Sorted for ease of scribbling

Do artists need narcotics even more than ordinary people? Richard Davenport-Hines examines authors' habits
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The Independent Culture

Constant sobriety is not a natural or pleasant condition, and intoxicants are an essential part of life and literature. "Life is an incurable disease," Abraham Cowley wrote in 1656, and until the 20th century there was little shame attached to using drugs as a crutch to help with life's emotional strains or as an aid to productivity in work. Sir Clifford Allbutt, the great Victorian physician on whom George Eliot modelled Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch, believed that all human beings required drugs "to soothe the nervous system, to restore it after fatigue". Even opium, he wrote, could be used "not as an idle or vicious indulgence, but as a reasonable aid in the work of life".

Constant sobriety is not a natural or pleasant condition, and intoxicants are an essential part of life and literature. "Life is an incurable disease," Abraham Cowley wrote in 1656, and until the 20th century there was little shame attached to using drugs as a crutch to help with life's emotional strains or as an aid to productivity in work. Sir Clifford Allbutt, the great Victorian physician on whom George Eliot modelled Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch, believed that all human beings required drugs "to soothe the nervous system, to restore it after fatigue". Even opium, he wrote, could be used "not as an idle or vicious indulgence, but as a reasonable aid in the work of life".

Authors found that some drugs had recreational value while others assuaged bad nerves, insomnia and other occupational hazards of a creative career. The pioneer of drug transcendence was the French novelist Charles Nodier in the 1790s. Nodier was a Romantic for whom life was a voyage of introspective self-discovery, and he convinced himself that opium gave him revelations that he could not obtain when sober. Like Aldous Huxley's experiments in the 1950s with mescaline and LSD, the literary results of Nodier's pharmacological adventures seem obscure and self-absorbed.

After the French occupation of Algeria in the 1830s, hashish was introduced to bohemian and artistic Paris. The Paris hashish users resembled the Californian potheads of the 1960s in their idealism, poses and self-indulgence. "We were troubadours, rebels," said Flaubert, "above all we were artists." He and his contemporaries used hashish as part of their rebellion against middle-class conventions and industrial capitalism - what he castigated as "the shrivelled runt of human aspirations" typified by "railways, enema pumps, cream cakes and the guillotine". Parisian hashish smokers and eaters remained subversive types. As late as the 1870s, Arthur Rimbaud smoked hashish during the defiant phase of his adolescence when he was contemplating becoming an urban terrorist.

Balzac claimed to have "heard celestial voices and seen heavenly paintings" after sampling hashish, but it was Flaubert who published an irresistibly sexy account of drug taking. In L'Education Sentimentale he became the first novelist to eroticise drug paraphernalia. For 19th-century readers, the sexiness of drugs was clinched in a scene from Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). This great Romantic novel, beloved by generations of European schoolboys, included luxuriant accounts of Aladdin enjoying hashish supplied by Sinbad. These scenes climaxed - and that is the word - with a voluptuous drug-induced dream that was like every schoolboy's most tortuously wonderful wet dream. "The more he strove against this unhallowed passion the more his senses yielded to its thrall, and at length, weary of the struggle, he gave way and sank back breathless and exhausted beneath the kisses of his marvellous dream."

In the 20th century, authors used newly developed "uppers" like amphetamines to improve their mental energy. For 20 years, from 1938 onwards, the poet WH Auden swallowed Benzedrine every morning rather in the way that we take vitamin supplements at breakfast. He described amphetamines as a "labour-saving device" in the "mental kitchen", with the important proviso that "these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook and constantly breaking down". He suffered a faltering of his creative powers when he underwent withdrawal from amphetamines in the late 1950s.

The menacing atmosphere of Graham Greene's superb novel, The Power and the Glory (1940), about a whisky priest being hunted by Communist insurgents in Mexico, is attributable to his heavy use of Benzedrine while he was writing the book. But Jean-Paul Sartre, who used amphetamines while writing a 50-page essay on Jean Genet, and ended up with an 800-page book, and whose 3,000-page study of Flaubert is definitively unreadable, demonstrated the dangers of writing on speed. Jack Kerouac used to break open Benzedrine nasal inhalers and drink their contents in Coca-Cola. He felt Benzedrine intensified his consciousness but recognised that the drug was wrecking his health. "I'm taking enormous doses of Benzedrine to write my novels - I probably won't live long enough to enjoy my money," he admitted presciently.

One day in Harlem in 1948, Allen Ginsberg started experiencing ecstatic religious visions while masturbating. When he crawled out onto the fire escape, and called to the woman next door "I've seen God", she slammed the window shut. Undeterred, he vowed to expand his consciousness and began a systematic exploration of his mind by the use of mescaline, LSD, peyote and heroin. Whether his mind, or poetry, was enhanced is doubtful.

Psychedelic drugs tended to make writers incoherent or ludicrous. When the Frenchman Michel Foucault tripped on LSD, part of his "visionary quest" in Death Valley in California, he thought he achieved a supreme revelation about the world. "The only thing I can compare this experience to is sex with a stranger," he said. Foucault, rather typically, had lost all sense of proportion or humour about himself.

Authors were recreational drug pioneers too. Around 1800 Thomas De Quincey found that laudanum, his preferred opium concoction, stimulated his "sensual pleasure" in music, and started drugging himself before going to concerts. Despite its gruesome details and masochistic self-flagellation, De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) attracted many younger readers into drug experimentation, and popularised the use of drugs in the pursuit of what Baudelaire in 1858 called "artificial paradises" and the "intensification of individuality".

The habitual use of drugs to cope with creative tension and the artistic temperament was even more influential on literature than recreational drug binges. Wilkie Collins became dependent on opium originally prescribed to treat his physical pains and strained nerves. "Laudanum - divine laudanum - was his only friend," he said of himself. He was drugged out of his senses when he wrote The Moonstone, which hinges on the effects of opium administered to an insomniac.

In several novels Collins described women who were yoked under male domestic tyranny, and repressed their frustrations with the help of opiates. The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning developed an opium habit as a way of coping with the emotional tensions and male bullying of her family life. "Opium - opium - night after night! - and some nights even opium won't do," she confessed. Her drug habit helped her function and did little harm. It was the Victorian equivalent of the modern use of anti-depressants and sedatives by oppressed, unhappy women - "mother's little helpers" as the Rolling Stones called them.

Writers, with their strained introspective working days and insomniac nights, were especially prone to depend on chemical props. Chloral, prescribed for insomnia in the 19th century, was highly addictive. It accelerated the mental collapse of Friedrich Nietzsche, gave paranoid hallucinations to the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and to Evelyn Waugh, and ruined André Gide's memory. A friend recalled Rossetti during one of his attempted withdrawals: "the low pleading voice, the note of pain, the awful sense of a body craving rest and a brain praying for unconsciousness".

Although drugs didn't do much good to authors' creativity, drug sub-cultures provided wonderful material for their books. Opium dens became emblematic of urban sleaze. The scene in a sordid opium den with which Charles Dickens opened The Mystery of Edwin Drood became as enduring a literary image as the hashish dreams in The Count of Monte Cristo. The opium smoker pictured by Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Man with the Twisted Lip" was typical of the sensationalised junkies of fiction: "an object of mingled horror and pity... with yellow face, drooping lids and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble man".

The new international system of prohibitions on the production, supply and possession of drugs, introduced after 1920 at the behest of the prohibitionist United States, created a new and lucrative occupation - the drug trafficker - who became a staple figure of popular fiction. Sax Rohmer's best-seller Dope, A Story of Chinatown and the Drug Traffic, published in 1920, was the first of thousands of thrillers and whodunnits with a drug-trafficking theme.

More cheerful, positive representations of the British drugs scene began 30 years later. This sub-culture, which emerged in Soho in the late 1940s and was evident at the time of the first police raids on London dance halls in 1950-51, is celebrated in Colin MacInnes's novels, City of Spades and Absolute Beginners. But it was a world of seedy disappointment as well as subversive glamour.

Drugs provided a marvellously adaptable and popular subject matter for authors - as sexy, sensational or sordid as they wanted. It has been a more mixed story for literary drug users. Although authors who took drugs for pure pleasure were the most criticised, they usually did the least harm to themselves. Druggy authors trying to turn themselves into transcendental voyagers virtually always made fools of themselves. And some writers who used substances both to cope and to unwind, found they couldn't handle the stuff, and did themselves harm. Others took the pills and went on working fine. Overall, then, authors were pretty much like everyone else.

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