“Do artists need narcotics even more than ordinary people?” asks Richard Davenport-Hines in the Independent.
“Until the 20th century,” he says, “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.”
Having thus instilled hope in the hearts of many young writers that the pendulum will swing back in this century, Davenport-Hines provides a rousing history of trendy writers’ drugs through the ages. Here’s a small sampling:
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.