Name your poison

Dec 18, 2002 at 12:00 am

Almost everybody wants to get high — and almost everybody does. It’s just a matter of degree. You might limit yourself to the brittle enthusiasm derived from morning jolts of coffee and/or stress-unraveling sips of post-work alcohol — or you might be a weekend warrior who takes the party journey from heightened sociability to the fuzzy cocoon of tranced-out solipsism. You may indulge in something every day or just once a week. But in one way or another, you’re going to get your fix. It’s the way we’re wired.

We seek out the buzz at an early age, first from copious amounts of sugar and improvised spinning games that leave us lightheaded, later from that first purloined cigarette and then whatever’s up for grabs in our peer group and social place. And this, as British writer and professional wine connoisseur Stuart Walton makes clear in his well-researched and highly (pun intended) readable cultural history of intoxication, is the way it’s always been.

“History” is the operative word here and though Walton has an up-front agenda — he wants drugs to be de-shamed as a prerequisite for looking at them realistically — a great deal of the book details the evolution of intoxicants from religious sacraments to scientific tools to party-down fuel. He describes how important wine was both in early religious and philosophical endeavors. (It was a sacrament in the Dionysian cult and an oiler of analytical thought in the Platonic symposiums, where it was watered down in order to keep the conversation relatively coherent.) He also traces the progress of various mood-altering substances as they interface with the three major religions and deals with the general buffet of modern drugs, drawing both on research and anecdote. Then he wraps up with a brief chapter on drugs and creativity, suggesting — after considering Janis Joplin, Samuel Coleridge, Malcolm Lowry and Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-induced fascination with the folds in his trousers — that the connection is a matter of who’s taking what. Though obviously if drugs improve you in some way, they improve what you already are.

Walton is a witty writer and when he deals with the prohibitive mentality or debunks the myth of gateway drugs (as opposed to the gateway situations in which drugs are now procured) and the idea of instant addiction, he has a sharp tongue. His description of the various disconnects between reality and actuality that occur when a governing entity, religious or secular, tries to “wage war” on drugs is thorough. But since the arguments for legalization have always seemed to me self-evident — people taking drugs should be helped or left alone but not punished — I can’t tell whether or not he’s persuasive; I’m the choir in that regard.

But his summary is worth quoting from: “Intoxication is so uncontrollable because it is lustrously colored with the deepest dyes of subjectivity. It reminds you gloriously that you exist, that you are capable of quite different forms of consciousness from the one you wake up in each morning and that your serotonin reserves are after all your own to manage.”

The great conflict that Walton describes is between the fact that the drug experience is varied and the official approach so inappropriately precise — too uncomprehendingly focused on its phantom menace aspect to be effective. And the great paradox is that drug-taking is anathema to the basic human desire for order and security, yet has the ability to increase our feeling of well-being. One doesn’t have to be the victim of early sorrow and disorder — or even particularly unhappy — in order to want to feel better. Reality is endlessly mundane, which is why we clever apes are so endlessly inventive, creating everything from religion to DVDs to new and improved ways of getting blasted.

Inconclusiveness is an affront to the tidy mind, but here it is: Walton understands that drug-taking can be dangerous or at least foolhardy and a waste of time, though not necessarily. The most benign appeal of intoxicants is that they can offer pleasure; the most dangerous is that they can offer solace. One’s pleasure intake, with a little effort, can be controlled and measured out judiciously — in fact, moderation can boost the pleasurable experience, since pleasure’s absence serves to heighten the intensity of its return. But a taste of genuine solace can be fatal, being too profoundly gratifying to be meted out with restraint, and its constant pursuit can lead to addiction, family disintegration, social ostracism, ruined health and an unhappy death … though not necessarily.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].