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.
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