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Emperors Of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century
by Mike Jay
Reviewed by Erik Davis, 6/13/2005

There are two dominant attitudes toward modernity inside contemporary drug culture, and both of them, in almost diametrically opposed ways, attempt to slip outside of our history, that engulfing tsunami of politics and commodities, technology and cultural memes that make up the West. On the one hand you have the romantic turn towards native cultures, an embrace, for example, of the ayahuasca shaman as the font of wisdom and healing. Despite the fact that contemporary native cultures are rarely “pure” (whatever that means), having been forcibly and violently integrated into the Western drama, these cultures are still routinely embraced as if they exist “before” or “outside” the West. This idea, valid in some ways and utterly absurd in others, leads to the eschatological hope that contemporary native world views (and psychoactive technologies) can provide a last-minute corrective to a globalizing West whose developmental addiction to “progress” is leading the planet to the brink of collapse.

In contrast to this idea, which finds in drugs a pathway to a premodern, even prehistorical, mode of being, other heads stress the novel and even revolutionary aspect of freshly minted lab-based psychoactive compounds. Here drugs are treated as novelty agents without historical traces, blank slates upon which we write the emerging forms of transhuman experience and culture. The holistic properties of plants, rooted in both natural and cultural history, is replaced with the microscopic analysis of essentially meaningless molecules. Take MDMA. Despite the host of cultural associations that surround this massively popular compound, especially in the rave scene, the molecule itself remains curiously blank – a faceless feel-good Sci-Fi technology that gestures, not to its own past, but to a future utopian space outside of the fallen history of everyday life.

Or take the smaller scene surrounding new research compounds and novel drug combinations. Here the novelty jones that drives so many individual psychonauts creates a worldview: drugs allow access to spaces and experiences that transcend and even deconstruct the historical frameworks that constrain our everyday selves. The LSD myth is the mother of this story: trumpeted for its transcendental access to modes of thinking and being that break through existing cultural forms, LSD was mythologized as an intrinsically revolutionary molecule, because revolution is the strongest political image we have for a radical break with the past. And yet, as books like Acid Dreams and Storming Heaven have shown, LSD was one of the most important nonhuman “actors” in postwar American history, leaving its swirly fingerprints on everything from music to politics to advertising. Those fifty-odd years of massive cultural influence don’t disappear when you trip. In other words, while LSD certainly can function as a reprogramming agent, we don’t hear nearly enough about its own historically and neurologically engendered “programs,” whether they be electrified Eastern mysticism, a predilection for organic patterns like fractals, or a puzzling attraction to the Grateful Dead.

Behind both of these ahistorical approaches to drugs is the old temptation of escape. Along with allowing us to slip for a time outside our mundane lives, drugs seem to provide a tantalizing ride outside of modern history itself. Despite the fact that scheduled psychoactives pervade modern society, to say nothing of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, their use allows many people to symbolically and subjectively reject or resist that society (and for understandable reasons!). We all need a little escape, a broomstick flight into strange becomings, but we shouldn’t forget that in a networked world like ours, psychoactive counter-cultures are symbiotically linked with the mainstream (whatever that is). In fact, the ancestors of our contemporary drug scenes directly helped create the aesthetic, philosophical, scientific and psycho-social phenomenon we call modernity. In other words, drugs are internal to the dynamics of the West.

When we forget this, we lose touch with many of our most important stories. Lots of psychonauts know more about the snuff-inhaling rituals of feathered jungle dwellers than they do about the ether binges and nitrous oxide carnivals that wowed their own kin just a few turns back up the DNA stream. Losing these stories, we can easily lose the historical awareness that allows us to sanely integrate, within our own historical context, the results of personal experimentation and exploration (to use two historically-charged, deeply Western metaphors for drug use). Many a silly psychedelic scene could have been avoided by the knowledge that stumbling across the apocalyptic key to the cosmos is the oldest rush in the book, no more or less world-rending and inconsequential than falling in love.

Mike Jay’s Emperors of Dreams, which looks at drug use in nineteenth-century Europe and America, is a fine corrective to this historical amnesia. (Another is Jay’s re-issue of James S. Lee’s marvelous Underworld of the East, a frank and level-headed autobiography of a turn-of-the-century Yorkshire mining foreman who merrily consumed copious hard drugs for almost twenty years during his eastern travels, but never sunk to depravity, delusion, or addiction). Though Jay manages to squeeze fresh juice out of the usual nineteenth century suspects—Coleridge, Baudelaire, de Quincey, Freud – he also does the more valuable work of putting the drugs these fellows were taking in context. Rather than reinscribe the old romantic story of garret-dwellers and wacky bohemians, Jay helps us understand something more important: how ordinary educated people imagined and integrated drugs into their lives.

Jay is particularly keen to emphasize the role that scientists played in the discovery and propagation of psychoactive fun. Indeed, Jay shows that behind many of the addled literary scenes long canonized in drug lore stands a scientist. Perhaps the paragon here is Humphry Davy, the British scientist and poet who huffed major nitrous at the radical doctor Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institution at the very end of the eighteenth century. Unlike today’s scientists, who feel uncomfortable with anything beyond action studies and placebos, these old school researchers were adamant about self-experimentation. Indeed, Davy created the basic format of the trip report that lives on in the Shulgins’ books and a myriad Erowid posts.

Jay is at pains to show how modern this approach was: for Davy, the goal was not to download divine revelations but “on Newtonian wings sublime to soar,” to push science into a vision of an amazing but altogether human future. Davy also emphasized ideas of agency, responsibility, and scientific possibility that are part and parcel of our modern sense of self. From this perspective, drug experience does not provide ancient wisdom to balance out our alienated modern selves, but rather “holds up a mirror of self-consciousness which strips away the protective cladding of symbol, mystery, and belief, leaving us naked in the keen air of the future, our inner workings visible as never before.”

Of course, like LSD and ketamine, nitrous was a scientific invention that entered into modern Western culture free of ancestral myth. But even when it comes to an old school item like opium, Jay shows just how peculiar our contemporary sense of their historical associations can be. The exotic and visionary meanings that opium has for many today would have puzzled the vast majority of its 19th century users. Opium poppies were a common part of the European pharmacopoeia, with a record of use stretching back to the Neolithic, and contained no more poetry for most people than valium does today (Coleridge, for one, seems to have found it mostly a drag) . But the image of the drug changed as the British Opium Wars (and its vocal home opponents) generated overwrought stories and images of seedy Oriental opium dens, an association that demonized the drug and associated it with degeneracy, racial threat, and the exotic lassitude of the East. At the same time, the medical industry also consolidated control over the home remedy, a power move that created our contemporary criterion for distinguishing “good” and “bad” opium use: whether or not a doctor has a hand in the process.

Cannabis too had a very different profile two centuries ago. Honky nervous systems were first introduced to THC through another scientist, the French doctor Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours. In studying the relative absence of madness among Arabs, Moreau came across hash, consumed it, and found it good. The drug affirmed his then-heretical suspicion that “normal” people had the seeds of madness and delirium within them, and could experience these states if the right conditions arose. Like Davy a fearless self-experimenter, Moreau suggested to other doctors that they take hash in order to better understand the mental world of their patients. He also thought his bohemian friends would enjoy the stuff, and his candyman predilections led to the famous Club des Haschischens, which included the writers Charles Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier, and Gerard de Nerval. These folks took phenomenal, powerfully psychedelic doses, but the habit never really caught on in either bohemian and working class circles, and only towards the end of the century did people start smoking the milder doses we are familiar with today.

Jay’s chapter on cannabis has particular relevance to today’s bin Laden blitz, because the drug first enters the Western imagination nestled inside the myth of the Assassins, a medieval Islamic sect known for harshing the buzz of many a Crusader. The myth, which first appears in Marco Polo, holds that Hassan-i-Sabbah, Burrough’s “Old Man on the Mountain” and the leader of the sect, would drug young men and then deposit them in a pleasure garden replete with nubile houris and forbidden wine. After waking up and enjoying themselves, the men would be drugged again and then returned to some grim castle. Upon re-awakening, they were told that Hassan had given them a glimpse of the afterlife, and that an eternity of similar glee lay in store for them as long as they did his murderous bidding. According to legend, the brain-washing was so successful that these young assassins would toss themselves off a cliff at the drop of the Old Man’s hat. And such legends die hard: today, when we imagine that Islamic suicide missions are pulled off by brainwashed idiots who just want an e-ticket to the seventh heaven, we unconsciously repeat this myth of the drug-addled Saracen. And the story is a myth – along with the nineteenth century Orientalist Baron de Sacy’s identification of the name and drug of the sect with hashish.

As Moreau’s and de Sacy’s investigations suggest, some drugs made their way to Europe on the boats of colonialism (which often carried scientists and anthropologists along for the ride). This is how psychedelics trickled into the European minds as well, though this time the science was the ethnography of American Indians and their newfangled pan-tribal peyote rituals (proof that the natives too have their modernisms). Jay tells this story well, but the most interesting part of his psychedelics chapter addresses a question that, for most psychonauts, has always proved tantalizing but vague: what the hell is that mushroom doing in Alice in Wonderland? The answer, it seems, is that knowledge of the Siberian shamanic use of Fly Agaric was percolating through the intelligentsia through texts and scientific drawings. Sadly, Jay is forced to conclude that, despite all the shrooms in faery iconography, despite the tales of fungi-munching Viking berserkers and psychedelic druids, and despite all the liberty caps that have long been popping out of cowpies in Albion, there is no suggestion of indigenous British psychedelia.

Much of the fun of Emperors of Dreams lies in seeing the familiar rendered strange. But some things are just strange. Jay’s weirdest chapter is devoted to ether, a drug that, compared to nitrous oxide’s “narrative of Romantic awakenings and transcendental revelations,” presents a “low comedy shot through with black farce and queasy tragedy.” In addition to rescuing a number of wacky huffers from the dustbin of history, Jay also shows that, despite its rather brutal and toxic dissociative blast, ether was one of the most common party drugs of the nineteenth century. He calls it “the cannabis of its day: a tool of hedonistic and often deliberately irresponsible abandon.” Lots of rural folk binged on the stuff, especially when alcohol was tough to come by.

Indeed, one of the more novel parts of Jay’s tale is the role that alcohol came to play in the major shift in European drug culture that occurred in the wake of the nineteenth century: Prohibition. The question is this: how could a culture awash in pleasurable and inspiring substances that produced relatively little misery cost turn so sharply against them? Jay argues that drugs followed in the wake of the demonization of alcohol, and the quasi-Christian narratives of drink that came to the fore inside America’s powerful temperance movements. But Jay’s tale also proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that, despite the rhetoric of prohibition, (ab)use is not really a function of availability, even when it comes to hard drugs. The nineteenth century was saturated with powerful drugs, and the social costs just weren’t that high.

Jay’s final chapter is a rather scathing indictment of Prohibition, and you realize that much of the aim of Emperors of Dreams is to use history to undermine the idiotic ideas that drive the drug war. And the most idiotic idea of all is that modern culture, with all its horrors and glories, is somehow possible, or even imaginable, without drugs. That’s the biggest problem with the ahistorical approach to drugs: if we accept the notion that psychoactive commodities are outside of modernity – either because they revive the Paleolithic past or temporarily boot up the posthuman future – then we unconsciously give into the prohibitionist dogma that modernity itself is not psychoactive. The reality is that, as Jay states, drug culture is simply “one manifestation among many of the naturally curious, increasingly well-informed, multicultural consumer culture which our societies are (in every other context) so keen to foster.” In order to acknowledge that in the face of drug war dogma, we need to remember and affirm the ordinariness of taking even extraordinary drugs.

Originally Published In : Trip

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