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Drug (M)use: Drugs as a Means of Inspiration from 19th-Century Europe to 1960s America

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Timothy Cole Hale. This post is an abridged version of a paper that he will present as part of the panel, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor,” at the 2021 virtual conference of the American Historical Association next Tuesday, April 20th, at 1:00 PM Eastern. To read the full paper, please visit his website.

Left Brain v. Right Brain

Left Brain vs. Right Brain. Image courtesy of Tumisu from Pixabay.

Opium and Nineteenth-Century Europe

In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez, traces the emergence of opium as a source of artistic inspiration to the Romantic Era. Since the positive effects of the drug include an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness soon followed by severe drowsiness, it is no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares. These writers believed that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that they could incorporate into their work. [1]

Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict of the era, first popularized the drug in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey believed that inspiration could transcend from the dreamworld into reality and he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye!” [2]

In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as opium’s most active ingredient, and, with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century, injecting morphine became the most popular ingestion method. It is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s—but the drug was especially prevalent among artists and writers of Bohemian Paris.

The Pleasures of Opium

Drawing of the “Pleasures of Opium” by illustrator Willy Pogany from 1908 edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

And opium became the perfect substance for rebelling against the bourgeoisie, as the drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversations or productivity of any sort. Opium use provided a sense of camaraderie among Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social norms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided users with fodder for their art.

Having relied for decades on a humorously terrible translation of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, France got its first decent translation in 1860 by Charles Baudelaire. [3] Combining his own essays about drug use with summaries and analyses of Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis (a collection of De Quincey essays viewed as a sequel to Confessions), Baudelaire published the book, Les Paradis Artificels (Artificial Paradises). [4]

Baudelaire, however, is most remembered for his poetry, and, in his poem, “La Chambre Double” (“The Double Room”), he concisely explained the “rooms” that Bohemian users escaped and entered when under the influence of opium. He described the first room as an impoverished apartment with filthy living conditions, occupied by a writer whose mental state is filled with too many regrets and anxieties to complete his manuscripts. After opiate intoxication, though, the apartment transformed into a room of warmth, beauty, and elegance. Baudelaire clearly seems here to be referencing opium as an escapist agent.

La Morphinomane

La Morphinomane (1897) painting by Eugène Grasset. Image courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

By the late nineteenth-century, a new method of opium ingestion drastically increased the drug’s popularity in France. Imported from Asia by soldiers returning from French Indochina, smokable opium (called chandu) quickly became the favored method. Opium’s effects may always have been “dreamlike,” but earlier ingestion techniques were utilitarian and ugly—consider, for example, the maniacal and desperate face of a woman injecting morphine into her thigh in Eugène Grasset’s painting La Morphinomane (1897). Through the ritualization of smoking chandu, opium gained even more mystique and grew in popularity.

By 1901, Paris housed up to 1,200 opium smoking establishments (known as fumeries or fumes). [5] These opium dens became frequent haunts of writers and artists. Describing the appeal of a nineteenth-century Parisian fume, psychologist Jos ten Berge has explained: “With its refined rituals and its mysterious alchemy, its lacquer, its silk and its jade, with its dimmed light and the drug’s odours, [the fume] offered the writer and poet an incomparably more dense matter.” [6] The transition to the act of smoking opium cannot be overlooked—when taking most medicines appropriately, either oral or intravenous ingestion is most common—thus, smoking opium removed the plausibility that its use was strictly medicinal. [7]

Fernande Olivier, a model for Pablo Picasso who became his lover for nearly eight years, wrote in her diary of a night she smoked opium with the artist, saying:

“In spite of having an upset stomach and oppressive headache afterwards, which kept me in bed the next day, I couldn’t wait to start again so as to achieve that spiritual intensity and sharpening of intellectual awareness that one experiences under the influence of the drug. Everything seems beautiful, bright and good.” [8]

In Olivier, we see opium not being used because it was taboo or as a means of escapism, but instead because she believed it heightened her senses. This is a distinguishable difference separating those of mainstream society who used the drug to be en vogue, versus the Bohemians who used the drug to sharpen their senses and to inspire creativity.

DoorsofPerception Cover

Cover of the first edition of The Doors of Perception. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Sixties

French historian Jerrold Siegel marks the end of Paris’s Bohemian Era at 1930. Within thirty years, another drug-fueled counterculture would emerge thousands of miles away in California—the Beatniks. There are several parallels between the Parisian Bohemians, and the post-war American Beats and the Hippies they would later inspire. The most obvious similarities were the centrality of art and hedonism, the desire to “drop out” of middle-class society, and the groups’ sense of camaraderie brought about by taboo drug use. Another striking parallel was the importance of a book to the culture of each group. Just as De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater spurred opium’s popularity among Bohemians, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, published in 1954 about his recent mescaline experiences, was largely responsible for the popularity of the drugs of choice of the Sixties: psychedelics. [9]

Huxley took the tile of his book from William Blake’s quote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” This line captured Huxley’s belief, soon adopted by the post-war countercultures, that psychedelics had the potential to provide innumerable ways to interpret and explain the world.

Six years after publication of The Doors of Perception, two psychologists from Harvard University—Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert—began the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The project was shut down within two years, and Harvard eventually fired both professors for the ethical violation of participating in drug sessions with Project subjects and for “pressuring” graduate students to take the drug. After losing their jobs, Leary and Alpert continued taking trips to “that garden” and promoted psychedelics as a tool for spiritual enlightenment that could remove societal programming and thus reveal people’s base selves.

While Leary and Alpert experimented on the East Coast, pyschedelics were being used more self-indulgently out West. In 1964, Ken Kesey, newly famous for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, took an LSD-fueled road trip across the United States to promote his next book. He and his cohort—dubbed the Merry Pranksters—traveled from California to New York in a colorfully painted bus called Furthur. Along the way, the Merry Pranksters distributed LSD to the masses, causing the reputation of Kesey and this little-known drug to rise. Tom Wolfe documented the events in his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Electric Kool Aid Acid Test cover

Cover of the first edition of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

In one scene, Kesey watched a crawling baby and— referencing Huxley—described his interpretation of the child’s mindset:

“That baby sees the world with a completeness that you and I will never know again. His doors of perception have not yet been closed…He still sees the world as it really is, while we sit here, left with only a dim historical version of it manufactured for us.” [10]

While Leary, Alpert, and Kesey, advocated psychedelic drug use to keep open the “doors of perception,” the Beat poets and writers transitioned to a new community: the Hippies.

The lines of distinction between psychedelic drug use for hedonistic or for creative purposes were often blurry for the Hippies, but these two categories of use were certainly not mutually exclusive. As Eastern and Native American religions—some of which included the ritualistic ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs—grew in popularity among Hippies, these drugs gained an additional religious and spiritual aspect.

Poet/musician Jim Morrison, for example, often made references to Native American culture in his writing and described himself as a shaman (someone who interacts with the spirit world via an altered state of consciousness). Morrison believed his drug and shaman experiences influenced his writing, thus combining psychedelics with spirituality for creative purposes. Morrison famously said in an interview that he believed “in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” Morrison had earlier suggested to his bandmates that they pay homage to Aldous Huxley and William Blake when naming their band: The Doors.

Two Competing Theories

The trend of artists, musicians, and writers using drugs for inspiration has yet to end. In thinking about drug use among artists over the last two hundred years, a key question emerges: Do drugs cause artistic inspiration? The Bohemians, Beats, and Hippies, despite the disparate set and setting of their drug use, all certainly believed that drugs influenced their creations for the better. There are many theories—from the scientific to the metaphysical—that address this question, but they all largely fall within two categories: deconditioning and escapism.

The book Imagine Nation defines deconditioning as, the act of taking LSD and becoming like a child again, shedding off the straitjacket of adult, middle-class programming, and making it anew—an idea closely associated with the “cleansing the doors of perception” interpretation. [11] We are taught from a young age in school, for example, that a blade of grass is green because it contains chlorophyll, which absorbs every color except green and thus reflects the color green. For people deconditioned from educational programming, however, grass can become green for any number of chosen mystical reasons. Zooming out from a single blade of grass, the world at large can become filled with limitless explanations for those who are chemically deconditioned. Perhaps artists and writers, who already possesses creative minds, are best equipped to ponder and communicate these extra possibilities.

Although it is most popular with the general public, many psychologists and neurologists challenge the deconditioning explanation. Neuroscientist Heidi Moawad, for example, argues that the process of writing or creating art is so mentally taxing—especially while working on a deadline—that dissociating from reality is merely a method of escapism that allows users to temporarily forget the demands of the real world and to “return” replenished. [12]

Since opium causes users to fall into a deep sleep, Moawad’s explanation might particularly help to explain the inspiration achieved by the Parisian Bohemians. In addition, many Bohemians and, later, Hippies opted to “drop out” out of comfortable middle-class society in favor of voluntary poverty. Living in cramped, small, or dirty apartments in crowded or crime-ridden neighborhoods, users in both eras might have desired to detach from these conditions—as described in Baudelaire’s “Double Room” poem.

Whether or not drugs can actually enhance creativity and provide artistic inspiration is still largely disputed, but there does, indeed, seem to be a connection, especially in the minds of many users. Whether this connection results from drugs offering users a way to “deprogram” or providing a method of mental escape is still unknown. Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive.



[1] A. Alvarez, “Drugs and Inspiration,” Social Research 68, no. 3 [Altered States of Consciousness] (Fall 2001): 779–93.

[2] Thomas De Quincey’s notebook, as quoted in Alvarez, “Drugs and Inspiration.”

[3] For more about Alfred de Musset’s translation, see Paul Sawyer’s “Musset’s Translation of the Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” French Review 42, no. 3 (1969): 403–8.

[4] Charles Baudelaire, Artificial Paradises, Stacy Diamond, trans. (Secaucus, NY: Citadel Press, 1996), xvii-xix.

[5] Han Derks, History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, Ca. 1600-1950, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 385.

[6] Jos ten Berge, “The Belle Epoque of Opium, Paris 1900-1904,” in Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, ed. Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun (Reaktion Books, 2004), 112.

[7] Derks, History of the Opium Problem, 385.

[8] Fernande Olivier, Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 2001), 157.

[9] I differentiate between the terms “the 1960s,” which is the literal decade; and “the Sixties,” which includes the sociocultural upheavals that began slightly before and extended beyond the chronological 1960s.

[10] Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (London: Picador, 2008), 52.

[11] Peter Braunstein, “Forever Young: Insurgent Youth and the Sixties Culture of Rejuvenation,” in Imagine Nation: the American Counterculture of the 1960’s and 70’s, ed. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013), pp. 253-254.

[12] Heidi Moawad, “Drugs and Creativity: Fact or Fiction?” Neurology Times, September 13, 2018.


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