November 26, 2012 | 7
I want to know what we talk about when we talk about experiences for which we have little common language. People talk about the sublime feeling they have in face with a work of art, and they call it ineffable. They say, there are no words for what this has done to me, but I shall speak anyway (hence criticism, hence art bollocks). People talk about wine. They write on it, and they write somber, beautiful notes that conjure and evoke, and incite and compel, and so, naturally, we go and buy cases of it at the shop, we sit and mutter to ourselves, drinking, over the dinner table, words like ‘taut’ and ‘iridescent’ and ‘forthright’ and ‘burnished’, and wonder at what those words taste like (well, I do).
There is what we learn when we are small, and convention and culture are being stitched into us, and there is no resistance then, our minds like very capable sponges of the kind hawked on late-night television. That is one type of thing. Later, when we are large, and expert in being learned, we try to expand the borders of what we can say. But we did not learn to taste (wine) together, or to see (art) together, and so the words, even as we use them, feel less precise, less catching. We waver, drawing analogies in the sand. We wonder at our abilities to taste and see as others do. We hope we are talking about the same sort of thing.
Illicit drug use is like this. Perhaps more so. It is common, but not too common; there are communities of use, but not a community of use, as there is with the legal drugs of pleasure and habit – alcohol, coffee, tobacco, cannabis – for which our experience is structured by the expectations and attitudes of the culture in which we imbibe. The use of drugs beyond the pale – of acid and ketamine, vicodin and methamphetamine, pills, poppers, angel dust, tweak, molly, aunti, alice, susie-Q (and so on) – is stigmatized, marginalized, made to exist in backrooms and alleys, rather than coffeehouses and bars. It comprises a more mosaic set of experiences. There are the ravers, the coke fiends, the burners, the teenagers playing Russian roulette in the basement with the spoils of father’s medicine cabinet, the mothers who quaff their kids’ prescription adderall, the boys in the band, the inmates, the junkies – and these are but a few of the stereotypes, the categories we might draw circles around and make claim exist. That drug laws are variably enforced, as a function of race, class, and geography, only compounds the issue. There is no unified culture of use in America.
In the public discourse, drugs have long been associated with crime, with illness, danger, and addiction. Less is said about what it is like to use them, or what place they have in the lives of those who do. Perhaps it is offensive even to ask. Perhaps it seems indulgent. Drugs are certainly not hidden, of course. They play starring roles in popular films and television shows; provide narrative arc to celebrity gossip (“Lindsay Lohan train wreck reel”); we have even waged war against them, or so Richard Nixon liked to tell us. Lately too, prescription uppers have become a playground for intrepid young journalists, whose love affairs with stimulants are woven into dull cautionary tales about the inanity of hyper-efficiency. (“There’s a downside,” says Molly Young of adderall, in closing an essay extolling its many virtues, and wondering, seemingly, if she can admit there never was.) And so drugs are typecast as either villain or tempting mistress, and caricatured accordingly, their cartoon renderings a vehicle for our discomfort.
That drug use is taboo, even for being so readily on display, is reflected in our language. There are straight-edge folk who can use “high” or “drunk” in a sentence, like a blind child who knows the sky is blue, and it seems they have some idea what they’re saying (though likely all they know is a bit about language, and the way words go together). But what of drop, trip, toke, roll, jack, score, smack, sniff, pack, peak, split, blow? Everyday words, surely, but ones that, in the mouth of the drugstore cowboy, acquire meanings altogether different from their common use. It is a curious Christian Scientist who knows just how to wield them.
So what does the language of drug experience look like? What verbal behavior does use provoke? No doubt the psychonauts have words for their flights of fancy, as the botanists have for tiny, furling shrubs, as the Eskimos have for snow (though they say that’s a hoax). But every voyage is a solo feat. How can users fix the meanings of words which relate to internal distortions in perception and time, to ecstasies beyond reckoning?
Perhaps I should have looked to the poets for answers. Instead I turned to the dusty vaults of Erowid, combing through its records of ill repute with an open terminal window, a cup of Four Barrels’s finest, and all the wiles of a kid on the hunt for the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. What fruits were born of such adventures await below.
The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?
|Psilocybin||Gallery View||Word Counts|
How many words is a trip worth?
What’s under the hood?
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX