Lines of Beauty: cocaine and the English / by Alex Williamson

Despite the continued global pursuit of US President Nixon’s war on drugs, the UK is now the number one country in Europe for cocaine consumption. One in ten of the population is believed to have tried it. It is estimated that 700,000 people use the drug every year, and in such quantities that our national water supply is swimming in benzoylecgonine, a by-product of cocaine passing through the human body. News stories about conspicuous cocaine consumption endorse the cult of celebrity and indulge cocaine’s status. As a singular and seemingly-ubiquitous signifier of affluence in western culture, the substance has become – in the words of one commentator – “ordinary”, a reflection of English anomie. On the one hand, we have the drug-fuelled brawling of Millwall fans at Wembley in April 2013, the salacious fall-out from the TV chef Nigella Lawson’s disintegrating marriage, or the gruesome fate of socialite Eva Rausing. In this context, at least, cocaine use seems to transcend class distinctions and has redefined Englishness. On the other hand, it remains the preserve of flush individuals who wish to flaunt their avariciousness, while exacerbating and entrenching pre-existing class distinctions. Contextualised in this way, depictions of cocaine use in contemporary British fiction provoke pertinent questions about English identity. 

Recent work by Peter Kalliney has identified an “emerging discourse of English exceptionalism”. In the post-imperial landscape, where traditional class distinctions are fluid and shifting, exceptionalism has come to redefine what it means to be English. In one sense cocaine entrenches these distinctions – differences in the quality of cocaine that each group uses, for example, or the financial or psychical ability of each class to recover from addiction – while in another sense, it flattens them. Conspicuous cocaine consumption in contemporary British culture is the perfect expression of the anti-societal doctrines of the 1980s and 1990s. Whether they are football fans, celebrity chefs or Anglophile American aristocrats, cocaine – initially at least – submits to and enhances this exceptionality. Scott and Nash, meanwhile, reduce this English exceptionalism to “two national traits” of “sneering indifference and substance abuse”. At the same time, as Kalliney attests, the postcolonial literary scene encourages writing which “seeks to embrace and repudiate national culture”. Under this precept, we might argue that users take cocaine because they want to exhibit and escape their Englishness. 

These reflexive dialogues underpin cocaine narratives - be it apollonian or dionysian oppositions, euphoric-dysphoric affect or the Freudian behavioural models of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Cocaine use, and its aftermath, sits in the centre of these positions. While the oppositional implications of opiate use have arguably preoccupied literature for centuries, fictive cocaine consumption can be found in a mere handful of zeitgeist-addressing novels. Aside from JG Ballard’s moralistic dystopian treatise Cocaine Nights, until rather recently the effect of cocaine on the English has not been explored in great detail in contemporary fiction. Martin Amis gave cocaine a small cameo in Money, and a speaking role in The Information. Will Self has written extensively on substance abuse and addiction, and its effect on the English psyche – perhaps as a continuation of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic observations coupled with his experimentations with cocaine. 

In a broader context, there is the infamous Novel with Cocaine by M. Agayev, which may or may not have influenced the ‘Literary Brat Packers’ Tamar Janowitz, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. With the publication of Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero cocaine fiction emerged blinking and sniffing into the mainstream. In these novels, cocaine (ab)use is crucial to the flux and flow of the narrative, the linguistic journey and to the structure of the text. To date, narratives focusing on cocaine use have been overwhelmingly American, but two standout recent novels by English writers have now hunkered down over the glass coffee table: Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty

Dyer’s particular brand of Englishness is closely aligned to the writing of Amis and Self: it embraces alterity and the polymorphousness of Englishness as part of a wider critique of traditional English identities. The writer has framed his most recent novel – a two-part exploration of global consumerism, drug culture and psychical, spiritual, and moral transcendence – around the experiences of two English journalists (who may or may not be the same person). Britain’s post-Leveson epoch adds a retrospective layer of irony to the novel: our cultural arbiters, moral guardians and supposed-paragons of virtue are depicted as little more than cocaine-snorting, bellini-guzzling, and psychically, spiritually and morally-bereft hacks. The trope of the substance-abusing journo also draws from the gonzo persona of Hunter Thompson, alongside the works by McInerney and Easton Ellis. 

In the first part of the novel, Dyer’s protagonist is commissioned by the editor of the Ezra-Pound-referencing Kulchur magazine to cover the Venice Biennale; while there he parties up a storm, hooks up with a beautiful American woman and singularly fails to write a word of his article. Dyer’s quasi-touristic observations tip their hat to Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Writer on Holiday’: “he is a false worker, and a false holiday-maker as well” – an interstitial character. Interstitial identities – a sense of betweenness, where an individual occupies two positions without fully inhabiting the identity of either – are as fundamental to Dyer’s narratives as they are to those of cocaine use.

This sense of betweenness is defined in part by a lengthy dialogue with US culture. Sharing a line with his soon-to-be-American-lover Laura – a double entendre of sorts - initially puts Jeff “in a really good mood”, with “the chemical taste of coke trickling down his throat” – but later it sparks an implosion of free-associative impressionistic paranoia. This section aptly captures the psychological effect of taking cocaine – the balance between euphoria and dysphoria – which renders Jeff “in danger of forgetting everything as soon as it was said, even when he was the person saying it”. Jeff is aware of the limits of cocaine as an enabler of meaningful existence and transcendence, and yet still he takes it as it leads him towards deepening darkness: “He recognised these post-euphoric symptoms of cocaine, every impulse turning instantly into its opposite”. 

Taking cocaine is ultimately unsubstantial and unsatisfying, based on craving, compulsion and satisfying an unstable need: consumer becomes consumed; object controls subject. For the English, this lack of substance is reinforced by the artifice and etiquette of the physical act. A kind of doubling pervades permissiveness, and drug’s dual role in transcending while reinforcing the socio-economic pecking order that underpins its consumption is also recorded ironically by Dyer: “A pleasing side effect of taking drugs is that once you have some you access, as if by magic, the drug scene”. Jeff’s cocaine compulsion becomes a kind of copycat craving for the social mores of the extremely wealthy and the culture of the US, underscored by his “bollocks to it” Anglo-English attitude. 

In conversation with Laura, Jeff observes that Americans “have freedom and the pursuit of happiness” while the English have “bollocks to it”. Referring back to Kalliney’s concept of English exceptionalism, national cocaine consumption can be summarised in this way: the English take cocaine as part of a process equal-parts self-realisation and self-abandonment, with the individual continually oscillating between the two positions. This oscillation applies to the substantiality of the setting of the narrative, Venice, with Jeff musing: “the thing that struck him about Venice was how substantial it was”. This “constant and unchanging” city is dependably surreal – or unreal – at once a temporary museum and permanent monument to itself; a site of interstitiality which taints all who sail its canals. 

Part of Dyer’s intention in the novel to retrospectively address a particular zeitgeist, in this case the post-9/11, post-imperial Blairite Britain standing shoulder to shoulder with its American cousins and waging war on an invisible, abstract enemy. After Nixon’s war on drugs, we now have Dubya’s war on terror. Faced with global geo-political issues (external), and personal epistemological and ontological problems (internal), Jeff’s solipsistic approach is to embrace his Englishness, say “bollocks to it” and surrender to the present.

Situating his narrative in the equally hubristic and decadent 1980s, Hollinghurst revisits a period during which cocaine became to all intents and purposes a cultural icon. It was around this time that Tim Bell – Margaret Thatcher’s PR guru, a convicted flasher and notorious cocaine fiend – infamously remarked that the drug makes a good man great. Hollinghurst is relentless in his pursuit of corrupted political will and social entitlement in his novel, which gives cocaine an assuredly English vernacular: “He loved the etiquette of the thing, the chopping with a credit card, the passing of the tightly rolled note, the procedure courteous and dry…it was part of the larger beguilement, and once it had begun it squeezed him with its charm and promise”. 

Nick Guest, Hollinghurst’s protagonist, begins the novel as an Oxford graduate with blue blood aspirations and an eye for the aesthetic: “I just love beautiful things”. Sexually inexperienced and socially gauche, he is shocked when taken by his boyfriend to see the Brian de Palma film Scarface: “[it] was all about cocaine, which alarmed him…The drug was money and power and addiction”. Later, it becomes a Freudian habit Nick cannot shake off: “it was beyond pleasure, it was its own motor, pure compulsion, though it gave them the delusion of choice, and of wit in making it”. When Nick and Wani “zipped up the powder, and then stood for a minute…reading each other’s faces for comparison and confirmation of the effect”, Hollinghurst is uncannily accurate in his depiction of the attraction, and the artifice, of taking cocaine. 

English users of cocaine like Nick and Jeff seek a transformative experience, but cocaine doesn’t liberate, it constrains. The duplicitousness and dangers of addiction force alterity upon the user – to create a separate identity and conceal it from friends, family, institutions of the state and concerned others. Substance abuse and addiction are an unhappy marriage of self-love and self-disregard, and in both novels cocaine are associated with the pursuit of happiness and lust masquerading as love. In this regard, there is an interesting parallel with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, an anatomy of desire which situates the love/lust dialectic in the silent centre of the individual: “The lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude”. In these narratives, the love of a substance and the love of another are mirrored, operating in confused and conflicted coexistence, and blurring the sense of self. 

Existence for Nick becomes a flawed form of praxis: Hogarth’s and cocaine’s lines of beauty compete and bisect, and provoke his downfall as he falls foul of the allure of cocaine as a mechanism to liberate the aesthete identity he craves. He fails in his quest, is ultimately rejected by those whose lifestyle he covets, and closes the novel alone and facing the prospect of developing AIDS, reunited in fate with his former lover Leo. Jeff closes his narrative in a state of hollow affirmation in a Venetian church, surrounded by Tintoretto’s transcendent art – to which Jeff applies a typically reductionist interpretation: “The paintings, he saw now, were explicitly – in the sense of allegorically – about getting high”. There he takes the last of the cocaine he shared with Laura alone, before watching a plane’s vapour trail disappear as a “line of powdered whiteness against the empty blue”. His bird has literally flown, and we witness his sense of self – his English identity – dissipating into nothingness. 

To date the lingua franca of cocaine culture has been predominantly American; Hollinghurst and Dyer show how cocaine consumption has become an equally English affliction, and one which reflects and reshapes national identity in a post-imperial context. Both novels also reflect the multiplicity of Anglo-English attitudes to cocaine culture, and consumerism more generally. And now it seems that the native vernacular of the cocaine narrative has been extended beyond the Anglo-english to the European. Novelist, chatshow host and all round homme du monde Frederic Beigbeder’s latest book – A French Novel – opens with the novelist/narrator hoofing cocaine off the bonnet of a Porsche, an act which he claims as homage to McInerney’s cameo in Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park. The protagonist of his semi-autobiographical debut novel, £6.99 (99 Francs), is an advertising copywriter whose cocaine addiction underscores his growing disillusionment with the excesses of conspicuous consumption. As Scott and Nash records, “Without the insatiable American nose, cocaine traffickers are looking elsewhere and finding small but promising markets throughout the world” – the principal of these being Western Europe, where a spike consumption has seen user numbers hit 4.2m (compared with 5m in the US). 

Cocaine use, therefore, has become a transnational process of imitation, emulation and assimilation. Like Hollinghurst and Dyer, Beigbeder observes that cocaine compresses time – whereas heroin can be said to dilate it – and destroys the memory, the cornerstone of identity. In a geo-political sense, global cocaine consumption is a form of collective amnesia. Users take cocaine compulsively to recapture past memories: the sensations associated with that first time, moving further and further away from a prelapsarian point - the moment of that first encounter - a place of instability which is increasingly impossible to return to.