Richard Davenport-Hines

Soul Medicines & Secular Sacrements

High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture


Thames & Hudson 192pp £18.95 order from our bookshop

Mike Jay’s writings have always shown an affinity with underworlds, fin-de-siècle morbidity, and madness – his study of the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic during the Napoleonic Wars, The Air Loom Gang (2003), was a particularly disorientating book. But drugs are his real bag. He compiled an anthology of writings about mind-altering substances, Artificial Paradises (1999), and wrote a study of nineteenth-century drug cultures, Emperors of Dreams (2000). His latest compilation is issued to coincide with the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition on mind-altering substances, ‘High Society’, which is showing in London until February 2011. It is illustrated with oil portraits, book illustrations, technical drawings, photographs and posters from the Wellcome Collection’s archives, but Jay’s accompanying text is not exuberant. Curatorial responsibilities and institutional solemnity have steadied his giddy approach to drug experimentation.

Permanent sobriety is an unnatural and inhuman state. People need to escape unsettled states of mind, oppressive circumstances, weariness, anguish and tension. High Society explores both the pharmacological and social aspects of a range of substances that Jay classifies as stimulants, sedatives, psychedelics, hypnotics, deliriants, and dissociatives. Some of these, such as coffee and tea, can be found in most household larders. Others – medieval herbals, flying ointments, magic mushrooms, laughing gas – are of largely historic interest. Certain drug habits have localised traditions and cultural connotations – for example the ingestion of peyote, the narcotic drink kava, and the chewing of betel nuts. As the result of the zealotry of early twentieth-century American Christians, notably an Episcopalian bishop called Charles Brent who was distressed by his brother’s alcoholism, a huge, expensive system of international prohibitions has been imposed on many other formerly licit substances.

Other creatures all need intoxication: cats abandon themselves to the ecstasy of catnip; Siberian bears and reindeer seek fly agaric mushrooms; migrating birds make seasonal detours to gorge on fermented fruits; Indian elephants rampage after raiding shebeens; baboons chew tobacco; male mandrills eat hallucinogenic roots, and fight their rivals when the effects have taken hold. Jay recounts the development of pharmaceuticals, which in many cases were mood-altering: ‘whether a drug is medicine or poison is a question of dosage’, he observes. During the sixteenth century Paracelsus refined vitriols and elixirs. A century later Thomas Sydenham devised his hard-to-resist compound Laudanum Sydenhami, two ounces of opium in a pint of strong red wine, spiced with saffron, cloves and cinnamon. In 1762 Linnaeus published Inebriantia, the first modern inventory of mind-altering substances.

Jay discusses de Quincey’s opium habit, Baudelaire’s hashish experiments and Freud’s misuse of cocaine. He examines the effect of the invention of the hypodermic needle and the synthesising of new drugs, notably heroin (marketed in 1898 to treat coughs and sore throats, for which it is indeed a superb cure) and veronal (the first barbiturate, launched in 1903). He disinters the origins of alcohol and drug prohibition, and traces the definition of some substances as illicit or illegal. The International Opium Convention of 1912, the intensification of US drugs prohibition after the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1932, and the counterproductive, now deplorably obsolete United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 are mileposts in his story. Every attempt to suppress drugs trafficking has proved a marketing incentive to traffickers. Drug prohibition, Jay suggests, is often designed to serve as ‘social glue’ in a similar way to drugs themselves. Islam’s interdiction on alcohol and Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ launched in 1971 are two examples.

Jay’s text has an emasculated tone, as if anything that might enable a Daily Mail columnist to attack the Wellcome exhibition has been extruded by an anxious committee. He is more relaxed discussing tobacco than other habit-forming commodities. There is implicit sympathy in High Society for hallucinogenic substances – the psychedelic amphetamine MDMA (ecstasy) is ‘at once a badge of identity, a soul medicine and a secular sacrament’ – but conspicuously less for opiates. Jay summarises Howard Becker’s classic 1953 study of marijuana smoking by New York’s jazz freaks, which propounded a three-stage model of drug use: first, learning to inhale and hold the smoke in the lungs; secondly, recognition of the drug’s sometimes disagreeable effects; and thirdly, learning to value those effects, and to experience them positively in a spirit of subcultural camaraderie. Under the sanitising influence of Wellcome sponsorship, Jay shies away from a similar analysis of heroin – learning how to inhale when chasing the dragon, mastering the pleasures of preparing the works, coping with the results, and the camaraderie of shooting up together. For readers with any specialised interest or experience of the subject, High Society is somewhat low-grade stuff.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter