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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 05-Dec-2007

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 882

Drugs define the zeitgeist, so choose them with care

Coffee had fuelled the Enlightenment.

Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is the author of Blubberland: The Dangers Of Happiness, (University of NSW Press).

Sometimes it seems nothing will ever happen again that cannot pay its way. Never again will impecunious nobles publish vellum tracts of strange, subversive poetry that just might change the world. Never again will students commandeer the streets for causes not their own. Never again will universities and banks endow their ordinary, workaday buildings with the quoins and clocktowers, the flutings and friezes that give human existence a dignity and depth it may otherwise lack.

This single bottom-line mentality could be the slow-burn result of whichever Parisian longhair picked up the first stone to storm the Bastille. Democracy, capitalism, secularism; the holy trinity has slowly desiccated higher principle till nothing remains but universal self-gratification. That’s arguable. But there’s another possibility too.

Next time you find yourself wistfully comparing a fine-honed terracotta surface with some chipped and mouldering piece of pre-cast, and wondering why human nature – which generally seems to change so little – has shifted so profoundly in this alone, consider the following. It’s not about nature, human or otherwise. It’s a question of medication. We’re on the wrong drugs.

Take coffee. Native to Ethiopia and Yemen, coffee was, by the 15th century, built into the ecstatic rites of Sufic Islam. Leaching from the monasteries into the streets, it gained such popularity as to be blamed for emptying the mosques and banned, intermittently, from Cairo to Constantinople. Yet still the coffeehouse, centre of chess, backgammon, poetry and debate, drove the Ottoman Empire to its extraordinary zenith.

In Europe, from the mid-17th century, the new drug caffeine (in coffee, tea, chocolate) was used medicinally to enhance creativity, acuity, regularity, longevity and wit. But debate raged over the morality of coffee as recreation.

Throughout the Middle Ages the people’s drugs had been wine and beer – which may explain why medieval history is largely populated by drunken adolescents. Alcohol, a brain-function retardant, was much encouraged by rulers.

Not coffee. Bohemian, boisterous and male, coffee was sedition in a cup. As late as 1777, Frederick the Great of Prussia issued a proclamation: “Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer.”

In England, in 1655, a group of Oxford students and fellows persuaded Arthur Tillyard, apothecary, to sell coffee outside All Souls. This, the Oxford Coffee Club, included Hans Sloane (founder, British Museum), Edmund Halley (of comet fame), Christopher Wren (architect extraordinaire) and Isaac Newton. Committed to science (they dissected a dolphin on a cafe table), the group moved to London, rebadging as the Royal Society.

In France, coffee take-up was slower. Paris’ first cafe belonged to two Armenian brothers, Pascal and Gregoire Alep, in the 1660s. No one came. No one liked the bitter drink until, in 1686, the Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened the Cafe Procope. Procope became, over the next century, the point of origin for the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and perhaps even America itself, coffee capital-to-be of the modern world.

Voltaire, a Procope regular, reportedly downed 50 to 70 demi-tasses a day – to which is largely attributed the wit and brevity of Candide. Rousseau, Diderot, Condorcet, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were also regulars, as were Robespierre, Danton and Marat.

But not for the taste. According to Bennett Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer’s excellent history, “the heavily reboiled sediment-ridden coffee of the day … was consumed exclusively for its pharmacological benefits”. This deliberate experimentation with “a new and powerful drug unlike anything their countrymen had ever seen” links these Enlightenment genii with the serious hallucinogenic experimenters of the 20th century, writer Aldous Huxley and Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary.

Whether the hunger-suppressing hashish that Picasso and Braque guzzled in their garret days helped generate cubism is still moot. But, as coffee had fuelled the Enlightenment, the ’60s peacenik revolution was powered by LSD. LSD, for Leary, was a “sacrament”, equivalent of the host in Catholic ritual, it offered escape from ego and “confrontation with God.” The link between biochemistry and God is itself fascinating, but every drug has its day. What the ’60s floated inside acid’s gossamer bubble sank, soon enough, beneath the dead weight of heroin.

And now? The defining drug of our time? We think we’re coffee-fuelled (though few, one imagines, could equal Voltaire’s virtuosity). But coffee is no longer revolutionary; Swedes are the biggest coffee-heads by far.

Cocaine is our dinner-party drug du jour. Not the biggest, even of the illegals. (Marijuana is.) But it’s unquestionably our drug of money and influence, preferred poison of Richard Florida’s “creative class”. The British spend $5 billion a year on it; with Ireland’s new wealth, cocaine busts ballooned 750 per cent in four years. Charlie is back, big time.

Cocaine is the drug of ego. All shiny surface and hollow euphoria, it’s the drug of stockbrokers and estate agents. Of puppet governments and corporate warmongers. Of thin girls with expensive teeth and cheap souls, of sharp subprime boys whipping fast financial horses. Where acid dissolves ego, cocaine is powdered narcissism. The Age of Aquarius is dead. All hail the Age of Celebrity. Do what? Invest, obviously, in coca futures.


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