Sex, drugs, and … literature?

Tom Ronan 21 November 2013

Arthur Rimbaud once remarked that “The poet makes himself a voyant through a long, immense reasoned deranging of all his senses." For writers throughout history mind-altering drugs have been a sure-fire way to reach transcendental states of consciousness and spark artistic creativity.

This idea fascinated Aldous Huxley, who described his experiences with the hallucinogen mescaline in The Doors of Perception. He saw psychedelic drugs as a means of escaping the human condition and opening a window into bizarre yet beautiful experiences. Huxley was so fond of etheogens that the fictitious drug moksha was central to his conception of a utopian society in his novel Island. Equally he recognised the danger of drugs, describing a world where their illusory happiness would subdue the population in Brave New World.

Jim Morrison later named his band The Doors in reference to Huxley's essay. This influence had been carried forward by the Beat Generation, whose sexual, literary and narcotic experimentation sowed the seeds of the 1960s counterculture. While Huxley methodically described his impressions of mescaline once sober, Burroughs's disjointed and rambling account of heroin addiction was a reflection of the drug experience itself.

Jack Kerouac was arguably the most famous luminary of the Beats. He used stimulants to sustain his prodigious output, typing the entire manuscript for On the Road in a three week Benzedrine-fuelled marathon. This allowed him to hone his chaotic 'spontaneous prose' style. Stephen King's voluminous output, though vastly different in style, may have something to do a his shared love of stimulants. He sustained a cocaine addiction for most of the 1980s, but has since managed to kick the habit.

"Alcohol," according to Christopher Hitchens "can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when writing." It is undeniable that alcohol has captivated and controlled authors like no other substance. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the forbidden fruit quality of bootlegging in his recollections of the Jazz Age but battled with alcoholism all his life.

It seems that drugs have offered a chemical shortcut for writers seeking pleasure, inspiration and stamina. The price of this Faustian pact is always seen in those whose lives were controlled and often destroyed by their perilous love affair with drugs.