Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

31 August 1995

On Drugs

By David Lenson

University of Minnesota Press, $21.95

With a billion books about the varieties of sexual experience in print, and a million titles devoted to rock and roll, the dearth of serious writing concerning drugs seems a most curious omission. Drugs, the middle note [whatever it's called] of decadent modernism's supreme power chord, have always been at least as much fun to talk about as they were to take. But apart from the occasional best-selling discussion with the antidepressant du jour , drug literature--or as poet and comp lit professor David Lenson calls it, "pharmacography"--has been largely an underground affair, as the many queerly illustrated self-published editions I've collected over the years attest. And while Terence McKenna has produced several weird and wonderful volumes in recent years, most drug research takes place far outside the mainstream, as evidenced by such recent underground classics as Alexander Shulgin's PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story , Jonathan Ott's Pharmacotheon , and the pseudonymous D. M. Turner's Essential Psychedelic Guide .

Does the legal status of the most interesting psychoactive substances explain this? Not entirely. While Lenson affirms he's no "intellectual carpetbagger" to the discussion, it's drugs' ubiquity in contemporary culture that fascinates him. Nearly all of us get high on something--either sugar, nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, Prozac, pot, or heroin--every day. Why then, Lenson wonders, have so few writers addressed the phenomenology of the high without lapsing into dry empiricism, cagey Orientalism, or lurid confessional angst?

While everybody takes for granted the distinction between drugs and drugs , Lenson takes the unusual and refreshing tack of demanding a precise answer to the question, What is sobriety and so-called "straight" consciousness? His conclusion, that sobriety delimits those states of mind that allow "postindustrial Consumerism" to function smoothly, sets the stage for a series of eloquent and illuminating meditations on some fascinating modalities of drug use (e.g., addiction, user construction, memory, and regression) and studies of certain drugs themselves: marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, psychedelics, and various combinations thereof.

Drugs do their work where blood meets the brain and radicalized consciousness bristles against the body politic. "What if the enlightened self is the supreme revolutionary?" asks Lenson of LSD users. The author also acknowledges a "terrible respect" for opiate users, those meditative neoclassicists who make the deepest sacrifices for their high. But in their enslavement lies a sort of freedom. As Matt Dillon's Drugstore Cowboy character observed, most people don't know how they're going to feel from moment to moment, while a junkie has an excellent idea. By giving control of the body and feelings back to the individual (rather than to the corporation or product), drugs like pot, acid, and smack disrupt the consumerist model at the point where desire intersects with pleasure. Cocaine, on the other hand, is only about desire taken to the nth degree turned in upon itself. In this respect, it mocks, parodies, and undermines consumer society and thus cannot be tolerated. What's most troublesome about cannabis, for example, isn't its effects (for Lenson a "playful version of cognition" and "an integrated life of dream and waking"), but its estranged status. "The more one considers this problem the more certain it becomes that it is not so much the drug that must be outlawed as the antithetical state of mind that its administration encourages" .

On Drugs is surprisingly advocative [is this a word? My dictionary's still packed away] for a University of Minnesota Press title. Lenson concludes his most eloquent exercise in, shall we say, high theory with a modest proposal regarding America's expensive ongoing War on (Some) Drugs but realizes that legalizing pot and freeing America's several hundred thousand "prisoners of consciousness" remains a "utopian reverie." And that was before Newt Gingrich's recent dystopian fantasy of publicly executing drug smugglers en mass --a notion so insane you'd swear the guy must be on drugs.