“Not, by any stretch of the imagination, a conventional book” – Narcotics by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

In 1948, a German zoologist named HM Peters, along with pharmacologist Peter N Witt, began feeding spiders with various drugs, including caffeine, mescaline, LSD, amphetamines and strychnine, as part of a study. The desired effect was for the spiders, which generally spun their webs between 2-5am, to continue spinning later into the day, allowing Dr Peters a lie-in. The unintended side effect was that the zoologist also noted a change in the size and patterns of the webs, depending on the drug used. This experiment was recreated in 1995 by NASA scientists (you can read more about their findings here).

Unknowingly, the scientists were also recreating an (admittedly less formal) piece of research by the Polish author and artist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz ran a small portrait painting company, offering a range of options for his customers, ranging from the formal to the impressionistic and the narcotic inspired. These portraits were signed with a rubric revealing the drugs that Witkiewicz was using at the time of painting, or, if he was working sober, how long it had been since his last intake. Different combinations would produce different colour palettes, or else bring out different aspects of a subject’s character.

Disillusioned with his literary career, Witkiewicz decided to write up his observations, stating that ‘given that my ‘free-form creativity’ has amounted to no more than ‘whistling dixie’,

‘I realised my writing experiments were of no use to the nation and society, and thus I decided to share my views on narcotics with the general public’.

His findings, along with a selection of mini-essays on such diverse topics as shaving and haemorrhoids, have now been published in English for the first time by Twisted Spoon Press, alongside a selection of colour reproductions of his portraits.

Narcotics loosely fits in to a genre of drug-writing which includes the likes of de Quincey and Huxley but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a conventional book. A couple of pages in, Witkiewicz feels compelled to deny rumours that he had sex with his Siamese cat, and states that he has only ever had one five-day binge, and even then there were ‘severe extenuating circumstances’ (ie a theatre premiere). He also angrily denies having hiked up a mountain whilst wearing a tuxedo, or even ever owning a tuxedo (‘what these bastards won’t invent!’).

Nevertheless, Witkiewicz states that he is writing in

‘total seriousness, and that I finally seek to produce something useful… my intent is to draw attention to the mental repercussions of these poisons’.

He actually takes somewhat of a prohibitionist attitude towards most drugs, particularly the socially accepted narcotics of alcohol and tobacco. He divides drugs into the social and antisocial, based on their effect on the psyche, which can either be enmeshed in sublime acts of creation, or else be sublimated through ‘antisocial’ narcotics. When judging the effect of drugs, Witkiewicz is interested in work and productivity, but with different aims and priorities to the factory owner. He values the development of big, meaningful work, manifestations of individual creativity, rather than piecework, and sees sobriety as a means to counteract what would later be called the spectacle.

Nicotine, for example, is seen as debilitating, a low-grade anaesthetic, detrimental to artistic production and with few positive effects. Alcohol at least ‘initially provides the illusion of helping to conquer boundless realms of the spirit’, even if it is ultimately ‘boring’. Drink isn’t to be completely written off, however. Returning to his view that narcotics can help artists to access their creativity, he argues that

‘although I absolutely support prohibition, I admit that, while at times one could ultimately do without alcohol, it does straighten out a number of misunderstandings, both internal and external. To my mind, it should only be permitted up to a point to those artists and writers who are positively sure they need to go for broke and would be utterly incapable of creating anything of value without it’.

Cocaine, too, has some positive effects, but

‘it neither creates anything new nor gives rise to intriguing new combinations between elements familiar to us’.

The drug which does enable Witkiewicz to function at a higher creative level is peyote, which

‘provides remarkable visions and profound glimpses into buried layers of the psyche’

without being habit forming (and while discouraging use of other drugs). He finds the peyote trip a more creative experience than anything else he has tried, which

‘creates conceptual neologisms true only unto themselves, warping syntax to the terrible proportions of the uncanny’.

Whilst he concedes that an individual’s response to the drug is not especially revealing (‘ultimately the fact that someone saw a praying mantis in a locomotive grappling with a lamp brush tells us nothing about the capacity for moral improvement’), he also feels that the experience connects him to a wider sensibility; during the course of his trip, which is chronicled with the assistance of his wife, Witkiewicz feels somehow connected to Goya and Chinese folk art, hinting that he has experienced a form of collective unconscious which can have an impact on his own work.

Amazingly, Narcotics was a success on its release, receiving generally positive reviews and selling well. Reading it in the present day, it remains an amazingly idiosyncratic, sui generis piece of work, unlike anything else. Witkiewicz’s character, with all its flaws, shines through on every page. There’s a tendency towards self-sabotage, as quotes are made up or wrongly attributed, and the author displays a childlike compulsion to throw in neologisms and vulgar epithets, attempting to shock readers out of complacency, or else undercut the manner in which he is expressing himself. Many of his conclusions are also influenced by highly dubious pseudo-anthropological theories, just in case the reader were to be persuaded by any of them. By the end, the idea that readers will want to read Witkiewicz’s views on shaving and exercise after reading about his exploits on ether seems absurd, but there is enough conviction and momentum in his writing to keep Narcotics interesting to the final page.

Any Cop?: Narcotics’ flaws are also its virtues: the text is often rambling, heavily idiosyncratic, has a tenuous grip on fact, and is often used as a vehicle for score-settling and self-aggrandisement by its author. It is compelling, infuriating, sometimes dull, othertimes provocative and fascinating, contradictory and really unlike anything else. It is also presented beautifully by the publishers, particularly the colour prints of Witkiewicz’s work. Narcotics isn’t for everyone, but I’m really glad it’s out there.


Thom Cuell

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