A Week in Books
Saturday 05 August 1995
Before the anti-drug laws of the early 20th century, the literary dope- head was an accepted figure. Along with STC, came a long roll-call of Romantic names - Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas De Quincey, Walter Scott, Charles Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier, Gerard de Nerval. Even respectable-seeming Victorians such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning indulged in laudanum, which was the standard, all-purpose medicine of the time but which could also, it was held, act as a visionary stimulant. Wilkie Collins claimed he had written his brilliantly plotted thriller, The Moonstone, while under the influence (he also claimed acquaintance with a green woman with tusks who used to meet him on the stairs on his way to bed).
Coleridge and De Quincey, whose Confessions of an English Opium Eater remains his best known work, liked to think that opium acted as a genuinely creative force. Far from being the refuge of self-deluding cheats, it cleansed the doors of perception and opened up new worlds which would otherwise remain forever closed.
But Baudelaire, who translated De Quincey and frequented the celebrated Club des Haschischins, had far less faith in drugs as artistic enablers or machines a penser. He warned potential users "to realise that the thoughts of which they hope to make so much use are not really as beautiful as they appear in the tinsel magic of their momentary disguise". Drugs may heighten the imagination, but they can only act on what is there already - they cannot create out of the blue - and, worst of all, they weaken the will, making the artist less able to translate his fantasies into literary form.
Baudelaire's viewpoint certainly makes sense in the case of one of literature's great failures, Branwell Bronte, who became an opium-eater in imitation of De Quincey, only to find that it failed to confer upon him the literary genius to which he aspired. Poor old Branwell may have tried to cheat, but it certainly didn't improve his performance in relation to his drug- free competitors, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong
- 2 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
- 3 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 4 University student in court for allegedly covering housemates' food in window cleaner and spit
- 5 Garland shooting: Isis claims attack on Prophet Mohamed cartoon contest in Texas as its first action on US soil
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
Eurovision 2015: What date is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Game of Thrones, season 5 episode 4, review: Sansa in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
The highly NSFW poster for Gaspar Noé's Love makes Nymphomaniac look like 50 Shades
In defence of liberal democracy
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils
Andy McSmith's Sketch: Feisty audience is the real star of an enlightening show