Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Machine, Mental Illness, and Drugs


"The machine—railroad, motor, bicycle, plane, motion picture—lured the senses into a new addiction: speed. Trains could now run at 100 miles an hour. But speed in an enclosed space quickly loses its thrill. The car, then mostly an open affair, makes the wind jet passing the ears give a sense of heroic recklessness. In 1901 the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote in his diary: "Going at 15 miles an hour. It is certainly an exhilarating experience." He would have been even more exhilarated nine years later had he crossed the Channel in the cockpit of Bleriot's airplane—or he could have taken up the new sport of hang gliding from hilltops.

Offsetting these cheerful doings was the increase in mental illness and the spreading use of drugs. Something in industrial civilization seemed to be too much for the steadily alert mind to bear. In a long essay, Civilization, Its Cause and Cure, Edward Carpenter gave a clear account of the affliction and specified remedy a simple PRIMITIVISM. At the Paris hospital La Salpetriere, Charcot and Janet dealt with a stream of patients suffering from hysteria, the name that covered depression, anxiety, causeless excitement, motor disturbances, and "simulated diseases"—those that have not discoverable basis in the body. Some few of the troubled had multiple personalities. On hears an echo of the strange fact in Stevenson's tale about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

An increasing recourse to drugs suggested a like maladjustment. Addiction, mainly in the upper classes, was viewed with sympathy. It was not a criminal offense to buy or sell morphine. Freud for a time prescribed cocaine to some of his excitable patients, and we know that Sherlock Holmes, when he was bored, injected himself with a 7 percent solution. Soon after their accession, the tsar and tsarina in St. Petersburg were taking a mixture of marijuana and hyoscine by way of relief from official cares. More thoroughgoing, a man named Aleistair Crowley preached the joys of the drug experience combined with black magic. Thus the late Timothy Leary was not the first in line. Nor have acolytes disappeared: a new edition of Crowley's Magick appeared in 1997." Jacque Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, P. 628-629

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