Writers who did drugs and sent postcards from the edge
ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - August 22, 2016 - 12:00am

Sad but true: if the writers Henri Michaux, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William S. Burroughs were alive today, they would be hunted down by the present dispensation for being, as the vigilantes not so unwisely put it, “drug personalities.”

Michaux was a Belgian writer who wrote in French, and his travels in Asia in the early 20th century were documented in the unusual philosophical memoir, A Barbarian in Asia. He was also a visual artist who did amusing sketches for his prose and poetry, and prose poetry, one often illuminating the other, and his main drawn character was the humorously absurd fellow named Plume.

Copy of Barbarian was lent to a fellow teacher at UP Los Baños in the early ’80s. The teacher rode a motorcycle and lectured his classes on Frantz Fanon, among others. Professor Maning Javier has since died not due to bike accident, and the book never returned.

Michaux has another book in hand, Selected Writings, a New Directions edition, where his work mostly prose poems are compiled, including the adventures of Plume.

One of the more popular entries is “My King,” which has been anthologized in the best of modern European poetry. Michaux was in the same league as that French avant-garde who died recently, Yves Bonnefoy.

It is Michaux’s Miserable Miracle which to this day remains a classic, and so required reading for experimenters of both the written word and prohibited substances. It details his experiences with the drug mescaline, and the result is a disjointed novel long before the terms postmodern and deconstruction were invented.

The introduction of that landmark book was written by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, another purveyor of lyricism if not surrealism, who describes it as something akin to being in the eye of a cyclone, a stillness while the wind whirls around like madness.

Coleridge was a poet of the English Romantic era, and his Kublai Khan is considered a masterpiece not only in the hallucinogenic arts but in world literature. It was written by the poet upon waking from an opium-induced dream, and was subtitled “A Vision in a Dream.”

It took years before it was published, thanks finally to the instigation of fellow romantic Lord Byron, who thought it not right to deprive readers a gift of another way of seeing.

Indeed Kublai Khan, today studied in countless classrooms of literature from general syllabus courses to master subjects on dead poets, evokes what it is like to wake from an opium-laced dream and set to words the images fast fading.

The poem is considered one of Coleridge’s great works, along with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. But the other two were not as controversial because of the method of writing, and years later, Olivia Newton-John would never imagine Xanadu to be like this.

Burroughs was an American writer and novelist who was a contemporary of the beat generation, and his work Naked Lunch is a chronicle of his encounters with various drugs such as heroin, morphine, and a strong mix of Mexican hashish.

The writer Erwin Romulo was looking for a copy once. I had one in my library but couldn’t at the outset find it, and when I did Erwin most likely had secured his own naked lunch, as it were.

Burroughs was a good friend of the beats Ginsberg and Kerouac, but as his wont was forever an outsider, because how else can you write without keeping a respectable distance from any potential disturbance or distraction, however occasionally welcome?

The rambling, strangely coherent/incoherent novel or sort of novel made it to the canon of marginalized literature, written for and by queers, junkies, maniacs, incidental personalities. The rock band Steely Dan took its name from a dildo mentioned in Naked Lunch.

Of course the list does not end there. Baudelaire was said to be an avatar of hashish, chasing his demons along with the young Rimbaud who quit writing once out of his teens. And who can forget Carlos Castaneda and his yaqui way of knowledge arrived at courtesy of his guru Don Juan, who taught him the finer points of peyote resulting in serial bestsellers in the ’70s.

Closer to home is it mere apocrypha those reports of a writer who drank some concoction of boiled angel trumpet and came close to hearing the heralds of the afterlife? For days he was bedridden hovering in a twilight zone, until he saw seated at his bedside a long lost ancestor, maybe it was Plume, or ET phoning home.

It is only right I guess for the authorities to weed out the prevalent drug menace, but they must take care not to make any potential Michaux, Coleridge or Burroughs collateral damage. General Bato, whose nickname ironically is another slang term for shabu or crack cocaine, can only be too aware of the dangers of overkill.


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