Please send your questions for publication to email@example.com. (Letters may be edited.)
When or how often is it gentlemanly to use recreational drugs? Are there certain types of substances that are more suited to the modern scholar's lifestyle than others? Is it particularly ungentlemanly to use some drugs as opposed to others?
Thank you for running this question up the flagpole. Morally obligated to open my reply by, in turn, hoisting a Jolly Roger, I here reproduce a passage from a vintage piece by the film critic David Thomson, “20 Things People Like to Forget About Hollywood.” There, the reader discovers, nestled among explications of such truths as “Scripts Are Bad Because Nobody Really Reads Them” and “The Most Important Talent Is Lying,” a dilation upon the idea that “Drugs Are Necessary”:
I like to think of drugs as part of the defiant, ongoing and really rather miraculous spiritual life of Hollywood. After all, we know that drugs are bad—they destroy brain cells, warp the individual’s sense of order, reason and responsibility, undermine the family and unravel the social fabric, not to mention what happened to River Phoenix. Plus, drugs put you in the company of lowlifes in deals in which you have no protection, and they're humiliating and they never last long enough. In the end, they are not even photogenic, so if they boost a career for a while, they end up cutting it short.
There’s your red octagon, children; I command you to stop reading and turn your attention to 19th-century literature—Thomas de Quincey, perhaps. Adults, meanwhile, read on as Thomson continues:
On the other hand, just between vous et nous, drugs are to-die-for sublime, which the drug czars never mention. Why in the world do we have to lose our sense of humor and ignore that, bottom line, drugs make you feel good now?
Readers who accept this bottom line should next consider a first principle to be respected by the gentleman who is chemically altering his consciousness. Let us hop to another block quote sampling Albert Stevens Crockett’s introduction to The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, which describes the code of sensorial derangement under which patrons of that bar imbibed at the fin de siècle:
[W]hile questions were not usually asked, men who bought drinks were supposed to be able to freight them away intact, and not to spill them, or to show other effects than a certain mellowness and good fellowship—though perhaps fluency in argument or reminiscence might be forgiven one who was standing treat. In brief, a gentleman was supposed to be larger than what he drank. The theory of the proprietor of the establishment was that all his patrons were gentlemen. And the theory was good, even if it didn't always work out in practice.
By extension, it is necessary for a gentleman to be able to handle his drugs. He will only embarrass himself and his host if he becomes severely dull to talk with or somewhat difficult to find a pulse on. Clearly, there are exceptions to this rule: If members of an a cappella singing group somehow materialize in your dorm room in possession of half an ounce of hashish, and if you smoke it with them, and if you then retreat to the top bunk for an hour to savor your giggle fit, that’s OK. Likewise, if after consuming some MDMA on a Saturday afternoon, you head up to the roof of your apartment building to enjoy the sunshine and you spill your fizzing beer on the blanket laid against the heat of the roof and you decide that it would be of keen tactile interest to sit in the spill, it’s all good.
But generally you ought to heed the eighth and 38th of the Delphic maxims: “Know thyself,” and “Nothing to excess.” This means, among other things, that you’re not supposed to be overdoing anything to the extent that you end up vomiting all over the place. Unless, for instance, you are participating in a ceremony centered on the Amazonian psychedelic ayahuasca, and everyone understands in advance that you are fairly likely to be vomiting all over the place. In this case, you’ve got a bit more latitude and should consult your shaman regarding peristaltic etiquette, provided that you can do so without puking on his sandals.
It is most gentlemanly to use recreational drugs in a recreational setting. You should proceed from the idea that, although you don’t need drugs or alcohol to have a good time, taking some when you are already having one is maybe fun. Of course, not all recreational settings are created equal. There is a vast gulf between smoking a joint between the entrée and the cheese course at a dinner party and popping benzos in the dugout while coaching a Little League game. Use your discretion. If your sense of discretion is unreliable, then you need either to abstain from using drugs or to resign yourself to abusing them.
(Related: The increasing social acceptability of marijuana in thoroughly bourgeois environments has occasioned a certain amount of worry regarding the etiquette of its consumption. There are certain points that stoners settled ages ago: Although the person who rolls a joint should spark it, the person who packs a bowl should pass it to a second party of his choosing for the first hit. Among these rules are some that may confound the very infrequent marijuana smoker; for instance, contrary to the laws of the dinner table, where one should hand serving dishes counterclockwise, it is most correct to pass the dutchie to the left-hand side. Then there are the outright perplexities: Can you light a spliff in the backyard at a suburban cocktail party? Is it impolite to refuse the request of a 40-year-old hostess to carry her weed and the vaporizer and everything into her living room on a tray, when that room is full of respectable people whom you’ve just met and wish to impress? These are questions to be discussed with stoned people at substantial length, owing to the numerous and wide-ranging tangents they will excite.)
P.J. O’Rourke has argued that the most polite of all drugs is an alkaloid extracted from coca leaves: “Cocaine and etiquette are inseparable,” he wrote in a classic Rolling Stone piece, “they go together like cocaine and, well, more cocaine.” He then goes on to explain some common problems of manners related to “Platinum Maxwell House,” such as when to serve it:
One of the delights of an “Adenoid Snack” is that it’s appropriate at any time of night or day, often for several days and nights in a row, though perhaps everyone’s favorite moment to take cocaine is right after a great deal of it has been taken already.
But that was, you know, the ’80s. In modern times, looking into the coke mirror, we are forced to reflect that even casual use supports murder. Which is not to mention thorny questions that pertain over both the short term (who most appropriately licks the credit card you’ve been chopping lines with?) and the long (where do I pawn these heirlooms?).
Are certain drugs especially well suited to the modern scholar’s lifestyle? It would be obvious to cite Adderall as an example, slightly less obvious to cite the example of the sixth episode of the second season of Family Ties—wherein Alex P. Keaton consumes amphetamines to very special effect—as a counterexample.
Are some drugs particularly ungentlemanly? Clearly, nothing involving needles is terribly posh. Nor has there ever occurred a sparkling conversation within the walls of an opium den. Meth leads to meth mouth. Ketamine leads to bad nightclubs. PCP is ungentlemanly because it may cause temporary psychosis and Emily Post gives no instructions on which fork to use when cannibalizing your roommate.
This leaves me speculating that psilocybin—the magic mushroom—offers a relatively gentlemanly high, its strong association with jam bands notwithstanding. Toxicity: Low. Addictive potential: Very low (according to the health center at Brown University—and if they don’t know, who would?). We’re going to suppose that this drug strikes an elegant balance between meaningless hedonism and meaningful mind expansion. I mean, this gloss on The Psychedelic Experience notes that psilocybin encourages “mild depersonalization accompanying [an] experience of beauty in and empathy with other beings/phenomena.” This sounds far more agreeable than the parallel description of LSD, which, dissolving the ego, produces “profound depersonalization accompanying [an] experience of the underlying unity and boundlessness of everything.” A gentleman must be larger than what he drinks, or whatever, yes, but managing that trick by achieving the sense of boundless consciousness feels like cheating.