High Culture

Reviewing Tao Lin’s new novel Taipei, Audrea Lim surveys a history of drug use in literature:

The scholar Marcus Boon’s The Road to Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (2002) usefully taxonomizes the different literary and philosophical tendencies associated with different classes of drugs. Narcotics are a transcendental experience, providing access to the sublime. (Antonin Artaud compared them to literature and theater). Amphetamines transform authors into tireless writing machines. (Kerouac cranked out On The Road in two or three weeks on Benzedrine). Cannabis causes the mind to meander, highlighting unnoticed details and revealing connections between seemingly unrelated things, a state that has obvious affinities with the mindset of the flâneur who wanders aimlessly through Paris’ Arcades. (It is telling that the list of books Walter Benjamin regretted never writing included one on hashish.) … Drugs can help us to adapt, to be more productive, and even to excel within our circumstances, to make our lives more bearable, and in some cases, to radically reconfigure our subjectivity, if not the world.

In Taipei, drug use is less about changing the world than it is about adjusting to it.

[The protagonist] Paul, nervous and shy by nature, tries various combinations of drugs to help him cope with ordinary life, but they don’t actually make him any more comfortable. He swallows potent chemical cocktails at parties, but they seem to produce the opposite of the intended effect: “after four more parties, two of which he similarly slept on sofas after walking mutely through rooms without looking at anyone, Paul began attending less social gatherings and ingesting more drugs.” The scene he is part of (twentysomething middle-class white kids who make mostly meaningless art) is hedonistic, yet while he participates, he seems not to derive any pleasure from it. If altered states were once, as the old Aldous Huxley chestnut has it, “doors of perception,” then sometime between Huxley’s era and the one depicted in Taipei, those doors seem to have closed.

(Video: William S. Burroughs talking about his addiction to heroin in 1977)