Artificial stimulants and creativity: a critical essay

NOTE: This is an essay I wrote for coursework. I received an A for it, although at that point it didn’t contain any memes. Being a shambolic disgrace of a human being, I was working against the clock and virtually forgot LSD and the world of hallucinogens in its entirety, except for a bit on how they pertained to the working methods of Hunter S. Thompson. Forgetting LSD in an essay about drugs and creativity is basically the drug writing equivalent of Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the deficit in his big conference speech. So I’ll make up for this glaring omission now – THE DEFICIT!

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Just to remind you, here is a picture of some drugs.

When Allen Ginsberg wrote in his 1956 poem America that “my national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles an hour and twenty-five-thousand mental institutions,” there seemed to be a simple enough meaning beyond the standard Ginsbergian ellipticism; that he was high and losing himself in his writing, hammering out words at a breakneck speed (which would certainly account for Ginsberg’s stream-of-consciousness style). Elsewhere in the poem he said “I smoke marijuana at every chance I get[1],” very much making his position clear on the matter. It is not one he seemed to change a great deal over the course of his life, despite his opposition to cigarettes, as spelled out on Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don’t Smoke), featuring such eloquently articulated wisdom as “Don’t Smoke Don’t Smoke Nicotine Nicotine No / No don’t smoke the official Dope Smoke Dope Dope.” Ginsberg was slamming the “official dope” whilst actively promoting the unofficial type.

Cannabis seemed to work for Allen Ginsberg, artistically speaking, and in one of his final poems, The Ballad of the Skeletons, one of the socially deleterious “skeletons” he singled out was the “demagogue skeleton” telling people “don’t smoke pot”. Ginsberg saw drug legalisation as a political issue, writing a 1966 article for the Atlantic in which he went to great lengths to rebuke “propaganda” spread about marijuana, which included prescient observations on how “suppression of its use, with constant friction and bludgeoning of the Law, has been a major unconscious, or unmentionable, method of assault on negro Person[2].” For some historical context, at the time Ginsberg was writing there was a growing conservative backlash against the progressivism of the Civil Rights movement and the radical hippy scene that the Beat legend had happily slotted into. Richard Nixon’s presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972 were heavy on expansion of the burgeoning War on Drugs under the guise of increased “law and order”; the beginning of a new method of systemic marginalisation of poor and ethnic minority communities via the judiciary system that Michelle Alexander dubbed “the New Jim Crow[3].” Writers can be absorbed in the topic of drugs for political as well as personal reasons, but it could well be likely they found themselves there because of a personal predilection for the stuff. Whatever their “stuff” might happen to be.

Ginsberg’s origins were in the Beat movement of the 1950s, who were renowned for their permissive attitude to drugs, as well as their permissive attitude to most things. Ginsberg’s friend and sometime mentor Jack Kerouac decided to set out a set of principles for a writer to work according to called the Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, which included specifications for procedure, method, and mental state, for which he wrote “if possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later ‘trance writing’) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from centre to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s ‘beclouding of consciousness.’ Come from within, out-to relaxed and said.[4]” As with much prose of the spontaneous variety, the mangled syntax can be slightly obfuscatory, but the mental state Kerouac recommends writing in seems to be the kind of meditative zone of twisted focus that mind altering substances can produce.

Kerouac wrote the final draft of his masterpiece On the Road – a 120-foot scroll taped together from long strips of tracing paper so he did not have to interrupt the spontaneity of the flow by replacing the sheet of paper in the typewriter – in a concentrated three-week period in which his wife Joan Haverty brought him mugs of coffee, cigarettes, pea soup and the amphetamine Benzedrine; a far different pace of high to the relaxing, sometimes soporific effects of Ginsberg’s preferred cannabis, but certainly one that might give a writer under pressure an energising kick. Far less illustrious authors than Kerouac have been drawn to the invigorating properties of Benzedrine; right-wing polemicist Ayn Rand was prescribed it for weight loss in 1942 and found that it imbued her with increased impetus in writing the first of her two novels, The Fountainhead, published the following year. According to Slate, “she had spent years planning and composing the first third of the novel” but “over the next 12 months, thanks to the new pills, she averaged a chapter a week[5].” Developing a taste for Dexamyl and Dexedrine, Rand was a habitual user of amphetamines until at least 1972. Some of her friends (yes, Ayn Rand had friends) were concerned by her penchant for speed, with the journalist Isabel Patterson writing the following to her; “stop taking that Benzedrine, you idiot. I don’t care what excuse you have – stop it[6].” I have no idea if this advice was heeded, but Rand tended not to take kindly to people being concerned about one another.

When it comes to artists for whom drugs are an integral part both of their creative process and the work it produces, Hunter S. Thompson was in a league of his own. He found drugs essential not just for getting through a writing assignment, but for managing to sit through an interview without violently setting upon the unfortunate interviewer. There is a highly-rated clip on YouTube where a British journalist, interviewing Thompson at his ranch in Woody Creek, Aspen, asks him why he takes drugs. Shooting the man a contemptuous glare as if the answer could not be more obvious, Thompson drolly explains that he uses “different drugs for different things. It’s in my interest, in our interest perhaps, maybe the interest of the greater good for me to smoke a joint and calm down. It’s been demonstrably proven that temper tantrums are not the best way to do interviews and, probably, my life will be easier and yours will too if I smoke a joint. Now if I were to sit here in a fit of anger and you saw me eating acid, if I were you I’d leave with all the equipment, because that cranks it up even worse[7].”

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Sometimes people make memes about drugs, and I save them onto my computer to send to my left-wing friends.

An article published in The Independent on January 6th contains an extract from a 1994 biography of Thompson by E. Jean Carroll called HUNTER: the Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson (although The Indpendent appears to have got the information second hand, from an Associated Press report, which mentions it may be apocryphal.) It details what was apparently the author’s day to day ritual, which would begin at three in the afternoon with a Dunhill cigarette and some Chivas Regal whiskey. At 3:45 he would have his first hit of cocaine of the day, of which he would then take more at intervals of roughly three quarters of an hour, accelerating his use in the afternoon and slowing down in the evening as he drank and ate in larger quantities. Although the itinerary states that Thompson was comparatively moderate with his marijuana use, mostly only smoking at 6pm to “take the edge off,” it alleges a truly staggering level of alcohol and cocaine consumption, and even some pretty heavy eating; yet more an astounding cornucopia of influences on the mind and body if that 10pm acid drop really was a regular occurrence. Having left half an hour for his last cocaine hit to wear off, it claims that Thompson would begin writing at midnight, and around five minutes later be feeling inclined to drink any number of his favourite alcoholic beverages, coffee, smoke weed or do more cocaine. Powered by this cocktail of stimulants he would write until six in the morning, at which point he would have some drinks (alcoholic, of course) in the hot tub, pop a Halcion sleeping pill, and be asleep by 8:20[8].

As I previously alluded to, drugs were not only essential to Thompson’s lifestyle and creative process but also to the work he created. His most famous work is the roman à clef Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, which builds a hallucinogenic narrative out of two disparate journalistic missions Thompson undertook to Las Vegas in March and April 1971 with the radical Chicano lawyer Oscar Acosta; the first to write captions for photos of a desert bike race for Sports Illustrated magazine, and the second to cover the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs for Rolling Stone. On the second trip to Vegas, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, already sold on Thompson’s Fear and Loathing… concept, enticed him with promises of publication as a long-form project and gave him enough free reign that Thompson was able to approach the project wholly on his own terms and create a distinct psychedelic masterpiece that doubles as a bitter slice of social commentary about the death of a generation’s hopes. The plot essentially depicts the two assignments for the two magazines, but with the farcical twist that the two protagonists are so messed up on drugs that it becomes impossible to ascertain what is real and what is hallucinated, and they continually get waylaid in their efforts to accomplish the most basic tasks. No wonder, given the formidable drug arsenal detailed at the start of the book, including “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls[9].” Knowing Thompson, that was probably one of the more autobiographical elements of the roman à clef.

The spectre of William S. Burroughs casts a long shadow across writing that concerns itself with heroin use, with novels like Naked Lunch and Junky that he certainly intended to be an accurate representation of the heroin addict’s existence; “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Will Self has written about how Burroughs’ work has sometimes been influential for the wrong reasons, admitting that he himself sought to emulate Burroughs, but was so consumed by the idea of his lifestyle that at the time he didn’t get around to the actual writing, saying “a friend of mine once said ‘when I was fifteen I read Junky, when I was sixteen I was a junkie.’ I could say the same of myself … as far as I was concerned, Burroughs demonstrated that you could live outside the law, get stoned the whole time, and still be hailed by Norman Mailer as ‘the only living American writer conceivably possessed of genius.’ When I awoke from this delusion, aged twenty, diagnosed by a psychiatrist as a ‘borderline personality’ and with a heroin habit, I was appalled to discover I wasn’t a famous underground writer. In fact, far from being a writer at all, I was simply underground[10].” In another piece contained in Self’s Junk Mail anthology of journalism – of which the first section is dedicated to articles about drugs – he describes how he and a friend are “discussing – of all things – William Burroughs’s philosophy of drug use as it relates to creative endeavour. Phil goes on: ‘everyone wants to believe they can write Kubla Khan when they’re on drugs, even when they’re gouching out on the sofa with a burning fag in their lap[11].”

Self’s friend Phil refers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s stunningly beautiful, dreamlike, elliptical poem Kubla Khan, of which its opium addict author wrote in its preface that, having fallen asleep at his desk reading Samuel Purchas’ historical tome Purchas, his Pilgrimes, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present on a description of Xanadu, the summer capital of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. “the author continued for about 3 hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two or three hundred lines … On waking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole and taking up his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote the lines that are here preserved.” Truly, Coleridge had been possessed with the kind of magic, spontaneous inspiration Kerouac would later extol, in no small part as a consequence of a narcotic haze.

Tragedy, however, struck and “at this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surfaces of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but alas! without the after restoration of the latter![12]” Maybe the moment had been lost but Coleridge was still a great poet with talent and ingenuity. Ayn Rand may have felt liberated by her copious amphetamine use, but her books still weren’t any good. Drugs may not always hinder one’s creativity, but it’s a tall order to expect them to create it where there is none.

Self goes on to defend Burroughs, and contextualise his work within a lineage of drug-influenced writers, arguing that “the idea of the pernicious druggy writer spawning a generation of imitators far antedates Burroughs. (Thomas) De Quincey was accused of having just such a dangerous influence after the publication of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1822.” Dubbing Burroughs the “Great Junksman,” he claims all he represents “has now pullulated into the realm of popular culture. His true heirs are not junkie writers at all, but pop musicians who fry their brains with LSD and cocaine, ecstatic teenagers who gibber at acid-house raves, and urban crack-heads who dance to a different drum machine[13].”

blaze it
I was really scraping the barrel for images here.

Certainly, both Burroughs’ artistic techniques and his prolific appetite for drugs have been echoed by figures in other media. A clip from Alan Yentob’s 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor shows the late, great David Bowie demonstrating how he wrote using with the same cut-up technique Burroughs used to write Naked Lunch and Nova Express, whilst lines of cocaine are openly sitting on the table. A later talk between Yentob and Bowie from 1997 finds the songwriter say he was writing with cut-ups “increasingly,” relishing how “if you put three or four disassociated ideas together, and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite starling sometimes. Quite provocative.” Bowie goes on to tell Yentob that he has had a computer programmer friend create him a programme that allows him to do cut-ups on a much wider scale, advancing what the Burroughs novels started[14].

A list of great musicians who have made great music whilst on a lot of drugs could go on forever, but given his recent passing it seems imperative to mention Bowie’s impeccable record of reconciling creativity with even the most damaging, depraved drug abuse. The albums he recorded at the peak of his 1970s cocaine addiction – Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976) – are two of his most stunning artistic statements, with fractured, but seemingly primal and instinctual lyrics that are spontaneous prose without the prose, introducing a Thin White Duke who “throws darts in lovers’ eyes” and a whole host of other colourful characters and imagery, dotted across a daring and innovative musical backdrop. Soon afterwards, Bowie went to West Berlin to hole up in a flat with Iggy Pop and get clean (I wouldn’t try this) and his music suffered no discernible decline in quality; in fact, with two of his own (Low, “Heroes”) and the two Iggy records he co-wrote/produced (The Idiot, Lust For Life) he got more prolific and maybe even better.

This further illustrates my theory that some people are great with or without drugs; there is perhaps just something about a desire to exist in an enhanced state of consciousness that draws artists to drug use. They wish to get in touch with the part of their brain that produces hypnagogic visions as sleep descends; strange, free-flowing trains of thought that you have just enough time to realise you’re having, consider that you should make a note of it, and forget, or hypnopompic ones, when you have nominally awoken but have yet really to establish a connection with conscious thought. Writers like to write in a haze because it gives them the chance to express personal thoughts from a somewhat dreamlike state; plus, provided they are not too deep in depths of a really crippling addiction, they can always go back and separate the wheat from the chaff with a more straight-headed edit. If the writer was drinking or smoking marijuana, they may go back and edit their own work with an unprecedented impartiality, as the thoughts of the person who wrote it are far beyond their recollection. And that is the final point I will make about drugs and creativity; that the author’s drug of choice might create a healthy (perhaps the wrong word) bit of distance between their work and them, the haze might help inhibitions subside and the soul-baring floodgates may open. But that’s an overly optimistic view.

[1] Ginsberg, A. (1956). Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket Bookshop.

[2] Ginsberg, A. (1966). The Great Marijuana Hoax – 66.11. [online] Theatlantic.com. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/66nov/hoax.htm [Accessed 11 Jan. 2016].

[3] Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press

[4] Kerouac, J. (1950). Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. [online] Writing.upenn.edu. Available at: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/kerouac-spontaneous.html [Accessed 16 Jan. 2016].

[5] Currey, M. (2013). The Secret to Ayn Rand’s Success: Benzedrine. [online] Slate Magazine. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/features/2013/daily_rituals/auden_sartre_graham_greene_ayn_rand_they_loved_amphetamines.html [Accessed 17 Jan. 2016].

[6] Miller, H. (2011). The Rand Watch: Was Ayn Rand a Drug Addict?. [online] Randwatch.blogspot.co.uk. Available at: http://randwatch.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/was-ayn-rand-drug-addict.html [Accessed 13 Jan. 2016].

[7] YouTube, (2011). Hunter S Thompson – Why do you do drugs?. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJuPIQhuIbw [Accessed 10 Jan. 2016]

[8] Hooton, C. (2016). Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine was the height of dissolution. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/hunter-s-thompson-s-daily-routine-was-the-height-of-dissolution-a6798801.html [Accessed 15 Jan. 2016].

[9] Thompson, H. (1972). Fear and loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Random House. Page 1.

[10] Self, W. (1995). Junk Mail. London: Bloomsbury Press. Page 63

[11] Self, W. (1995). Junk Mail. London: Bloomsbury Press. Page 52

[12] Coleridge, S. (1951). Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: Modern Library.

[13] Self, W. (1995). Junk Mail. London: Bloomsbury Press

[14] YouTube, (2016). How David Bowie used ‘cut ups’ to create lyrics – BBC News. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nlW4EbxTD8 [Accessed 15 Jan. 2016].

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