DEUCE: Intoxication As Inspiration
12th December 2013
People use drugs for a wealth of different reasons. Back in the 1960’s they were a tool for resistance, causing President Nixon to declare a war on narcotics. At this time, two primary armies formed in the West: the conservatives, who attacked with prohibition and taboos, and the liberals, who decided they would keep tripping balls. This ongoing battle has eclipsed some of the former motives for choosing to get faded. One of these, encouraged by numerous literary figures of the past, was using drugs for creativity. Exploring this unlikely connection heightens the complexity of the conflict today.
In 1800, Napoleon’s troops returned to France from a campaign in Egypt. They brought home an exotic herb which aroused much excitement – and not for its use in the kitchen. Soon after, the Hashish Club (Club des Hashisins) formed in order to test this compelling import. These Parisian luminaries wrote broadly of their experiences, hoping to unlock novel modes of thought. Founder of the group, Jacques-Joseph Moreau, wrote that hasish, “is an intellectual intoxication, preferable to the heavy ignoble drunkenness of alcohol.” Meanwhile, prominent symbolist poet Charles Baudelair pondered: “The simplest words take on new bizarre appearances. You’re amazed at having thought them so simple.” While there was no formal research on cannabis then, recent studies support these reflections. A psychiatry research study from 2010 proved that marijuana triggers a stream of word associations that are valuable for writing. In a separate study, Schafer and colleagues showed cannabis has psychotomimetic symptoms which enable the linking of seemingly unrelated concepts, a chief aspect of creative thinking. They also found it improved fluency.
Marijuana has suffered the worst of any substance from societal confusion. Conservatives promote it as a virus of mental ruin, while the opposition takes an equally troublesome stance. Today, your typical virgin blazer has already seen a wealth of cultural texts sensationalising the experience – and none of them allude to creativity. From the farcical propaganda films of the ‘20s through to modern depictions in music and cinema, it’s no wonder that weed is so misread. Drug use becoming inculcated in popular culture has only worsened the stigmas. In the world of rap, cannabis symbolises status and hedonism. Hollywood spreads a similarly un-academic portrayal, as film writer Mark Smith observes: “Stoners are routinely depicted as lazy, inept, and while not without a certain charm, dissociated from reality. The problem with Hollywood’s depiction of the stoner is that it’s the image the general public perceive as reality.”
So how did this come about? One could argue there was a loss of moderation. Baudelair was cautious with his use of the drug, explaining the importance of writers keeping their mind independent from external influence. Walter Benjamin – who I will soon discuss– also believed that reality must be preserved. His stance is a long stretch from those of contemporary rappers like Lil Wayne, who boasts, “and I smoke till I get chest pain, I’ve been so high so long I fell asleep on the aeroplane.” To give you an idea of the scope of such a message, we’re talking about an artist who had the biggest selling album in America in 2009. Marijuana is often abused due to its harmless image, despite studies linking it to anxiety and depression. This abuse also explains the loss of the creative smoker. Richard Rudgley believes “few societies pursue intoxication in the arbitrary and hedonistic fashion prevalent in the West.”
After the Hashish Club fell apart, a romanticist philosopher named Walter Benjamin carried the torch. He formed the notion of the flaneur (an individual who strolls through urban landscapes, re-sensitising themselves to the mundane happenings.) He wrote that for the act of the flaneur, hashish offered “narcotic illumination”, which means heightened perceptions. He wrote of an “aura” effect that enhanced his appreciation of art and architecture. Benjamin had a planned routine throughout his creative high. This reveals the shortcomings of the typical marijuana rituals today: one can’t expect that smoking bongs and watching reality television is going to unravel your mind. In order to break down some of the stigma, stoners need to revaluate their chosen routine. In the piece Hashish in Mersailles, Benjamin writes, “I would love to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us, for less egoistic purposes, that squandering of our own existence which we know and love.” He communicates here that the effects are as liberating for the mind as being in love. Why waste this on eating a tub of Ben and Jerries?
Aldous Huxley shared a similarly profound view of drugs and perception. One of the most respected writers of the century, Huxley first experimented with hallucinogens in the 1950s. His pieces Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) explored his respective experiences of mescaline and LSD. He believed these substances showed the user alternative worlds and wrote that hallucinogens “give people who lack the gift of spontaneous visionary perception belonging to great artists, the potential to experience this extraordinary state of consciousness.” He believed our true creative abilities come from inside and that drugs open the valve of our true potential. In the early ‘60s, there were numerous tests on LSD. One of these saw 22 professionals attempt to solve long-standing professional hurdles on low doses of the drug. The results showed “that LSD had absolutely helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems.” Unfortunately, such studies were abandoned soon after when the drug become became a banner for the counterculture.
Intoxication rituals have vastly changed since then. The rise of nightclubs and raves in the 1980s saw the popularity of hallucinogens replaced by club-friendly substances like MDMA. Drug users had began to pursue a synthetic, hedonistic pleasure. Gangly guitarists debating the meaning of life made way for musclebound bros, hugging with clenched jaws. Taking ecstasy with the goal of dancing is less stimulating taking acid to expand ones mind. That Huxley regarded LSD as a meaningful act is shown in his death; he asked in his final moments to be injected with the drug. Interestingly, he didn’t claim creativity is enhanced for every user. In an interview he stated, “there’s an enormous variation in the way people respond to acid. Some people probably could get direct aesthetic inspiration for painting or poetry out of it, others would not.” Here lies the catch, which makes creative intoxication just as problematic as any other method. Joshua Shenk explains human reactions to drugs are deeply erratic. We cannot abbreviate substances to the likes of “heroine kills, prozac makes you smile.”
Pharmaceutical companies marketing antidepressants as “certain relief” is as bad as a weed dealer telling you “this will certainly make you creative!” Half of prescription drugs have no proven mechanism of action, and the drugs I’ve discussed are yet more uncertain. If you aren’t a creative person, it’s more likely that smoking weed will make you hungry and confused than inspired to write poetry. Inspiration comes from inside us, much like happiness, so seeking these feelings from a substance can trigger: a) the opposite effect, or b) depending on the substance for the given effect. The latter of these outcomes is a testament to the alcoholic writer. Creativity is highly dependent on routine, so for this approach to work the user must have the foundations of that routine in place. In this light, the cautious approach of Benjamin and the Hashish Club is of an even greater bearing.
Shenk writes: “The majority of studies on illicit drugs have been proven to emphasise the dangers and ignore the benefits.” With an appropriate method, some psychotropics can enhance creativity, but the rituals of recent years are a serious hurdle. Both armies of the drug war have tried to detach certain effects of substances, emphasising these as independent from the others. But we should be aiming for a holistic understanding of narcotics, of both the good and the bad. As Shenk says, “It’s time to begin living with that horror, and that blessing.”