High and Low on Crack

Christopher Peterson/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Bill Clegg, New York City, April 2010

Drugs, altered states of consciousness, and addiction entered modern literature with the Romantics. Much poetry has come from that artificial paradise, as Aldous Huxley called being high on something. However, the memoirs and autobiographical fiction in English written over the past two hundred years about what is now called substance abuse generally descend from either the rapture that Thomas de Quincey expresses in “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” the essay that in 1821 made him famous, or the disgust that Charles Lamb suffers from in his essay “Confessions of a Drunkard,” seven versions of which he published between 1813 and 1833. No matter the drug or the historical era, the patterns of addiction remain the same: the first encounters with the drug and the sense of blessed relief, of happy escape, are followed soon enough by an awareness of being enslaved to a habit, of having one’s life ruled by the necessity of acquiring the much-needed daily dosage of whatever. Bill Clegg’s new book on his crack addiction follows a similar pattern.

“Oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!” de Quincey exclaimed. In Doctor Judas, A Portrayal of the Opium Habit, published in 1895, William Rosser Cobbe noted that de Quincey had great thoughts not because he ate opium, but because he had genius and was able to do something with it in spite of the drug. Cobbe wrote his account of his addiction because he believed that de Quincey’s “extravagant praise of the narcotic” had helped to lure any number of innocents to their ruin. Yet as enamored of his dreams while under the influence of opium that de Quincey was, he also wrote of the languor when on opium that murders ambition. He decided that if the drug was going to kill him, then he might as well die in the struggle to throw off the tyrant. De Quincey said that if a man usually dreamed of oxen, then he would dream of oxen when on opium, too. His essay was written from the perspective of one who has overcome his affliction.

Charles Lamb, however, was still hooked on drink when he wrote and rewrote his essay. The addict is a liar, but Lamb was in an agony of candor about his downward path from malt liquor to wine and water, from “small punch” to “a great deal of brandy.” He wept over his bondage; he was beyond recovery. There was for him no middle way between total abstinence and the excess of the midnight cup. Lamb accused himself of cowardice; his sense of shame was acute. He had even lost his pleasure in reading. “The waters have gone over me,” but maybe he could help some youth to see into his desolation. “Let him stop in time.” He couldn’t forgive himself his dependence on tobacco either.

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