Few people’s views on drugs have changed so starkly as those of Aldous Huxley. Born in 1894 to a high-society English family, Huxley witnessed the early 20th-century ‘war on drugs’, when two extremely popular narcotics were banned within years of one another: cocaine, which had been sold by the German pharmaceutical company Merck as a treatment for morphine addiction; and heroin, which had been sold for the same purpose by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer.
The timing of these twin bans was not coincidental. Ahead of the First World War, politicians and newspapers had created a hysteria surrounding the ‘dope fiends’ whose use of cocaine, heroin and certain amphetamines allegedly showed that they had been ‘enslaved by the German invention’, as noted in Thom Metzer’s book The Birth of Heroin and the Demonization of the Dope Fiend (1998).
As the rhetoric of eugenics flourished during the interwar years – both from the mouth of Adolf Hitler and from Huxley’s older brother, Julian, the first director of the Paris-based UNESCO and a notorious eugenicist, Aldous Huxley imagined the use of drugs by government entities as a nefarious means of dictatorial control. In Brave New World (1932), the fictitious drug soma is doled out to the populace as a means to keep them dumbly happy and sated (‘All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects,’ Huxley wrote), and the book makes multiple mentions of mescaline (which at that point he had not tried but clearly did not approve of), which renders his character Linda stupid and prone to vomiting.
‘The dictatorships of tomorrow will deprive men of their freedom, but will give them in exchange a happiness none the less real, as a subjective experience, for being chemically induced,’ Huxley later wrote in The Saturday Evening Post. ‘The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights – liberty.’ Hard drugs were inherently tied up with politics in Huxley’s early years, and to be a proponent of cocaine or heroin was, in many ways, to be aligned with Nazi Germany in the eyes of politicians and leading newspapers.
But then, on Christmas Eve 1955 – 23 years after the publication of Brave New World – Huxley took his first dose of LSD and everything changed. He loved it. It inspired him to write Heaven and Hell (1956), and he introduced the drug to Timothy Leary, a vocal political advocate for the therapeutic benefits of mind-altering drugs. Eventually, Huxley would align himself with Leary’s hippie politics – in ideological opposition to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and the Vietnam War – in large part due to his now-positive experience with such drugs.
In his novel Island (1962), Huxley’s characters inhabit a utopia (rather than Brave New World’s dystopia) and gain serenity and understanding by taking psychoactive drugs. Whereas in Brave New World drugs are a means of political control, in Island, they are ‘medicine’.
What explains Huxley’s changed perspective – from seeing drugs as an instrument of dictatorial control to a way to escape from political-cultural repression? Indeed, in the grander picture, why are drugs universally despised at one time, then embraced by intellectuals and cultural influencers at another? Why do we have an almost decadal vogue for one drug or another, with popular drugs such as cocaine all but disappearing only to pop up again decades later? Above all, how are drugs used to affirm or tear down cultural boundaries? The answers colour nearly every aspect of modern history.
The drugs chosen to pattern our culture over the past century have simultaneously helped to define what each generation has most desired and found most lacking in itself. The drugs du jour thus point towards a cultural question that needs an answer, whether that’s a thirst for spiritual transcendence, or for productivity, fun, exceptionalism or freedom. In this way, the drugs we take act as a reflection of our deepest desires and our inadequacies, the very feelings that create the cultures in which we live.