Reviewed by John Hutnyk
Dave Boothroyd’s book “Culture On Drugs” (2006) is a sound and entertaining read, and is just as much a carefully argued account of the influence of various substances on theory and theorists across a wide field – Freud and Cocaine, Benjamin and Hashish, Sartre and hallucinogens – as it is a commentary on, and plea for, a narco-analytic turn in culture theory. Good. All the way through the book there were important questions raised and important answers offered – and experimental writing is approved here and there (but perhaps not adopted in the text as much as might be anticipated).
All that said however, I think there was something held back…for example, I expected something on Marx and the opium wars: old beardo advocated that the Chinese not prohibit homegrown manufacture of the stuff so as to thereby undermine the East India Company’s efforts to force their trade advantage via Indian producers. So basically Marx comes out in favour of legalising Class As! And while I think I would have preferred – or is it that I fear – an extended treatment of Sartre’s experiences with amphetamine sulphate (those huge books on Flaubert, more on Flaubert than Flaubert wrote himself), I do appreciate Dave’s attempt to cover all the bases in an even handed way. Especially when he works through the Freudian cocaine versions. Freud as experimenter and advocate; Freud as liberated by use; Freud as promoter.
But it was weird to be reading this text just a day after writing out my own notes for a piece on Irma’s injection as mentioned by Slavoj Zizek in his little starter book on Lacan. (on Zizek, see here and here). Irma’s story – Freud’s first dream analysis – is cited in an admittedly perfunctory way by Zizek in order to explain Lacan’s contribution to Freud’s insight that the melancholic is ‘not aware that he has lost the lost object’ as a realization [by Lacan] that it is not an inability to mourn a loss, so much as a loss of desire for an object that he may still possess, but which has lost its efficiency, that governs melancholia.
This might have been a great opportunity to consider Freud’s own melancholia and mourning in relation to the Irma dream. And here there is much more to be said about the figure of Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow [somehow Dave leaves out the second part of his hyphenated surname]. It is this E-v-F-M to whom Freud had recommended the ‘superdrug’ cocaine in large quantities, as a substitute for morphine, which Ernst then took in large intravenous injections and became more dependent upon the marching powder than on the M he was into in the first place. So much into it that he died of related complications of the substitution (or what could be caled a ‘speedball’ syndrome, thanks uncle bill). All so far just a footnote… but what if the guilt Freud exhibits in relation to the faulty diagnosis of Irma’s injection in the dream that founds psychoanalysis (in The Interpretation of Dreams Irma has pride of place) were to be read in relation to the later guilt (some 80 or so pages later) that Freud reports in a footnote in relation to Fleischl-Marxow’s death? We are familiar with displacements in the dream work, so why not here find the symptomatic explanation of Irma in the text of the dream book itself, and Freud’s feelings of responsibility for having introduced his (ten years) older colleague to the drug that would allegedly kill him – though it was more likely to have been a dirty needle, as also noted in relation to the diagnosis of Irma herself. Perhaps I am not expressing this well, but I would be lying if I did not share a little in the melancholia of having read Dave’s book, seen mention of E-v-F-M, and yet not seen the connections laid out as clearly as they so seemed to me when we read (thanks Carrie, Nicola, Atticus, Miriam, Saul) theInterpretation in our reading group back in 2001 (on its 100th anniversary). It could be that Freud’s loss of his colleague is one he can only admit via a displacement in a dream that forces itself down Irma’s neck. Indication – that Irma should be prescribed some of that very same acetate.
So, narco-analysts to be deployed – the deflection of Irma into the text of Lacan deflects once again a forensic investigation that would explain both Freud’s interest in injections and Irma’s throat, and might lay some blame where blame might-maybe-ought to lie. Dirty needles, guilt and melancholia – time perhaps to lift the lid off this (La)Can of worms, and get back to work…