Raiding Consciousness

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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.”

Dr. Samuel
Johnson, child of the Enlightenment, requires wine only when alone, “to get rid
of myself — to send myself away.” The French poet Charles Baudelaire, prodigal
son of the Industrial Revolution, is less careful with his time. “One should
always be drunk. That’s the great thing, the only question. Drunk with what?
With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.”

My grandfather,
Roger Lapham (1883-1966), was similarly disposed, his house in San Francisco the stage of existence upon which,
at the age of seven in 1942, I first opened my eyes to the practice as old as
the world itself. At the Christmas family gathering that year, Grandfather
deemed any and all children present who were old enough to walk instead of
toddle therefore old enough to sing a carol, recite a poem, and drink a cup of
kindness made with brandy, cinnamon, and apples. To raise the spirit, welcome
the arrival of our newborn Lord and Savior. Joy to the world, peace on earth,
goodwill toward men.

“If You
Meet, You Drink…”

Thus introduced
to intoxicating liquors under auspices both secular and sacred, the offering of
alms for oblivion I took to be the custom of the country in which I had been
born. In the 1940s as it was in the 1840s, as it had been ever since the Mayflower
arrived at Plymouth
laden with emboldening casks of wine and beer. The spirit of liberty is never
far from the hope of metamorphosis or transformation, and the Americans from
the beginning were drawn to the possibilities in the having of one more for the
road. They formed their character in the settling of a fearful wilderness, and
the history of the country could be written as a prolonged mocking and
harassing of the devil by the drinking, “and right freely,” from whatever wise
and wisdom-loving grain or grape came conveniently to hand.

The oceangoing
Pilgrims in colonial Massachusetts and Rhode Island delighted
in both the taste and trade in rum. The founders of the republic in Philadelphia in 1787 were in the habit of consuming
prodigious quantities of liquor as an expression of their faith in their fellow
men — pots of ale or cider at midday, two or more bottles of claret at dinner
followed by an amiable passing around the table of the Madeira.

Among the
tobacco planters in Virginia, the moneychangers in New
York, the stalwart yeomen in western Pennsylvania busy at the task of making
whiskey, the maintaining of a high blood-alcohol level was the mark of
civilized behavior. The lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner were fitted to the
melody of an eighteenth-century British tavern song. The excise taxes collected
from the sale of liquor paid for the War of 1812, and by 1830 the tolling of
the town bell (at 11 a.m., and again at 4 p.m.) announced the daily pauses for
spirited refreshment.

Marryat, an English traveler to America
in 1839, noted in his diary that the way the natives drank was “quite a
caution… If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make
acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in
their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink, because it is hot;
they drink, because it is cold.”

During what
were known as the Gay Nineties, at the zenith of the country’s Gilded Age, Manhattan between the Battery and Forty-second Street
glittered in the lights of 10,000 saloons issuing passports to the islands of
the blessed and the rivers of forgetfulness. No travel plan or destination that
couldn’t be accommodated, prices available on request. French champagne at
Sherry’s Restaurant for the top-hatted Wall Street speculators celebrating the
discoveries of El Dorado; shots of five-cent whiskey (said to taste “like a
combination of kerosene oil, soft soap, alcohol, and the chemicals used in fire
extinguishers”) for the unemployed foreign laborer sleeping in the gutters
south of Canal Street. Who could say who was hoping to trade places with whom,
the uptown swell intent upon becoming a noble savage, the downtown immigrant
imagining himself dressed in fur and diamonds?

What else is America about
if not the work of self-invention? Recognize the project as an always risky
business, and it is the willingness to chance what dreams may come (west of the
Alleghenies or on the further shores of consciousness) that gives to the
American the distinguishing traits of character that the historian Daniel J.
Boorstin, librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, identified as those of the
chronic revolutionary and the ever hopeful pilgrim. Boorstin drew the
conclusion from his study of the American colonial experience: “No prudent man
dared be too certain of exactly who he was or what he was about; everyone had
to be prepared to become someone else. To be ready for such perilous
transmigrations was to become an American.”

Are More Kicks to Be Had in a Good Case of Paralytic Polio”

So too in the
1960s, the prudent becoming of an American involved perilous transmigrations,
psychic, spiritual, and political. By no means certain who I was at the age of
24, I was prepared to make adjustments, but my one experiment with psychedelics
in 1959 was a rub that promptly gave me pause.

Employed at the time as a reporter at the San Francisco
, I was assigned to go with the poet Allen Ginsberg to the
Stanford Research Institute there to take a trip on LSD. Social scientists
opening the doors of perception at the behest of Aldous Huxley wished to
compare the flight patterns of a Bohemian artist and a bourgeois philistine,
and they had asked the paper’s literary editor to furnish one of each. We were
placed in adjacent soundproofed rooms, both of us under the observation of men
in white coats equipped with clipboards, the idea being that we would relay
messages from the higher consciousness to the air-traffic controllers on the

Liftoff was a
blue pill taken on an empty stomach at 9 a.m., the trajectory a bell curve
plotted over a distance of seven hours. By way of traveling companions we had
been encouraged to bring music, in those days on vinyl LPs, of whatever kind
moved us while on earth to register emotions approaching the sublime.

Together with
Johann Sebastian Bach and the Modern Jazz Quartet, I attained what I’d been
informed would be cruising altitude at noon. I neglected to bring a willing
suspension of disbelief, and because I stubbornly resisted the sales pitch for
the drug — if you, O Wizard, can work wonders, prove to me the where and when
and how and why — I encountered heavy turbulence. Images inchoate and nonsensical,
my arms and legs seemingly elongated and embalmed in grease, the sense of utter
isolation while being gnawed by rats.

To the men in
white I had nothing to report, not one word on either the going up and out or
the coming back and down. I never learned what Ginsberg had to say. Whatever it
was, I wasn’t interested, and I left the building before he had returned from
what by then I knew to be a dead-end sleep.

long-standing acquaintance with alcohol was for the most part cordial. Usually
when I drank too much, I could guess why I did so, the objective being to
murder a state of consciousness that I didn’t have the courage to sustain — a
fear of heights, which sometimes during the carnival of the 1960s accompanied
my attempts to transform the bourgeois journalist into an avant-garde novelist.
The stepped-up ambition was a commonplace among the would-be William Faulkners
of my generation; nearly always it resulted in commercial failure and literary

I didn’t grow a
beard or move to Vermont, but every now and
then I hit upon a run of words that I could mistake for art, and I would find
myself intoxicated by what Emily Dickinson knew to be “a liquor never
brewed/from Tankards scooped in Pearl.”
The neuroscientists understand the encounter with the ineffable as an
“endorphin high,” the outrageously fortunate mixing of the chemicals in the
brain when it is being put to imaginative and creative use.

On being
surprised by a joy so astonishingly sweet, I assumed that it must be forbidden,
and if by the light of day I’d come too close to leaning against the sun with
seraphs swinging snowy hats, by nightfall I felt bound to check into the
nearest cage, drunkenness being the one most conveniently at hand. Around
midnight at Elaine’s, a saloon on Second Avenue in Manhattan that in those days
catered to a clientele of actors, writers, and other assorted con artists
playing characters of their own invention, I could count on the company of
fellow travelers outward or inward bound on the roads of perilous
transmigration. No matter what their reason for a timely departure — whether
to obliterate the fear of failure, delete the thought of wife and home,
reconfigure a mistaken identity, project into the future the birth of an
imaginary self — all present were engaged in some sort of struggle between the
force of life and the will to death. Thanatos and Eros seated across from each
other over the backgammon board on table four, the onlookers suspending the
judgment of ridicule and extending the courtesy of tolerance.

Alcohol serves
at the pleasure of the players on both sides of the game, its virtues those
indicated by Seneca and Martin Luther, its vices those that the novelist
Marguerite Duras likens, as did Hamlet, to the sleep of death: “Drinking isn’t
necessarily the same as wanting to die. But you can’t drink without thinking
you’re killing yourself.” Alcohol’s job is to replace creation with an illusion
that is barren. “The words a man speaks in the night of drunkenness fade like
the darkness itself at the coming of day.”

The observation
is in the same despairing minor key as Billie Holiday’s riff on heroin: “If you
think dope is for kicks and thrills you’re out of your mind. There are more
kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio and living in an iron lung.
If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you’re crazy. It can fix you
so you can’t play nothing or sing nothing.” She goes on to say that in Britain the authorities at least have the
decency to treat addiction as a public-health problem, but in America, “if
you go to the doctor, he’s liable to slam the door in your face and call the

thirst for intoxicants is unquenchable, but to criminalize it, as Lincoln reminded the Illinois temperance society, reinforces the
clinging to the addiction; to think otherwise would be “to expect a reversal of
human nature, which is God’s decree and never can be reversed.” The injuries
inflicted by alcohol don’t follow “from the use of a bad thing, but from the
abuse of a very good thing.” The victims are “to be pitied and compassionated,”
their failings treated “as a misfortune, and not as a crime or even as a

The War
on Drugs as a War Against Human Nature

declared by church or state, the war against human nature is by definition
lost. The Puritan inspectors of souls in seventeenth-century New England
deplored even the tentative embrace of Bacchus as “great licentiousness,” the
faithful “pouring out themselves in all profaneness,” but the record doesn’t
show a falling off of attendance at Boston’s
eighteenth-century inns and taverns. The laws prohibiting the sale and
manufacture of alcohol in the 1920s discovered in the mark of sin the evidence
of crime, but the attempt to sustain the allegation proved to be as ineffectual
as it was destructive of the country’s life and liberty.

Instead of
resurrecting from the pit a body politic of newly risen saints, Prohibition
guaranteed the health and welfare of society’s avowed enemies. The
organized-crime syndicates established on the delivery of bootleg whiskey
evolved into multinational trade associations commanding the respect that comes
with revenues estimated at $2 billion per annum. In 1930 alone, Al Capone’s
ill-gotten gains amounted to $100 million.

So again with
the war that America
has been waging for the last 100 years against the use of drugs deemed to be
illegal. The war cannot be won, but in the meantime, at a cost of $20 billion a
year, it facilitates the transformation of what was once a freedom-loving
republic into a freedom-fearing national security state.

The policies of
zero tolerance equip local and federal law-enforcement with increasingly
autocratic powers of coercion and surveillance (the right to invade anybody’s
privacy, bend the rules of evidence, search barns, stop motorists, inspect bank
records, tap phones) and spread the stain of moral pestilence to ever larger
numbers of people assumed to be infected with reefer madness — anarchists and
cheap Chinese labor at the turn of the twentieth century, known homosexuals and
suspected Communists in the 1920s, hippies and anti-Vietnam War protestors in
the 1960s, nowadays young black men sentenced to long-term imprisonment for
possession of a few grams of short-term disembodiment.

If what was at
issue was a concern for people trapped in the jail cells of addiction, the keepers
of the nation’s conscience would be better advised to address the conditions —
poverty, lack of opportunity and education, racial discrimination — from which
drugs provide an illusory means of escape. That they are not so advised stands
as proven by their fond endorsement of the more expensive ventures into the
realms of virtual reality. Our pharmaceutical industries produce a cornucopia
of prescription drugs — eye-opening, stupefying, mood-swinging, game-changing,
anxiety-alleviating, performance-enhancing — currently at a global
market-value of more than $300 billion.

Add the
time-honored demand for alcohol, the modernist taste for cocaine, and the uses,
as both stimulant and narcotic, of tobacco, coffee, sugar, and pornography, and
the annual mustering of consummations devoutly to be wished comes to the cost
of more than $1.5 trillion. The taking arms against a sea of troubles is an
expenditure that dwarfs the appropriation for the military budget.

Given the
American antecedents both metaphysical and commercial — Thomas Paine drank,
“and right freely”; in 1910, the federal government received 71% of its
internal revenue from taxes paid on the sale and manufacture of alcohol — it
is little wonder that the sons of liberty now lead the world in the consumption
of better living through chemistry. The new and improved forms of
self-invention fit the question — to be, or not to be — to any and all

For the aging
Wall Street speculator stepping out for an evening to squander his investment
in Viagra. For the damsel in distress shopping around for a nose like the one
seen advertised in a painting by Botticelli. For the distracted child depending
on a therapeutic jolt of Adderall to learn to read the Constitution. For the
stationary herds of industrial-strength cows so heavily doped with bovine
growth hormone that they require massive infusions of antibiotic to survive the
otherwise lethal atmospheres of their breeding pens. Visionary risk-takers, one
and all, willing to chance what dreams may come on the way West to an all-night

The war against
human nature strengthens the fear of one’s fellow man. The red, white, and blue
pills sell the hope of heaven made with artificial sweeteners.

Lewis H.
Lapham is editor of
, and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and
Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has
likened him to H.L. Mencken;
Vanity Fair has suggested a strong
resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This
essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces “Intoxication,”
the Winter 2012 issue of
Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at
that website.

Copyright 2012
Lewis Lapham

Henry Vollet’s Le Vice d’Asie (above, 1909) depicts a typical opium den in Paris (Image by UnklNik, licensed
under Creative

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