Results tagged “Michael Pollan” from this Public Address 2.0




Michael Pollan’s exploration of marijuana in The Botany of Desire is a lot of fun. He talks of the inexplicable pull that toxic substances have over people. The explanation is a bit predictable to me, as a long exponent of Hunter Thompson’s “I can’t say drugs are for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me” attitude. People just seem naturally impelled to change their view of the world, in some form or another, in all cultures. I suspect that the drug of choice has a great deal to do with what we perceive as the essential nature of a culture. Or, as Pollan argues, Marx got it backwards— “opiates are the religion of the people.” What we grow in our gardens affects our world view. Zappa’s hypothesis about beer and marching seems truer all the time. The Christian fascination with wine also seems to go hand in hand with their obsession with love. But of course, other poisons are what fascinate Pollan:

The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species which healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells”— in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amantita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen).

These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the Middle Ages? After a long review of how the marijuana cultivation industry has changed over the last twenty years, Pollan offers an interesting slant on the persistence of cannabis. He ultimately ends up arguing that the effects of marijuana are primarily socially induced. People smoke dope and get paranoid not because there is anything in the drug that induces paranoia, but because the social construction of a marijuana high is governed by the law. Like so many gender theorists, Pollan argues that the juridical construction of the “evil weed” is what causes the bad side effects, and the congenial sociality and laughter is also largely socially induced. Placing all the typically acceptable drugs in the same category, he argues for drug use as a tool:

All these plants are, at least potentially, mental tools; people who know how to use them properly may be able to cope with everyday life better than those who don’t.

It’s the “properly” that troubles me here— the root of normative social behavior. While the beer-drinking marching crowd serves the great protestant work ethic, I find it hard to picture a time when smoking pot and watching brainless TV will be seen as a positive social force. However, I suspect that pot would be far more effective than a nation stoned on melloril or prozac. Personally though, I think the difference is fairly slight. I haven’t needed anything for anxiety control since I grew from adolescence, though I have sympathy for those who do.

Pollan argues for a universal desire to transcend ordinary existence. I remember a conversation I had with a professor a while ago— for a profound alteration of world view, there seem to be two great choices: psychedelic drugs and post-structuralist theory. As a kid, the former option seemed best. But now, I’m enjoying the more theoretical route. It’s much easier on the body for the long haul.



An Uneasy Relation

I’ve always had problems with beauty. I forget which surrealist said something to the effect that “beauty must be convulsive.” I always hated that Keats line about truth and beauty; I’d always found them to be completely unrelated. I’m drawn to things that bother me though, and when I finally got the irony of that blasted urn, I realized there were conflicting definitions of beauty. Perhaps it has something to do with your position on the sexual food chain. Those near the top prefer a more apollonian, freeze-dried type. For those of us near the bottom, beauty is messy.

Michael Pollan’s take on the tulip is fascinating. He begins with the bees rather than the birds and reduces it eloquently. Bees are flying penises, “avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in a single peony’s blond Medusa thatch of stamens.” Flowers promote themselves through their attractiveness. It’s a sex thing. Along the way Pollan undercuts some myths about beauty while tracing the boom and bust of the financial value of tulips in 1637 and noting that the shape of a tulip is nearly penile. The blending of color in tulips is traced to a disease that makes the purity of color get soiled. This wildness was prized, though it was a viral dysfunction that impeded the reproductive capability. Standards of beauty are artificial, hardly essential, and subject to flights of fancy. Perhaps its the romantic in me who wants a more dionysian sort of beauty, savage and wild in its impracticality, rather than the frozen ice-queen beauty of the tulip. The tulip has no scent.

The symmetry of the flower is taken as a sign of health. I always found myself attracted to those asymmetrical blobs of roses, dropping like overripe fruit in the yard growing up. They were even more beautiful as they died. Mother always kept roses, and I was scratched by thorns. My father preferred oleanders, because they required less maintenance. They framed one side of the lot, ragged and prolific, as a substitute for a fence. My brother was drawn to poisons. When all his friends were smoking banana peels, he had to try to smoke some oleander. He had me watch, so I could call the hospital if he started to convulse. I was never quite that adventurous. Beauty, for me, was filled with thorns and poisons— never truth. I loved its smell from the distance, I loved its wildness, and I loved its unreachable mystery. I felt trapped inside my own disfigurement, even if it was only imagined measured against the standards of artificial proportion— locked into a room where beauty was only to be found on the outside. But I never missed a chance to open my window and inhale.



Botany of Desire

Started another book I need to read for class on Tuesday. I sense a trend. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire is a fun read so far. It’s a survey of four domestic plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. It begins with a rather Foucaultian pronouncement in the introduction:

Our grammar might divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject. That’s why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.
There are four primary desires associated with these plants: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. I’ve only finished the first chapter, but I really liked the excursion into pomology. I had no idea that “as American as Apple Pie” could be so far off. Apples originated in Kazakhstan. Something tells me Americans didn’t invent pie either.

The story of the apple is one of intoxication and sweetness, and to a certain extent, of control. Cane sugar was rare in America initially, and some wouldn’t buy it because of its origins in slavery. The apple was important for its sugar, and for its beverage uses. Johnny Appleseed is painted as the American Dionysus, planting orchards and moving on when civilization approached. His heritage is filled with myth and a controversy— he had his heart broken by a ten year old. The symbol of the vegetarian frontiersman is even more curious if yout think of him as a pedophile.

Most of Johnny’s apples made their way into cider, a cider given to children— the alcohol made it a safer beverage than water at the time. But now, the apple is in trouble. The apple gene-pool is shrinking due to man's desire to proliferate them through cuttings, culled for their sweetness. But I was most taken with the description of the guardian angel of the Appleseed legend, Bill Jones:

Jones is a tall, courtly man with pale blue eyes and fine, parchmentlike skin. He give the impression of being a tightly stretched drum, devoid of any irony and, by his own lights, somewhat out of place in time. He’s dismayed by present-day America— the popular culture, the violence, the “lack of moral compass.” Ohio’s frontier past is vividly present to him, and old-timey expressions like “Cripes!,” “Gee whillikers!,” and “Darn tootin’” come often and unself-consciously to his lips.

Note to Self: Use “Gee whillikers” and “Darn tootin’” in conversation more frequently.

I find it also quite curious that Johnny Chapman [Mr. Appleseed] is described as a nearly androgynous man, nearly female in appearance, who was also a Swedenborgian. He died a rich man, due to his talent for land speculation— he would move into an area, buy land and plant trees— and then move on when civilization caught up with him. Now that’s as American as Apple pie.