By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Beginning in Europe before the Middle Ages, the semi-nomadic tribes of Siberia and Lapland discovered that their native reindeeer had a voracious appetite for a certain kind of mushroom, Amanita muscaria. The mushroom, otherwise known as ”fly agaric,“ is one of the most potent naturally occurring psychoactive substances known to man, but in its fresh, unprocessed form, contains chemical compounds that are difficult for humans to digest. So the shamans would follow and wait, and when the beasts had eaten their fill, they would drink the reindeer‘s urine -- and fly. Men with beards, dressed in fur-trimmed coats and long black boots, tripping in the wake of their reindeer. Sound familiar? Yes, Virginia, Santa was a mushroom head.
This is just one of many enlightening anecdotes Sadie Plant introduces in Writing on Drugs, a simple and remarkably sober account of the ways in which drugs have infiltrated nearly every world culture, religion and canon. It is not a new story -- Plant learned of mushroom-grazing reindeer from Valentina and Gordon Wasson’s two-volume Mushrooms, Russia and History, for example -- but it is rarely told with such integrity. Legends of drugs are legion on the edges of society; you can find them on deviant Web pages and in books published by fringe houses. Plant‘s genius lies in having woven them into a compact and fluid history of humanity, a respectable chronicle in which Santa-the-mycological-shaman stands alongside Sigmund Freud, Hasan Sabbah, Edgar Allen Poe and Charlie Parker in a long line of eminent drug users who in various ways reinvented their respective cultures.
Writing on Drugs begins, as surveys of psychotropic substances so often do, with opium. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was on it when he dreamed of ”Kubla Khan,“ and the drug allowed him to experience fantasies so potent he coined the term ”willing suspension of disbelief“ for the benefit of future theater critics. Opium may have given Poe access to the twilight worlds that inspired ”The Murders in the Rue Morgue,“ which literary scholars from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Dorothy L. Sayers cite as the first example of detective fiction. Doyle, of course, had his own day with opium, as did his fictional Sherlock Holmes. But both Doyle and his Holmes found further inspiration in yet another substance, the isolated chemical of the coca leaf, cocaine.
Like an ardent conspiracy theorist, Plant finds drugs in everything; like a scholar, she makes an economical and convincing case for each conjecture. Jules Verne, she notes, admitted to imbibing ”the wonderful tonic wine“ of the coca leaf, which might account for his tripping around the world in a mere 80 days; Mark Twain may have been moved by the drug to choose a pen name that acknowledged his split nature. Robert Louis Stevenson drew upon it to transform Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, and the coca brew, in its soda-pop form introduced in 1886, fueled a young country in the furious throes of technological development. The original Coca-Cola, says Plant, was marketed as a tonic to ”the most nervous nation in the world.“
Cocaine also played a significant role in the development of modern psychotherapy. The information has been excised from most official biographies of Sigmund Freud, but in his letters to his beloved Martha, the father of psychoanalysis acknowledges how his shadow self was revealed to him on cocaine. ”The drug had shown him his own hidden Hyde,“ Plant writes, ”and allowed him to talk about it too: The drug untied his tongue and allowed him to make those ’silly confessions‘ to Martha about both his ’wretched self‘ and his ’daring and fearless being,‘ the desiring wolf that lurked inside his shy sheepskin.“ Freud later prescribed the drug to his mentor, Ernst von Fleischl, as a cure for morphine addiction. But when the treatment failed -- von Fleischl died of a cocaine overdose, still a junkie -- Freud took the lesson to heart and forswore drug therapy in favor of interactive analysis. In so doing, he created in the psychiatric profession a conflict between drug and talking cures that endures to this day.
The extremes of ambivalence with which Freud responded to his drug -- first embracing it as a cure-all, then debunking it as a fraudulent distraction -- are common in Plant’s accounts. For all her fascination with psychotropic delights, she is well aware that the psychoactive substances she speaks of have been alternately dreaded and revered for good reason. Nearly every substance that first produces in its subject a superhuman euphoria loses either its magic or its interest after repeated use or abuse; worse, drugs used recklessly turn on their users with a vengeance. In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey wrote of longing to be free of opium‘s nightmares, and yet pronounced himself unable to break out of its grasp; Anais Nin was a ”cascade of blue rainfall“ on her first acid trip, but later disparaged the ”dissolving, dissipating, vanishing quality of drug dreams.“ After taking mushrooms, Arthur Koestler decided to side with Charles Baudelaire before him and declared the psychedelic route to personal growth a facile substitute for enlightenment. ”I solved the secret of the universe last night,“ he said, ”but this morning I forgot what it was.“