Raiding Consciousness

| 12/11/2012 3:06:19 PM

Tags: War on Drugs, human nature, alcohol, opium, LSD, Allen Ginsberg, drugs, intoxication, TomDispatch, Lewis Lapham.,

This post originally appeared at  

[This essay will appear in "Intoxication," the Winter 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

The question that tempts mankind to the use of substances controlled and uncontrolled is next of kin to Hamlet’s: to be, or not to be, someone or somewhere else. Escape from a grievous circumstance or the shambles of an unwanted self, the hope of finding at a higher altitude a new beginning or a better deal. Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars; give me leave to drown my sorrow in a quart of gin; wine, dear boy, and truth.

That the consummations of the wish to shuffle off the mortal coil are as old as the world itself was the message brought by Abraham Lincoln to an Illinois temperance society in 1842. “I have not inquired at what period of time the use of intoxicating liquors commenced,” he said, “nor is it important to know.” It is sufficient to know that on first opening our eyes “upon the stage of existence,” we found “intoxicating liquor recognized by everybody, used by everybody, repudiated by nobody.”

The state of intoxication is a house with many mansions. Fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ, the Rigveda finds Hindu priests chanting hymns to a “drop of soma,” the wise and wisdom-loving plant from which was drawn juices distilled in sheep’s wool that “make us see far; make us richer, better.” Philosophers in ancient Greece rejoiced in the literal meaning of the word symposium, a “drinking together.” The Roman Stoic Seneca recommends the judicious embrace of Bacchus as a liberation of the mind “from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it, and emboldens it for all its undertakings.”

Omar Khayyam, twelfth-century Persian mathematician and astronomer, drinks wine “because it is my solace,” allowing him to “divorce absolutely reason and religion.” Martin Luther, early father of the Protestant Reformation, in 1530 exhorts the faithful to “drink, and right freely,” because it is the devil who tells them not to. “One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely, and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me.”

John Thomas
6/13/2013 12:57:36 AM

Most people on prescribed - or any other intoxicants - live productive, healthy lives. The production of B.S. is another topic which is not really related.

John Thomas
6/13/2013 12:52:29 AM

So you are talking about alcohol? I think the public has few illusions about alcohol after thousands of years of widespread use. We've gone through the whole cycle. Use - prohibition - re-legalization.

6/13/2013 12:48:19 AM

the real 'war on drugs' is devising a way to mobilize a bazillion or so crispy old goats, ween them off their perscribied elixors, and get their asses out there doing something healthy and productive for a change...instead of spewing all their publishable bullshit day in and day out.

6/13/2013 12:42:04 AM

lumping - or from my perspective piling...stuff off to the side till a more enlightened decision about its purpose, use or consumption is how i perceive mr. thomas's comment. the 'drugs' part is yes, something that is supposed to create a division until an informed decision or logical conclusion can be made. so there we all are, sitting our asses, stoned out of our gourds, partaking a lecture with an instructor that for all the world could have been einstein with a ponytail, in a 5 credit hour masters level chemistry course, they were explained to me as 'the renaissance'. nothing more nothing less - his 'business'? piles of smoldering, composted grain and barrels of fermenting liquids...waiting patiently to be foisted off on an unsuspecting public, with all the hopes and dreams of garnering a profit, so that the rest of humankind has something intelligible to having their eyeballs ripped out watching said same erupt into a fairy tale 'new' beginning for all to follow.

John Thomas
6/12/2013 9:39:13 PM

Lumping all drugs - or even alterings of consciousness - together is perhaps an interesting pastime, but one that is, at best, unproductive, and at worst, a counter-productive exercise in futility. - Just observing a partial list of such activities reveals this: Injecting heroin, sipping a glass of wine, taking a puff of pot, meditation, prayer, etc. -- Even our generally regarded "harmless" favorite activity, watching a movie, is essentially putting ourselves in a trance-like state that convinces our brain that bouncing images of light and engineered sound (whether from a screen or an electronic box) constitute reality - however temporary. This, of course, extends to older forms of such distraction like story telling, reading a book, or just telling a joke. --- Prohibitionists ignore this truth, and lumping is one of their favorite tools. They do it to cloud the issue and cast the harms of the hard drugs onto marijuana. - Any who attempt to paint these activities with a broad brush, especially in describing them as "harmful," is guilty of obliterating the reality of human experience. That includes such "thoughtful" protests as put forth by Tiffany and Jim below. -- The not so subtle message in these negative actions is that human nature is bad. - The article nods to the wrong-headedness of this attitude by noting the experience of the Puritans was an unavoidable failure. -- To actually gain enlightenment in these topics, we must start with the basic truth. --- All drugs are definitely not equal in potential harms, and, in general, altering consciousness is not a bad thing, but an integral part of the human experience. - The first leap we must make out of this quick-sand of lazy, destructive thinking is that marijuana is as near harmless a recreational drug as can be found, and we must immediately end any and all persecution of its consumers. -- Nothing less than our societal sanity is at stake.

6/12/2013 1:56:55 PM

Drugs are not going anywhere. They were discovered millenia ago, and have become part of the human play book. Whether state-sanctioned or not, whether socially acceptable or not, some will give in to curiosity and try them. Some will like their effect so much that it takes over thir lives. Prohibition seem to be a failure. On the other hand dealing with drug problems more openly and honestly could lessen the social problems caused by the physical process of addiction. Recreational drugs, like marijuana, will never be eliminated through legal restrictions, as there are simply too many potheads in America. That's my take.

Tiffany Estrada
12/14/2012 5:45:07 PM

Not that I'm for prohibition or jailing everyone in this "war on drugs" . I just don't like the "we can't help our selves" cop-out.

Tiffany Estrada
12/14/2012 5:41:08 PM

Nice response. I wanted to simply write ( please read in a sarcastic tone) : if everyone is doing it, it must be okay. We try to use our minds and efforts to rise above our base instincts, sure slumming it or giving in to those animal instincts is exhilirating and liberating but as an over all " hands up", this is just how we are - attitude ... This is just too easy and dangerous. So many cool kids in California high all day long... I'm not even sure they would be able to read through this article...

Jim Sadler
12/14/2012 3:03:05 PM

It seems to me that most all worthwhile things are a war against human nature. Education is a war against our lower tendencies. Art is a war against our sloth. Creating music involves subjugation of normal human movement and tendencies. Labor is a violation of freedom at an intense level. Sobriety is no different at all. Staying sober at all times involves keeping our selves alert and fit. The very reason that our nation went into prohibition was that too many people had a moral collapse and harmed themselves and others with drunken behavior.