – is taken from the nineteenth century French poet Charles Baudelaire’s own work of the same name. Published in 1860 Baudelaire’s work is largely concerned with wine, hashish and opium. While his opium writing is mostly a translation of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), which also has a place in this collection, it is his work on hashish that is included. Jay writes that Baudelaire “stresses that such drugs are not magical in their effects, but [are] dependent on the expectations and constitution of the user” (Jay 1999, 15). In many respects, this is also the outcome of this anthology, so far as it understands certain drugs to have played a cultural role across time and national boundaries and their understanding to be contingent to their socio-historical usage.

“Drug-related cultures and subcultures, from prehistory to the present, have generated their own stories and symbolisms, even their own cosmologies and language. Drug use often presents a unique lens through which to view social organization: almost every culture has its intoxicants of choice, and its ‘scapegoat substances’ which must be repressed at all costs, driven into the wilderness for the benefit of society at large” (Jay 1999, xvii)

However, one should not assume that magic has not played a role in particular socio-historical understandings, as is aptly exemplified by the opening passage, taken from Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (Second Century AD). In this section, the protagonist, Lucius, is transformed into an ass by a witch’s potion. Magic, in this sense, is a literary tool but one that reflects certain beliefs in the culture of the time; namely, the existence of magic ointments that have a transformative effect. The transformative quality implied by drug writers takes on many guises. A passage from Herodotus’s The Histories (450 BC) understands it to be, at the same time, more ritualistic and mundane, as the Scythians, after burial, use hemp to clean themselves, throwing seeds on to a fire and having a vapour bath: “The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure” (Jay 1999, 183). The ritual transformation, from an unclean to clean state, serves as a kind of self-purge for the ancient culture.

Aside from the more obvious inclusions, like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), Timothy Leary’s Flashbacks (1983) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1889), there are a number of passages that are surprising, so far as they really demonstrate the extent to which drug writing has a role in many various literary forms. For example, the very short passage taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (1889), written shortly before the philosopher’s own fall into madness: “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication” (Jay 1999, 137). Jay uses Nietzsche’s idea, of intoxication in aesthetic theory, to introduce his section on drugs and art. The vista it opens up includes works from such diverse characters as Henri Michaux, Mezz Mezzrow and Lewis Carroll. The effect is to ground drugs, and the intoxication they produce, alongside that perennially human endeavour of art, which like drugs, stretches across time and culture.

Certain inclusions are revealing of character and history in ways that are not always popularly known: Sigmund Freud writing eloquently on the virtues of cocaine (while he ‘medicated’ himself with the drug it should be added), or Anaïs Nin revealing in her diary that she underwent LSD experiences in the 1950s, although it added “nothing new or valuable to her writing” (Jay 1999, 178). Other sections begin to reveal the qualitative history of our understandings of certain drugs; peyote and mescaline being an obvious example. A passage from Havelock Ellis’s Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise (1898), one from Antonin Artaud’s The Peyote Dance, and Huxley’s aforementioned The Doors of Perception, among others, reveal the potency of a drug over the minds of various thinkers/writers. Indeed, when these texts are read in full, when they are compared and contrasted, it is easy to see how surface similarities are often riding the waves of multifarious approaches.

Overall, Jay’s selection of writings is well-researched and neatly presented, taking into account ancient texts and more recent additions to the canon like Alexander and Ann Shulgin’s Tihkal (1997). While, on the one hand, the anthology has its cultural point to make, it does, on the other, provide a very interesting and enjoyable read; perfectly viable for the casual reader and the drug writing researcher alike. Well worth reading, if only to immerse yourself in the great litany of human cultural history.

Via the House

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1 Response

  1. Daniel Williams says:

    I scream, you scream, we all scream for…drugs.

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