Lucy in the Sky

September 2015

What is the relationship between drugs and human creativity? Consider the case of opium. The ancient Greek epic poet Homer almost certainly refers to it in The Odyssey as “a drug to quiet all pain and strife”, and for thousands of years it was the principal painkiller known to medicine. In Britain, as late as the first half of the nineteenth century, opium was still widely used for all manner of mental and physical ailment. It was also legal, a very different situation from the criminality and restrictions that we associate with it today. Morphine, the principal active agent in opium, was isolated in 1803, commercially available in the early 1820s, and delivered with a hypodermic syringe by the mid-1850s. There was little attempt to control the consumption of the drug until the Pharmacy Act of 1868. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, opium has been better known in the form of one of its chief derivatives: heroin.

In terms of the overall history of the drug, the notion that it inspires creativity is a very recent development, as it did not take hold until the early nineteenth century, due in large measure to the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), both of whom began tampering with opium as teenagers, and both of whom were addicted to it for most of their adult lives. In 1816, Coleridge published a slim collection of poetry which included “Kubla Khan”, a poetic fragment that he claimed he had written in an opium-induced dream, and “The Pains of Sleep”, his lurid account of drugs hell. Then, five years later, Coleridge’s admirer and erstwhile friend De Quincey issued his explosive drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which he described his intensely pleasurable experience of the drug and his own “Pains of Sleep”, before designating opium the “true hero” of his narrative. In Romancing Opiates (2006), Theodore Dalrymple is categorical about the immense – and immensely negative – impact of these works, especially in their exaggerated accounts of the pains of withdrawal, and in their spurious linkage of opium to intellectualism and unbridled creativity. “In modern society”, he asserts, “the main cause of drug addiction…is a literary tradition of romantic claptrap, started by Coleridge and De Quincey, and continued without serious interruption ever since” (p. 61).

There is little question that De Quincey in particular played up his association with opium, and is primarily responsible for putting in place the image of the modern artist as prophet and exile. As late as 1856, De Quincey championed the benefits of opium. It took away his spiritual and somatic pains. It enabled him to concentrate and produce. It provided relief from ennui – from the tedium of life – a response to the drug that anticipates both the French poet Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du mal of 1857, and Arthur Conan Doyle in his late-nineteenth-century creation of Sherlock Holmes, aesthete, urbanite, and drug habitué. The counter-cultures of the 1960s gave new prominence to De Quincey’s portrait, and Keith Richards is only the most recent in a long line of artist / addicts who have written their own version of De Quincey’s confessions, complete with a recognition of his influence. “Keith often commented that his friends’ approach to drugs had followed in De Quincey’s footsteps”, Victor Bockris observes. “They saw their bodies as laboratories” (Keith Richards: The Biography, (2013), p. 128).

Yet De Quincey wrote at great length of his drug use, and his complicated and wide-ranging representations of his experience belie the popular image of him as simply a drug guru or fiend. His recreational usage lasted eight years at most, and was followed by almost half a century of deep addiction, during which time much of what he wrote about the drug eschewed claptrap in favour of a blunt assessment of its blights. Instead of bringing transcendence, De Quincey needed the drug just to feel (reasonably) normal: “one consequence of my Opium has been that the sensibility of my stomach is so much diminished, that even now…nothing ever stimulates my animal system into any pleasure. Suffer I do not any longer: but my condition is pretty uniformly = 0”. Instead of providing release, the drug left him spinning in terrible cycles of abstinence and relapse, as he performed “manoeuvres the most intricate, dances the most elaborate, receding or approaching, round my great central sun of opium”. Instead of supplying energy or subject matter, it reduced him to humiliating silence, his plans to write a great philosophical work “locked up, as by frost…a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials useless accumulated”.

Most strikingly, De Quincey himself is largely responsible for the confusion that surrounds his attitude toward opium and creativity. In the Confessions, for example, he represents opium as his muse, both for ecstatic visions of intellectual achievement, as well as for exhilarating gothic nightmares of guilt, incarceration, and panic. Yet at the same time he insists that the drug does not throw open the doors of inspiration. “If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen’, should become an Opium-eater, the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) – he will dream about oxen”, De Quincey declares. In other words, mighty though opium was, it could not make a dullard interesting. What mattered was memory, experience, the craft of writing, and the powers of his own imaginative mind. In Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Depth”), De Quincey’s 1845 sequel to his Confessions, he makes his position clearer. Opium deepened and exalted the sceneries of his dreaming mind, but as he maintains throughout, he was a splendid dreamer and a powerful intellect long before he became a drug user. Opium only heightened and distorted the creativity that was already within him. In Suspiria, not the drug, but De Quincey’s own imaginative mind, is the “true hero” of the tale.

Dalrymple points out that “when it comes to drug addiction, literature has trumped – and over-trumped – pharmacology, history, and common-sense”. By this he means that people who have never even heard of De Quincey become addicted to the version of heroin that he created. Among many other things, this makes the point that literature matters, that science, pharmacology, and medicine alone cannot remedy the problem of drug addiction and the miseries it metes out. We need to understand as well how our readings and mis-readings of drug narratives – some of them almost two hundred years old – continue to shape our perceptions and policies. De Quincey’s opium tales, confessions, and rewritings are not just about excitement and experimentation. They are also about shame, courage, solace, self-justification, and the deeply paradoxical impact of drugs on the human imagination.