Excessive, Explosive Enjoyment

Drugs are synonymous with countercultural movements but how have they influenced creativity, and do they still have a place in our artistic landscape today?

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

When we were teenagers in the late 1960s, drugs were new. Not only for us, but for our parents and for the culture. We suburban kids knew that something strange had been going on in London because even the world’s most popular group, the Beatles – who had been respectable and decent but had now got weird with their colourful clothes and unusual hair – had talked about it. The music they made in their great middle period was concerned with tripping and smoking and swallowing stuff that appeared to take your mind into a free, uncontrolled zone where the usual rules didn’t apply, where you might see that which was ordinarily hidden.

This music was about freedom and leaving home and, particularly at that age, freedom meant a lot to us. The boredom and violence of school, and the drudgery which had been planted ahead of us – work, mortgage, debt, childcare – was already heavy. Our future and what was expected of us had been laid down early. It wasn’t thrilling and we weren’t ready for it.

The London suburbs were not as affluent as the American ones. Our area was still wrecked from the war. The food was repulsive; the men wore bowler hats and education was an endless sadism. But The Graduate spoke to us pretty things. As Benjamin Braddock realises in Charles Webb’s lovely novel and Mike Nichols’ film, when he returns home from university his parents’ world looks false. From the kids’ point of view, the way the adults lived seemed crazy. Who would want to fit in with that uncomfortable, John Cheever-like world where everyone should be content and yet was not? Their unhappiness and discomfort was plain, and their pleasures – of alcohol and promiscuity – were half-hidden and guilty.

We were the wrong people in the wrong place. Some people said that art could change the way you saw things. But somnolent Mozart, or Hollywood movies, or Renoir paintings couldn’t make the revolution we craved. Then we heard Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Occasionally we could see the Rolling Stones or the Who on TV. Suddenly we became aware of a dirty obscene noise which violated all decency and which represented a heightened pleasure we hadn’t encountered before. It led to the fatal association: pleasure was insane. Too much of it could make you mad. Like sex, it was excessive. You couldn’t grasp or understand it, but you wanted it, and it could make you dance and want to be creative. Music – not the cinema, television, or the novel – was the most significant cultural form of the day and it changed everything for everyone.

It was sometimes said the country was awash with drugs, but try scoring when you needed something. In the late ’60s mostly we smoked hash, took amphetamines and downers, and dropped LSD, often at school. Baudelaire in his writing on drugs notices an encounter with what he calls ‘the marvellous’, but also with an increase in anxiety and paranoia when taking hashish. He also tells us that one is no longer master of oneself. You lost control. This might be an inspiration in itself. You could see and feel things stoned that you couldn’t know straight. There might be enhanced communication. If you were less cautious and uptight, you might be able to speak and laugh more. If you lost your straight self, you might discover a better one. You might want to live differently. That became the promise.

The fact that drugs were illegal and disapproved of made them doubly exciting. Breaking the parents’ law, or indeed any law, was a big kick in itself: you could believe that by arguing with prohibition you were making the world a little wider.

Writers like Baudelaire, de Nerval, Huxley and, later, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, wrote about drug-taking among the artistic elite. Now, for the first time, drugs were generally available and, like pop, they had even reached the suburbs. And the drugs we began to take in one another’s bedrooms, in the parks and later in the pubs, represented instant pleasure, while everything in the suburbs was deferred. Consumerism was about patience, waiting, slow accumulation and gradual improvement. Capitalism no longer starved the workers, but it starved them of pleasure. We were supposed to work, not make love. We were made aware that happiness, if not pleasure, was always elsewhere.

The West had been growing out of God. Religion was going but hadn’t quite gone, and was yet to be entirely replaced by consumerism. The threat of God’s disapproval was still used as a form of control. Yet as we drifted around in our tie-dyed grandad vests and ripped jeans, hiding from mods and skinheads, we knew that the game of traditional authority was up and that the law we were brought up to respect wasn’t sensible. Drugs were prohibited but worse things were allowed, if not encouraged: genocide, war, racism, inequality, violence. No one would kill their own children, but they were keen to kill other people’s. We didn’t believe the grown-ups, who were not grown-ups after all. The levelling of generations had begun.

Not only that, as the 1970s progressed, capitalism – which required everyone to be anxious and hyper-alert – began to falter. The system was more anarchic, bumpy and unpredictable than politicians made out. It went up and down quickly, and you went with it. The very things that capitalism likes to promise – growth, wealth, increased consumption – couldn’t be delivered. Soon there would be unemployment, social devastation and ‘No future’, as punk recognised. And yet capitalism could never be abandoned. Since the end of socialism, it saw itself as the natural world. The only way forward was to find a place inside it which wasn’t impossible, hence the retreat into spiritualism, yoga, Zen and mindfulness. Or drugs.

‘Drugs’, when they first became generally available in the ’60s, caused such outrage and consternation that we understood that it wasn’t the undoubted damage that they did which was the problem. The drawback wasn’t the possibility of ill-health or addiction but the instant pleasure which drugs provided. Or at least the pleasure that others believed they provided. This was what R D Laing called ‘a mental Shangri-La’ – the longing for something ‘beyond’.

In the 1990s and 2000s, drugs went respectable and mainstream. Ritalin, Prozac and other anti-depressants – substances which fixed adults and children up for work without the agony of self-investigation – became the royal road to efficiency. A subject’s life and the significance of symptoms were replaced by biology and the language of science; chemistry replaced an individual’s history and doctors were substituted for self-authority. We had become machines which dysfunctioned, not individuals with parents and a past that might be worth exploring in talk and art, or subjects wondering why, inexplicably, they were fatigued or exhausted. There were no illuminating questions or slowing down. The important thing was to function, to work, compete and succeed. Drugs, cures and ideas about what a self was had become an arm of capitalism.

Pleasure, the devil’s elixir, a magic substance more valuable than gold, is always a source of anxiety, which is why pleasure is usually located in other people or groups, where it can be thought about, enjoyed and condemned. The dangers of drugs were not the fact they made for disorientation if not madness and addiction, but that they provided too much unearned illicit, or even evil enjoyment. Drugs were an idiot’s euphoria. The story was: if you liked it, or couldn’t make money from it, it couldn’t possibly be good for you.

Of course, after so long, we now know that neither legal nor illegal drugs are it either. For a time, they seemed to promise freedom from the cycle of work and consumption. But rather than representing a point outside – a place of rest, spiritual enlightenment or insight – they became the very thing we thought they might replace. Soon we would see they created as much dissatisfaction as any other cheap fetishised object.

The druggies, from Baudelaire to Kerouac, had learned that the route to paradise wasn’t simple. Though Baudelaire talks of stoned bliss, of calm, of a place where all philosophical questions can be answered, and of a liberating vulgarity, he makes it clear what hard work it is having a good time all the time.

These artists were artists first, and stoners after. The demand for pleasure can become infernal, and another form of authority. And while drugs might make you poetic – filling the gaps in reality – they can render you useless, if not impotent.

No one believes in drugs anymore. At least in art there is movement and thought. Working at something intransigent, one can make and re-make oneself, combining intelligence with intuition. Drugs, when they are effective, abolish ambivalence. But being an artist can never be straightforward. You must cede control and give way to chaos. In art, as in any other form of love, there will be strong feelings of attraction and of abhorrence. Artists may love what they do but they also hate it. Work can become a tyranny and treadmill. It is boring; the material resists; the audience might be uninterested. It can never be an uncomplicated or straightforward pleasure.

Not only can few artists make a realistic assessment of their own work, their state of mind cannot be expected to be serene. There can be no art without anxiety, self-disgust, fear of failure and of success. It is hard and dull labour, and can feel forced. Notice how almost impossible it is to convince an artist how good their work is. But that is the price of the ticket. At least one is going somewhere.

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Port Issue 21

The latest issue of Port is out now, featuring our interview with the inimitable Steve Buscemi, a focus on the Royal Gold medal winning architect Neave Brown, and much more…

“He kicks ass, man. His range is incredible”, so remarked Jeff Bridges to Port recently. And it’s true: Steve Buscemi does kick ass. But he also knows how to walk the line between multiple different guises. He’s an industry grandee, with cult status; an arthouse movie darling, and a blockbuster powerhouse. When Port met one of the most nuanced actors of his generation in a quiet bar in Brooklyn, we received a masterclass in maintaining a successful yet steady life.

Hollywood action hero, TV mobster and art-house loser Steve Buscemi sits down with award-winning author Charles Bock to discuss playing Nikita Khrushchev in the upcoming The Death of Stalin, his addiction to watching classic movies on TCM, the vanity of the movie business, and his newfound passion for yoga.

Over in the Style section, our Miami Noir editorial – styled by Dan May and shot by Greg Lotus – features a sharp selection of menswear from Emporio Armani, while a series styled by Will Johns features a range of Hermès accessories elegantly interspersed with scenes from a Sussex village. Elsewhere, we offer our take on the hottest men’s outerwear of the season, and mingle casual menswear with dramatic botanical images.

In the features section, sailor Alex Thomson reflects on his experience of the Vendée Globe, a grueling, round-the-world solo yacht race, and the most demanding of its kind on the planet. Will Wiles reflects on the career of one of the last surviving proponents of brutalist architecture, Neave Brown, who was recently awarded the highly coveted Royal Gold Medal; and photographer Elliott Verdier travels to the remote central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan to capture an ex-Soviet state struggling to find a national identity in a globalised world.

Acclaimed novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi explores the connection between drugs and countercultural movements, while Alain de Botton muses on that million dollar-question: what is the relationship between capital and contentment, and what can banks tell us about the psychology of money? Conflict photographer Giles Duley unravels the ethics of photography in documenting a violent world, while Steven Johnson considers the ramifications of communication with life beyond Earth.

Highlights from the Porter include 108 Garage chef Chris Denney’s celebration of the versatile Japanese seaweed kombu; a focus on the life and work of Soviet Constructivist Vavara Stepanova; and a conversation between Mozambican author Mia Couto and his protégé, Brazilian author and translator Julián Fuks.

To buy a single issue or to subscribe, click here

 

Brexit: The Case to Remain

PORT contributors Will Self, Janine di Giovanni and Hanif Kureishi put forward their reasons to remain in the EU

Remain

Will Self

The Brexiters have shown their true colours with their dog-summoning campaigning – it’s whistled-up our old racist friend, the British bulldog. Just look at the rump of their support: valetudinarians in support stockings who’ll be hobbling on their Zimmer frames to the polling booth in order ruin their grandchildren’s future. I’m not claiming that everything in the European garden is lovely – or even that it can be made to bloom, but we live in a febrile and fissiparous world, and institutions which have a proven record of maintaining stability should be cleaved to like never before. There’s all of that – and there’s also the unutterable beauty of French women, and the fabulousness of European culture. You’d swap that to be shafted by Ronald McDonald? Salopes! While your leaders are true rois des cons

Janine di Giovanni

In terms of international security, alliances are important. We might scoff at NATO and find it a relic of the Cold War, but in times of military urgency – such as Russia’s creeping westward expansionism onto Ukraine and eyeing the Baltic states with glee – they are necessary mechanisms for peacekeeping. I am French, British and American by nationality, and each one of my passports is an integral part of my identity, so I do understand the argument of the Leavers, but I strongly disagree with it. I think that remaining in the EU is essential for Britain, for trade, diplomacy and the economy, but also for moral responsibility. Britain was an important part of the Allies in World War II, and frankly, with the rise of ISIS and global terrorism, as well as pressing issues like climate change and epidemics, we are in dark times. We need each other, and each part of the EU is an interlocking part of the puzzle of globalisation. Yes, the Brussels bureaucrats are often lazy, inefficient and ridiculous, but the concept of the EU –like the concept of UN or the League of Nations – is about strategic alliances and partnership. Standing alone, in days like these when terror attacks and wars are literally borderless, is desperately unwise. I vote to Remain, of course.

Hanif Kureishi

My neighbourhood in West London, which I rarely leave, but, which could be considered a microcosm of the city, buzzes with the hybrid energy of Italians, French people and Arabs, as well as Africans of all kinds. We live together fruitfully and creatively, and rarely want to kill one another because of religious or racial differences. We have created one of the richest, most tolerant and culturally mature societies on earth. The wealth and success of Britain has always been based on exploitation: on Empire, immigration and the other. Now, unfortunately, the very people who made London the wonder it is are despised. And the so-called ‘migrant’ is being used as a spectre, threat and excuse. We are facing a crisis in Europe, which concerns not only the possibility of more neo-liberal destructiveness and greed, but also a backlash, which has caused a new and dangerous Right to re-emerge. These opportunists, hucksters and snake oil salesmen – from Le Pen, to Hofer and Boris Johnson – with their simplistic, opportunistic solutions, are dangerous precisely because they utilise the energy of the many disillusioned and disappointed. This threat should remind us that we must reaffirm and fight for the humanity of the European Project, which, at its centre and despite its failings, concerns egalitarianism, feminism, sexual freedom, and particularly a tolerant and non-racist multi-cultural future.