Drugs, Literature, and the Duality of Man
By Kenneth George
Sex and drugs and rock-n-roll: all of America’s favorite things in one place. And in that order too, it seems. However, the most commonly portrayed of these three motifs of American culture is the second: drugs. This is because drugs are more appropriate, more palatable, than sex–which is demonized by the media, arguably a byproduct of Abrahamism and sexism–and much more sensational than rock-n-roll, whose development was, ironically in the context of this article, very dependent on drug abuse.
The song “Pills” by St. Vincent (Annie Clark) offers the following commentary of the American pill culture: “Pills to wake, pills to sleep/ Pills, pills, pills every day of the week.” Paired with its upbeat rhythms and Clark’s playful vocals, the message of “Pills” is often lost. Clark is criticizing how accessible drugs are to Americans and how common drug abuse is. This pill culture, though, is often aggrandized: it is classier and more subtle than abuse of more explicit drugs, like heroin or crack. The perspective on this culture is based on its main perpetrators: it is rich and decadent, White and feminine, urban enough to be relevant but not too urban. It is privilege.
Coco Mellors provides an interesting subplot to criticize pill culture in her book Cleopatra and Frankenstein. Throughout the novel, the reader watches Quentin, an extremely rich closeted transgender woman, descend from the lavishness of pill culture (even though Quentin’s drug of choice is cocaine, a drug that is often viewed as part of the wider pill culture) to the despondency of heroin addiction. At the end of the novel, Quentin is homeless, poor, and a slave to his (for Quentin is only ever referred to with he/him pronouns in the novel) addiction: he has lost the privilege of pill culture.
But nearly all of Mellors’ characters abuse drugs. This choice is a satirical one: by suggesting that every person in New York (where the majority of the book takes place) is on drugs, her message against drug abuse–no matter how casual or social it is in nature–is made more effective.
But not all literature is critical of drug abuse. Nicki Minaj’s “Pills and Potions” deifies social drug and alcohol use. Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tskuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage paints alcohol as a sort of escape from trauma. There are several reasons for the literary deification of drugs. Some authors see nothing wrong with casual drug abuse, therefore they care not to create a message that is against it. Additionally, this deification is an easy way to build ethos, an Aristotelian appeal to ethics, thus making the artist more relatable to their audience. Finally, there is an aesthetic value to drug abuse, as seen in the 1990s with the Heroin Chic craze.
A more subtle aggrandization of drugs is seen with a common literary motif across cultures and time periods: coffee. Technically, caffeine is a drug: its stimulating nature is very addictive and its use is societally accepted. In the 1950s, with the expansion of corporate workaday culture, coffee exploded. Advertisements for coffee grounds and percolator sales soared with the birth of the coffee-making secretary, who dutifully put on the perc and put up with abuse in a male-dominated field.
Modernly, there exists an interesting deification of coffee in fanfiction culture. During the 2010s, when Tumblr was at its peak, coffee became a symbol for the idiosyncrasy phenomenon, which is modernly characterized with a satirization of the phrase “not like other girls,” a trope created primarily in dystopian novels with female protagonists. Thus, coffee is prevalent in literature stemming from this point. Cafés are often the place at which protagonists bump into their fated lovers. A character who had to wake up too early downs cups of coffee before class, indicative of their implicit “quirky” nature. But, when this culture died, deemed too “cringey” for more modern palettes, the motif of coffee remained unharmed.
Now, coffee is a figurehead of many aesthetics, or schools of thought that prescribe to an original idea of beauty, therefore setting the precedent for the fashion, actions, behavior, and lifestyles of their prescribers. Most notably, coffee is a major part of the aesthetic Dark Academia, which has grown exponentially in popularity since 2020. Coffee stains on library tables, coffee cups next to books, late-night coffee runs filled with manic energy: these are the Dark Academic exploitations of coffee.
So, will drugs ever go out of style in literature? No. This is because drugs are so integral to culture: “Shanghai was built on opium” as the saying goes. From the Wolf on Wall Street and his cocaine, to a Feminine Mystique housewife and her pills, to a college kid with their cups of coffee; drugs, in whatever form, are the basis of the continuity of the Capitalist system. Without stimulants, business executives make less money. Without crack, the spread of laissez-faire racism would not be possible in the 1980s. Without depressants, rich White women would be much too feisty, and what supporter of the Cult of Domesticity likes loud women?
In short, drugs are purposely deified in society because they promote suffering, which is the fuel for the machine of Capitalism. It is only after someone loses loved ones to drugs that they begin to be critical of them. This is where we run into the duality of man: drugs are deified and demonized. They are just as integral as they are detrimental. This makes it difficult for people to take a stance on drugs; often their opinions are quite wishy-washy, amorphous. A common sentiment towards drugs can be modeled in the following hypothetical stance: hard drugs, like methamphetamine and fentanyl are bad, but sometimes I need a drink, and how could I live without my morning coffee? Because of this duality of nature, drugs will continue to permeate all levels of society. Thus, they will continue to permeate all levels of literature, as it is the author’s duty to depict real life in their writing. So, while nobody is dying from overdosing on coffee, inspired to drink cup after cup by the constant depiction of coffee in the media, consider what this omnipresent depiction reveals about American drug culture.
Anyways, do you like dark roast or light?
Please note that the thoughts and sentiments illustrated in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Playful Porpoise Magazine or its writers. This is an original thread with personal sentiments.