High Style

Monday, February 10th, 2003

High Style, in reviewing Marcus Boon’s The Road of Excess, covers some interesting drug history:

The hundred and eighty years since De Quincey’s invention [of the discourse of recreational drug use, started by his Confessions of an English Opium Eater] have seen a great expansion in the pharmacopoeia, especially since 1862, when the drug company Merck began to produce cocaine.

I didn’t realize (or remember) that Merck first marketed cocaine.

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.

Professional ironists love drug history. So true.

Then we had barbiturates, beginning with Veronal, in 1903, and amphetamines, which Smith, Kline first put on the market under the trade name Benzedrine, in 1932.

So Merck marketed cocaine, and Smith-Kline marketed speed. Interesting. At least now I know why Sartre never made much sense:

When he wrote the “Critique,” Sartre, a lifelong caffeine fiend and serious drinker, was also frying his brains on corydrane, a form of amphetamine mixed with, of all things, aspirin. The philosopher was using corydrane on a daily basis, first to cut through the fug of the barbiturates he was taking to help him sleep — and he was having trouble sleeping not least because of all the corydrane he was putting away — but also to keep him at his desk, churning out the “Critique.”

This description made me laugh out loud:

Sartre was therefore a recognizable type of speed freak, the type dedicated to obsessive, unfinishable, and, to the neutral observer, pointless toil — the sort who, several hours after taking the drug, can usually be found sitting on the floor, grinding his teeth and alphabetizing his CDs by the name of the sound engineer.

I already knew about Philip K. Dick’s drug use:

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.”

It was just a few days ago that I quoted W.H. Auden:

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.”

For an unabashed square, I find this stuff fascinating.

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