Drugs as a Means of Inspiration from Nineteenth-Century Europe to 1960s America
Timothy Cole Hale
For millennia, people have used drugs for recreational, medicinal, and religious purposes. Only within the last two-hundred years has a new purpose emerged: inspiration. This practice began in the early nineteenth-century with the Romantics, peaked by the turn of the century with the Parisian Bohemians, disappeared for a moment, and then returned full force with the Beatniks and hippie communities of post-war America. The purpose of this essay is to first detail the history of these countercultures of which drugs and art were central, emphasizing why drugs became ubiquitous in their circles and what their preferred methods of ingesting them were, followed by a conclusion providing two possible explanations as to why there may be a link between psychoactive drugs and inspiration.
Opium and Nineteenth-Century Europe
In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez traces the emergence of opium providing inspiration to the early nineteenth-century writers of the Romantic Era. Opium was not only legal at this time, but it was also commonly found in many medicines. The drug was contemporarily ingested most frequently as laudanum, in which the extracted substance is diluted into a liquid and drank—the solvent preferably being alcoholic among the Romantics. The positive effects of opium are an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness that soon gives way to severe drowsiness. It is thus no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares, believing that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that could be incorporated into their writing. In regards to this, Alvarez uses to Anne Radcliffe as an example, a writer who ate raw meat and rotting food late at night in hopes of provoking nightmares she would then utilize in her stories.[i]
Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict from the Romantic era, first tried opium when a friend recommended it to him for a severe toothache. By 1812, De Quincey was hopelessly addicted to the drug and, having run out of his and his wife’s money, turned to journalism. He published his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in London Magazine in 1821, before adding minor revisions and releasing it as a book the following year. The book became very popular and was reprinted multiple times and translated into a variety of languages.
In a notebook De Quincey kept, he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye! And what then?”[ii] Naturally, there are several interpretations for what this flower with the ability to transcend worlds is to represent, but it is often seen as a symbol for inspiration.
In 1804, morphine was identified as opium’s most active ingredient by Friedrich Sertürner in Germany. Because users so often fall asleep when taking the drug, Sertürner named the chemical “morphium,” after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Upon identifying and extracting the chemical from opium, Sertürner believed that because smaller doses of morphine were needed than laudanum to stop pain, morphine would be less addictive. This was not the case, and with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid nineteenth-century, injecting morphine became the most popular method to ingest the drug. In a twist of irony, Sertürner himself became a morphine addict.[iii]
While it is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War of the early 1870s—the drug was especially prevalent among the artists and writers of Bohemian Paris. Bohemia in this context was not a physical place, but a lifestyle and state of mind that emerged in direct opposition to France’s bourgeois society after the 1830 Revolution. The revolution coincided with a drastic population increase among European youths, and because housing and employment failed to increase with the same rapidity as birth rates, Parisian youths felt increasingly excluded from society and became anxious about their futures.[iv] At the same time, a romantic fascination with the Romani people (colloquially known as the Roma) appeared, whom the French called Bohémiens because of the incorrect belief that they originated from Bohemia, the Czech Republic’s westernmost region.
For Parisian youths, the Romani were captivating as their lifestyle seemed “adventurous and carefree,” despite living impoverished within a society that sought strong order.[v] These youths who felt excluded from the bourgeois society of their parents saw their situation reflected in the fantasized image of the Romani—being part of a world that had no place for them, yet the Romani seemed to thrive in it. As a result, many of these young people “dropped out” of middle-class society and fell into voluntary poverty, often with the hope to return among the bourgeoisie as self-made artists and writers. Art and literature were integral to this group because the “overlively and overexcited imagination” of an artist “naturally leads to a taste for freedom, [and] independence.”[vi]
Opium became the perfect substance in Bohemia as it was a way to rebel against the bourgeoisie. The drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversation or productivity of any sort. Using opium provided a sense of comradery among its Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social forms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect already forgotten since the Romantic years: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided fodder for their art.
Having relied on a humorously terrible translation of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by a man named Alfred de Musset for decades, France got its first decent translation in 1860 by Charles Baudelaire.[vii] Because of his own familiarity with alcohol, opium, and hashish, Baudelaire was the ideal person to translate the Confessions. In 1851, he wrote an essay titled “Du Vin et du hachish (On Wine and Hashish),” and had it republished in the Parisian journal La Revue contemporaine in September 1858. Baudelaire decided to combine the 1858 version of this essay to his translation of the 1822 edition of the Confessions, along with various essays taken from Suspiria de Profundis (a collection of essays by De Quincey viewed as his sequel to the Confessions), into one book titled Les Paradis artificels (Artificial Paradises). Having presented his publisher with the translation, Baudelaire was asked to reduce the direct text significantly, and to instead rely more on analysis and summary.[viii] For these reasons, Artificial Paradises is seen as a “response to” rather than a “translation of” Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
Baudelaire, however, is most remembered for his poetry, and, in his poem, “La Chambre Double (The Double Room),” he concisely explained the “rooms” that Bohemian users escaped and entered when under the influence of opium. He described the first room as an impoverished apartment with filthy living conditions, occupied by a writer whose mental state is filled with too many regrets and anxieties to complete his manuscripts. After opiate intoxication, though, the apartment transformed into a room of warmth, beauty, and elegance. Baudelaire seems here to be referencing opium as an escapist agent.
By the late nineteenth-century a new method of opium ingestion surfaced in France, drastically increasing the popularity of the drug. Taken from Asia by soldiers returning from French Indochina, smokable opium (called chandu) became the favored method of use. The most preferred chandu had the least amount of morphine content, as chandu with more exotic and aromatic substances added for flavor and scent were more sought after.[ix] In addition to the consumption method being brought from Asia, so too were the aesthetics and atmosphere. While the effects of opium may have always been “dreamlike,” the previous ingestion procedures were utilitarian and ugly—consider the maniacal and desperate face of a woman injecting morphine into her thigh in Eugène Grasset’s painting La Morphinomane (1897). As Han Derks asserts, the transition to the act of smoking opium cannot be overlooked—when taking most medicines appropriately, either oral or intravenous ingestion is most common, as was the case of laudanum and morphine. Now that opium was being smoked, however, it largely removed the plausibility that opium use was strictly medicinal.[x]
Because of the ritualization of smoking chandu, opium gained more mystique and therefore grew even more in popularity. By 1901, Paris housed up 1,200 opium smoking establishments (known as fumeries or fumes), with the majority located in the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, and Montmartre—Montmartre even became known as “the Opium Capital of the World” by the late nineteenth-century.[xi] These opium dens became frequent haunts of artists and writers, who launched enough books about chandu that they are sometimes considered their own genre. Writing of a nineteenth-century Parisian fume, psychologist Jos ten Berge says, “With its refined rituals and its mysterious alchemy, its lacquer, its silk and its jade, with its dimmed light and the drug’s odours, [the fume] offered the writer and poet an incomparably more dense matter.”[xii]
By this time, Paris had become the center of the art world and perhaps no artist has withstood time better from the era than Pablo Picasso. Picasso maintained a romantic relationship with one of his models, Fernande Olivier, for nearly eight years, during which time Olivier kept diaries. Of one night she smoked opium with Picasso, she wrote:
In spite of having an upset stomach and oppressive headache afterwards, which kept me in bed the next day, I couldn’t wait to start again so as to achieve that spiritual intensity and sharpening of intellectual awareness that one experiences under the influence of the drug. Everything seems beautiful, bright and good. It’s probably thanks to opium that I’ve discovered the true meaning of the word “love”…[xiii]
Here we see opium not being used because it was taboo or as a means of escapism, but instead because the user believed it heightened her senses. This is a distinguishable difference separating those of mainstream society who used the drug to be en vogue, versus the Bohemians who used the drug to sharpen their senses and to inspire creativity.
While the method of using opium changed through the years, the purpose among Bohemians largely remained the same. Bohemians felt opium intoxication was a way to erase the self for a moment and to explore new sensations, expanding their imagination as they fell into a dreamlike trance between sleep and consciousness. Artists and writers also took the drug because they believed it increased their mental abilities and improved their senses—not dulled them. Thomas De Quincey praised opium because of its ability “to incite the user to vision, hallucination, dream, and to assist the artist in erecting an entirely modern form of art.”[xiv] That opium relieved pain was irrelevant to many Bohemians, and, paradoxically, was seen as the side effect to the drug.
French historian Jerrold Siegel marks the end of Paris’s Bohemian Era at 1930. Within thirty years, another drug-fueled counterculture would emerge thousands of miles away in California—The Beatniks. There are several parallels between the Parisian Bohemians, and the post-war American Beats and the hippies they would later inspire. The most obvious similarities were the centrality of art and hedonism, the desire to “drop out” of middle-class society, and the groups’ sense of camaraderie brought about through taboo drug use. Another striking parallel was the importance of a book to the culture of each group. Just as De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater spurred opium’s popularity among Bohemians, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, published in 1954 about his recent mescaline experiences, was largely responsible for the popularity of the drugs of choice during the Sixties: psychedelics.
Huxley took the title of his book from William Blake’s quote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” This line captured Huxley’s belief, soon adopted by the post-war countercultures, that psychedelics had the potential to provide innumerable ways to interpret and explain the world.
In 1956, Huxley tried to create a word for the unique umbrella of hallucinatory drugs that included mescaline, as well as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin mushrooms. He suggested phanerothyme, taken from Greek to mean “visible soul.” Osmond, however, preferred a different word that he introduced the same year at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences: psychedelic. Osmond’s word, also derived from Greek, meant “mind manifesting,” and has since withstood time as the more popular of the two.
Soon after this, two psychologists from Harvard University—Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert—began the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960. While psychedelics could be mentally and physically pleasurable, Leary and Alpert were initially excited about their potential to solve psychological disorders and rehabilitate prison inmates. They believed they had found a drug that mimicked hallucinatory disorders, such as schizophrenia, that would allow them to better understand and thus better treat the ailments. Soon, the researchers believed psilocybin could unlock a higher level of consciousness and had many other benefits. The project was shut down within two years as both professors were eventually kicked out of Harvard for “pressuring” grad students to take psilocybin (and other psychedelics), as well as the ethical violation of partaking in the drug sessions with the participants, rather than just studying them.
Leary and Alpert continued taking trips to “that garden” after their firing, and began to promote psychedelics as a tool for spiritual enlightenment that removed societal programming from people and thus revealed their base selves. Alpert sought to explore this newfound wisdom even further and without chemical causations by traveling to India and practicing Hindu spirituality under a guru named Maharaj Ji. Maharaj Ji gave Alpert the name “Ram Dass (servant of God)” that he would forever be known by.
While Leary and Alpert experimented with LSD on the East Coast, it was being used more self-indulgently out West. In 1964, Ken Kesey, who was newly famous for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, took an acid-fueled road trip across the United States to promote his next book. He and his cohort—dubbed the Merry Pranksters—traveled from California to New York in a colorfully painted bus called Furthur. Along the way, the Merry Pranksters distributed LSD to the masses, causing the reputation of Kesey and this little-known drug to rise. The events were documented in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, where Kesey references Huxley upon seeing baby, saying, “That baby sees the world with a completeness that you and I will never know again. His doors of perception have not yet been closed…He still sees the world as it really is, while we sit here, left with only a dim historical version of it manufactured for us…” While Leary, Alpert, and Kesey, advocated psychedelic drug use, the Beat poets and writers transitioned to a new community: the hippies.
The hippie counterculture exploded in San Francisco, but ripples could be felt as far nationally as Atlanta, as well as far internationally as London, Turkey, and Latin America (to name just a few locations). The popularity of the drug created new genres of music that was atmospheric and incorporated instruments previously unheard in western music, while more common instruments were distorted to make strange, new sounds. New businesses also emerged, called head shops that provided devices for ingesting drugs, such as pipes and rolling papers; while also selling posters, tapestries, and other items that ensured one got the most out of “feeding their head.” Indeed, psychedelics impacted everything from markets, to the arts, to society, with its popularity and this new “in-crowd” of users.
The lines of distinction between psychedelic drug use for hedonistic or for creative purposes were often blurry for the hippies, but these two categories of use were certainly not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, as Eastern and Native American religions—some of which included the ritualistic ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs—grew in popularity among hippies, these drugs gained an additional religious and spiritual aspect. Such can be seen in poet/musician Jim Morrison, who often made references to Native American culture in his writing, and even saw himself as a shaman (someone who interacts with the spirit world via an altered state of consciousness). Morrison believed his drug and shaman experiences influenced his writing, thus combining psychedelics for spirituality with creativity. Morrison famously said in an interview that he believed “in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” It was Morrison who earlier suggested to his bandmates that they pay homage to Aldous Huxley and William Blake when naming their band: The Doors.
Two Competing Theories
This trend of artists, musicians, and writers using drugs for inspiration has yet to end. In thinking about drug use among artists over the last two hundred years, a key question emerges: Do drugs actually cause artistic inspiration? The Romantics, Bohemians, Beats, and Hippies, despite the disparate set and setting of their drug use, all certainly believed that drugs influenced their creations for the better. There are many theories—from the scientific to the metaphysical—that address this question, but they all largely fall within two categories: deconditioning and escapism.
The book Imagine Nation defines deconditioning as, “the act of taking LSD and becoming like a child again, shedding off the straitjacket of adult, middle-class programming, and making it anew.” This is closely associated with the “cleansing the doors of perception” interpretation. For example, we are taught from a young age in school that a blade of grass is green because it contains chlorophyll, which absorbs every color except green and thus reflects the color green. For people deconditioned from educational programming, however, grass can become green for any number of chosen mystical reasons. Zooming out from a single blade of grass, the world at large can become filled with limitless explanations for those who are chemically deconditioned. Perhaps artists and writers, who already possesses creative minds, are the best equipped to ponder and communicate these extra possibilities.
The deconditioning explanation, though most popular with the general public, is challenged by many psychologists and neurologists. For example, neuroscientist Heidi Moawad argues that because the process of writing or creating art is so mentally taxing, especially if one is working on a deadline, that dissociating oneself from reality is merely a method of escapism that allows the user to forget the demands of the real world for a moment and to “return” replenished.[xvii] Since opium causes users to fall into a deep sleep, Moawad’s explanation might particularly help to explain the inspiration achieved by the Parisian Bohemians. In addition, many Bohemians and, later, Hippies opted to “drop out” out of comfortable middle-class homes in favor of voluntary poverty. Living in cramped, small, or dirty apartments in crowded or crime-ridden neighborhoods, users in both eras might have desired to detach from these conditions—as described in Baudelaire’s “Double Room” poem.
Whether or not drugs can actually enhance creativity and provide artistic inspiration is still largely disputed, but there does, indeed, seem to be a connection, especially in the minds of many users. Whether this connection results from drugs offering users a way to “deprogram” themselves or by providing a method of mental escape is still unknown.
Perhaps the two are not antithetical to each other.
[i] A. Alvarez, “Drugs and Inspiration,” in Social Research, Vol. 68, No. 3, Altered States of Consciousness (Fall 2001), pages 779-793, Johns Hopkins University Press.
[ii] Quote from Thomas De Quincey’s notebook, as quoted in Alvarez’s “Drugs and Inspiration.”
[iii] Thomas Dormandy, Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 256.
[iv] Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 20.
[v] Ibid., 24.
[vi] Excerpt from Watelet’s Dictionnaire quoted in Jerrold Seigel’s Bohemian Paris, 25.
[vii] For more about Alfred de Musset’s translation, see Paul Sawyer’s “Musset’s Translation of the Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” in the French Review 42, no. 3, 1969.
[viii] Stacy Diamond in the introduction to Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises (Secaucus, NY: Citadel Press), xvii-xix.
[ix] S.L. Gilman, Z. Xun, and Jos ten Berge, “The Belle Epoque of Opium, Paris 1900-1904,” in Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (Reaktion Books, 2004), 111.
[xi] Han Derks, History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, Ca. 1600-1950, (Leiden, NL: BRILL, 2012), 385.
[xii] Berge, “The Belle Epoque of Opium,” 112.
[xiii] Fernande Olivier, Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier, (New York: Henry N. Abrams), 157.
[xiv] Carmen Mayer-Robin, “Wine, Tobacco, and Narcotica: Substances of Bourgeois Decorum and Bohemian Pretensions in Merimee, Baudelaire, and De Quincey,” in Romance Notes 43, no. 3 (2003), 236.
[xv]Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, (London: Picador, 2008), 52.
[xvi] Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle, “Forever Young: Insurgent Youth and the Sixties Culture of Rejuvenation,” in Imagine Nation: the American Counterculture of the 1960’s and 70’s (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013), pp. 253-254.
[xvii] Heidi Moawad, “Drugs and Creativity: Fact or Fiction?” Neurology Times, September 13, 2018, https://www.neurologytimes.com/blogs/drugs-and-creativity-fact-or-fiction. (Accessed October 29, 2019)