Lucid, startling survey of significant writers and their cozy, quasi-scientific relationships with drugs.
Boon (English/York Univ., Toronto) avoids presenting “a neatly packaged answer to ‘the drug problem’ ” in favor of a more historical exploration of why literary discussion of and reliance on “socially, naturally, or spiritually potentiated substances” exploded after about 1800. He finds mysterious the lack of writing about so-called “drugs” before then, although widespread interest in them developed in Europe during the 16th century, spurred by Renaissance curiosities and colonialist appropriation of native practices. Dividing his study into five long essays (on narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics), Boon is rigorous in his scholarly approach, drawing frequent connections with Romanticism, Gnostic spirituality, Transcendentalism, radical medicine, and philosophers from Spinoza to Aleister Crowley. Yet these chapters also challenge the reader with “secret histories” of since-canonized writers who had outsized experimental appetites: in regard to drug influence, Boon discusses the work and lives of Yeats, Balzac, Coleridge, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Davy, Freud, and Walter Benjamin. His impartial, historicized approach pays off in his perceptive conclusions about the social prominence of certain drugs at specific moments in history, especially as prohibition fever mounted in the 20th century. Considerations of obvious outlaw touchstones like Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Philip K. Dick, and Lester Bangs (with lesser-known extremists like Austrian poet Georg Trakl) lead to surprising discussions, such as the way various right-wing groups fervently pursued hallucinogenic studies prior to 1960, or the way writers and others readily jumped from coffee to cocaine use around WWI, while WWII veterans returned home with a quasi-mechanical obsession with “speed,” literally and figuratively. Finally, Boon pays appropriate attention to the perverse forces that have seen these substances banned and their proponents criminalized, effectively negating the previous four centuries of human experience.
A well-executed, deliberative study that effectively reclaims and demystifies key written representations of drug experience. (12 halftone illustrations)