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Drugs are in the news again. If the new Guardian/Mixmag survey of 15,500 people is to be believed, despite the government’s best efforts, many of us are still spending our leisure hours pouring strange white powders into all our available orifices. This confirms something I’ve thought for a long time: it’s extraordinarily difficult to stop drugs seeming awesome, and literature doesn’t help. After all, for every maidenly teacher telling you that Drugs Are Bad, you’ve got twenty songs, poems and novels promising looking-glass porters, tangerine trees and marshmallow skies.
In writing, drug-taking is almost as glamorised as sex—and look how well abstinence-only education generally works out. Art—or at least, a certain kind of art—tells us that drugs unlock the mind, unleash the imagination and lead to prose both groovy and deathless. Whether it’s French bohemians sipping absinthe to get themselves into the Toulouse Lautrec showgirl-painting spirit, Romantics taking opium and striding about on moors to experience Nature, or the Beat poets going on road trips laced up to the gills on horse tranquillisers, the artist and the mind-altering substance go together like gin and tonic, cheese and chocolate, or Holmes and Watson.
I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the first time at A-level and, thoroughly clean-living seventeen year old that I was, came to the conclusion that the lack of opium-taking must be a large part of why most twentieth-century poetry is so dull compared to Coleridge’s time. After all, think of the enormous cultural benefits drugs have given us! From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Magic Roundabout, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, our gains have been immense.
In recent years, though, I’ve come to be less convinced by my own argument. Yes, drug taking can lead to terribly romantic visions (with or without the capital R), but from the prosaic anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, drugs are far more likely to bring on confusion, partial blindness and the unnerving sensation that the sky is caving in on you. For every majestic image of a jaguar in the sky there are twenty stories distinctly less full of artistic possibility. Acquaintances have fallen passionately in love with socks, been convinced that the duvet was trying to eat them and spent two hours stroking their arm because it suddenly felt like butter. I once went to a party at which a friend, in the grip of a (tenuously legal) mind-altering substance, spent the entire evening rhythmically stroking the side of my face and remarking on the complexities of my ear lobe. It makes a great story in retrospect, but artistic exploration was clearly the last thing on her mind at the time. If I’d given her a pen and asked her to note down her thoughts and feelings I doubt I’d have dragged three coherent words out of her, never mind a poem.
All of this makes me extremely suspicious when I hear it claimed that a Great Work was the result of an artificially altered state. The most famous of these stories, of course, is about Coleridge, a notorious addict and pretty much the poster child for the bad trip: he’d take opium and have terrifying visions of being prodded by weirdly shaped demons. Apparently, the idea for his poem Kubla Khan (1816) came to him in a (pipe) dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China Kublai Khan, whereupon he leapt up, pulled out his pen and began frantically scribbling it down. He was really getting into his stride, and had just reached the part about flashing eyes and floating hair when he was interrupted by someone whom he refers to as the “Person from Porlock” (Porlock, for where he lived). What the Person wanted is not clear, but the point is that Coleridge was snapped out of his trance, and as a result, the thread of Kubla Khan was lost, never to be found again.
I find all of this extremely difficult to buy. I’m willing to bet that opium did have a lot to do with Kubla Khan’s subject material, since it displays the kind of leap-of-logic thinking that suggests its creator was too busy having thoughts to remember that he needed to write them all down; however, I doubt that opium was its most potent source. If it had been, the Person from Porlock would have opened Coleridge’s cottage door to discover him sitting in a chair, painstakingly drawing the same letter over and over again onto the wood of his desk.
In fact, despite the popular belief that trips are conducive to brilliant artistic creation, there’s a definite disconnect between the best works about drugs and drug-taking itself. Jack Kerouac, for example, may have spent seven years souped up to the eyeballs on alarmingly inventive substances, but when he actually sat down to write On The Road he wasn’t under the influence of anything stronger than coffee. And lest you try to argue that the baseline experience is still necessary for a true understanding of the business of getting high, let me point you in the direction of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. The book’s set piece—and one of my all-time favourite literary moments—involves the protagonist Lucy Snowe being given drugs, tripping out and going to an all-night carnival. According to her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, Bronte researched the episode by staying up all one night and thinking very hard about what it would be like to be on drugs. The result is far more impressive than most comparable scenes by self-avowed connoisseurs.
Like sex, drug-taking is a lot funnier and more disturbing than literature generally gives it credit. Unlike sex though, I’d say that when it comes to writing about altered states, experience is not entirely necessary. Despite what many artists may claim, the only thing actually required is a vivid imagination, and I’m fairly sure that’s something most writers already possess.
So, kids, don’t do drugs! Just sit really still and imagine doing drugs, and then write a bestselling book about it. As a message this needs some work, but I think there’s some truth to it.