The Role of Drugs/Chems in ‘Pharmakeia’
Pharmakeia is a transgressive tale on many levels. But, these days, is it transgressive to take drugs? In many quarters, they seem so commonplace, particularly on the gay scene. But what is relatively new in the gay community is sexualised drug use. And the specific drugs that ramp up the libido like nothing on earth – crystal meth, GHB and methadrone..
I was lucky enough to go to the opening of the documentary ‘Chemsex’ at the ICA in December. This surely is a wake-up call to the gay community as it follows several very brave gay men and their descent into sexualised drug use and drug addiction. Gay men are shown ‘slamming’ or injecting crystal meth on screen. And, in no way, did I wish to minimise the potential negative effects of some of these harder drugs by referencing them in ‘Pharmakeia’. Indeed, I am aware that many gay men, who, in the past, used other party drugs recreationally, such as ecstasy or cocaine, find themselves completely out of their depth when it comes to drugs like crystal meth/methamphetamine aka ‘Tina’ to those in the know on the gay scene.
However, for my purposes, as a novelist writing this particular story, I decided to make use of the drug crystal meth. (which initially presented some problems as crystal was not that readily available on the streets of London in 1997! – although it had made inroads in The States.) When Mahvand smokes crystal meth at the club Kaos, thereby losing his drug virginity in a full-on way, it represents a further temptation/slide into the dark underworld, which is populated by shady characters such as Daimon Mount-Stuart and the conceptual art collector/dealer, Jean-Baptiste Lebeau-Chevalier.
The use of methamphetamine in the novel also relates directly to the title of the book, ‘Pharmakeia’, which is a Greek word, and appears in the New Testament. It is often translated as ‘the use or administration of drugs’ / ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorceries’. Crystal meth, is purported by some, to have a supernaturally dark side and enable the user to see ‘shadow people’ demons etc. (However, it is also well-known for inducing psychosis and even schizophrenia..) I guess it’s all about perspective!
For my story, I tapped into the sorcery/witchcraft perspective on crystal meth because I was interested in a transgressive narrative which has the theme of temptation at its heart. In the chapter ‘Kaos’, Jean-Baptiste smokes crystal from a glass pipe, and says, ‘I like to think of this pipe as a glass portal to another world.’ He also smokes the drug, as does Mahvand, during their sex magick sessions which culminate in visions for disturbing pieces of conceptual art.
At one point in the writing process, I edited out all drug references to make the ‘magick’/fantast element more real. But then I decided I liked leaving the reader in a state of ambiguity. Is what is happening actually ‘real’ or a drug hallucination? Or a combination of the two? Towards the end of the narrative though, I hope I have given enough textual clues to enable the reader to decide which perspective is ultimately the deciding one!
I think the relationship between drugs and magic is an interesting one. In the chapter set in the nightclub, Kaos, the antagonist, Jean-Baptiste, quips, ‘I like to think that encoded in the very DNA of every drug is some kind of spell or enchantment.’ The Oxford dictionary defines magic as ‘the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.’ In ‘Pharmakeia’, crystal meth is the doorway or portal that allows the supernatural, diabolical demonic entity of Belial to manifest. Another definition of magic/magical, according to the Oxford dictionary, is (that which has) ‘a quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life.’ Again, in ‘Pharmakeia’, drugs (namely crystal meth) are used in sex sessions so that the characters who have consumed them can gain experience that is remote from daily life. Whether the experience can be described as ‘beautiful’ or ‘delightful’ is open to interpretation. I certainly enjoyed writing some of these passages, in part, because I could allow my imagination free reign! This is a passage, towards the end of the novel, when Mahvand and his lover, Jean-Baptiste, have just made love.
‘Mahvand collapsed on top of Jean-Baptiste quite spent, and rested his chin on his lover’s chest, which was splattered Jackson-Pollock like, with jism. He realised the magick was still at work, when JB’s throat was adance with flecks of dark light. Each one exploded in a tiny puff of smoke before giving birth to its very own pair of black, paper-thin wings. A cool breeze snuffed out the remaining candles and Mahvand witnessed a host of black butterflies make their way to the open window and towards a sickle moon in a sky now stained red by the early morning sun.’ (pg 239)
There are many parallels between ‘Pharmakeia’ and my first novel, ‘Homo Jihad’. In both stories, the main character takes drugs. But, unlike Mahvand in ‘Pharmakeia’, who, at the beginning of the narrative, is a drug virgin, David Underwood, in ‘Homo Jihad’ is a seasoned club kid who takes drugs in gay clubs in Vauxhall, London. David’s ‘jihad’ or struggle is to overcome his addiction to recreational drugs and the lifestyle that goes with it. To know whether he does or not, you’ll need to read the book! Suffice it to say the endings to both of my novels are quite different!
My own views on drugs are nuanced and complex. I think, in some shape or form, humans have sought to alter their everyday reality and their perception of it, for thousands of years. Whether it be the shaman in the Amazon ingesting an hallucinogenic drug or Athenian citizens in Greece drinking vast quantities of wine at the festival of Dionysus. Certain hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD can enable the user to experience a sense of their own expanded consciousness – and indeed this particular drug, along with MDMA has been used in psychotherapeutic settings. (Although such drugs don’t come without side effects and can in some circumstances be dangerous)
So, in some respects, the drug experience, and whether it is positive or negative, depends on many factors. These include the context they are taken in, what drug it is, the dose, who you take it with, general state of health etc. However, all pleasurable activities, can easily turn into addictions. The negative side effects can outweigh the perceived benefits. Pleasure can turn to pain. However, I recently read, Johann Hari’s ‘Chasing the Scream’. It is a book about drug ‘addiction’ but has an interesting take on ‘addiction’. Hari argues that the old ‘pharmaceutical’ model of addiction is misleading and erroneous. The pharmaceutical model of addiction would argue that drugs literally hijack your brain and diminish your will and autonomy to such an extent that you are turned into a helpless addict. Narcotics Anonymous may work for many, but it’s premise is built on the pharmaceutical model of addiction.
In short, Hari, whose book I thoroughly recommend, proposes that much drug addiction is due to the life history and quality of life of the ‘addict’. In other words, if you have a satisfying job, partner, good friend, a good standard of living, and grew up in a family where you felt loved, and that you belonged, the chances are, if you do take drugs at some point in your life, you are less likely to become addicted than someone who does not experience these positive conditions. In some respects, you could argue that minority groups in society such as the LGBT community are more prone to issues of addiction because of the underlying conditions of inequality and injustice. Perhaps this is partly why I, as an author of gay fiction, am drawn to write about drugs and the issues surrounding them. All the studies I have read suggest that gay men tend to take more drugs and for a longer of period of time than their heterosexual counterparts. It’s easy, but erroneous to individualise, or even stigmatise groups in society who have been marginalised, criminalised and discriminated against. If the gay community does have a problem with drugs, straight humanity needs to share some of the responsibility for this.
I leave you with a song from the Brit Pop era – Suede’s ‘The Chemistry Between Us’ I hope you enjoyed this post.