I am not a social conservative, but I respect a writer like Russell Kirk for examining the poems of Baudelaire next to Burke’s foundational writings in his history of conservatism. This is an example of a critique, within a larger article I can’t agree with. It is titled “Should we be threatening cocaine addicts with execution?” ( the answer is somewhat unclear, since he never discusses that substance), written by a man who is often brought up in discussions of social decline, Theodore Dalrymple.
William S. Burroughs, the famous American who was an even worse man than he was a writer, which is saying something, and who addicted himself to heroin, wrote in his first book Junk, later retitled Junkie, how addicts called the doctors who prescribed their drugs ‘writing fools’, who willingly believed that their patients were unable to stop.
It is more than a little dismaying how easily social conservatives fall into an authoritarian position they would be horrified to see in themselves on any question other than the scourge of addictive drugs. The statesmen and thinkers associated with the founding of modern conservatism continually returned to the reality of evil, and the limitation of human institutions before its existence in this world, in us. No government can do anything about this. It is a part of conservatism that I believe in (while disagreeing with many of the conclusions reached), but is one denied by most of the movement’s voices. Dalrymple seeks to affirm this and ends by proposing state action of immense scope. Perhaps recognizing the inability of the statesman to change the existence of evil is beyond the reach of any political thinker today.
The Gnostic vision in W.S.B.’s strange and unsettling books finds a metaphysic of junk, which he identifies with evil and sin itself. This is especially present in those passages that foreshadow his nightmare visions in his later work; particularly those where he notes the ability of dope to linger as a feeling in the areas it has blighted (” If junk were gone from the earth, there might still be junkies standing around in junk neighborhoods feeling the lack, vague and persistent, a pale ghost of junk sickness.”) But the Gnostic idea of addiction as the totality of life’s pursuits takes a condition that reduces its sufferer to near absolute imprisonment in the material world as an all encompassing theodicy. Addiction as an explanation and a metaphor for all of life’s myriad activities (cuisine, sex, art and politics) is overdone, and the right criticism of Burroughs’ non-fictional ideas should begin here.
As for Dalrymple’s condemnation of the author with his work, this assumes that the best writing must come from the best character. This is a delusion. Burroughs is among the most disturbing and insightful writers. His later stories of rebellion against homoerotic insects and time travel are a response to his earlier studies of chemical degradation. This most disgusting and insightful writer starts from the bottom of the world, and wades into the gilded pool of Tiberius without hesitation. The place where the blood from the opened veins of noblewomen lingers on the legs of the Imperator-Who-Disdains-the-Title’s toy boys , the Emperor watching the executed fall to the rocks from his dreadful seclusion. The man who is most visible is often the most alone, and while condemned by society the writer shares neither the praise nor infamy of history’s passions. Society’s outrage is a wildfire that exhausts itself on shallow fuel. The true writer observes Caesar’s expression as the condemned are thrown to the hooks below– is he sweating profusely or serenely placid? History demands the description to the minutest detail. Morality only enters into the work as a color to the palette.
And…in this book there is evidence of what, at least in the case of heroin addiction, is obviously the case, namely that withdrawal symptoms from heroin are much more (though not entirely) psychological rather than physical. Burroughs describes how he is relieved instantaneously by drugs that can have had little physiological effect upon his symptoms.
Presumably in the last sentence Dalrymple means the effects of minor tranquilizers, marijuana and improvised opiate substitutes on the withdrawing addict. That he came to this conclusion without the slightest nod to any accounts of how these additional substances relieve the rictus frenzy of withdrawal (much less scientific data, where it is most warranted ) makes all of his following claims questionable at the least.
The notion of addiction as illness cannot possibly explain why, in the 1950s, there were at most a couple of hundred heroin addicts in this country (the UK) , and why now there are perhaps 250,000 of them, 150,000 of them injecting.
Epidemiological studies that chart the spread of the drug and comparing it to other pathogens would be a good start. I’m no scientist, but neither is Dalrymple. The data models used to “prove” this or that notion about the political psychology of social media users might have their proper domain in this area. I’m uncertain; Dalrymple could have investigated this further, but it would require him to add practical rigor to an exercise in moralistic literary criticism.
Pay it all back
Substance addiction induces a creeping isolation beyond the hostility it generates in the presently non-addicted. Addiction is a vaporous Red Death lurking in the shadows around the pit of the world. The slow sink into a cellular vegetative state, the brain all alight like an antique pinball machine, is a grotesque parody of art; “(that) which destroys action”.
The dreadful triumph of frigid vegetative states is also the parody of a renunciate’s solitude, the flesh becoming a locked music box. Dalrymple betrays his contempt for the scruples of any traditional faith when he launches his jeremiads against the addict; any worthy tradition will deal with the reality that life either contains, or is suffering– if you are not suffering presently or buying it off with the introduction of sensuous pleasures, you are not alive in any conventional sense of the word.
Once past his sensationalism about Mao’s drug “treatments”, he makes his strongest claim.
“If you examine the lives of impoverished heroin addicts, for example, you find that their existences are not helpless oscillations between desperately searching for a vein in which to inject themselves to avoid the pains of withdrawal on the one hand and the bliss of the oceanic feeling that comes with injecting heroin on the other. Heroin addicts are very busy people, what with obtaining their drugs from dealers and finding the means to pay for them. (Incidentally, criminality is much more a cause of heroin addiction than vice versa.)”
The fact that the “bliss” is short-lived once addiction sets in (and as Burroughs points out again and again, the euphoric action of dope is not of all-importance to the addict until addiction is reached, and then the diabolical logic of the substance takes hold) is ignored by Dalrymple, while it is commonplace in most drug outreach efforts today. The usual charges against addicts rarely coincide with reality– the ability to commit outrageous acts is near “bled-out” in the confirmed addict. The high is inseparable from the torments of withdrawal, when furtive thievery requires an almost heroic effort.
This is one of Burroughs’ early insights. Dalrymple has taken this much into his claims. But his refusal to look into the depths and unite his literary mind to them is his flaw as a thinker. And his claim about the blood-thirst of a tyrant shining insights into addiction betrays the palpable horror of a man face to face with relentless dis-ease.