“The Chemical Life”

May 5 2013 @ 7:07am

Mason Currey chronicles the great writers and thinkers whose work was spurred by uppers:

The poet W.H. Auden is probably the most famous example. He took a dose of Benzedrine (a brand name of amphetamine introduced in the United States in 1933) each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine—“the chemical life,” he called it—for 20 years, until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco—although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Another telling example:

[P]erhaps the most notable case of amphetamine-fueled intellectual activity is Paul Erdös, one of the most brilliant and prolific mathematicians of the 20th century. As Paul Hoffman documents in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Erdös was a fanatic workaholic who routinely put in 19-hour days, sleeping only a few hours a night. He owed his phenomenal stamina to espresso shots, caffeine tablets, and amphetamines—he took 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily. Worried about his drug use, a friend once bet Erdös that he wouldn’t be able to give up amphetamines for a month. Erdös took the bet, and succeeded in going cold turkey for 30 days. When he came to collect his money, he told his friend, “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” After the bet, Erdös promptly resumed his amphetamine habit.