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Drugs in Literature

Just say yes...to literature.

Just say no.

We've heard it a thousand times. But around the world, there's plenty of disagreement over which drugs are good and which are...prison-worthy. In some countries, cocaine is legal; in others, caffeine is illegal. And over the past two hundred years, writers and lawmakers have continued to argue about it until the crack comes home.

Whether you come into this course with a strong opinion about drugs or a completely open mind, just remember: there are folks who have spent their entire lives trying to figure it out. And in this course, we'll hear what they have to say.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Xanadu? More Like Xanax, Dude

In this unit, we'll read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1816 poem, "Kubla Khan," Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," and Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market." Yep, this is your one-way ticket to Drugsville.

Unit 2. Chasing the Dragon

Welcome to the insanely addictive world of detective fiction, where you'll froth at the mouth at the thought of turning the next page. And guess what it's chock full of? Yep: drugs. This unit will cover Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Unit 3. Good Ol' 20th-Century Drunks

Unit 3 is all about booze. We'll start you off with a not-so-healthy dose of James Joyce (selections from Dubliners), and then move on to Tennessee Williams's play, A Streetcar Named Desire and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

Unit 4. Sex, Drugs, and Jazz

Hello, Beats. This unit will cover James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsburg: everything from outright celebrations of drug use to, well, the exact opposite.

Unit 5. Horatio Mindblower

Get ready for some crazy hallucinations. This unit will cover Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel Brave New World and William Gibson's Neuromancer. You're going to encounter explosive descriptions of what it's actually like to be high. Yowza.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 2: Those Who Think Well Ink Well

Can you use a bottle of ink to tell the future? Depends on what you write down.
(Source)

Now he's got you good and hooked on The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins decides to take things up a notch in Chapters 4-7, where we learn about the mysterious circumstances surrounding John Herncastle's last will and testament.

By this point in the story, we begin to realize that the object from the book's title, the moonstone, is probably going to drive all of the action in this book. We can guess that this is what those three Indians guys are after, and we have no clue what they're willing to do to get it.

Which makes the moonstone—you guessed it—the drug of the story.

For starters, it can drive people to extreme behavior—even murder, in the case of John Herncastle. Plus, during Wilkie Collins's time, India was considered the home of strange, foreign drugs that confused people's senses and brought them to strange Eastern places (remember Xanadu in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"?).

This connection that Brits drew between drugs, sensual pleasure, and the Far East would later become known as Orientalism. Basically, the British wanted to think of themselves as rational and sober gentlemen, so they talked about folks from the other side of the world as sensual, irrational, and addicted to opium. Funny, too, because no one loved opium more than the Brits.

No one.