Dreaming of Electric Kool-Aid

Why have writers throughout history found their muse in drugs?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Writers throughout history: Lewis, de Quincey, Thompson, Dick, Stevenson

As a student, it’s likely you have either heard this or something similar: “I was so high when I wrote that paper. I can’t believe I got an A.” Or, “I got high and then all of a sudden I had this massive epiphany!”

Debates have long raged over whether drugs trigger concepts and ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred under normal circumstances.

Scientific studies are inconclusive regarding the use of drugs as a means of spurring creativity.

“It’s a difficult question to answer because there’s no objective definition of creativity,” Riley Hinson, a professor in the department of psychology at Western, says. “One person may say that so and so is extremely creative, but the other may say otherwise, to which we have no real criteria to base it on; it’s a very subjective topic.”

Writers in particular have long been associated with drug use. Numerous literary figures have produced works that border on “perfection,” yet their personal lives were anything but.

For example, Robert Lewis Stevenson penned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the depths of a weeklong cocaine binge. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick churned out Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with the help of amphetamines and then completely blacked out, without any recollection of ever having written the novel. The father of “gonzo journalism,” the late Hunter S. Thompson, was familiar with a variety of substances. How do artists balance drug use and creativity?

“There is a long history of authors and artists managing to produce what we now think of as great works of art either in spite or because of troubled personal lives,” Bryce Traister, a professor of American literature at Western, says. “One of the general theories, and one supported by some psychological studies of manic depression, holds that the artistic mind is often a depressive mind, that psychic turmoil is often a part of the generative process of imaginative creation.”

Take for example Wyndham Lewis, a Canadian-born British painter, author and founder of the Vorticist art movement. According to Dr. Anderson Araujo, a British literature professor at Western, Lewis had a daily diet of blood oranges and thinly cut strips of raw beef, which he chased with straight vodka. “Afterwards, he would dial random numbers and abuse whoever picked up. When that grew dull, Lewis would eventually hit the streets to glare at innocent passersby.”

“Things like alcohol or drug abuse " a form of ‘self-medication’ if ever there was one " are part of the artist’s attempt to manage a mental condition which is then part of the creative effort,” Traister explains. “Some would say that substance abuse serves the function of the muse.”

This begs the question: does drug use (and abuse), then, function as an attribute of the artistic mind or does it enable creativity? Does the knowledge of an artist’s drug use heighten or lessen our appreciation for their work?

“Many would argue that it does not " that great works of art are received and understood on their own terms rather than on our knowledge of the author’s personal demons or even personal successes, for that matter,” Traister says.

Still, one cannot help but marvel at the circumstances of the artist’s state of mind.

Our society believes drugs lead to self-destruction and misery. Yet, the understanding that someone can transform their psychoactive experience into something profound is evidence that there is, in fact, an upside to drugs.

Christopher Keep, chair of undergraduate studies for the department of English, says there is potential for consolation when it comes to creativity sought through drug use.

“[Drug use] is an opportunity to rethink the nature of imagination and to explore the creative impulses that reside in the psyche. Thomas de Quincey deliberately used opium as a way to explore the body,” Keep says.

“It’s a case where we find that the rational mind is the enemy.”

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