November 23, 2019
In Praise of Augustus Bedloeby Ballard Quass
In the short story "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" by Edgar Allan Poe, an artistic but moody young man named Augustus Bedloe walks off into the highlands, under the influence of an immoderate dose of morphine. As he begins to lose his way in the dense and foggy forest southwest of Charlottesville, Virginia, he describes the drug's onset as follows:
"In the meantime the morphine had its customary effect- that of enduing all the external world with an intensity of interest. In the quivering of a leaf- in the hue of a blade of grass- in the shape of a trefoil- in the humming of a bee- in the gleaming of a dew-drop- in the breathing of the wind- in the faint odors that came from the forest- there came a whole universe of suggestion- a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and immethodical thought."
I don't know about you, but that's the kind of wide-awake world that I want to live in - or at very least have access to - and I have no patience with the meddling drug warriors who insist by law that I renounce that desire. They seem determined to make me view Mother Nature with the same bleary eyes that they possess. "If God had wanted us to improve our minds," they seem to say, "he would have boxed up the relevant therapeutic plants, stamped them with a bar code and placed them on sale at the local Rite-Aid or CVS Pharmacy. Besides, surely a blade of grass is a blade of grass. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Now, let's go bowling and have some brewskis."
Such drug warriors are like a self-satisfied Mr. Magoo who wants to outlaw glasses in the belief that his own natural vision is as good as it gets for anybody - or as good as it should get, according to Mr. Magoo's own glasses-scorning religion.
I don't say this to extol the virtues of addictive morphine. The rain forest is full of the sort of psychoactive plants that could help me see through Bedloe's wonder-filled eyes, none of which entails addiction if used with a full pharmacological appreciation of their effects. But the attainment of this essential knowledge is actively discouraged by the drug warrior, who seeks to outlaw - and if possible burn -- objectionable plants rather than to learn about them (thereby reminding one of the superstitious third-world villagers in the Frankenstein films rather than the educated citizens of a first-world country that prides itself on being scientific).
That said, modern society has no right to denounce Bedloe for his "addiction" (a morally tinged word that Poe never employs in this story), since most modern anti-depressants require lifelong administration, which is just a polite way of saying that they're addictive, too. Take me, for instance. I'll be on Effexor for the rest of my life, not because I want to be but because I have to be - given the 95% recidivism rate for those who attempt to quit that so-called "miracle drug."
Poe didn't use drugs to "get high" -- he used drugs to truly appreciate the world around him. Freud didn't use cocaine to get high -- he used it to goad himself on to become prolific. Thomas De Quincey used opium to better enjoy the opera and Benjamin Franklin did so just because he wanted to -- but that was back at a time when people still judged other people for how they actually behaved, as opposed to what substances they happened to have ingested.
The only miracle is that the drug can have such a damnable recidivism rate and still be blithely prescribed by psychiatrists to this very day - many of whom will tell me that I have no right to use morphine. To which I can only respond: "Thanks for nothing, Mr. Magoo!" Apparently, I can become addicted, as long as the addiction fogs my mind and conduces to anhedonia. Heaven forbid that my addiction should give me anything that could be remotely construed as a "high."
This is the negative morality of the drug warrior, for whom the ideal tombstone epithet would read: "He/she just said no to Mother Nature's bounty!" Such a sheepish legacy may please the Nancy Reagans of the world, but my goal is to achieve the mental clarity of an Augustus Bedloe in my lifetime, not to curry favor with nature-hating fascists who encourage kids to report their parents for using Mother Nature's plants.
But how does one attain the awe-filled and grateful visions of Augustus Bedloe in drug-war America? Granted, a few of us are born with the ability, being blessed from birth with the supranatural vision of the reformed St. Francis of Assisi, able to literally "see a world in a grain of sand" thanks to our peculiar psychochemical nature (combined with what Poe might call a felicitous upbringing). For most of us, however, we require a little help - not from our friends, as the Beatles song would have it, but from Mother Nature herself, which appears, upon close inspection, to be full of precisely those kinds of plants that can assist us in our quest for mental clarity.
In a sane world, I could emulate Bedloe's nature-friendly disposition by visiting a pharmacologically savvy shaman who can prescribe for me safely based on his or her unfettered access to all of the naturally growing psychoactive plants of the world. Instead, I'm living under the ruthlessly enforced Sharia of Christian Science, subject to a government that has a metaphysical contempt for Mother Nature's psychoactive plants and their ability to improve the mind.
Thus Mother Nature remains inaccessible for my purposes, forcing me to rely instead on modern psychiatry's ineffective, addictive and expensive nostrums. Meanwhile, the millions of addicts that are thus created for Big Pharma continue to fall short of self-actualization in a needlessly dreary life, quietly envying the Augustus Bedloes of the world - those who insist on living life to the fullest and therefore "just say no" to the nature-hating morality of the drug warrior.
DISCLAIMER: I should explicitly state (or rather re-state) in this censorious age of ours that I am not advocating the use of morphine. Neither was Poe when he wrote this short story. Rather we both are merely pointing out, in our own ways, the inconvenient truth that many of the drugs that we vilify today have a positive side to them, a side which the drug warrior strategically ignores, preferring instead to focus exclusively on a substance's potential negative effects in the hands of irresponsible users. They have to argue in this way in order to make their desired crack down seem like a civic duty rather than like the war on consciousness which it actually is.
In this they are abetted by today's movies, which never illustrate the mind-clarifying use of cocaine (from which Sigmund Freud, for one, benefitted so enormously in his professional life), preferring instead to vilify the substance by associating it with grade-A morons (such as Neil Patrick Harris in the movie "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," in which the actor snorts cocaine off of the rear end of a half-naked lap dancer).
The newspapers are just as guilty of supporting this libelous drug-war sensibility about Mother Nature's plants. One can scour an early 20th-century newspaper archive for hours and never find a positive story about opium's well-known ability to spur creativity, nor a reference to the fact that opium is non-addictive if used intermittently. Instead, we find countless references to foreigners and minorities using the substances while engaged in highly suspicious activities, such as frequenting opium dens, thereby turning opium into the very incarnation of anti-Christian evil rather than treating it as an amoral substance which, just like cocaine, can be used for good or ill.