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Down the rabbit hole to bring back some words

- Deborah Minors

Profile: Dr Eva Kowalska shares what her research of drug literature and opioid biographies across time and space reveals.

You wouldn’t expect to find a Polish person with a PhD in Drug Literature in the Wits Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment. But that’s where Dr Eva Kowalska teaches first-year students English and academic literacy. Evidently, as is often the case with recreational drugs, things are not always what they seem.

Kowalska is part of a multidisciplinary team in the Academic Development Unit (ADU), a role which is quite divorced from her research. “We don't really get to teach much of what our research is about, but we're allowed to pursue it in our own time,” says the 38-year-old Linden resident, whose thesis, in the English Department, was titled High Without Respite: A Study of Drug Literature.

Dr Eve Kowalska | Curiosity 16: #Drugs ©

The ‘drug idiom’

“The focus of the PHD was the idea that drug texts are a kind of genre within themselves,” explains Kowalska. “The idea is that across contexts, they have enough in common with each other in terms of style, in terms of how substance use, or even addiction, opens boundaries and affects style or form in literature. So the idea was to trace a history of those things.”

She’s in search of a “drug idiom” – an idiom being a phrase which cannot be understood simply by looking at the meaning of the individual words in the phrase – as is the case with the thesis title “high without respite”. This is a line from the work of Charles Baudelaire, the 19th Century French poet who experimented with hashish and alcohol and one of the writers that Kowalska studied in her PhD.

Another author under her gaze is Hunter S. Thompson, whose novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971) was turned into a film in 1998, starring Johnny Depp. Kowalska also delves into the writing of Tom Wolfe, author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about the counterculture Beat generation in the 1960s. They were amongst the troupe of Merry Pranksters experimenting with psychedelics, whom Timothy Leary urged to “turn on, tune in, drop out”. Similarly, Kowalska read the writing of Irvine Welsh, author of the heroin-fuelled Trainspotting, which became a celluloid cult classic in the 1990s. These counter-cultural shifts from psychedelics to opioids emerge in literary style and form.

Spiralling, repetitive … looping

Across centuries and geographies, drug literature is created within “a specific social and sub-cultural setting.” In the early 1990s, South Africa was an explosive socio-political and cultural milieu on the cusp of democracy. It’s also the decade that Kowalska immigrated here as a child. The maelstrom of the Rainbow Nation in the New South Africa set the (modern) scene for her later research interest in drug literature.

Kowalska says that the first real drug novel is Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He was a Romantic poet in the 1800s who was drinking laudanum – a tincture of opium dissolved in a spirit.

“[His writing] is very dense and of its time but I would argue that all writing about addiction follows that form. It’s very inward-looking, it’s very looping and repetitive,” says Kowalska of De Quincey, whom she calls “the Godfather of the opiate novel”.

This stream-of-consciousness writing is also an important part of modernism, she says, and “modernism in literature is a lot about isolation, and the stream-of-consciousness and the inward gaze, and formal innovations in terms of writing.”

Modernism, war and pieces

Fast-forward to the 20th Century, however, and the cultural context is vastly different. This era featured World Wars, flower-power, free love, Vietnam, apartheid, as well as tech and medical innovations.

Kowalska says that many problems around substance abuse have a lot to do with people returning from those conflicts addicted to drugs. Morphine, for example, is a powerful painkiller and a very good thing to have in a war situation, given that it’s small, easily stored and consumed, and palliative. “A lot of people came back addicted from the wars. Modernist writing is not separate from this,” says Kowalska.

At the same time, there were two very important inventions: the portable typewriter and the invention of the hypodermic needle. “With these two inventions, things happen BANG BANG BANG – much faster and harder than the slow, laborious handwriting.”

Unlike the Godfather of the opiate novel slow-sipping and immersed in his tincture, “the immediate hit of injecting morphine or heroin is an entirely different experience and it’s much more modern.” And the depiction of addiction in drug literature is a lot darker.

When words go awry

Kowalska’s study of the “opiate biography” is that part of drug literature that has to do with opiate addiction. Unlike the psychedelics, which are “fun”, Kowalska says “the heroin stuff is quite heavy, it’s not a happy space and it can be quite dark.”

Kowalska cites the Godfather, De Quincey, followed by the advent of morphine and heroin, which inspired William Burrough’s Junky and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book. And what these opioid biographies have in common is the writing style; immersive, spiralling, but beautifully written texts that become a kind of interplay between addiction and writing.

“[Writing and opioids] are both compulsions that these people have to play out, over and over. They start off exploring addiction, but they really end up exploring a liminal space,” says Kowalska. “It's both explicitly an exploration of addiction but also very much an exploration of writing.”

Kowalska reckons that’s why, as a society, we find addiction so troubling. She says when people get addicted, “they go away from language, they go away from communication”, yet the opioid biographers were trying to reconcile the two.

“I think addiction is when people get stuck on that boundary and they have to go over for some reason. They can’t quite reconcile it and that obviously becomes problematic.”

Eva, adolescence, and boundaries

The pervasion of addiction in drug literature begs the question: what’s the point? Kowalska’s PhD research questioned what draws these texts together? “I think it’s the drugs,” she says. And she doesn’t deny a personal earlier exploration of the usefulness of drugs.

“As a younger person I had a healthy interest in experimentation. One dabbles in this and that growing up, and I think that’s healthy. One should consider what one does and not necessarily just say no.”

However, this wasn’t the attitude of a draconian principal at Kowalska’s high school in Randburg in the ‘90s. Kowalska recalls the principal was “This ‘just say no’ religious anti-drugs crusader [who] would make us do little pee-in-a-cup drug tests. Just any mention of drugs was terrible, which is such a limited world view and so at odds when working with young people.”

At that time, an adolescent Kowalska was expanding her mind listening to ‘60s music – the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – many of whose lyrics referenced the counterculture and Beat writers.

“There was an intertextuality that became emergent to me,” she says. “When you start reading biographies, it makes you aware of interconnections between things and of broader cultures and sub-cultures around them. Where do those boundaries go?”

In defence of excess

Kowalska’s research suggests that boundaries are fluid, and that excess is inspirational – at least in drug literature. The same can be said for society generally. Ever since the ancient Greeks’ Bacchanalia wine orgies, people have had a predilection to push boundaries and explore universal consciousness.

“In society we sometimes need these excesses, these carnivals or these shamanistic practices or these binges, to release things and re-establish order, and I think the same is true individually,” says Kowalska.

“It’s part of fully developing theory of mind, part of growing up, which is why young people tend to experiment more than older ones. One of the final things you have to ‘put right’ is that sort of boundary for yourself. And some people like to play with that boundary, and that I think is recreational drug use.”

Talismans, spells, and incantations

As much as some people might not like it, drugs are an important part of culture and artistic practice, and have been for the longest time, Kowalska says. “Shamanistic practices all over the world often have to do with the ceremonial use of some sort of substance to see things, or to commune with the past, or the dream world.”

Drugs not only facilitate these visions but relate to literature too, since they are often about interpreting a dream world, or narrating a spiritual journey.

“Even though they weren’t written literatures, they had a storytelling element,” says Kowalska, adding that magic spells, for instance, are “a few words, an incantation, and there’s either a talisman or there’s a substance, a potion, or a leaf.”

“That’s what drug literature does; it becomes that talisman. It almost becomes a sub-cultural object ‘to be seen reading’. They become symbolic in their own right.”

Drug (im)mortality

Kowalska doesn’t vilify drug literature writers for their use of drugs. “It’s difficult to say that any substance has a moral value – there’s no such thing – they’re just things. It’s what people do with them,” she says, adding that, illegality aside, the laws around drugs and substances are not fixed. For example, marijuana is legal now for some types of use, which it wasn’t when she was growing up.

“Cigarettes are still legal and they’re horribly addictive. Drugs like nicotine and alcohol are taxed and are freely available, so the rules are arbitrary,” she says. “People tend to moralise substance use. Contemporary society is probably not familiar with recreational drug use; society tends to treat drugs and addiction as synonymous and they’re not.”

Drugs, like guns, are devoid of intrinsic moral value, she asserts. “I suppose literature also doesn’t have a moral value – it just is. I’m a firm believer in art for art’s sake. It only has to answer to itself as far as I’m concerned, so if the text is worthwhile, well, then to me it’s worth it.”

Down the rabbit hole …

Kowalska shares an introduction written by William Burroughs for a book of poems by Alexander Trocchi: “Perhaps writers are actually readers from hidden books. These books are carefully concealed and surrounded by deadly snares. It’s a dangerous expedition to find these books and bring back a few words.”

Kowalska concludes: “Isn’t that to some extent what this is? Going beyond to bring back a few words? Down the rabbit hole to bring back a few words for themselves and the rest of us?”

And what a whorl of worldly words there are.

  • Deborah Minors is Senior Communications Officer at Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 16th issue, themed: #Drugs, where we highlight the diversity, scope, and multi-dimensional nature of drug-related research at Wits University.