Letters to the Heretics

Sixth Letter

I would like to speak to you, dear Valcarenghi,[1] without either malice or digressions, about the question of drugs. I only know you indirectly, through your writing and public presence, and this is enough for me. This is why I momentarily depart from your serious and rigorous tone, which the seriousness of the question imposes, reserving it for other places and other people, to allow myself to pursue the simple but not at all senseless reasoning that a father often adopts with his son when he discovers that his boy is in the grip of serious but innocent forms of mental confusion. I don’t want to do this.

Neither you nor I know drug addiction in its scientific dimensions. Others have better studied this distressing plague in its medical, political and moral implications. We can only speak of it, as one says, for the simple pleasure of speaking and, in our ignorance, we are only guided by our good sense. It is for the too-modest use you make of your good sense, and not for your mediocre scientific knowledge of the subject, that I feel I have the duty to reprimand you. Men of culture, even the serious ones, can allow themselves the luxury of committing a blunder because the errors that they make can only harm themselves. But you, due to the role that you play and the influence that you have had and will still have on those whom one calls young proletarians, must be guided by a more elevated sense of responsibility. Thus, avoid making wild pronouncements with an affected air of authority that exceeds the years that you have spent examining the subject in minute detail. You have spoken of drugs a great deal and for a long time, but this doesn’t authorize you, dear friend, from setting yourself up as an expert.

As for myself, I will confess that I don’t know shit about the question,[2] especially in its medical and scientific aspects. To give you an example, I don’t know the difference between soft drugs and hard drugs; I don’t know what the word “addiction” means; I don’t clearly see the real possibilities for detoxification or the therapies currently in use. Nevertheless, this ignorance suits me, not out of a taste for obscurantism, but because I think that one wastes time confronting problems of this type and misses getting an appropriate and realistic perspective on them.

Therefore I believe – and few would dare to say so – that poison (just like electricity, culture and television) has entered modern life through the ground floor and has acquired a solid freedom of movement that no philanthropic effort will deprive it of. I don’t know whether this is good or bad: let us leave such a fruitless question to the propagandists and moralists. We realists must examine the problem that the flood of drugs poses by taking stock of the facts that drugs exist, that they are widely used, and that no force will be able to suppress them; and we should do this without claiming to eradicate or apologize for them.

These preliminary considerations will allow us to see that the distribution of drugs does not harm the development of the productive forces. It will be quite clear that I do not intend to deplore the loss of productivity that drug addiction might occasion. This happens, but the fact that it does will only be unfortunate for those who care about full employment, which is an objective that the most qualified economists (and we ourselves) have long regarded as secondary, if not dangerous.

It would not be a great loss if a certain percentage of the population, even if that percentage exceeds current unemployment rates, deserted production and devoted itself to artificial paradises, because such a desertion would not take place in reality. On the contrary, it would, quite simply, be a transfer of manpower to a unique[3] sector of production that is of the greatest social utility: the production of spectacle.

Today, it is obvious to everyone who is slightly familiar with drug addicts, and even those who only know them through news reports,[4] that the spectacle of junkies isn’t truly what one would call “a pretty picture.” Moral degradation, loss of faculties, monoideism, etc. is what constitutes the pretty tawdriness in which addicts are adorned. In what sense is it possible to affirm that drug addiction is the real circus[5] of modern society, the supreme degree of the people’s passivity that only religion has been able to guarantee in the past and, more recently, certain conflicts of a strong ideological coloration?[6]

Drug addiction, dear friend, offers a violent spectacle: it has its deaths, its disabled victims, its prison guards and its judges, and the little people, as everyone knows, need pathos to become impassioned. Moreover – and this is the real modernity of the spectacle of drugs, which, due to its grandeur, links it to religious rites – the scenic representation of drugs not only implicates the naïve observer, but also the wretched actor, the drug addict, who offers himself to the gaze of a morbid public.

The orchestra section is packed, the spectators are impatient, and the actors – like all the great wandering minstrels – are making everyone wait. Their delay, unlike the delays of the traditional hams (a simple trick) is not calculated. They have actually lost their sense of time and must await the poisons they consume to tell them (thanks to their own delivery dates) when the time has come. Finally, the supply runs out, and the show can begin. The framework is always the same: the protagonist wanders in the seedy parts of some town, comes into contact with disreputable people, suffers humiliation and commits a few acts of bravado, and then makes the deal[7] with the repugnant partner, the drug dealer.

At this point, the audience, which has been quiet, becomes animated: its members know that the show has reached it acme. In a sordid place, the protagonist, in the throes of withdrawal and visibly gasping for breath, introduces the poisonous substance into his body.

Unlike the prologue, which is always the same, the epilogue is more lively and contains more dramatic turns: most often there are spurts of blood, projectile vomiting and idiotic ecstasy, but, in the most fortunate of cases, there are cardio-vascular collapses that do or do not cause death or (delicious rarity) the arrival of the police just before the introduction of the poison into the junkie’s body, accompanied by unspeakable convulsions and engorgements.

The epilogue is changeable but well defined, as you can see. The work is nevertheless directed in accordance with the most modern artistic practices. It is a real “open-ended work” since the audience, far from being satisfied, will prolong the situation and endlessly wonder: Will the drug addict ever become healthy? For palates that prefer lighter genres, such as vaudeville or [Disneyland] attractions, it is perfectly possible to furnish happier spectacles. Just change the ingredient: soft drugs instead of hard drugs.

So far, one has stayed within the ordinary practices of the spectacle: the actors perform and the spectators watch. But there’s more.

Following the example of the spectacle of religion, the spectacle of drugs allows the actors to contemplate themselves passionately, to delight in the admiration of an impersonal “self” that functions as the simple receptacle for the substance – the poison – that brings it to life. As in religious alienation, where the body is the instrument that catches the rays of the divinity, and it is precisely this collecting that gives birth to the ecstatic experience, the drug addict sees his body as the vessel in which the substance[8] flourishes and without which (as Seneca would say) it is impossible for it to exist. The vein – or the nostril, the epithelium, or the respiratory or nervous system – serves as the altar at which one performs (by way of sacrifice) the ritualized consumption of all terrestrial things. And the drug addict – [who abuses] hard or soft drugs, [who uses them] occasionally or regularly – walks to the scaffold with a light heart, convinced that he is, in fact, approaching an altar. That it is an altar or a guillotine has the least importance. The immolation will take place either way, and it doesn’t fall to the victim, but to his victimhood, to decide the time for it. We should not forget the words of Maistre, that great enemy of progress, to whom we should pay attention on this occasion:

The scaffold is an altar; it can only be erected or moved by the authorities; and its delays, even when excessive, are only proofs of our superiority, even if they have their blind detractors.[9]

The similarity between drug addiction and religion that I want to establish goes even further than this. As you probably know, religion postulates the existence of a class – even better: a caste – that gathers together and concentrates in itself the most elevated qualities: this is the caste of the ministers of the cult (though they may call themselves something else). And the basest qualities must also be incarnated in a particular caste: the most universally scorned and pitied people: the junkies. They incarnate insensitivity, venality, cowardice, betrayal, idiocy and so on. The ministers of this upside-down cult also exercise an irreplaceable function for civil order.

And so, let us be frank: is the fate of the drug addict so lamentable? No doubt it is, but it is, nevertheless, not deprived of positive compensations. To quote Burroughs, who is an execrable writer but a remarkable expert in drug-related matters, the drug addict “is immune to boredom. He can look at his shoe for hours or simply stay in bed. He needs no sexual outlet, no social contacts, no work, no diversion, no exercise.”[10] Great advantages, as you can see, over the common man, who today is constantly bored and always unsatisfied with his own actions, whether they are successful or failures.

And if some flash of lucidity comes to the drug addict, accompanied by painful sensations of powerlessness, inaptitude and laziness, it is always possible for him to unload the weight of his failures on an external element: [here] the drug [figures] as wound inflicted by a society that has not understood him. He can then confidently expect that society (the true guilty party in his eyes) will regenerate itself, will model itself on his own miserable habits. And this illusion is not granted to the ordinary citizen.

I would like to point out a final particularity, and I ask you to give it the greatest attention, because it allows us to consider decisively the figure of the junky as irreplaceable in our society. He is immunized, even vaccinated, against all vexations. Torments, injustices and wrongs leave him indifferent. He is disposed to tolerate everything; he has a total incapacity to hate. Yet it is true that one often sees him yelling, boasting and sometimes fighting. But the noise he makes does not exceed the ruckus of the pub, nor does it have serious consequences for the social order. A participant in the injured class by way of antonomasia, he loses the notion of the overall wrongs that are done to him and he disperses his reactions in a myriad of insignificant street scuffles. Wary of encounters with the police and pharmacists – his particular tormentors – he looks with sympathy on judges, doctors, psychologists and priests, provided that they are democratic and intend to help him. Last of the naïve people, he believes that he can be cured, that he can successfully detoxify himself, and so he clings to the first person who promises him a “good” therapy. Everyone hides from him the fact that detoxification, far from being the period of convalescence that precedes recovery, is in fact a simple rest for the organism, a phase in the complete cycle of the illness, in the same way that, in certain diseases (such as paludal fever), the disappearance of the fevered state announces the surge of a more acute phase and not, as one might imagine, the arrival of health.

Things must remain as they are, dear Valcarenghi, even if one must give the people the impression that we are doing something to vanquish this scourge. The citizens, intoxicated or straight, must believe that other people are thinking and acting on their behalf, that we are modifying the laws, that we are instituting several centers for rehabilitation, and that the failures of these efforts can only be attributed to insufficient means. But drug addiction will in no case be curbed.

Is it truly important to be preoccupied with the problem of drug addiction? I would say “No.” What counts is having it believed that the community or, better still, the law, is concerned with it. Moreover, if one casts a glance at the past of our country, has it ever been preoccupied with the problems that tarantula bites cause social utility? It doesn’t seem so to me. And, for good or bad, our pre-industrial society accommodated tarantula bites, which have never constituted a specific problem. Let us leave the junkies in peace, and they will leave the State in peace! This would be the best solution, but we cannot say so openly. On the contrary, it falls to us to proclaim a vigorous activity, to constitute rehabilitation centers, to promote legislative innovations, etc., even if we know that they don’t accomplish anything.

Moreover, is it the fault of the public authorities that science still hasn’t come up with an appropriate therapy that suppresses the appetite for drugs? Frankly, no. There could in truth be such a therapy, if one could define it as such, but to practice it would involve a social upheaval that is quite simply difficult for me to imagine. One would have to create the conditions in which all the junkies – who, let us not forget, are also men with small vices and passions, though they are numbed by a sad monoideism – could give free reign to their inclinations, even the most secret ones. The reveler would then be able to live perpetually in a sumptuous expenditure; the nudist on an uncontaminated beach; the disgusting fat-man behind the scenes of a spectacle of varieties; and so on. If by chance some individual had accumulated several inclinations, well, he would have complete leisure to fly from one to another without interruption. The utopianist Fourier described something of this type by fantasizing about a society organized into phalansteries, as he called them.[11]

Such an impossibility represents the only way to solve the problem of drug addiction, given that the appetite for poison will never be eliminated. But as you can see, I have entered the kingdom of the imagination. Since we must, on the contrary, accept this society as it is, at least in its fundamental structures, and keeping in mind that we desire it just as it is,[12] we cannot dream of effacing the figure of the junky as it will not be possible to replace him as a living object for contemplation by any another.

Always keep this in mind, my dear friend.

[1] Publisher’s note: Andrea Valcarenghi, star [French in original] of the Re Nudo journal and the group of the same name, which is on the decline today, is the ideologue in the Italian cultural spectacle for the distribution of soft drugs. He sought to work with business people at youth festivals, but was dissuaded.

[2] The French here, ne pas saisir pet de la question, literally means “can’t grasp a fart of the question.”

[3] Latin in original.

[4] French in original.

[5] English in original.

[6] This appears to be a reference to the spectacle of artificial (that is to say, State-sponsored) terrorism that, in Italy, began with the bombing of the Piazza Fontana on 12 December 1969.

[7] Latin in original.

[8] Latin in original.

[9] Joseph Marie, Count of Maistre (1753-1821), Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, ou Entretiens sur le government temporal de la Providence. French in original.

[10] William S. Burroughs, “Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs,” 1956. English in original.

[11] François Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837).

[12] Cf. censor, “Preface,” Truthful Report on the Last Chances to Save Capitalism in Italy: “With all the cold veracity that we have adopted for all the other affirmations contained in this Report, we say that this society suits us because it exists and we want to maintain it to maintain our power over it.”

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