Literary Notes: The study of drugs is never about drugs alone

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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS "drug literature"? There used to be a more or less de facto answer to this: it was the rather lurid collection of small press and American import material racked up in bookshops under headings like "counter-culture" and "underground". But the more the term is used, and the more books about drugs emerge into the publishing mainstream, the less clear it becomes what exactly we're talking about. In what sense is this stuff "literature"? Does "drug literature" mean literature about drugs, or literature inspired by drugs - or literature which appeals to readers on drugs?

It seems to me that "drug literature" actually has two quite different senses - one broad, one narrow. The narrow one is writing which is composed by, and for - and usually published by - avowed members of the drug counter- culture. Whatever its content, its form is quite tightly set by the expectations of its readers, who are assumed to be at the very least drug users, almost certainly political radicals (legalisers), and probably committed to the ideal of a transformative revolution in consciousness.

Despite the breadth of this material (anthropology, psychology, poetry), it's a literature of preaching to the converted, with the whiff of the revolutionary cell - a peculiar type of initiatic text which offers quasi-ritual power, fetishistic appeal and, of course, inevitable limitations.

But there's a far broader sense of "drug literature": simply, literature about drugs which is aimed not at a predefined set of pro-drug apologists but at a more general public. This broad set of material is dizzying in its scope. It goes back as far as history itself, and includes many of humanity's earliest texts (the Rig Veda, Egyptian papyri, the Odyssey). It spans the globe: Sufi poetry, Amazonian ritual chants, the centuries of travellers' tales of exotic and other-worldly rites beyond the Western imagination.

It cuts a vast swathe through science, from the Enlightenment discoveries of the natural science of mind (Humphry Davy on laughing gas) to today's neurochemistry, where dozens of mind-altering drugs are emerging as basic constituents of our brains, building-blocks of a new clinical decoding of thought and emotion.

In what sense is all this "literature"? I don't really care: animal experiments in behavioural psychology seem to me to have a poetry all of their own, and one which could sit alongside, say, Thom Gunn or Simone de Beauvoir in a way which only strengthened them both. But one interesting distinction emerges: a sharp dissonance between the British and European literary traditions on one hand, and the American on the other.

In Europe, it would be perverse to attempt to excise drugs from the literary canon: sooner or later one must encounter Coleridge or Baudelaire or Huxley and be drawn into the dialogues of the imagination, the real and the nature of mind which their personal experiences with drugs opened up, and the explorations of the limits of language which inevitably follow. But, in American literature, one can work through the classical canon from Emerson to Melville to Fitzgerald and discover barely a hint that these alien shores of consciousness exist.

When this literature did emerge in post-war America, it did so with a vengeance, the single-minded assault of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kesey, Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and the rest segueing into - and effectively creating - the sub-genre of "drug literature".

But the paradoxes in the term "drug literature" are not merely about literature: ultimately, they're about drugs themselves. The study of drugs can never be about drugs alone: these substances inevitably become a portal to a vast array of discourses about science, religion, art, desire, society and the world itself - discourses which become ever more diffuse and expansive the harder one looks.

Mike Jay is the author of `Artificial Paradises' (Penguin, pounds 9.99)