Cover image for Writing on drugs
Writing on drugs
Plant, Sadie, 1964-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Physical Description:
x, 294 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Faber and Faber, 1999.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library HV5801 .P595 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



"Sadie Plant traces the history of drugs and drug use through the work of some of our most revered, and infamous, writers. Rather than exploring drug use as an avenue to spiritual transcendence, Plant focuses on the way that drugs themselves make precise, recognizable interventions in consciousness, in cultural life, in politics. She argues that the use, production, and trafficking of drugs - narcotics, stimulants, and hallucinogens - have shaped some of the era's most fundamental philosophies and provided much of its economic wealth." "Through examinations of post-Romantic writers on drugs, including Coleridge on opium, Freud on cocaine, Michaux on mescaline, and Burroughs on them all, Writing on Drugs exposes this pervasive influence on contemporary culture."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Fine writing is distinguishable from the more pedestrian varieties because it engages even the reader who had no pre-existing interest in its subject. Plant's writing is such that one needn't be interested in heroin, cocaine, or ecstasy to be fascinated by her exploration of the connections, since the nineteenth century, between writers and their eras' drugs-of-choice, from Thomas De Quincey and opium to Henri Michaux and mescaline. Drug use and abuse have been commoner than the just-say-no faction might have us think, with new drugs being introduced to alleviate the direst consequences of old drugs. Full of luscious factoids (e.g., Hitler's multiple daily hits of speed) but smoothly bound together by the thesis that each drug is chemically constructed to create a specific, distinct view of reality, Plant's book isn't just for stringy-haired types in tie-dyes. Tweedy gents, horn-rimmed ladies, and others tired of booklike products that are ingested rather than read will gladly swallow it, too. It's a read. Patricia Monaghan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Plant's fast-paced primer demonstrates how narcotics, stimulants, and hallucinogens have inspired and influenced writers through the ages. Beginning with opium's influence on De Quincey, Coleridge and Poe, and moving on to cannabis and hashish (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Flaubert), cocaine (Stevenson, Freud, Doyle) and speed and LSD (Kerouac, Burroughs, Leary), she misses nary a literary toke, snort, or shot. Along the way, Plant (Zeros + Ones), a British cultural studies scholar, presents a great deal of hard, cold fact. She reveals, for example, when and where methamphetamine was synthesized (Japan, 1919); when it was banned in the U.S. (the 1950s); and what its current medicinal uses are (treating attention deficit disorder). Her painstaking research also reveals, for instance, that the word "assassin" was derived from an 11th-century movement (Ism ilism) whose adherents were so fond of hashish that they were called hashishiyya. Such tidbits accrue into fascinating social histories and provide colorful background material, though they can also distract from the key point, namely that drugs are central to modern culture. The final sections, on the 1960s, are the book's best. Here we find writers, poets and philosophers reflecting on what Herbert Marcuse called a "revolution in perception," a necessary and complementary aspect of the "social liberation" then being experienced in the body politic. Plant ends her journey with a thoughtfully postmodern turn, suggesting that to write under the influence of drugs "is to plunge into a world where nothing is as simple or as stable as it seems." (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The two books under review report on the use of various drugs, from opium to ecstasy, throughout the ages. With Sisters of the Extreme, Palmer and Horowitz (coeditors of Moksha: Aldous Huxley's Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience) have updated their 1982 anthology, Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady. Following a historical introduction, the authors present firsthand accounts of women on drugs, from Victorian times to the present. Among their subjects are Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, Caresse Crosby, Billie Holiday, Laura Huxley, Anita Hoffman, Bonnie Bremser, and Susan Sontag. Their stories range from sordid tales of heroin addiction and prostitution to quests for spiritual enlightenment. Through these selections, the editors succeed in demonstrating that women's experiences with drugs are "more varied and complex than stereotypes suggest." With over 120 illustrations, this lively introduction to a relatively neglected topic is recommended for larger public and academic libraries. The title of Plant's (Zeroes & Ones) book is somewhat misleading. While it discusses various writers associated with drugs, from Thomas De Quincey and Charles Baudelaire to William S. Burroughs and Henri Michaux, it quickly veers off into broader matters. More of a cultural history, the book examines the role of drugs in society from a variety of disciplines, including history, political science, psychology, philosophy, medicine, and economics. The topics covered range from Sigmund Freud on cocaine to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari on capitalism and schizophrenia, from the CIA's involvement in drug trafficking to the neurochemistry of psychoactive substances, and from the connections between drugs and witchcraft to an examination of the marketing of Coca-Cola. Plant has a gift for synthesis and manages to weave the diverse threads of her study into a coherent and generally readable book. Recommended for academic libraries.DWilliam Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Plant's ambitious book on the influence of psychoactive drugs on Western culture during the past two centuries is filled with interesting and provocative ideas. A philosopher specializing in cultural studies, Plant focuses on post-Romantic writers but interweaves historical and sociocultural accounts of drug use and misuse. The author traces the influence of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), which led to a number of books written about drugs by authors using drugs. She suggests that experimentation with drugs by leading thinkers of the era contributed to several important ideas, including the concepts of the unconscious and of the chemical basis of neurotransmission. Plant also examines cultural influences on drug use--for example, the popularity of stimulants during times of world-altering technological competition and political strife--and the more recent rise of self-altering hallucinogenic and enactogenic drug use. Noting that drugs have always been an important part of world trade, she describes how drugs have led to several international treaties and wars. This excellent and thoughtful book is highly recommended for all libraries, where it will serve all readers in a variety of disciplines. C. R. Timmons; Drew University



Chapter One Private Eyes I begin to write, almost without realizing it, without thinking, busy transmitting these words I don't recognize, although they are highly significant: "Too much! Too much! You're giving me too much!" Henri Michaux, Darkness Moves A vast literature on drugs has assembled itself in the last two hundred years. It begins with the late eighteenth century's explorations of opium, wends its way through cannabis, coca, and cocaine, and later finds itself entangled with a wide variety of plant hallucinogens and synthetic drugs.     Like their writings and their writers, these substances could hardly be more diverse. Some of them are ancient, others very new. Some are synthesized in laboratories, and some grow wild. Some are widely used as medicines, a few are fatal in large doses, some have no toxicity at all. In the twentieth century, the vast majority of these substances find themselves controlled by some of the world's oldest international agreements and its most extensive national laws. But they do have their own common ground as well. Whether they are organic or synthetic, old or new, stimulating, narcotic, or hallucinogenic, all these drugs have some specific psychoactive effect: they all shift perceptions, affect moods, change behavior, and alter states of mind. And all of them have exerted an influence that extends far beyond their users. The laws and wars on drugs are symptomatic of the ways in which these substances provoke the same extreme reactions in cultures, economies--social, political, legal--and even military systems. Their effects on the human nervous system seem to repeat themselves wherever they occur. When drugs change their users, they change everything. Drugs snatch us out of everyday reality, blur our perception, alter our sensations, and, in a word, put the entire universe in a state of suspension. Octavio Paz, Alternating Current Every drug has its own character, its unique claims to fame. The coca bush gets its name from the Aymara word khoka , meaning simply "tree"; the word hashish is derived from the Arabic word for herb, or grass, as if it were the herb par excellence; and the Mexican psilocybin mushroom is known as teonanactl , which translates as "flesh of the gods." But there is something about opium, with all its varied properties and histories, that allows this drug to set the scene. "Of all drugs," wrote Jean Cocteau, "opium is the drug."     Opium is extracted from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum , which is cultivated and harvested today with the same techniques that have been recorded over thousands of years. Once the poppies have flowered, the seed heads are scored with a knife and left to bleed a sticky substance from their wounds. The seed heads are scored in the afternoons, with a three- or four-bladed knife, and the next day the latex is collected with a flat blade. The process is repeated several times until the seedpod's supply of opium has been exhausted.     The poppy head yields a number of potent psychoactive alkaloids that have allowed opium to play a very special role in the story of the human use of drugs. It is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's oldest, most powerful, and most effective medicines, and while the earliest uses of opium may have been purely medicinal, plenty of circumstantial evidence suggests that its use as an intoxicant is as old as the hills in which it grows. Evidence of its use has been found in several regions of the world: it can be traced to Neolithic settlements on the shorelines of Swiss lakes, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Black Sea coast. It was cultivated in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, and later known in Egypt, where traces of it have been found in tombs dating back to the fifteenth century B.C. Opium was used in ancient Greece, where Plotinus was said to be a regular user of a drug to which Homer is thought to refer in the Odyssey when he describes "a medicine to banish grief." Opium was also known in Rome, where it acquired an association with Morpheus, the god of dreams, who later gave his name to morphine. Its Chinese use is lost in the mists of time.     Arab merchants were probably the first large-scale distributors of the drug, selling it for centuries across Asia and the Middle East, and by the sixteenth century, opium was widely traded and used in Turkey, Persia, and India. Western interest in the drug was growing fast as well. Paracelsus popularized its medical use in the sixteenth century and developed what would later become a popular preparation: laudanum. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Sydenham declared that medicine would be useless without opium. His statement remains true to this day.     By the eighteenth century, opium had been used, abused, and discussed by a great number of European scholars, doctors, and travelers, whose tales about its use in the East shrouded it in a seductive air of mystique. The vast bulk of the West's opium was imported from Turkey and other areas of the Middle East, where the quality was famously high. But opium poppies also grew wild in several areas of the British Isles, where the Society of Arts promoted the domestic cultivation of opium poppies, awarding medals for high yields and qualities. Even garden lettuce, closely related to the opium poppy, yielded lactarium , a mild opiate that eighteenth-century market gardeners processed and sold as a by-product.     Raw opium was the first drug to give up the secrets of its chemistry when, in 1804, morphine was extracted from it. Morphine was followed by codeine, and more than fifty alkaloids have been identified in opium itself. Morphine is its most powerful alkaloid, and, isolated from its organic base, it proved a malleable and efficient pharmaceutical. Although it was mainly taken orally in the early decades of its use, morphine's remarkable properties encouraged experiments with other means of ingestion. It was, for example, applied to patches of raw skin exposed by blistering or inserted under the skin on the tip of a lancet.     And then came the syringe, an instrument that shared its history with the drugs with which it has become so closely tied. Opium is thought to have been the first substance to be smoked in a pipe, and it also inspired the earliest attempt to get drugs straight into the bloodstream when Christopher Wren combined a quill and a bladder to produce the first syringe in 1656. This early experiment did at least prove that such injections were possible: he injected a dog with opium and the dog died. When the modern hypodermic syringe was developed in the 1850s, it was morphine that popularized its use.     Like morphine itself, the syringe was cleaner, safer, and more clinical than any earlier means of inserting drugs into the body. "The advantages of the hypodermic injection of morphia over its administration by the mouth are immense," wrote Francis Anstie, one of its leading protagonists. "Of danger , there is absolutely none ." Both morphine and the syringe were promoted as sophisticated medical aids, and there was such enthusiasm for this double act that injections of morphine were even used to treat addiction to opium. Hypodermic morphine became so popular that, by 1870, there had developed increasing fears that morphine might itself become a problem. And then came the cure to end all cures. Diacetylmorphine, a synthesis of morphine and acetic anhydride, was first produced in 1874 by an English chemist, C. R. Wright. He thought its effects were too powerful and unpleasant to be pursued. But later chemists were intrigued, and by the end of the century, diacetylmorphine was being marketed as "Heroin." It was made by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which promoted it as a nonaddictive substitute for morphine, and its medical use was approved in several countries, including Britain and America. Contrary to Bayer's original claims, heroin is one of the most addictive substances in the world. The needle is not important. Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch In both Britain and America, a wide range of opiated preparations were on sale for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There were no restrictions on their use until the late 1860s, and even then they continued to be popular. One of the most common mixtures was tincture of opium, or laudanum, a drink made from opium mixed with alcohol and distilled water. Camphorated tincture of opium, or paregoric, was also widely used, and in Britain and America there were dozens of patent medicines--Chlorodyne, Godfrey's Cordial, Dover's Powder, and such tempting remedies as Battley's Sedative Solution and Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup--many of which contained substantial quantities of morphine.     These were the first over-the-counter, self-administered drugs. Companies were not obliged to list ingredients until the early years of the twentieth century, and all the available statistics on imports and sales of opium suggest that the drugs were used by nearly everyone--as cures for illnesses such as dysentery and cholera, and also as painkillers and sedatives. In London, wrote Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater , published in 1821, "the number of amateur opium-eaters (as I may term them) was, at this time, immense." In Manchester, he was "informed by several cotton-manufacturers, that their work-people were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating; so much so, that on a Saturday afternoon the counters of the druggists were strewn with one, two, or three grains, in preparation for the known demand of the evening." Opium was cheap, plentiful, and without prejudice: the perfect quick fix of its day. Mothers used it to keep babies quiet, and workers in the foundries, the factories, and the mills used it to sleep at night and survive the working day. As De Quincey observed, "Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach." Although, as he quickly added, "nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion."     It now seems remarkable that opium was ever such a simple fact of daily life. Even mild, medicinal doses can affect perceptions and states of mind; it is difficult to speculate about the impact of such widespread use on the social atmosphere, the culture's sensibility, the population's mood. Opium grew in popularity in the late eighteenth century, as the first steam engines sputtered into life and the first great factories were built. The populations of cities grew, and the old routines of rural life, with its sense of identity and continuity, were disrupted, sometimes wiped away. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was possible to look back and see that the whole landscape of the culture had been transformed. Railway lines were laid, canals were cut, bridges were suspended over wide rivers. Trade routes and colonies had multiplied, all the maps were different, all the goods were new. Minds had been changed by a wave of revolutions--in America and France, as well as in philosophy, science, and the arts. It seemed as if nothing was standing still.     "Already, in this year, 1845," wrote De Quincey in "Suspiria de Profundis," the second of his essays on opium, what by the procession through fifty years of mighty revolutions amongst the kingdoms of the earth, what by the continual development of vast physical agencies--steam in all its applications, light getting under harness as a slave for man, powers from heaven descending upon education and accelerations of the press, powers from hell (as it might seem, but these also celestial coming round upon artillery and the forces of destruction)--the eye of the calmest observer is troubled; the brain is haunted as if by some jealousy of ghostly beings moving amongst us. Already, in 1845? As if it was all happening too early, too soon, too fast; as if something was already too late. Surrounded by new mediations and mechanisms challenging man's "imperial nature" and interrupting his engagement with the world, De Quincey felt himself losing track: "Even thunder and lightning, it pains me to say, are not the thunder and lightning which I seem to remember about the time of Waterloo." De Quincey wanted to find his feet amid the great new orchestrations of an industrial revolution that he felt had "disconnected man's heart from the ministers of his locomotion." He needed to be able to dream again in a world whose dreams had become "too much liable to disturbance from the gathering agitation of our present English life." And, as he discovered, "some merely physical agencies can and do assist the faculty of dreaming almost preternaturally. Amongst these," he writes, "is intense exercise; to some extent, at least, and for some persons, but beyond all others is opium."     De Quincey made his name as the opium eater par excellence when he published Confessions , but he was by no means the first writer to turn to opium for some respite from the "eternal hurry" and the "colossal pace of advance" that had characterized English life since the late eighteenth century. Nor was he the only one to have discovered opium's "specific power" to enhance his dreams and memories. Scott, Shelley, Wordsworth, Southey, Byron, Keats ... reams of gothic fiction and Romantic poetry had taken something of their character from the drug. In many cases, opium exerted a subtle influence that is difficult to isolate from all the other themes explored by these writers. But sometimes the effects of the drug are writ large in the stories and poems composed by writers on opium. As De Quincey discovered in Confessions, the drug can be far more than an engaging theme, a literary device, an object of research: this is a substance that has powers and an agency of its own. "Opium, not the Opium-Eater, is the hero" of all these tales. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. These are the opening lines of "Kubla Khan," a poem written in the late 1790s that has since become one of the modern world's most loved pieces of poetry. The poem had some vicious critics in its day, but Xanadu, the pleasure dome, and the sunless sea became well-known features of the modern imaginative landscape.     Nearly everyone who knows these lines knows the story of their writing too. Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the poem "as a psychological curiosity" and claimed it was a fragment of a much longer sequence that had been "given to him" in a dream induced by a dose of opium. While reading Purchas's Pilgrimage , which contains a passage very similar to his first lines, Coleridge fell into 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 to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things , with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. But then came a famous interruption, the all-too-prosaic arrival of "a person on business from Porlock." And when Coleridge returned to his work, he had lost the plot of his great dream. There were only "eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"     "Kubla Khan" was composed "from the still surviving recollections in his mind." The fragment dripped with tempting possibilities, even--especially--though so much was lost. Coleridge "frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him," but the moment was never recaptured: "The tomorrow," he wrote, "is yet to come."     Coleridge had posed a challenge that many of his readers found irresistible. Poets were enchanted by the possibility that such poetry could spring from the opiated edge of waking life, and philosophers found themselves intrigued by the status and the meaning of such intense dreams. Coleridge's preface to the poem marked the beginning of a long experiment that continues to this day. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Sadie Plant. All rights reserved.

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