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  • Mystics of a Materialist Age
  • Justus Nieland
Review of: Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.

Marcus Boon’s ambitious, lucid, and far-ranging cultural history of the connection between literature and drugs eschews a “single chronological history of drugs” and seeks instead “to reveal more subtle, micropolitical histories of everyday interactions between human beings and particular psychoactive substances to find out whether these histories had left their traces in literature” (9). The answer, as any reader of De Quincey, Coleridge, or Burroughs knows, is that they have. And how. More pointedly, Boon’s impressive study asks—and takes a valiant stab at answering—“how it came to be that aesthetics and transgression, and the literary genres associated with them, came to be associated with drug use” (5).

This is a bigger question, and a tricky one to tackle in one book, even one as sprawling and learned as Boon’s. Any convincing answer would have to address not only the dynamic interrelationship between writing and the history of pharmacological science—something Boon does well, and with often breathtaking range—but also the co-evolution of drug writing with both theories of the aesthetic and the variety of genres, anti-genres, and subversive literary gestures that could be called transgressive. Boon’s catholic style of historicism would seem well-suited to this task, since it is cultural studies written “the way an ethnographer would,” and sees literature in sublunary fashion, as just “one out of many forms of human activity” (5). Yet for all of Boon’s anecdotal connoisseurship and dazzling intellectual roaming—especially across the domains of the literary-historical and the scientific—his study has surprisingly little to say about the literary, or about new (or old) ways of talking about literary transgression. Theories of the avant-garde, or conventional critical stories about modernism’s formal subversions and its forays into the interior and the transcendent, or indeed any sustained discussion of how drug use spawned challenges to mainstream aesthetics or bourgeois expressive forms like the novel—all of this is conspicuously absent in Boon’s study. So, while Boon claims that literature and drugs are two “dynamically developing domains of human activity,” the literary is often the unsexy, occasionally inert partner in Boon’s narrative, waiting passively to receive the traces of its psychoactive counterpart (5). Boon’s writers are on drugs, but his approach to literary history and theory is often way too square.

Perhaps this is a consequence of Boon’s decision to forego a “particular conceptual framework beyond that of a set names of substances around which stories, texts, practices have clustered, and that of chronology,” used for convenience (9). Boon allows himself a single, but effective, dose of theory in his introduction, drawing on Bruno Latour’s provocative argument about the transcendental in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). Recall that in Latour’s anatomy of the modern constitution, modernity works by erecting a divide between nature and culture, one designed to liberate man from the superstitious mana and murk of the premodern but one that effectively produces a modern society “permeated by the very hybrids of nature-culture that it officially claims it has eradicated” (11). Drugs, Boon argues, are hybrid in the Latourian sense—“material and at the same time constructed,” Trojan horses of the modern transcendental impulse (11). In a world without God, drugs fuse soma and spirit, allowing the moderns to have their otherwordly hashcake and eat it too. Latour thus helps Boon “to affirm an inclusive polyvalent movement around the boundaries that modernity has built for itself that would integrate transcendental experience within the realm of the possible” (12).

While Boon confesses that he has “no particular version of the transcendental to push,” he is sympathetic to “our legitimate desire to be high” (12, 13). What’s more, though he works to disabuse us of the myth that drug use is a modern phenomenon, he believes the desire for transcendence—and for drugs, its material agents—was forced into a crisis of acuity in the shadow of Enlightenment modernity, and shortly thereafter achieved its first full flowering in early...

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