One of the many sociological uses of Hollywood is its dramatic availability when things go wrong in America. Michael Satchell, for instance, has raised the question in Parade of whether the movies by too often glamorizing drugs and alcohol encourage their use among young people. He cites Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and JoBeth Williams as actresses who “have been shown smoking marijuana in millions of American homes.” He impresses actor Paul Newman, whose son died after mixing alcohol and valium, with “a list of sixty films with positive drug messages,” and he quotes Senator William V. Roth’s conviction that movie stars “are great role models for young people—movies are a glamour industry—and when drugs are shown in a favorable light it has very real impact.” Some critics, says Satchell, want the Motion Picture Association of America to supplement its current rating system with letters (“SA”) that indicate “substance abuse”—especially given the strong possibility that Holly wood might have to choose between self-censorship and government censorship.
Satchell’s article makes it clear that there are still people around who believe that the moviemakers have a moral obligation to take a stand against drug abuse. Does this imply their agreement with the ancient conviction that the theater, and the arts generally, cannot be subversive to the best interests of the individual and society without being aesthetically false? The question is hardly a subject for Parade, but it does take us back to times when moralizing critics of the theater had a less complicated task. In the Elizabethan period, when he wrote that “the groundwork of comedies is love, cozenage, flattery, bawdry, sly conveyance of whoredom,” Stephen Gosson could assume that not even his playgoing opposition would contend that society might be better off with a little more bawdry and whore dom. When a century later Jeremy Collier anatomized the “licentiousness and irreligion” of the Restoration theater, he was addressing readers whom he knew would agree with him, Aristotle, Horace, and Ben Jonson that the end of all the arts is the public good, however those readers might on occasion enjoy the licentiousness. The public morality, often enough honored in the breach rather than the observance, had not yet been reduced to a cultural épistème from which the authentic person was expected to free himself. If Sir John Vanbrugh appeared to argue in The Provoked Wife that marriage “is a poor, sordid slavery,” he could not, like Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine, plead his First Amendment rights against potential censors.
As a defender of the public morality, Collier also had the advantage of not having to concern himself with the possible bad effects of actors and actresses as role models. He would hardly have approved of the adulterous off-stage life of Nell Gwyn and Elizabeth Barry (mistresses respectively to Charles II and the Earl of Rochester), and he seems to have believed with Ben Jonson that “’tis impossible to be a good poet without being a good man,” but the play was the thing. In a celebrity-dazzled and media-hyped culture such as ours, his critical life would be more complicated; a pot-smoking Nell Gwyn in a play he otherwise approved of might make him sound more like Jerry Falwell and less like Walter Kerr.
We cannot imagine a society without role models, whether classic superachievers like Ulysses, home-run hitters like Reggie Jackson, or rock singers like Madonna, but it is bard to believe that public entertainers have ever had the role-modeling power that they have in our society. Hollywood realized early the extent to which this power could threaten its best interests; hence the efforts to keep more liberated performers within at least hailing distance of the public morality and to expect the cooperation of press agents when they got too far out of line. A Fatty Arbuckle scandal was not only morally messy but expensive.
At the same time, however, it was expensive not to exploit the role-modeling capacities of the performers, and in any event the nature of motion pictures made the exploitation inevitable. Like the aristocracy or the very rich—or like “true” artists for that matter—they had to be represented as a special breed marching to a drummer that did not beat for ordinary mortals and blessed with the moral dispensations proper to special breeds. So the term “movie star” has become a metaphor for an enhanced form of existence, thereby making its contribution to the general uneasiness about the consequences of the public morality. Perhaps that morality really is a conspiracy against the potential for a life lived at peak intensity; perhaps the equivalence of glamorous achievement with unconventional conduct implies a standard of honesty and courage that rebukes the pusillanimous hypocrisy of the rest of us.
It is not hard to see why the argument that it has a special obligation to censor its treatment of drugs makes Hollywood uneasy. It senses, of course, that more than the censorship of drugs is at stake. Hollywood as a role-modeling institution is vulnerable to a variety of complaints, each of which poses !he possibility of outside censorship or more inside censorship than it likes to think about. Many of these complaints stem from the antiestablishment bias which Hollywood shares with literature, drama, and the arts generally. This bias involves the convenient convention that the best and most profitable films are likely to be those that counter (when they do not expose as fraudulent) the normalities and pieties of bourgeois life.
When established stars bring their glamorous selves to roles in such films, it is easy for them to have the effect of endorsing anti-establishment attitudes and conduct even when the films themselves do not. Paul Newman’s sincerity about the menace of role-modeling drug-abusers cannot be doubted, but what would he say about the role-modeling power of himself and Robert Redford in movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting, in which conduct conventionally recognized as criminal is presented in a favorable light, not simply because of the way the movies are made but because of the established star-power the actors bring to it? Noting this inevitable consequence of the star-system, a modern Jeremy Collier might suggest the draconian corrective of a production system in which all parties involved are always utterly anonymous—the result being “pure” movies rather than movies that build-on one another, like chapters in the ongoing biographies of the actors and auteur-directors.
There is another reason, however, for Hollywood’s un easiness with the drug issue—a reason that is not Hollywood-specific. Drugs are by long-standing reputation not only liberating agencies but the natural enemies of censorship. It is quite possible to believe that some drugs do some people a lot of damage but to believe at the same time that drugs are truth-revealers, that, to use Aldous Huxley’s phrase, they open “doors of perception” which repressive authorities would like to keep closed. This means that ultimately, if often precariously, drugs are on the side of the arts, particularly when the arts are valued more for truth telling than for aesthetic excellence. It also means that drugs are on the side of pornography, which, since the Marquis de Sade set up his adult bookstore in the Palais Royal early in the French Revolution, has continued to oppose all bourgeois censors with a liberating counter morality, sometimes so persuasively that the pornographer is identified as a true artist living intrepidly on the frontier beyond which is the domain of the forces of life.
The list of 19th- and 20th-century writers whose work has been to a significant degree associated with drugs is impressive: George Crabbe, Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Cole ridge, Novalis, Edgar Allan Poe, James Thomson, Charles Baudelaire, Francis Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Allen Gins berg, and William Burroughs. Of course, some of these writers have testified to the delusions and horrors of addiction—for instance, Coleridge, De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Burroughs. At the same time, there is a substantial body of critical and scholarly literature that exposes the religious, psychological, philosophical, biological, medical, and social misconceptions that have attended the discovery and use of laudanum, hashish, opium, mescaline, heroin, LSD, PCP, cocaine, the various designer drugs, and ecstasy (MOMA) as means of making more endurable the deprivations and sufferings attendant on human consciousness. All of this literature would seem to add up to a resounding endorsement of Kafka’s observation in “The Great Wall of China”:
You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.
But as Kafka and the Baudelaire who wrote The Artificial Paradise knew, few people are willing to run the risk of this paradox. There is every reason to believe that the search for the perfect drug-consciousness-expanding, love-and health-enhancing, reality-revealing, one-world-creating, nonaddictive, and safer than aspirin-will continue apace. The search is one consequence of the acceleration of utopian expectations in. our post-Enlightenment world. Repeated frustrations are no more likely to end the search than the fear of venereal disease is likely to result in universal asceticism.
It is interesting to see the part that drugs played in Aldous Huxley’s thinking about the possibilities of utopia, particularly since much of the last part of his life was spent in a Hollywood environment. Drugs get a bad press in the 1932 Brave New World, in which the drug “soma” is a dehumanizing means of control, as well as in the 1934 After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which the randy 17th-century Fifth Earl of Cannister and his mistress have managed to cheat time for two centuries by eating carpgut, a drug equivalent. Up to this point, as one might expect from the author of The Perennial Philosophy (1945), Huxley is on the side of Kafka and the classical pre-psychedelic/mystics.
But with the 1954 The Doors of Perception (had the southern California épistème finally got to him?), Huxley’s first experience with mescaline revealed to him that things as they are, as “Adam had seen them on the morning of his creation,” are hidden from us by the eliminative censorship exercised by brain, nervous system, and sense organs. Then in 1952 came Island with its depiction of Pala, an ideal commonwealth in which a crucial element is the nonaddictive moksha-medicine made of toadstools—”the reality revealer, the truth-and-beauty pill” that makes possible “boundless compassion, fathomless mystery and meaning” and at the same time prevents the development of undesirable social traits.
Given his interest in ESP, hypnosis, acupuncture, mysticism, and his suspicion of the general direction of secular technological society, the value Huxley placed on drug induced psychedelic experience may seem inevitable. His own experiments with drugs were few enough—mescaline twice and LSD three or four times, as he wrote to Thomas Merton in 1959. Nevertheless, The Doors of Perception gave great comfort to many other experimenters, became, in fact, a sacred text for those who needed to believe that if they had the courage to transgress the conventional censors of human perception, they might ascend to the mystic stratosphere of Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross as quickly as Chuck Yeager went through the sound barrier.
Huxley, like the denizens of his Pala, was a user, not an abuser, of drugs. The distinction is a comfortable one, since it classifies drugs with women and children as fundamentally precious things that ought to be protected from abuse in the expectation that, by opening the gates of Paradise, the drug will ultimately invalidate Kafka’s paradox. But in the context of a drug-abusing society, the distinction turns out to be propaganda for Pala-seeking drug-users who before they know it are drug-abusers. Indeed, even those writers who, like De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Burroughs, have reported the horrors of the artificial paradise, can turn out to be propagandists—just as role-modeling actors and actresses can turn out to be propagandists for the antisocial or extralegal conduct they dramatize, even when the propaganda is against the grain of the movies in which they appear.
If we consider De Quincey’s Confessions simply as a warning about dangerous practices, then his problem is that of any writer with great gifts of language who writes true confession: how to keep from making an experience with an admitted evil so attractive that he turns out to be in complicity with it. With popular true confession, the result most of the time is the palpable hypocrisy of those pornographic films that supply a moralistic framework as sop for the consciences of the naive and frisson for the more sophisticated. Obviously, this is a problem for any writer who does not write exclusively about angels, who (because they fail to get into the right kind of trouble) are in any event poor story material. Great works of literature, involved as they are with the human experience of evil, are as abusable as drugs. Nevertheless, they have a capacity to prove their moral integrity throughout the vicissitudes of interpretation. Few capable readers will take Dante’s Inferno as propaganda for hell, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as propaganda for regicide, or St. Augustine’s Confessions as propaganda for a Manichaean world view.
Naked Lunch, which Burroughs was writing when Huxley was writing Island, might appear to be anything but advocacy for drug abuse, sandwiched as it is in the popular Grove edition between prefatory and concluding anti-drug statements. Much was made of this fact by the writers who defended the book in the famous 1965 trial in Boston. They had no difficulty finding redeeming social value in its trenchant political satire, indictment of the evils of contemporary civilization, and metaphoric attack on addiction of all kinds. Indeed, here as in the earlier cases involving D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Ginsberg’s Howl, the defenders seemed to agree with Jeremy Collier that the end of all the arts is the public good, however apparent it was that for some of them the issue was less the literary value of the book than the threat of censorship-here directed once more against the liberating coalition of drugs and pornography.
Norman Mailer stated in the Boston trial that Burroughs was “possibly the most talented writer in America.” More significantly, however, he also said that Burroughs might have been “one of the greatest geniuses of the English language if he had not been an addict.” The problem here is that the addiction to junk did for Naked Lunch what laudanum did for De Quincey and Coleridge and what mescaline did for Huxley: it opened the doors of perception that made the book possible and at the same time publicized a myth about the relationship between drugs and the creative imagination conceived as a force radically and irresistibly hostile to all censorship. That Coleridge the laudanum addict did not conceive of the imagination in such terms did not keep the myth from being well-watered in romantic soil. Burroughs himself is taking refuge in that myth when he says in his introduction, “I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch.” He is simply the sensitive reed whom supernal powers had chosen as agency.
In his 1934 The Milk of Paradise, M.H. Abrams writes: “The important fact is that these four authors [Crabbe, De Quincey, Coleridge, and Francis Thompson] did an incredible thing: they opened to poetry an entirely new world.” Abrams’ updating preface for the popular 1970 edition of this essay puts this sentence in a modifying context, but it still calls our attention, especially with that “incredible,” to our romantic expectation that the true artist will open to us new worlds of intense and novel personal experiences an act so important that he must be permitted extreme if sometimes self-destroying means. This makes art a risky, even martyrdom-courting business: the artist must be will ing to look over the dizzying edge, descend into the horrifying depths, open forbidden doors and go through them in violation of ancient taboos. As Mailer puts it with Burroughs in mind (and perhaps himself as well), the artist must be one “who can come back from hell with a portrait of its dimensions.” Such an artist tests society also, for only “a brave and honest society can look into the abyss described in Naked Lunch.”
Indeed, the work of such an intrepid hero of experience is expected to be just as salvational and therapeutic as Antonin Artaud expected his theater of cruelty to be. In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud, himself a drug-user, wants “to treat the spectators like the snakecharmer’s subjects,” to make them the subjects of a surrounding and overwhelming action in a theater that “far from copying life, puts itself wherever possible in communication with pure forces.” The very language suggests an analogy between possession by art and possession by drugs, and it suggests loo the extent to which motion pictures, as well as much of the world of rock music, have become a captivating theater of cruelty. And when Artaud adds that “there is a risk involved, but in the present circumstances I believe it is a risk worth running,” he is only assuming a by-now conventional definition of art as a high-risk enterprise whose natural enemy is the risk-wary censor.
At the Boston trial even some of Burrough’s defenders had to concede that his novel was structurally deficient, the concession having to be understood with reference to traditional expectations of formal clarity. So far as the artist is the intrepid hero of experience, this is an easily forgiven defect and may, in fact, be a sign of authenticity, as it is for many who admire the fiction of Dreiser and Kerouac, the films of John Cassavetes, or the music of John Cage—and who perhaps remember fondly the incoherence of under ground newspapers. It is possible to concede that Ginsberg’s poetry has little literary value, as Bruce Bawer has observed in The New Criterion, and yet place great value on it as a courageous and messianic experience. Huxley, most likely, would not have enjoyed Ginsberg’s poetry, yet he helps to explain why others do enjoy it. “What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline,” he writes in The Doors of Perception, “the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time.” From this the susceptible reader easily concludes that mescaline (or LSD or cocaine or marijuana) raises one to the artist’s level, which is the “structurally deficient” level of the experience of a drug.
Such a conclusion is comfortably self-validating. The more incoherent the experience is-according to a theory of imagination that assumes the creative cooperation of the conscious intellect—the more authentic that experience is likely to be, with the possible implication that the most authentic experiences of all happen outside the prison of language and are therefore unutterable. Rationality thus becomes associated with the dehumanization of society, as it did for Artaud. If, as Bawer contends, Ginsberg “is largely responsible for making drug-use fashionable among the country’s educated young,” he has only shown them that the true poetic frontiers of experience are instantly available to those stoned cowboys who have the courage to put their bourgeois settlements behind them. The act itself elevates them into the artist class.
In this perspective the quintessential bourgeois act is censorship, the opposite of which is generally believed to be the absolutely untrammeled flow of information. But if we think of censorship as the conditioning of information for control, it is possible to see that the opposite of censorship is no information whatever. For all forms of life, information depends on selection, which involves rejection, from the buzzing confusion of available sense data. This means that the human inhabitants of complex systems depend on the selections and rejections of censorship to identify them selves and survive, if only as specialists or fanatics. It also means that the relationship between information and the rejection of sense data is as paradoxical as the relation between remembering and forgetting: in order to remember what promises to be meaningful, one must forget a great deal-that is, censor it out of memory. Whether the consequence is personal growth or co-optation by others who have the power to determine the way we condition information depends not only on genetic good luck but on the kind of society in which we live.
Huxley is right when he speaks of the human brain and nervous system as functioning like a censor that decides which doors of perception should be open and which closed. But he is simply being fanciful when he says that mescaline makes it possible to see things as they are, as Adam saw them on the first day of creation. Surely, whatever Adam saw was conditioned by the censoring nature of his powers of perception, however pristine they were. He saw something, which means that he did not see something else; for instance, he did not see what the lions and elephants saw, and surely the information available through their censoring systems was then as now part of the way things are. He was still Adam, not God, who, we must assume, has no need of censorship to organize the buzzing confusion, and who (perhaps it is a definition of Deity) does not have to forget anything in order to remember every thing. To assume that the view through the door opened by mescaline is the ultimate view, the standard according to which the perception through other doors can be measured, is to take the experience of the drug at its own evaluation and therefore beyond undesirable tradeoff. It is the utopian assumption that helps to make human beings so addiction prone and Kafka’s paradox so offensive.
If we lived in the kind of utopian societies imagined by such bourgeois-baiters as Marx and Rousseau, the conditioning of information would be so effective that we would not be aware of it at all. Rousseau, in fact, was so certain that information in the good society had to be carefully conditioned by its supervisors that he rejected his friend d’Alembert’s proposal for a dramatic theater in Geneva (it would undermine “the simple and modest virtues that make good citizens”) and advised a policy of public watchfulness for Poland (things should be so arranged “that every citizen will feel himself to be constantly under the public eye”). The results would be censorship objectively speaking, but it would be in the interest of control by public virtue, as was the case in Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue. The good society uses censorship to protect itself from the psychological experience of censorship. The defining burden of democracy, on the other hand, is its unremitting nervous ness about censorship, and its defining weakness is its susceptibility to the promises of that artificial paradise, the totalitarian state, in which censorship, thanks to the opium of ideology, has ceased to be a problem.
The drug experience too protects its reputation as an opposer of censorship by closing the doors-in totalitarian fashion-through which information hostile to its promises might come. It protects itself also by passing itself off as a true nonbourgeois communal experience in which the deracinated and lonely modern ego is put in touch with higher unities and made whole against the consequence Artaud expected from his theater of cruelty no less than from the peyote rituals he once experienced in Mexico. The drug ecstasy, according to its advocates, makes it possible to achieve transcendence without alienation. An ecstasy with out its substantial side-effects is the quality Huxley attributed to his moksha-medicine and Shakespeare’s Caliban to wine, the “celestial liquor” that in The Tempest opens to him the dealienating doors of perception wide enough to let him see two drunken sailors as gods. And the protective censorship of the drug experience is made easier in a society willing to believe in the absoluteness of the disjunction between conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational, nature and nurture, bourgeois and artist.
Hollywood is bourgeois enough in its attachment to the liberated and affluent life made possible by disciplined bourgeois effort. But it is also bourgeois, as are its role modeling actors, in its attachment to an antibourgeois aesthetic in which the antagonism between authentic art and establishment values is conceived as generative of creative effort. That creative effort, being like modernism and post-modernism oriented to truth-telling in opposition to the censoring hypocrisies and cowardly evasions of bourgeois life, is also oriented to utopia. Thus films like Costa-Gavras’ Missing, made under democratic auspices, turn out to be antidemocratic propaganda for their implied or expressed social and political assumptions, just as Naked Lunch, contrary to its author’s assertions, turns out to be propaganda for the life-enhancing and censor-thwarting experience of drugs.
In effect, then, drug-use and moviemaking are connected as partners in the same common cause that for a long time has compelled the world of the arts, and this connection has nothing to do with the question of whether Hollywood people are more in fief to the cocaine lords than the rest of the country. Perhaps this is why many role-modeling actors and actresses have been caught in a utopian romance of anticapitalism as they saw it in such vigorously censoring and ideological places as China, North Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua: they were validating themselves once more as members of the censor-hating artist class. But it is also why Hollywood will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back if it enlists in any campaign against drug-abuse. And even so constrained it will be fighting for its life.