Drugs and Artistic Creativity

In 1906, a young Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani, arrived in Paris and joined the bohemian colony of struggling artists in Montmartre. When he arrived, Modigliani was sober and well-dressed; within a year he had become a dissolute sociopath, heavily addicted to absinthe and to hashish, which he took in pellet form. Within sixteen years he was dead, destined to become part of the already well-established myth of the questionable marriage between art and drugs. His friend and biographer, Andre Salmon, wrote that it was Modigliani’s ‘impatience to become a genius’[i] that drove him to his addictions, later claiming that ‘from the day that he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art’.[ii] It seems evident that Modigliani, like many artists and writers doubting the potency of the creative talent on which their livelihood depended, took drugs to relieve the burden of possible failure. It is less evident that drugs transformed his art, for, if his painting did improve, who is to say it was not practice, the influence of a happy marriage and a reduced drug intake during his last years that were responsible? Alternatively, given that absinthe is a stupefacient and that hashish can induce depression as well as euphoria, it is possible that Modigliani’s addictions were actually detrimental to his artistic output if not to the quality of his art.

Modigliani’s story, while certainly not uncommon in some respects was unique in others. Every case of drug use will have a different effect on the user, occasioned by his personality, prevailing mood, the locality and time of administration and the drug itself. Norman E. Zinberg codified these variables into what he called ‘Drug, Set and Setting’, claiming that ‘it is necessary to understand in every case how the specific characteristics of the drug and the personality of the user interact and are modified by the social setting and its controls’.[iii] Modigliani’s drug of choice was hashish, produced from the resin of the cannabis sativa plant. With a maximum THC content of 15%, taken in large doses the drug, reportedly, may cause a user to hallucinate.[iv] The use of cannabis and opium can be traced back thousands of years. Sadie Plant points to evidence of opium use in European Neolithic settlements, in Egyptian tombs of the fifteenth century BC and in ancient Rome, although it is not clear if the drugs were used for other than medicinal and healing purposes.[v] However, it is more recent times and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin that provide some first real evidence of the effect of hallucinogenic drugs on human consciousness. This evidence is important because, first, the drug (most commonly Yage) is taken by the user with the express intention of entering into a trance and using whatever visions were experienced for specific benefits to the community. Second, there is evidence of its impact. The impact cited by Andrew Weil in his paper ‘Clues from the Amazon’ [vi] does not point to life altered by psychotic, drug induced dreams, but to the complete absence of addiction and abuse. Weil attributes this ‘success’ to the positive objectives of the drug taking (normally healing or religious ritual), the purity of the unadulterated plant life that constitutes the drug and the ceremonial or ritualistic circumstances under which the drugs are administered, normally by a spiritual leader or shaman.

The factors that made drug taking in remote areas of the Amazon basin harmless or even beneficial were entirely absent in the cities of the industrialised world, where, in the mid-nineteenth century the mind-altering qualities of opium first began to be examined. Alethea Hayter, in her study ‘Opium and the Romantic Imagination’, identifies three groups of people (excluding those who take opium as a pain killer) who are likely to experiment with drugs. The first group consists of the curious, the seekers of novel experiences; the second, those desiring rest and freedom from anxiety, and the last, those who take pleasure in participating in ‘secret rites and hidden fellowships’.[vii] In 1821, English writer and intellectual, Thomas De Quincey, provided the first serious study on the effects of opium on human consciousness with the publication of Confessions of an English Opium-eater. Although a curious intellectual, De Quincey discovered opium in taking it as a medicine finding, at the same time, ‘the secret of happiness’ and his pains ‘swallowed up…in the abyss of divine enjoyment’.[viii]  Outside of his ecstatic eulogies De Quincey also provided some meaningful insight into the effects of opium on the sub-conscious and creativity.

De Quincey’s basic observations, which were to be subsequently confirmed by other opium users, covered several important topics. He claimed that ‘The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected’. [ix] He underlined that the experience taught him nothing new but, in the words of Martin Booth, ‘embellished what already existed, heightening awareness of latent thoughts and imagination’, in other words, improving creative talent but only in the event that the idea already existed.[x] De Quincey also reports that his memory was vastly improved and that he was able to recollect ‘the minutest incidents of childhood’.[xi] Finally he addressed the negative aspects of the drug, claiming that it rendered him too weak to record his extraordinary dreams in print and that it induced feelings of anxiety and melancholy.[xii] Later, the dreams, once of extraordinary shapes and colours, would become agonising and frightening nightmares. De Quincey, in managing to control his life-long addiction, lived to a reasonably old age and enjoyed a happy personal and professional life.

While the creative advantages expressed in Confessions of an English Opium-eater undoubtedly influenced others writers to experiment with opium, notably Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Nikolai Gogol, there were many others who had discovered the drug for themselves. Many were introduced to it in the form of Laudanum, a medicine composed of opium powder and alcohol, sold without prescription until the early twentieth century. During the nineteenth century, among the millions of opium addicts trying to alleviate their misery from the gold mines of California to the dens of Shanghai, elitist groups sprang up – those hopeful that the drug would lead to enlightenment or artistic creativity. One such group formed the Club des Hashischins, while the Romantics, a group of European writers active between 1770 and 1840, included several authors who experimented with drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was at the very centre of the Romantic movement, found inspiration for his poetry in laudanum, at the cost of his health and his income from lecturing. [xiii]

In 1954 mescalin became briefly popular when another curious intellectual, Aldous Huxley, self-administered the drug to test its possible spiritual uses. Huxley experienced the same vivid dreams, disassociation of mind from body and intensification of colour, but the result was the same – the drug can only extract what already exists within the subconscious. He concluded that it was useful as an alternative to words. [xiv] It was a synthetic drug, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), discovered by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann and championed by Harvard professor Timothy Leary, that became the drug of choice for musicians and artists in the ‘swinging sixties’. Even the CIA and US military, who found it caused anxiety and was therefore useful to the interrogation process, examined it closely. Again the results were the same; LSD could send you briefly to the stars, but it could also cause the user to become ‘paranoid and bewildered’.[xv] It also proved relatively unhelpful to the artistic community. Writer Anais Nin found the drug did nothing to inspire creativity; Jack Kerouac felt the drug had permanently harmed his health.[xvi] Writer Julia Ward Howe thought that to use drugs to help write was actually cheating. [xvii]

Hashish, opium, mescalin and LSD – there is no evidence that they can expand human consciousness beyond what already lies in the user’s memory. As British writer Arthur Koestler said, after experimenting with LSD, ‘There’s no wisdom there. I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was’. [xviii]

Drugs therefore cannot contribute to artistic creativity by providing material that did not already exist in the artist’s conscious. The positive contributions that opium, cannabis and hallucinogens have made to artistic creativity lie in two different areas. First, the addicts’ world, together with the fantastic and sometimes gruesome visions that drug-induced dreams produce, have been the subject and inspiration for many fine novels and poems, notably Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Second, drugs provide, for some artists, the only influence under which they can be in any way productive. It enables the artist, perhaps poor and tortured by the possibility of failure, to escape ‘the cosmic suffering that is the inescapable lot of the Romantic artist’.[xix] It becomes not a benefit but a necessity, even though the costs, financial, physical and mental may be severe. Negro jazz musicians in turn-of-the century New Orleans, Toulouse Lautrec and Modigliani all spring to mind. Personally, I always find my art, writing, cooking and life in general improve after the second glass of wine, but that’s just my opinion.


[i] Salmon, Andre (1957) Modigliani, a Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape 1961. p.61

[ii] Werner, Alfred (1967) Amedeo Modigliani. London: Thames & Hudson. p.20

[iii] Zinberg, N E. (1984) ‘Historical Perspectives on Controlled Drug Use’. In Drug, Set and Setting: the Basis for controlled Intoxicant Use. Yale University Press. P.15

[iv] Nordegren, Thomas (?) The A-Z Encyclopedia of alcohol and Drug Abuse

[v] Plant, S. (2000) ‘Private Eyes’. In Writing on Drugs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp..4-5

[vi] Weil, Andrew, ‘Clues from the Amazon’ in The Natural Mind: an investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, Weil, Andrew 1986.

[vii] Hayter,A. (1968) ‘Case Studies.’ In Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, p. 40-41

[viii] Booth, M. (1996) ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, London:  Simon & Schuster, p.36

[x] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, p.36

[xi] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.38

[xii] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.38

[xiii] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.44

[xiv] Huxley, A. (1972) ‘The Doors of Perception’. In ‘The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, p52.

[xv] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’. In The Drug Problem: a New View Using the General Semantics Approach, Westport, CT: London, Praeger. p. 88

[xvi] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.88

[xvii] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.86

[xviii] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.88

[xix] Carpenter, L. (2001) ‘Enhancing the Possibilities of Desire: Addiction as Post-modern Trope’ (Opium, Heroin, and the Novelists of the romantic Imagination), Southern Humanities Review, 35 (3): p.232

Bibliography

Booth, M. (1996) ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, London:  Simon & Schuster, pp. 36-49.

Carpenter, L. (2001) ‘Enhancing the Possibilities of Desire: Addiction as Post-modern Trope’ (Opium, Heroin, and the Novelists of the romantic Imagination), Southern Humanities Review, 35 (3): 228-251.

Cohen, Sydney, (1965) Drugs of Hallucination, London: The Scientific Book Club.

Hayter, A. (1968) ‘Case Studies.’ In Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, pp.36-66.

Hodgson, B. (1999) ‘The Writer’s Muse’. In Opium: a Portrait of the Heavenly Demon. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, p.83-103.

Huxley, A. (1972) ‘The Doors of Perception’. In‘The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, pp.40-78.

Lee, M.A.(1992) ‘Psychedelic Pioneers’. In Acid Dreams. New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, pp.44-70.

Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’. In The Drug Problem: a New View Using the General Semantics Approach, Westport, CT: London, Praeger. pp.75-92

Plant, S. (2000) ‘Private Eyes’. In Writing on Drugs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp.3-32.

Salmon, Andre (1957) Modigliani, a Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape 1961.

Zinberg, N E. (1984) ‘Historical Perspectives on Controlled Drug Use’. In Drug, Set and Setting: the Basis for controlled Intoxicant Use. Yale University Press. Pp.1-18

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