A great many writers, and many more of their greatest creations, take drugs. Your mind might immediately leap to Hunter S Thompson: the hard and fast world of Gonzo journalism with its fabulous, self-destructive consequences. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Aldous Huxley, whose last words form the title of this mono- graph, began to experiment with ‘lysergic acid’ – known to us as LSD – well into his twilight years. All types of writer, of all ages and reputations, have the capacity, and frequently the desire, to take drugs.
It’s almost understandable: should writing block hit, a quick narcotic fix might not go unheeded – after all, Robert Louis Stephenson produced all 60,000 words of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in six, cocaine-fuelled days. It’s not just that though; they want to experience something ‘other’. And yet, whilst I can understand that drugs alter how you think, when it comes down to it, what matters is not the how but the what. Huxley thought that it could ‘indirect[ly] … help the creative process’. He frames it with the caveat that each response is individual – drugs enhance talent, but there must be some talent in the first place. Whilst for Huxley, ‘it shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside’, for others, I suppose the habitual becomes a little more exciting.
Huxley’s experience of drugs is almost naively idealised. The reality of drug abuse – of addic- tion – is absent. His belief that drugs act as a creative catalyst, evident in some of his own work, is too limited a notion. Drugs are inspi- ration, driving force and release, all at once. Take Will Self’s Dorian. Ostensibly it’s an act of literary transposition, taking Wilde’s people, thoughts, even his key literary traits, and not so much reimagining, as restyling them for 1980s London. What makes this transition so compelling, however, is not the artful modernisations (Basil Hallward’s portrait becomes an installation piece), but the underlying narrative of drug abuse (heroin, to which all major characters and, at the time, Self, were addicted). For me, it is not the ‘creative experience’ the protagonists undergo – and we vicariously partake in – that is so powerful, but the constancy the ritual of drug taking provides. The function of addiction is not to elevate genius above the rest, as Huxley would have it, but to make its subjects the same – it normalises them.
The same is true in why authors become addicts. Burroughs believed ‘you become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction. Junk wins by default’. And this makes sense, for, if an author were already in possession of enough creativity, narcotic inspiration wouldn’t be necessary. In his darkly comic depic- tion of a year (or so) in the life of a drug addict, Junky, the normality of drug addiction is far more apparent than any resultant creative outpourings. A friend, glancing over my copy, complained that it was too repetitive – ‘all he ever talks about is getting the next fix’. That is, of course, the point. For authors with the greatest affinity to drugs, like Burroughs, Ginsberg, Self, there is no subject matter quite like it. After all, if Huxley described his relationship with drugs as being like ‘a love affair’, is it surprising that drugs become not only the how but the where and why and what too?
The allure of drugs, both as tool of the author and character trait of a protagonist comes in its ability to add substance to its user. Would, for example, Sherlock Holmes be quite so intriguing a character if his clinical deductions were not counterbalanced by a base chemical addiction? I doubt it. His drug abuse makes him more than just a machine. Drugs allow authors, and their characters, easy access to the darker side of humanity: its appeal is natural – it makes us as human as we could possibly be.