Emperors of Dreams by Mike Jay

Originally published in 2000 ‘Emperors of Dreams – Drugs in the Nineteenth Century’ by Mike Jay is an extraordinary examination of the proliferation of various drugs during an enlightenment fuelled Victorian age. Drawing on meticulous research, the book manages to combine elements of scientific, medical, literary and social history, in a manner befitting such a complex topic and the execution is highly readable, insightful and very entertaining.   

The goal of this review is to examine the content and at the same time to draw lines of flight to twentieth century drug writing. Indeed, Mike draws his own conclusions between the differing attitudes of the centuries, socially, but we’ll return to this at the end. Suffice to say it is the changing attitude of both the culture and the establishment that forms the crux of this differing perspective. The text itself is partitioned via the drugs; namely with chapters on nitrous oxide, opium, cannabis, ether, cocaine and mescaline. And is concluded with a look at the Temperance movement and alcohol prohibition. In many respects the  Emperors of Dreams is a culmination narrative of the revisionist history of drugs, which took place at the end of last century but is also notable for taking into account the subjective efficacy of these substances as well.

Jay employs the wonderful metaphor of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in order to give a generalised framework of how drugs proliferated. It is a three act sequence wherein first, drugs are discovered and celebrated, usually in regard to the enlightenment vision, which is to say they are initially seen as enhancing humanity’s control over itself and nature. Secondly they escape the laboratory into society, thereby entering into a more profane space. Then, thirdly, the demonisation and attempts to extinguish the drugs by the powers at be. Though not totally accurate in all cases, it certainly does give one the feel of how the human-drug relationship developed. A good example is cocaine.

Although coca leaves arrived in the west along with coffee, tobacco and cocoa, with the discovery of the New World several hundred years before the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the more potent cocaine was isolated that the three act sequence played out. Jay tells the story from Freud’s point-of-view, in order to both redefine his relationship with cocaine and because the other major players intersect with his story. Initially, there was great hope for the drug medically as a possible aid to morphine addiction – herein the enlightenment aspect. Then, soon discovering the addictive quality of cocaine and the drug already having entered the profane space through its commercialisation, meant that soon after the First World War it became prohibited worldwide. The space it still remains in today.

The opening chapter on nitrous oxide is truly fascinating, beginning with Cornishman Humphry Davy, consuming the gas in Bristol, on the 17th of April 1799, leading to its vast expansion that made it, in Jay’s words, “the most celebrated, studied and frequently experienced psychedelic drug of the nineteenth century”(50). It is, to this day, the gentle underlying hiss of many of the UK’s finest summer festivals. Medically speaking, it was eventually found to be a useful anaesthetic but what is interesting, however, is how the ambiguity of the subjective experience became a tool for variable interpretation. For some it became an ontological tool, a sheer demonstration of metaphysics and was even used in the manner of a travelling showpiece, to demonstrate Original Sin in audience members.

Probably the most enduring reading though, especially in regard to twentieth century drug writing, was by American philosopher William James who wrote about Nitrous Oxide in his oft cited classic Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902). According to Jay, James’ interest in Friedrich Hegel had led him to the problem of his thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula – how could two contradictory ideas be conflated? Empirically this is illogical, however, in regard to the subjective experience of nitrous oxide James believed he’d found it demonstrated. The resolution of contradiction, or in other terms the unity of opposites, became a central component to drug theory, finding expression in the ideas of Walter Benjamin and later in the work of Leary et al. in the 1960s.

The ether story ran along similar lines to nitrous oxide. Though its use is far rarer these days (perhaps worth noting that the first time I became aware of it was in reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson in my early teens) Mike notes: “Apart from the omnipresent alcohol, ether was one of the most widely used recreational drugs of the era, though usually concentrated in local scenes”(128). It was truly a medical wonder and in itself can lay claim to giving birth to medical anaesthesia. There is a fascinating tale of bitter argument surrounding ether, between three individuals who all claimed to have discovered its anaesthetic property and it is tales such as these that make the whole text so enthralling.

Of course, in the popular mindset, the two drugs that seem to stand out most from the nineteenth century are opium and hashish. Mike presents these, in the first instance, as colonial tales from two countries and, in the second, as being popularised via the great works of literature that employ them.

Imperial Britain controlled the opium trade via growing in its Indian colonies and, through the two opium wars, peddling in China. However, although opium had been used in Western Europe for millennia for its medicinal properties, two circumstances conspired to transform the cultural perspective of the drug. Firstly, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which, though perhaps more biographical, shed a new light on opium, depicting as a sort of window to dreams. For drug writing, this meant a new invisible landscape was opened up. Secondly, as the century wore on, its new association with the Far East (thanks to both De Quincey’s use of the Malay character and the Opium wars) it was used to demonise the Chinese immigrants in a manner later utilized by Americans in their demonisation of Mexicans and Blacks with Marijuana. Politically motivated drug law.

Hashish is linked with France and its colonial ties with Egypt, where hashish had been in regular use for many hundreds of years and returning French troops and such like brought it back with them. French psychiatrist Joseph Moreau de Tours began experimenting with hashish, especially in regard to mental illness. On deciding that it wasn’t useful as a treatment, Moreau proposed that it was useful as a method by which doctors could have empathy with their patients by using it on themselves, in order to mimic their mental conditions. Arguably it was from here that the term psychotomimetic first began to develop. In the following century the angle remained embedded in the medical establishment and, most famously, was repeated by Sandoz in the 1940s and 50s with their LSD marketing.

Especially interesting, in regard to literature, Moreau was also fascinated by the application of hashish on the ‘genius’, the artist and the poet, just as Aldous Huxley and Oscar Janiger were with psychedelics in the following century. His experiments led to the development of the infamous Club des Haschischins, itself wrapped in much myth that Jay examines with a keen critical eye. One person who was associated with the club was Charles Baudelaire – though there is no definitive record he was a member as such – but he is perhaps better understood as a fan of de Quincey. As Jay notes: “Baudelaire for his own part seems to have regarded his essays mainly as homage to the work of his hero, de Quincey” (108). On Wine and Hashish and The Artificial Paradise, however, are now regarded as classics of drug writing and are important texts in development of the genre.

Jay also notes an important distinction that Baudelaire uses, which he appears to have picked up from Moreau, namely that of ‘pure hallucination’ and ‘allusion’. For them, the drug experience was an allusion as the objects around them were transformed, rather than an apparition appearing as if from nowhere. After Baudelaire, the next popular writing to emerge on Hashish was in America and “the motive was perhaps the cosmic, nature-worshipping Transcendentalist strain in American literary culture” that “prepared a generation who had also drunk deeply of Baudelaire and his associates to experience the mysteries of ‘hasheesh’ at first hand.” This strain appeared once more with the slew of new works that arose in the 1960s.

Jay’s chapter on Mescaline is rather broader than the title indicates, for it also examines magic mushrooms – namely Psilocybe and Amanita strains – he talks about the famous 1799 case of a family who appear to have accidently taken Psilocybe mushrooms in London. A part of British history re-examined more closely by Andy Letcher in Shroom. They both, however, come to similar conclusions as to the cultural roots of mushroom use: “…the story of magic mushrooms in the nineteenth century is one of limited trajectory – from an unwitting experiment with an unknown species in 1799 to a popular fiction about an unwitting experiment with an unknown species in 1897”[199].

Mescaline, however, is a story intimately tied with America and the Native American traditions. Whilst many of these drug stories, with the exception of cocaine, have mostly begun as scientific curiosities and moved into profane and transcendental spaces, mescaline – in the form of the peyote cactus – has been used ritualistically by the Native Americans for a very long time. Like opium however, being used politically against the Chinese, mescaline was used to demonise the Native Americans, partly because it was seen as a unifying force between the various tribes, which it eventually became with the establishment of the Native American Church, using peyote as its central sacrament.

In regard to Western culture, the story is fascinating, especially in the manner it came to frame drug literature of later years. Jay quotes Havelock Ellis’ report entitled Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise – a nod in the direction of Baudelaire – and quotes him as saying “thick, glorious fields of jewels” – this jewel motif is repeated throughout the literature, not least by Aldous Huxley and Jane Dunlap (with LSD.) Mescaline, in many ways, set the foundations for the psychedelic 20th century and its inherited ritualistic use became synonymous with the transcendental use of psychedelics in post-1960s literature; especially in those concerned with shamanism as the cultural focus moved away from Eastern religions.

Jay frames the Nineteenth Century drug investigations as being contingent with enlightenment attitudes, as the scientific and medical communities began “scientific mapping of the unexplored realms of the mind” (221). Broadly speaking, the attitude was that humanity could take further control over its nature by manipulating the drugs to their benefit. He writes though, that they’d be “astonished” to find the following century’s attitude was that the drugs belonged to humanity’s “primitive and atavistic past.” He discusses the Temperance societies and the prohibition model, developed with alcohol during 1920s America, and how they came to be the dominant cultural forces – drugs became a regression of the self. It seems to me that the enlightenment attitude, though forced from the mainstream, found continued expression in the twentieth century through the underground psychedelic movement, especially once the classic psychedelics had been made illegal.

I often wax lyrical about the books I review, largely because I think they all have something positive to offer, whether it be in content, style or merely as texts that help elucidate the  tell-tale signs of a genre. However, it is no understatement to say that Emperors of Dreams is a truly valuable work, not least because it manages to portray detailed research in a, narratively speaking, engaging manner, but also because it puts so much contemporary scholarship into perspective. In regard to psychedelic studies, with its many approaches, Jay has managed to write an over-arching tale that should be necessary reading for all, for it puts calm, logical perspective of what is often a murky history. Yet, beyond its usefulness academically, it reads beautifully. The human tales that surround the drugs are wonderfully woven in and always revealing; giving the book an entertaining fluidity. To find out more about Mike Jay and his book please visit his website: http://www.mikejay.net

Jay, Mike: Emperors of Dreams – Drugs in the Nineteenth Century. Dedalus. 2005. Print.

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9 Responses

  1. October 16, 2010

    […] 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 […]

  2. November 2, 2010

    […] 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 […]

  3. January 31, 2011

    […] Mike Jay. His previously published drug-related works include such titles as ‘Blue Tide’ and ‘Emperors of Dreams’ and this offering is an examination of, arguably, the era in which modern drug writing first […]

  4. January 3, 2012

    […] more comprehensively since the publication of Alice in Acidland; most notably by Mike Jay in Emperors of Dreams (2000) – in fact in the latest edition of the book (2011), the question of Carroll, drugs and […]

  5. January 13, 2012

    […] an author and curator who has written widely on the history and culture of drugs. His books include Emperors of Dreams: drugs in the nineteenth century, The Atmosphere of Heaven (on the discovery of nitrous oxide) and […]

  6. February 21, 2012

    […] subject of the connection between drugs and culture more explicitly than ever before; Mike Jay’s Emperors of Dreams (2000) and Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming (2008) for example, both of which embed the drugs […]

  7. February 21, 2012

    […] subject of the connection between drugs and culture more explicitly than ever before; Mike Jay’s Emperors of Dreams (2000) and Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming (2008) for example, both of which embed the drugs […]

  8. May 15, 2012

    […] 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 […]

  9. May 15, 2012

    […] 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 […]

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