There is something a little bit scary about reading The Road of Excess -– this meticulous exploration of the influence of narcotics on literature is like a late night literary overdose.
The author, Marcus Boon, is Assistant Professor of English at York University in Toronto, and his academic background shines through without bogging down this intriguing subject.
Where it becomes scary is in the strange ebbs and flows of Boon’s writing. Depending on which drug he writes about the tone of language shifts. If it is amphetamines, the tone is speedy and manic, if it is marijuana, things slow down. It is highly unlikely that Boon tried all of the drugs he discusses, otherwise this would be a posthumous tome, but there is no doubt that the literature he discusses has been affected by the drug of choice and this is reflected in Boon’s meditations.
The Road of Excess is broken down into five sections based on a specific realm of drug; opiates, anaesthetics, cannabis, stimulants (coffee, cocaine and amphetamines) and psychedelics.
There is a historical logic to the structure which reflects both the social norms and the scientific discoveries of the time. It is this that makes Excess a riveting read as Boon describes the high fashion accessory of hand-crafted syringes to inject morphine in public or the introduction of opium via the presence of Chinese workers in Europe. Boon has explored the cultures around his literary figures with methodical devotion, creating a colourful, if at times frightening, sense of time and place. At one moment we are in the salons of Victorian London smoking opium with Coleridge before charging into more contemporary times watching Jack Kerouac hitting the Benzedrine and the typewriter.
We travel from the use of opium by the British romantics (Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, DeQuincy) through to the use of cannabis by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Paul Bowles through to the psychedelic era of the beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Leary, et al). Naturally there is a great deal of crossover as many of these writers tinkered with or became seriously addicted to a number of drugs.
Not surprisingly the grand old figure of William S. Burroughs dominates the book and, given his appetites, appears in almost every chapter. But there is surprisingly light-weight discussion of Philip K. Dick whose use of speed and hallucinegens informed his vast body of work extensively. As Boon points out, Dick’s intensive use of Semoxydrine -– essentially speed -– led to him writing eleven sci-fi novels along with essays and short stories in the space of one year.
There are also some odd omissions such as J.G.Ballard’s Cocaine Nights and Jack O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh and most importantly David Foster Wallace’s amazing novel of addiction, Infinite Jest. This may be because these writers have not publicised their drug use, if there is any, but they should rate at least a mention in a book about literature and drugs.
In his prologue Boon describes his approach as being that of an “ethnographer” and indeed his ability to cover the digressive aspects of politics, law, religion, science and literature is awe inspiring. He also avoids romanticising his subjects; his description of the death of Voltaire would make one think twice before dabbling in opium.
Boon’s subjects are quite clearly influenced by their activities. Sometimes this works; Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Kerouac’s On The Road are contemporary classics and few would dispute the creative impetus behind the works of Coleridge and Keats. When it comes to his chapter on Cannabis, Boon tends to wander. Indeed, as he says: “As I detail the history of writing about cannabis, you will notice a tendency in my writing toward digression… [a] tendency to drift…” Interestingly this chapter contains few gems of literature. In Boon’s words, Ginsberg under the influence “meanders” and Baudelaire was dismissive of his hashish experiences. Ironically, however, this is one of the better chapters when it comes to the history of a substance, including discussion of a key text created in Melbourne by Marcus Clarke under the influence of marijuana in 1868.
Boon does not moralize about the use of drugs by writers. Indeed this is a highly objective history and where drug use has debilitated the author discussed -– either creatively or physically -– it is duly reported, sometimes in gruesome detail. At the same time he admits to discovering “drug lit” in London in the 1970s through the lyrics by, and interviews with, such figures as Lou Reed and John Lydon (a.k.a. Rotten) when heroin became a lifestyle choice for a generation.
At the end of the day it is surprising that Boon is the first historian to write such a tome. And for all the inherent dangers, Boon’s writing is largely a clear, calm and extraordinarily researched discussion of strange visions, odd lives and often marvelous writing.
Ashley Crawford is the editor of the 21C Magazine compilation, Transit Lounge.