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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The literature of addiction : confessions 1821-1960 Jenkins, Logan Burris


Ever since De Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" announced the reality of opium addiction in 1821, the literature representing addiction has excited the reading public. Nevertheless, the historical continuity (or presence) of the literature of addiction has been largely overlooked. Inevitably perhaps, the literature of addiction has taken the form of the autobiographical confession. The drug confession, however, extends the search for absolution to blatant self-advertisement, apocalyptic social commentary, and the sober collection of scientific data. Consequently, the story of addiction has displayed tremendous variety: the Romantic addict at the mercy of his own subjectivity, the genteel urban victim of the late 19th century, the outlaw, the mystic, the avant-garde artist, the black satirist of the 20th century. Only by following the historical development of the addict does the dynamic between the literary facts and the popular myths become comprehensible. The early confessions propose addiction as not so much a social problem as a distinct human possibility. The representative addicts--De Quincey, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and Baudelaire--suggest the inherent nobility of purpose behind the taking of opium or hashish, no matter how they might disagree upon the moral implications of the adventure. The popular confessions of the latter half of the 19th century, on the other hand, conceive of opium addiction as a serious disease. They uniformly deplore De Quincey's defense of opium. The opium eater himself becomes an object of pity and loathing. Moreover, miracle cures begin to appear in the popular confessions, transforming the Romantic .affliction into a business opportunity. The purple rhetoric of this period contributed to the stereotypes regarding addicts and sponsored legislative measures designed to regulate the use of narcotics. In the 20th century the European drug personality returns to the Romantic legacy. Aleister Crowley, James Lee, and Jean Cocteau all find in drugs a potential related to the archetypal function of the drug taker as prophet and healer; they claim for drugs significant rewards. These addicts sanctify the perceptions and intuitions of the drug taker and posit the withdrawal agony as the price to be paid for extraordinary modes of vision. In America, however, the experience of drugs seems hardly so hopeful. Racial intolerance and a stern work ethic forced the addict underground. The addict became a criminal by necessity and by decree. It is to this image of the old-time addict-thief that Burroughs gravitates toward when he repudiates upper-class American life. It is impossible to overestimate William Burroughs' role in the housing of the addict in the literate mind. He has dedicated more of his energies to the discussion of addiction than any other single literary figure with the possible exception of De Quincey. Addiction develops in the Burroughs drug canon from a meaningful way of life to the premier health problem in the world. He synthesizes a rich history when he presents the addict as artist-scholar, invalid, mystic, scientist, criminal, and deviant. Burroughs' strangeness becomes less strange by virtue of this survey of the literary history of addiction.

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