May 9, 2020
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poeby Ballard Quass
Drug Warrior censorship at work in American classrooms
If you want to see drug-war self-censorship at work, watch any grade-school teacher speaking about Edgar Allan Poe. Or, better yet, check out which Poe stories they assign their students and which they always seem to avoid assigning. For when it comes to Poe's view on what we would dramatically refer to as "drugs," he had the temerity to describe them unemotionally, as substances that can do both great ill and great good, depending on how they were used.
Poe does not praise drugs, of course, but he understood something about psychoactive substances that the drug warrior has long since forgotten: that no substance is good or bad in and of itself, but only with regard to how it is used: in what dosage, for what reason, by which person, under which conditions, at what time and place - etc. etc.
This contrasts sharply with the simplistic drug warrior mentality today according to which politically ostracized substances can bring about nothing but heartache. Of course, this often turns out to be true in a drug-warrior society, but only as a self-fulfilling prophecy brought about by our own draconian drug laws, laws that create a violent black market which in turn sells products that are unreliable both as to quality and quantity. Such negative outcomes are rendered even more likely thanks to the lack of objective information about substances that is a natural result of the aforesaid simplistic thinking. When we make blanket statements such as "drugs are all bad," we thereby obscure a world of crucial objective nuances which, if known, could be the basis for an adult's mature decision-making about which substances they can safely use to their own satisfaction in order to accomplish their own priorities in life.
This is why an American Literature instructor will rarely assign Poe's "Tale of the Ragged Mountains," for in it Poe dares to write about a morphine "habitue" who strategically uses his poison of choice, not in order to seduce women and ridicule existing social norms, but in order to enjoy nature with a surreal clarity that most of us can only imagine. The sober American is so tired by the workaday world that he or she may well have trouble distinguishing a maple tree from an oak. But in Poe's subversive story, the mysterious anti-hero, one Augustus Bedloe, finds that his morphine use endues 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.
One can just feel the drug warriors squirming in their seats as they read these lines. Not only does the drug in this story fail to "fry one's brain" (as the blatantly mendacious drug warrior insists that it should), but it actually focuses the mind, giving it incomparable clarity. Of course, Poe understood that the drug itself was not sufficient to bring about this clarity - the user must bring something to the party, too, especially humility and a willingness to learn. At the same time, however, Poe saw clearly that the drug was what philosophers call a "necessary condition" for this surreal clarity, at least for the individual named Augustus Bedloe in this story. There may well be folks in this world whose innate chemistry permits them to see Mother Nature just as sharply without the use of morphine. But that doesn't mean we should lie about or discount the blatant evidence before our eyes: namely, that morphine, in certain situations, does provide this marvellous sharpening of the senses.
The censoring of Poe on this topic by our teachers of American Literature is "all of a piece" with the way psychologists downplay or ignore Freud's heavy use of cocaine or the way that biographers downplay or ignore Benjamin Franklin's enthusiastic use of opium. None of these stories fit with the drug warrior's Christian Science view that we are somehow morally obliged to shun Mother Nature's psychoactive plants as a means of improving our mood, our cognition or our creativity.