Travel and Drugs in Twentieth-Century Literature by Lindsey Michael Banco

Originally published in 2010 ‘Travel and Drugs in Twentieth-Century Literature’ by Lindsey Michael Banco is a scholarly analysis of how these two elements have been utilised in tandem by writers. Part of an increasingly articulate tradition of critical drug writing, Banco’s book demonstrates a number of interesting tools in order to shed new light on some of drug literature’s finest texts and is an important work for establishing discussion in this fascinating territory.

Analysing a number of important twentieth-century texts, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) by Hunter S. Thompson and Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962), Banco attempts to reveal how travel and drugs intersect in the imaginal realm of literature. This intersection, or amalgamation, is described as Tripping. The word is employed to mean either the object of Banco’s study – “fiction that employs the conjoined topoi of travel and drugs” (Banco 2010, 2) – or, in order to describe the amalgamation itself: “the literatures of Tripping encode intoxication in terms of travel, and other times they reconceptualise travel as a result of intoxication” (Banco 2010, 3). The book is apportioned into three parts, entitled Set and Setting, Drugs and the Disciplinary Power of Utopian Travel and Drugs and the Revisions of Anti-Tourism, while each part has two sections.

The opening part, Set and Setting, lays out the theoretical foundations of Banco’s approach and utilises Huxley’s mescaline-inspired works, The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), and William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters (1963) in order to introduce the aforementioned uses of Tripping:

In their depiction of the drug-using traveler, these texts sometimes eschew the notion of a stable self authorized by travel in favor of a subject always in formation, and at other times, they register unease in the face of such incipience by seeking stability. Tripping foregrounds both the construction of selfhood’s borders and the foreignness that is constantly circling the borders looking for a way in (Banco 2010, 31)

Understood in this way, through questions of identity and otherness, makes Huxley and Burroughs an ideal starting point for the examination of Tripping. For Banco, Huxley’s mescaline texts represent the author’s conservative “elitism,” constructed in part through Heaven and Hell’s famous cartographical metaphor of the mind. The metaphor is read as being an imperial, indeed colonial, articulation of consciousness; a place in which only the trained navigate because the experience is debilitating. This is interesting so far as the focus is usually placed on the antipodes, the end goal that Huxley himself does not achieve in the texts, which is to say the union of opposites and mysticism. Banco’s colonial analysis, however, is more concerned with the construction of Huxley’s territory as a whole cartography.

While Banco notes that the “neo-imperial lights” are only one method of understanding Tripping in Huxley’s two texts, it may be worth briefly exploring another here. Perhaps more revealingly, the question of setting, which is to say under the auspices of psychotomimetic researchers, may have revealed a different dimension to the cartographical metaphor that Banco misses. Two strands of psychiatric research with hallucinogens, the psycholytic and psychotomimetic, were proliferating during the 1950s. And, coupled with Huxley’s perennial philosophy and the influences of psychologist William James and psychopharmacologist Louis Lewin, who both described sacred states of intoxication, the co-ordinates for a map were already in place. Huxley’s metaphor, could perhaps be read, as a poetic articulation of these aforementioned ideas.

The mobility of travel, therefore, came in the form of therapy, one that would become medico-socially articulated as psychedelic therapy, as opposed to simply being a colonial invasion of the unknown (for, of course, the territories were already known.) The therapy is a process of movement wherein a drug user is led out of a mental and/or spiritual pathology or schism, into realisation, integration and health; thus leading to a fixed idea of self and identity. The travel through one’s identity, from self to not-I and from birth and death, is facilitated by a guide or therapist according to predetermined systems, or maps. In this manner, identity and mobility are culturally and psychiatrically constructed. Tripping, therefore, uses the transience of intoxication to mobilise theories of the mind in order to fix identity.

For Burroughs’ The Yage Letters, Banco challenges a similar neo-colonial reading by Brian Musgrove, instead casting the book as a satire in which the colonialist is characterized by Burroughs under his pseudonym ‘Lee’. Yet, in terms of Tripping, Musgrove’s neo-colonial reading is intentionally complicated as opposed done away with by Banco. The satirical element knowingly frustrates and interchanges the mobility of travel and drugs, and the text, according to Banco, deploys “travel and drugs ambivalently” (Banco 2010, 53). In other words, they both portray limiting and opening facets for the Tripping self, as Burroughs utilises them through the satirical, imperial gaze of Lee. This is, I believe, in great credit to the skill of Burroughs.

In part two, Drugs and the Disciplinary Power of Utopian Travel, Banco analyzes Huxley’s last novel Island and Alex Garland’s The Beach (1997). Island is described as a “literary conceit” that vents Huxley’s conservative attitude. It represents selfhood in its attention and fixity with infinity yet also as vulnerable to the mechanisms of consumer society; attention wavering between. Through the moksha-medicine, Huxley’s Tripping is permeated with colonial flights through consciousness in order to fixate the self within its territory. Garland’s text, on which Banco focuses into anti-tourism, brings out the immobility of utopian travel. Identity is re-asserted by a “neo-colonial backpacker” whose intoxication serves as a bridge to the non-utopian world beyond the island; escaping the trappings of a false utopia. According to Banco, these books “thematize relatively conservative articulations of selfhood as ways their fictional Trippers can understand, maintain, or delimit their psychedelic experiences” (Banco 2010, 98). However, other texts produce a more liberating attitude.

Thompson’s and Sedlack’s travelers express distaste for their destinations and for the predominant modes of travel associated with those destinations, but they are able—in various and ambivalent ways—to harness intoxication for the creative revision of their understandings of space and travel (Banco 2010, 101)

The final part deals with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Robert Sedlack’s The African Safari Papers (2001). This part takes into account revisions of anti-tourism and how drugs intersect them, with the intention of demonstrating how drugs are used to catalyze an openness in space and travel. While they both retain conservative views on drugs—Thompson depicting them as an element in the demise of the counterculture for instance—they also allow intoxication to reinterpret travel and, as such, is a creative force in their texts. Banco sees Thompson’s Las Vegas as a Foucauldian counter-site; a place in which the problems of tourism are complicated by the excesses of Raoul Duke. A resistance to tourism is embodied within the attitude by the reinvention of Duke’s own mobility; his Tripping. This method exposes traditional forms of travel in Vegas as intoxicated fixities, while simultaneously resisting their trappings.

There is a strongly political thread running through Travel and Drugs in Twentieth-Century Literature. Predominantly, this stems from the neo-colonial analyses that Banco employs throughout his analyses. As such, the tension of his examinations centre around the individual’s mobility as being restricted or freed by their assignment of the travel and drugs relationship. The politics are reduced to typical conservative/progressive assignments, however, and it would perhaps have been interesting to have employed a more radical approach. The great upshot of this work is its fine scholarship, which Banco has executed succinctly, through the majestic use of Tripping as a conceptual tool. An important contribution to the critical study of drug literature.

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4 Responses

  1. Kevin Murray says:

    This is an excellent, concise review. I am curious about the final paragraph which suggests that a “radical” approach might be more compelling than the traditional binary spectrum of conservative/progressive analysis so common in academic scholarship. What might this radical approach be?

    • PsypressUK says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for your comments. The question of radicalizing the political reading could work in two ways I think. Firstly, by understanding Tripping as being, in itself, a transgressive act, which I believe could yield some more interesting results – especially in regard to stepping outside the binary distinction. So, for example, Burroughs Tripping to South America in search of yage as a cure for his opiate addiction could be understood as stepping outside the medico-politics of the Western mould. Secondly, by employing a different academic approach that took into account radical, political readings – for example, what would a post-marxist make of Thompson’s critique of the American dream and his use of psychedelics to highlight this? What I think is very important about Banco’s book is the development of conceptual tools that could be utilised by different disciplines – great groundwork for future research.

      Rob

  2. Kevin Murray says:

    This is an excellent, concise review. I am curious about the final paragraph which suggests that a “radical” approach might be more compelling than the traditional binary spectrum of conservative/progressive analysis so common in academic scholarship. What might this radical approach be?

    • PsypressUK says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for your comments. The question of radicalizing the political reading could work in two ways I think. Firstly, by understanding Tripping as being, in itself, a transgressive act, which I believe could yield some more interesting results – especially in regard to stepping outside the binary distinction. So, for example, Burroughs Tripping to South America in search of yage as a cure for his opiate addiction could be understood as stepping outside the medico-politics of the Western mould. Secondly, by employing a different academic approach that took into account radical, political readings – for example, what would a post-marxist make of Thompson’s critique of the American dream and his use of psychedelics to highlight this? What I think is very important about Banco’s book is the development of conceptual tools that could be utilised by different disciplines – great groundwork for future research.

      Rob

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