Professional ironists love drug history

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Scott Alexander recently wrote about Adderall, and this got Steve Sailer wondering about the cultural effects of speed-type drugs. He ended up stumbling across the same 15-year-old article that I cited, well, 15 years ago, which reviews Marcus Boon’s The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs:

The hundred and eighty years since De Quincey’s invention [of "the discourse of recreational drug use"] have seen a great expansion in the pharmacopoeia, especially since 1862, when the drug company Merck began to produce cocaine. (One of its great early advocates was an ambitious young Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud, who claimed, among other things, that “repeated doses of coca produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further; on the contrary one feels a certain unmotivated aversion to the substance.” Yeah, right.) Diamorphine, also known as heroin, was first synthesized for commercial use in 1897. The men who discovered it, Felix Hoffman and Arthur Eichengrun, had also, a couple of weeks earlier, invented aspirin; for some years, heroin could be bought over the counter and aspirin required a prescription. Professional ironists love drug history.

To Sailer’s point, Jean-Paul Sartre’s wrote his 1960 “existentialist blockbuster” The Critique of Dialectical Reason on speed:

Sartre is probably a bad advertisement for the effect of amphetamines as an aid to composition, but he is by no means the only example of a writer who used speed to help him work. For sheer quantity, Boon notes, it is hard to beat Philip K. Dick, who from 1963 to 1964, under the influence of the methamphetamine Semoxydrine, wrote “eleven science fiction novels, along with a number of essays, short stories, and plot treatments in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzy that accompanied or precipitated the end of one of his marriages.” (That “accompanied or precipitated” nicely captures how little fun it must have been to be Mrs. Dick.) If Philip K. Dick does not entirely convince on grounds of literary merit—and the books in question aren’t quite his best material—then how about Graham Greene, who was pounding Benzedrine when he wrote his 1939 travel book about Mexico, “The Lawless Roads,” and the novel that came out of his Mexican travels, “The Power and the Glory”? (The paranoid and menacing atmosphere of that superb novel, which describes a whiskey priest being hunted by Communist revolutionaries, surely owes something to Greene’s pill-chugging.)

Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen,” with the important proviso that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Auden seems to have been the only unquestionably major writer to use drugs in quite this way, as a direct source of energy for his work. He represents the apotheosis of a utilitarian approach to drugs; and it is therefore logical, if he was going to take drugs, that he would gravitate toward speed, which is the utilitarian drug par excellence.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    If this is a thread about speed freaks, let’s not forget Ayn Rand. She was not able to write — or function — without large doses of speed.

  2. Faze says:

    Sartre hallucinated mightily, claiming, at one point in his life, to have been continually accompanied by three or four giant crabs, whom he got used to greeting each morning, and who followed him from room to room. He said the crabs were hallucinations caused by his drug use, but I suspect they were far worse. Sartre was the peg holding the 1950s and 60s intellectual tent down on the hard-left, Marxist-Leninist side.

  3. Bruce says:

    In Enthusiasm Ronald Knox called John Wesley’s habit of writing sermons on horseback as he rode from one town to another the case against writing on horseback. Or something about as snippy. But Methodism caught on. If I was writing on a deadline, I’d try whatever got the word count done acceptably well and acceptably written. Dick needed money bad. Auden’s every poem was not great. Sartre might as well have had imaginary crabs ghost half his page counts. Come Muse, sing to me, or I will get comfortably numb and take my chances.

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