On March 4, the Electric Text read two twentieth century American poets.
On April 4, a member smoked a joint, ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream, and wrote about it.
Fittingly, the session began distracted. A quote from Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking (2012) sent the group on an “intellectual errand.” How does one buy pot in a lid?* A quick trip to Urban Dictionary revealed that a “lid” of pot was “common terminology used in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States to describe approximately one ounce of marijuana.” Apparently, before a scale was typical pothead paraphernalia, a coffee can lid did for approximating—something akin to a dime bag.
The first piece was “Recuerdo” (1919) by Edna St. Vincent Millay and the second was Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” (1923). How might we think about these pieces together? And why would we want to think about them in relation to drugs?
The twentieth century scholars pointed out that Millay and Stevens aren’t really the “sort of modernists” that interest NYU’s English department, which tends to favor T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, and Frank O’Hara. More importantly, however, English scholarship in general just doesn’t seem to be invested in literature and drugs. Literature and sex, yes, but not drugs.
The first task became methodological, a question of fit. If, as Fisher reminds us, there is “a lid for every pot,” what type of academic project pairs with marijuana? There seemed to be a consensus among the group that it isn’t that we can’t write about drugs. It’s that something feels wrong about doing it.
A member then asked for clarification: Were we interested in drug taking as an analytical tool or an object of study? Poets like Allen Ginsberg, for instance, write openly about drug use and its effects on “the best minds of [their] generation,” and scholars have little difficulty discussing the historical use and effect of drugs (see Tanya Pollard’s Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, 2005). But to seriously consider drug use as a creative if not productive research tool or question is something different, even if poems like “Recuerdo”** remind us of the ways a particular substance once unfolded our interiority and opened our senses to “seeing without limitation” the “importance of objects” in all of their “beautiful strangeness.”
Indeed, the suggestion of drug use as a methodology for the reading and writing of literature almost instantly incited the group to Romantic musings of ephemeral inspiration. Yet the subjective experience of drug use seems to pose an impossible barrier to a legitimate argument or discussion of/for/with it in the academy. The evening’s group leader discussed the difficulties encountered during one attempt to do just that, not the least of which was a feeling of compromised authority given the position from which one typically writes an academic essay. An argument that would take seriously “high” thoughts and experiences would, in some way, be expected to a) posit those thoughts and experiences as useful and not irresponsible and b) assert some “expertise” regarding those types of experiences, what would elsewhere be referred to as “street cred.”
Such concerns with expertise, authority, and control (characteristic of the paranoid academy) seem antithetical to theoretical inquiry about a mode of perception to which one “relinquishes control.” As one member pointed out, what we mean when we talk about a drug’s ability to key us into the “beautiful strangeness” of objects (apples, pears, and ferries and cigars, wenches, and ice cream) is similar to the kino-eyes (Kinoks) of early twentieth Russian film-making—“life caught unawares” by the eye of the camera—the reification, perhaps, of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (“Nature” 1836). Within a field that embraces, in so many ways, the deconstruction of identity and its relationship to the body, it does seem odd that, in the case of drug use, the taboo “presumes an authentic self” that can only ever be compromised by the very physical experience of taking “mind-altering” substances.
Must such experiences be sacrificed to the gods of professionalism?
Does it matter that I wasn’t high when I wrote this?
* “Anyway it worked because Charlie actually managed to marry twice, (probably someone with nursing ambition), which just goes to show that there’s a lid for every pot. Sometimes there are as many as nine lids for the same pot. Also when I was a teenager I could buy pot in lids. But I don’t think you can anymore… can you?” (44-45).
**Recuerdo, a souvenir, memory, or memento.