This is most definitely not a cautionary tale
By TOM QUINCEY
I never would have made it this far in graduate school without the aid of marijuana.
Perhaps the title of this column made some people think it would be a cautionary tale. On the contrary, I think my pot smoking has helped smooth out the roughness of a Ph.D. program. And frankly, I think the disturbing issue with a younger generation of graduate students is that they don't toke up enough. Instead many indulge in things far worse, both for them physically and for the humanities.
On one level, marijuana is simply fun, of course. However, it has other worthwhile properties for the abject doctoral student. To begin with, it's probably the only drug that rewards you for using it. Sure, if you smoke cheap pesticide-laden stuff, you'll probably feel crummy the next morning. But if you buy something decent, you'll probably be good to go after a cup of coffee. I've often been at my most productive the day after I've indulged.
I'm an insomniac who averages four to five hours of sleep a night. The best way to deal with a sleeping problem is with regular exercise. But it's nice to have a secret weapon to knock me out on days when I can't make it to the gym. I'm certainly better off than peers who have flirted with Xanax addictions, or who waste their stipends on genuinely worthless stuff like Ambien or Lunesta.
Some might accuse me of minimizing the danger of a substance that is, after all, illegal. But it ain't heroin or cocaine. You'll never hear rumors that an actor's heart stopped or an actress got scary-thin because he or she was smoking too much pot. For that matter, it ain't alcohol, which is far worse for one's body and mind.
Of course I'm not arguing that one should smoke out every day. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly commands Tom to whitewash a fence. Pretending to enjoy it, Tom is able to unload the job on a friend with surprising ease. The narrator then remarks: "If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."
If you feel obliged to get wasted every time you're stressed, then smoking will become a part of Work, and will increase your dissatisfaction with graduate school. But if you use the substance judiciously, marijuana can remind you that "intellectual labor" is really a form of Play, and infinitely preferable to most of the jobs your peers are drudging through.
Hence, I accept Paul Bowles's basic distinction between an alcohol-drinking culture and a cannabis-smoking culture, with the latter encouraging inwardness and creativity. It probably comes as no surprise that I'm a graduate student in the humanities. Literature departments are still influenced by the legacy of Romantic poets and their latter-day heirs, the Beats, who used drugs to imagine alternatives to mainstream society.
Similarly, an offshoot discipline, cultural studies, is pervaded by neo-Romantics. For example, after his televised debate with Noam Chomsky in 1971, Michel Foucault was partially paid in hashish. For weeks afterward, his friends in Paris referred to it as the "Chomsky hash." Should we be surprised by that anecdote, related by Foucault biographer James Miller? Let's be honest here: No one could have written History of Madness or Discipline and Punish while sober.
I'm an analyst of imaginative literature instead of a producer of it. But I would lay claim to a modest form of drug-induced insight. For example, I took a demanding seminar in my first year of graduate school and wanted to impress my professor with a stellar paper.
Naturally, I came down with a bad case of writer's block shortly before the paper was due. For two hours I did nothing more than use the cut-and-paste function, treating my essay like a Rubik's Cube: "If I just move this section here, it will all make sense."
Finally I thought, "Screw this." I decided to shelve the project for a few hours and toked up instead. Of course I immediately began thinking about my paper again. But now it seemed like a privilege to consider economic globalization and its relation to British poetry. Instead of frantically rearranging sections of text, I started to imagine the theoretical basis of my essay in holistic terms, and saw a connection between arguments that I hadn't noticed before.
A few minutes later, I was at my computer, typing a series of notes that became a satisfying conclusion to my essay. I was very pleased when my professor told me it was publishable. It certainly wasn't something I could have come up with while drunk.
And that brings up my worry about a younger generation of scholars. One thing I've noticed about today's doctoral students is that they party way harder than I'm used to. My friends and I kept it simple: a few bong hits, a Stereolab CD, a movie rental.
By contrast, the new cohorts often blow off steam in a manner that would put undergraduates to shame. The goal is to kick back shots until your friends have to prop you up inside a top-loading washing machine, or, better yet, strap you to the roof of a car next to a cooler, while everyone looks for a designated driver to take them on an impromptu road trip to Las Vegas.
Then there's the burgeoning rave culture. I admit I've never done ecstasy. But years ago raves seemed to involve a social idealism that recreated the ambience of Haight Street, albeit at a higher tempo and volume. A friend once said of ecstasy, "It's great. You have to try it. When you're on it, you love everyone." The parties were underground, with their own unique fashions — e.g., those tall, fuzzy top hats inspired by Dr. Seuss's famous cat.
Well, raves are mainstream, now, aren't they? They're advertised online and frequented by jocks and sorority girls as well as social deviants. Recently a young woman whom I'm tutoring interrupted our SAT-prep session to tell me about her love for raves. I noticed that her emphasis was entirely upon the thrill of loud beats and flashing lights — as if a rave were a visual and tactile representation of the global-consumer economy, oriented toward pure sensation and the quick fix.
I'm aware that I sound like an old curmudgeon here ("Well, back in my day, when people did X …"); younger readers might give me some well-deserved criticism.
But the politics of another fashionable drug, cocaine, are deeply messed up from any perspective. I think Woody Allen had the right idea when, surrounded by expectant, pleasure-seeking noses, he wrinkled his own and sneezed the stuff all over the living room.
Of course I've often felt troubled, politically, by my marijuana use: Here I am in the comfort of my apartment while unfortunate people are incarcerated for selling it to me. That's a form of hypocrisy, and it's led me to donate money to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Norml).
I admit that's not much, but it's something. By contrast, it's hard to imagine making a political virtue out of snorting coke. My impression is that habitual users simply don't care that they're indirectly wreaking havoc in Mexico and Colombia.
A significant portion of the people who enter Ph.D. programs in literature seem to come from wealthy backgrounds. So it makes sense that over time, glossy designer drugs would predominate. Maybe it's inevitable, but I find the trend disturbing.
A lot has been written over the past decade about the corporatization of the university and the subordination of a liberal education to business efficiency. The drug usage of scholars in the humanities may be an indication of that shift. I fear that we'll have finally, irrevocably, lost the culture wars when the humanists are doing the same drugs as the M.B.A. students.
So we have our work cut out for us. At this point, I should emphasize that my opinions in no way reflect those of The Chronicle.
That said, remember what Nancy Reagan told you when you were very little? Here's my version: When someone offers you hard drugs, Just Say No and fire up a bong instead. While you're at it, join NORML. Together we'll resist the soulless forces of materialism and corporate conformity.
And maybe someday I'll be able to write a column like this under my real name.
Tom Quincey is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate at a research university.