From The New Yorker, a 15-year-old article answering my question yesterday about the cultural influence of speed drugs like Adderall:
Writing under the influence.
By John Lanchester
January 6, 2003 Issue
… Where are the bodies of work that have come to us as a result of this explosive expansion of the pharmacopoeia, this unprecedented transformation of possibilities for tinkering with the mind’s chemistry? Have drugs helped anyone to write anything that would have seemed surprising and new to the Prophet Ezekiel or William Blake?
Consider the following passage, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1960 existentialist blockbuster “The Critique of Dialectical Reason”:
But it should be noted that this regulatory totalisation realises my immanence in the group in the quasi-transcendence of the totalising third party; for the latter, as the creator of objectives or organiser of means, stands in a tense and contradictory relation of transcendence-immanence, so that my integration, though real in the here and now which define me, remains somewhere incomplete, in the here and now which characterise the regulatory third party. …
… When he wrote the “Critique,” Sartre, a lifelong caffeine fiend and serious drinker, was also frying his brains on corydrane, a form of amphetamine mixed with, of all things, aspirin. The philosopher was using corydrane on a daily basis, first to cut through the fug of the barbiturates he was taking to help him sleep—and he was having trouble sleeping not least because of all the corydrane he was putting away—but also to keep him at his desk, churning out the “Critique.” …
Sartre was therefore a recognizable type of speed freak, the type dedicated to obsessive, unfinishable, and, to the neutral observer, pointless toil—the sort who, several hours after taking the drug, can usually be found sitting on the floor, grinding his teeth and alphabetizing his CDs by the name of the sound engineer.
Sartre is probably a bad advertisement for the effect of amphetamines as an aid to composition, but he is by no means the only example of a writer who used speed to help him work. For sheer quantity, Boon notes, it is hard to beat [sci-fi author of The Man in the High Castle] Philip K. Dick … who from 1963 to 1964, under the influence of the methamphetamine Semoxydrine, wrote “eleven science fiction novels, along with a number of essays, short stories, and plot treatments in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzy that accompanied or precipitated the end of one of his marriages.” (That “accompanied or precipitated” nicely captures how little fun it must have been to be Mrs. Dick.)
If Philip K. Dick does not entirely convince on grounds of literary merit—and the books in question aren’t quite his best material—then how about Graham Greene, who was pounding Benzedrine when he wrote his 1939 travel book about Mexico, “The Lawless Roads,” and the novel that came out of his Mexican travels, “The Power and the Glory”? (The paranoid and menacing atmosphere of that superb novel, which describes a whiskey priest being hunted by Communist revolutionaries, surely owes something to Greene’s pill-chugging.)
I read a half dozen Graham Greene novels in high school, and started reading “The Power and the Glory” about 15 years ago. Although I didn’t finish it, it appeared to be tremendous, living up to its ambitious name.
Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen,” with the important proviso that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”
Auden seems to have been the only unquestionably major writer to use drugs in quite this way, as a direct source of energy for his work. He represents the apotheosis of a utilitarian approach to drugs; and it is therefore logical, if he was going to take drugs, that he would gravitate toward speed, which is the utilitarian drug par excellence. By comparison, alcohol is a very bad working drug for writers. It is more or less impossible to write when drunk, which is just as well, given how much and how many writers drink; imagine the amount of booze they would put away if it actually helped.
Drugs appear to have turned Auden into The Human Shar-Pei, I joke, while pouring out what’s left of my third cup of coffee.