Ramsey Scott’s debut book of essays The Narco-Imaginary: Essays Under the Influence, from Ugly Duckling Presse, $14, is a complicated, funny read. For the most part the book defends the position that language is the ultimate narcotic, or drug. Perhaps it is best, to explain what his book is not: His collection of essays is not a definitive on drug use in American letters or culture, and is not a collection of essays that extol the virtues of narcotic use for the artist. To classify Narco as either would be a mistake, however, there is a bit of both spread out across the book, like a layer of hashish in a thickly rolled spliff. Rather, The Narco-Imaginary posits that art and literature is itself a drug, and that artists have long been under the influence of ideas, other art and literature and music, and of course substances of all varieties. It’s the old literature/art as dialogue with the dead (or living, for that matter) argument. Both satirical and reflective, both hilarious and somber, both sober and intoxicating, The Narco-Imaginary is riotous romp through Scott’s imagination.
Clarification: When Scott writes about the narco imaginary, we’re not just talking about narcotics (pain killers, morphine, heroin, etc) but also psychedelics, stimulants,and depressants. In the opening essay “Notes on the Narco Imaginary” Scott weaves in poet and writer Robert Graves ideas that a great deal of our evolution may just be owed to fields and fields of psychedelic mushrooms that have long disappeared. It is in this way that Scott introduces the reader to the shaman-mystic--seeking knowledge beyond our sight with the help of substances, and Scott weaves together hundreds of years of thinking into a cohesive whole, citing William Burroughs, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and among others ranging from Malcolm X and John Sinclair. The prologue is a scathing indictment of American culture. We have stamped out the narco-imaginary with Federal laws, and at the same time recognized it and glorified it, albeit not always in the mainstream. Malcolm X would have probably agreed with Scott, and added that drug laws are another “whitewashing of history,” de-powering ethnic minorities by demonizing them as drug addicts, or worse (Malcolm noticed that American history books did not discuss the great African cultures, nor African American minds--and believed that this was done on purpose to disenfranchise Blacks). Americans in power like to make problems go away. To jail. And in the opening essay, Scott frames drugs as a “gateway to a new consciousness...possibly revolutionary,” and explains how the far right fears the nacro-imaginary, and has tried to stamp out its existence. One can see the thread from America’s tobacco craze in the 18th century to the reefer madness of the 20th century.
Scott moves from the academic to the profane in a series of funny, disturbing, and revealing letters to the Hardy Boys author Franklin W. Dixon. Boredom is the thesis of these letters, and Scott skewers the Hardy Boys and praises them at the same time, all while cracking on about boredom and slacker theory. This mood repeats in section two when Scott writes Sergeant Pepper, yes --that Sgt. Pepper, a series of letters where he hilariously skewers Academia, sixties protest culture, drug use, parenting, racial privilege, the way the 60s hippies turned into capitalist thugs, and his own fetish for transsexual prostitutes (they show up in his poetry, too) among other things. The letters remind me of a particular type of guerrilla poetry from Boston circa 1990s. A young punk, dressed in all black, usually smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, sold his poetry by Tower Records on Newbury Street: Dave’s Depression Poetry (for only a dollar), free verse and letters to companies complaining about their advertising. His Watertown counterpart, a Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping type, by the name of Bob Push, would compose long letters to companies either waxing poetic about the promises of their product, or skewering them on their demographic outreach. In both cases, the poet’s books were hand made, side stapled, and side-splitting fun. As far as I know, both Dave and Push are not writing anything new, but both would be proud of Scott’s satire. NYC’s Reverend Billy, as far as I know, still operates the Church of Stop Shopping, and you can see it on YouTube.
The Narco Imaginary also veers into California’s state of the dead, the dozens of cemeteries moved to make way for urban development in San Francisco. And while the essay veers off course, slightly, from the narco imaginary, Scott manages to ties it together via boredom and capitalism’s boring anesthesia of our culture. Every place resembles every other place. When it comes to being under the influence, America is sadly under the influence of the banal, the quick, the dead.
Scott also explores queer history and queer criticism in a long essay where Samuel Delaney’s anecdotes about the adult movie theater scene in the 1960s become a way for Scott to discuss how an anecdote, a story, not only serves to “inflame” the reader, but also act as human counterpoint in an essay’s (or other piece of writing’s) straight scientific inquiry. The anecdote is a virus that affects readers, and often dismantles and distorts the greater numbers and data an holistic view would show. Once again, language is what influences us.
In “Robert Grenier’s Endangered Works” Scott abandons discourse as we know it and delves into trying describe “reading” Grenier’s hand-drawn poems (which are unpublished--some of his notebooks are housed at university libraries) which defy language. One, because Grenier’s handwriting is illegible, and two, because the poems are “drawn.” Scott is really asking here: what is language? What is reading? How the hell do we really communicate anyway? Whorf’s Linguistic Determinism dictates that our language reveals how we think about a subject, and influences said subject. This academic abstraction is interesting, and also very meta, though not as funny or interesting as letters to Dixon or Pepper.
Scott wraps up his book by getting back to the “narco imaginary,” and discusses the Grateful Dead, the LSD experiments, and contemplates feelings, slinging Wittgenstein around. He also ties together various historical explorers of consciousness; the narco imaginary, Townes Van Zandt, Dr. Albert Hoffman, and even Charlotte Perkins Gillman and her doctor.
The final essays are more personal than the preceding works, acting as a kind of coda, or epilogue where Scott takes off satire’s personae, and discusses mushroom hunting, and digging a hole.
While The Narco-Imaginary may not cover every aspect of psychedelics and drug use in literature (it does not mean too), Scott exposes a world you may not have thought about since your college days, a world of truth seekers, body chemists, and rebels.