High hopes

Writing on Drugs

Sadie Plant <em>Faber and Faber, 276pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571196160

In Timothy Leary's autobiography Flashbacks, he recounts an episode in which he, his friend Olson and Aldous Huxley ingest psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of the magic mushrooms that sprout all over Europe in early autumn. Although already an enthusiastic proponent of the transformative power of LSD-25, Huxley had only experimented with this hallucinogen once before. "This is wonderful, no doubt," he declared as they all began to lift off. "But it is fake, ersatz. Instant mysticism. There is no quick and easy path to wisdom. Sweat and toil are the price."

"What did he say?" asked Olson, his mind already whirling.

"Something about sweat and toil," replied Leary.

Ever since Linnaeus described in 1762 how "as soon as some intoxicant is taken" the mind "becomes more expansive", drug adventurers have made large claims for the metaphysical insights garnered during their armchair voyages. Yet as the Huxley/Leary exchange shows, even among the most devout evangelists there has always been an ambivalence, a nagging anxiety that the drugs draw out what is already present and that the resulting sapience is of a fleeting and solipsistic kind. "I solved the secret of the universe last night," declared Arthur Koestler following a particularly intense acid trip, "but this morning I forgot what it was." Soon after he decided to stick to booze.

Sadie Plant's project in Writing on Drugs seems to be to assert the power of narcotic revelation, as opposed to Huxley's sweat and toil view. Her ambitious and free-wheeling volume sets out to show how drug users' agile fingers have left their prints all over western culture. She begins with the work of the writer-addicts (Coleridge, De Quincey, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Baudelaire, Huxley and Burroughs). For Plant, drugs provided them with a means of exploring the littoral that separates consciousness from the subconscious mind. She detects in their writings new insights into the working of the mind, newly discovered fragments of the self and a new awareness of the limits of conventional ideas. But to support these observations, she has to show that drugs assisted their creativity.

Yet Alethea Hayter, in her book Opium and the Romantic Imagination, made a meticulous and powerful case that opiates had little or no beneficial effect on the work of these writers. More than 25 years later, Plant has not succeeded in persuading us otherwise. Though she admits that there is an intention among the literary outlaws to seduce the reader with their stories of visions and degradation, she makes far too little of the extent to which junkies are profoundly unreliable witnesses. Coleridge had another well-known addiction, to hyperbole and fabrication, and it seems highly likely that he, De Quincey and Poe exaggerated the insights into the human condition they gained while they were off their heads.

Plant is following a well-trodden trail when discussing transgressive writers and literary critics. However, when she strays from this path, to claim a decisive role for drugs in, among other things, the origins of western philosophy, the causes of the witch trials of the Middle Ages and the reason that Persian and Afghan carpets have the patterns that they do, things begin to go badly wrong. Her exposition then comes so heavily freighted with caveats it's as if the author is trying to make up her mind as she goes along.

The mania for witch persecution in early modern Europe, she suggests, "may have been an early war on drugs", as the persecuted were often herbalists with knowledge of how to access the unconscious. Well, it may have been, but it's not a view that the leading historians of witchcraft seem to share. Still more unlikely, she quotes approvingly Gordon Wasson, who thought that Plato's philosophy was born on the evening he "drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and spent the night seeing the great vision". In a speculation so flimsy that even Plant doesn't seem to believe it, she wonders if Plato decided to keep the secret of his philosophical discovery and its repetition to himself, an act that would have made the Temple, rather than medieval Europe, "the theatre of the first drugs war". There are many "wars on drugs" in this book.

The intellectual haphazardness of Writing on Drugs is rooted in the poverty of its scholarship. There are no endnotes to source the contentious claims that Plant makes, quotes are repeatedly unattributed, speculation passes for fact and platitude for insight. Reading the book is rather like being in the company of a habituated drug user: both are repetitive, vague, inconclusive and poorly organised; both are mesmerised by the condition of being a pariah; both are more concerned with inner life, rather than relations with the world at large; and both are able to reproduce, in undigested form, great chunks of drug lore, neuroscience and jurisprudence. No one who has experimented with drugs, or known people who have, would disagree that narcotics are strange and powerful things. There is certainly a need for a coherent book that traces the history of these illicit commodities, examines their effects on mainstream culture and society and helps us understand how the developed world has got itself into such a dreadful mess. Sadie Plant's work of narco-romance is not it.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children