How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time
Sanctified only by usage, but nevertheless immutable, alphabetical order is an obvious enemy of chance. While there is an underlying arbitrariness--which words to alphabetize, which letters they happen to begin with--once a commitment is made to the principle, all is fixed. Alphabetical order is the schoolchild's first lesson in the implacability of fate: he may be assigned to a seat solely on the basis of his last name, and he will learn to listen for that name each morning in the roll call, in its proper place.

When you stop to think about it, alphabetical order is emphasized in early schooling more than its intellectual importance warrants. Learning the alphabet is conventionally the first step in learning to read, but it's not necessary for the process. Given a basic vocabulary, you can read in a language without knowing its alphabetical order. True, you can't use a dictionary, a phone book or many other reference works without great trouble. But digital culture makes it likely that the importance of alphabetical order will erode rapidly in the near future. We won't use paper dictionaries or reference works; we will just query a database.

Our early training in the alphabet is mainly about submitting for the first time to an arbitrary discipline. The implacable order of letters will not be rearranged to please the child; no cute pleas or frightening howls will change it. Memorizing the order of the letters is an induction into the child's inherited culture, a set of rules that initially appear equally arbitrary, but which make human society possible. Rules are the enemy of entropy. The sonata and the sonnet, the haiku and the lipogram, the blues Iyric and Scrabble, the civil statute and the religious injunction all set up artificial forms that comfort distress at the uncertainty of human fate (see vertigo).

There is this moment of exultation just when the dope hits your bloodstream, and you feel so good you have to share it, so you talk, you talk as you have never talked before (if you are normally reticent), you chat with people you'd cross the street to avoid other times, you speak almost as a substitute for motion. And in a group of people who have gotten high together, the talk erupts at nearly the same instant, all voices suddenly raised, engaged in discourse, if not dialogue, because what with everyone speaking at once, it is really impossible to have a conversation, but the delightful part is that no one is mad about being unable to complete sentences without interruption, because the bliss of heroin has descended on all.

These moments offer something like the freedom of the psychoanalytic couch, at a lower price, and in a social setting. They might be some users' reason for doing the drug: if you have trouble getting to freedom of speech, but distrust liquor's lack of control, dope unlocks the door just enough. This urge to talk might have something to do with the way I began writing professionally first time, and the odd little fact that the literature of opiates in English began almost with the first users.

But dope babble bothered me. I thought it made me see myself as others saw me: all my life I had been told I talked too much. And if my psychoanalysis had helped me to piece together some subtexts in all those words, dope made me suspicious of their quantity. Now that I write, I talk less. The babble has been recognized and channelled, perhaps also tamed and removed from the unstable excitement of its origins in the unconscious.

In New York, heroin comes in $10 bags, small--3/4" by 1 1/2"--glassine envelopes, glued shut on three sides and sealed with transparent tape at the top. Sometimes they are folded in thirds horizontally and encased in brightly colored plastic bags. The plastic prevents the heroin from dissolving if you put the bag in your mouth, or if it gets wet somehow. This is convenient for the user, but designed for the street sellers, who often conceal bags in their mouths or under a paving stone or in a crack in the wall. Street folklore has it that the dope from enclosed bags is weaker.

If you buy in bulk, the price comes down. The typical deal is $90 for a bundle, ten bags, but sometimes you can get a bundle for $80. Sam even found a place that would part with five bags for $40. The other way to get more for your money is to go to the places where poorer users buy. The bags are still $10, but the dope is stronger, which is why Dave and Ondine sometimes went up to East Harlem to cop. Dave would go to the Bronx, but that's unusual for a downtown user. I suspected that these trips were fueled by a hunger for adventure; the cab fare Ondine paid must have wiped out any savings on the dope (see madness).

Dope soothes the anxieties of what future generations may call early digital culture--our era (see digital). This is why addiction became a public policy issue in this country only after the Second World War. Heroin's ancestor, opium, has, after all, been around for centuries, and, along with morphine, was legal in the U.S. until restricted by the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 and the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914.

(Certain Western states and cities had enacted antidrug ordinances in the late 19th century, but they were aimed at the proliferation of opium dens, because of the "race-mixing" that was supposed to take place there.)

Because other painkillers did not exist, a greater percentage of the American population had used opiates a hundred fifty years ago than now. Although there were addicts, and some legislative concern over the proliferation of opiated "syrups" readily available from druggists, this drug use doesn't seem to have had widespread social effects. For one thing, opiates were legal and cheap, so crimes were not committed to obtain them. And they were not associated with an underclass; while the working poor used opiated medicines, valetudinarian middleclass women were also apparently major consumers. There was no drug culture; there were only individuals who used drugs, each in his or her social niche.

Heroin was widely available in New York by Prohibition in 1920, but it was mainly used by gang members and the white poor. It spread to other cities, to the blacks newly emigrated from the South, and to the haute bohemian world; there were heroin deaths among Hollywood actors and actresses in the twenties and thirties. By 1924, Congress banned the production and consumption of heroin; by 1935, 35 percent of all persons convicted of federal crimes were indicted under the Harrison Act. The criminalization of narcotics continued, with federal mandatory sentencing and various state laws making heroin use an increasingly serious offense.

It would be logical to imagine that these penalties would have lead to a decrease in the number of heroin users, but the opposite was the case. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of American users was estimated to have increased tenfold. Why? Some of the reason lies in the isolation and stagnation of the inner cities at the time, with the closing of businesses, job losses and white flight. For some among the very poor, heroin made sense as a response to hopelessness. Other users had developed a habit in Vietnam. But for the young middle-class users, and probably for some of the inner city users as well, other factors were at work.

Opiate addiction became a social problem only when it became a social solution: when it addressed widespread longings and needs. And this happened only when large numbers of people began to feel detached from and anxious about time and their bodies and lacked a natural way of organizing their days. Heroin is an urban drug, an accessory of life lived all night, under artificial light, among indifferent crowds always in a hurry. It belongs with the all-night cafeteria, the after-hours club, the taxi, the tenement, the alley; it answers to the melancholy and feeling of displacement these spaces embody.

Fittingly, narcotics users first surfaced as a subculture in the Manhattan demimonde of the forties and fifties, the world Burroughs described in Junky, and Norman Mailer diagnosed so brilliantly in his 1957 essay on hip, "The White Negro." These artists, writers, jazz musicians, merchant seamen, prostitutes, trust fund bohemians and petty criminals, often migrants to Manhattan from small towns or rural areas, were more or less voluntarily detached from the world of work and traditional family life; they had to find their own patterns and rituals in the city that never sleeps. Heroin helped.

Nonusers wonder why junkies with serious habits don't see the absurdity of arranging their whole day around their need for heroin, but they've got it the wrong way around. One reason people become junkies is to find some compelling way of arranging their lives on an hour-to-hour basis. Addiction responds to ruptures in traditional chronology by reshaping it, reorganizing otherwise pointless and fragmentary time around the "need" for a drug, setting up a schedule that is as independent of clock and calendar as big city life.

Those working tedious nine-to-five jobs or raising small children might not, of course, see the need for a self-imposed schedule. And even those who do might find using a dangerous drug an extreme response to displacement in time. Yet for some, heroin begins as a remarkably effective remedy. Most of my heroin crowd was underoccupied or undermotivated: Dave and his bandmates had gotten a good publishing deal and quit their day jobs around the time they got serious about dope, and Ondine's trust fund made working less of a necessity for her than most people. Can and Sam drifted into shit jobs between brief experiences of purpose. Alexandra got money from her dad. I didn't need more structure in my life by most standards, but then I'd never been able to abide a day without a schedule.

Heroin re-inserts you in a harsh chronology based, like the old, outmoded one, on the body, but this time on the waxing and waning of heroin in your bloodstream. "Here" is defined by where in the dosage schedule you are. Certain decisions are out of your hands. What will I be doing at six tonight? Copping. At ten in the morning? Doing the day's first bag. At five in the afternoon? Not feeling so great. And so on. By incorporating a drug regularly into your body, you identify with a stable and predictable outside entity. Time, concretized as a powder, becomes fungible, and thus harmless. The past is heroin that has been consumed, and the future is heroin that you have yet to buy. There is nothing unique about the past to mourn, and nothing unique about the future to fear. For awhile.

The only problem is, the wonderful First Time becomes more and more difficult to recapture, even with a larger amount of dope. You cannot fool your body into opiate virginity. And regret, which had been tamed in the guise of the gap between the heroin you had already done and that you were about to do, re-emerges as the unbridgeable divide between addiction and the First Time.

Stereotypical wisdom has it that when people get addicted to dope, they become greedy and money-centered. But it's really the other way around: only those with an inclination to greed and a fascination with money become serious about dope. Heroin use is a disease of those who are naturally most suited to capitalist society--bossy wired hustling obsessive-compulsives--but, perhaps, are ashamed of that. We decide we would rather be cool, but we gravitate to those aspects of this aesthetic that can be purchased because this is an action we understand (see cool). While dope is in some ways the ultimate hipster buy, when all is said and done it's still a purchase and the user is a consumer. Centering your life around copping is not so different from centering your life around shopping, or making deals. Same activity, different aesthetic.

As a child, my intimations of time's passage came often in the car, from my thin vinyl seat in the Rambler's rear, dozing or willfully ignoring the astounding ugliness of New Jersey's Route 17. This is where I pondered my future, trying to decide if I would be a lawyer first and then run for Congress, or whether I should work for a think tank like my cousin. And this is where I tried to figure out certain puzzles in my parents' lives, like whether they had had sex before they were married, or if my father's grandmother had really been a "witch," as he termed her.

I was not alone in my association of cars with thought--love for the car lies in its provision of a private meditative space in which ultimate questions can be addressed. At the least, more than any previous mass experience, driving made time palpable. It's like what Jack Nicholson says in Antonioni's The Passenger when The Girl (Maria Schneider) asks, "What are you running away from?" "Turn your back to the front of the car!" he replies. There's an echo here of Marlon Brando's famous reply to the question, "What are you rebelling against?" but Nicholson's character is old enough to know the joke's on him: the spent past behind the car gains, instant by instant, a little bit of his future. Cars not only place the actual means of death in our hands, they enact the unrolling of mortality. The car crash then becomes the exemplary apocalypse, the end of the future, bigger than death itself.

Nicholson's answer echoes one of the oldest secular parables of the West. In The Republic's myth of the cave dwellers, revelation is behind us: the man in the cave must free himself of his shackles and turn around to see the real things of which he has previously only seen the shadows. This metaphor contains oblique echoes of the central ritual of Plato's culture, the great public performances of tragedy, which depended not only on an imaginary "fourth wall" between audience and players and everyone's acquiescence in the fact of theater itself, but also on the audience's temporary suspension of attention to the real life that continues behind them while they watch the play.

Reality is behind them--a point surely alive to Plato, with his ambivalence about tragedy and its possibility of truth. And this location of truth behind us stems in turn from the tragicomic fact that we don't have eyes in the backs of our heads--the same fact that Aristophanes explains in his speech in The Symposium as the result of our tragic sundering from our other halves. If seeing what's behind us means turning around, and this fact leads to our thinking the past has a physical place, then this Platonic model of reality introduces a spatial metaphor for time. The past isn't just gone, it's behind us.

Digital culture smashed that model conceptually (see chronology) but did nothing about human physiognomy. We continue to have eyes only on the front of our heads and to drive cars, and the road behind continues to furnish a convenient metaphor for time elapsed. So there is a tension in our feeling of time passing that didn't exist before, say, World War II. We are ever more aware of the arbitrariness of the way we imagine time, but there is nothing we can do about it. Various retreats into nostalgia become appealing. And we think we can get a grip on the past and where we are in the time of our lives if we can just slow things down for a moment and bring what is behind us into focus. Thus the popularity of heroin, and on a sunnier note, of meditation and yoga.

Soon after I moved to the East Village an older ex-junkie named David took me to one of those ur-East Village parties where everyone has been steeped in marginal art and politics for twenty years. David was a writer from Indiana who had never lost his excitement at being finally here in New York, and he gave me a breathless rundown on the other guests. "That's Micky--he used to hang out with Andy Warhol and now he hangs out with all the gallery owners. And you see that guy there? I know him from the Program. He hangs out with Lou Reed." David paused and thoughtfully sipped his nonalcoholic beer. His stomach stuck out in his artful Fleetwood Mac T-shirt and I hoped for his sake it was a low calorie beer. David wanted to go to bed with me but he didn't have a chance. I was gunning for someone more cool.

There was a beautiful man leaning against a wall, smoking, and I nudged David. "Who is that? Who does he hang out with?" "Oh, you mean Stuart. He hangs out by himself. Everybody he used to hang out with is dead." And Stuart acquired an extra layer of glamour for me with David's words. To be so hip that all your friends were dead: that was the deepest layer of cool.

After I'd stopped doing dope, it occurred to me, shattering a mythology I'd embraced for decades, that cool is the way of describing from certain exterior viewpoints what registers as loneliness from the inside. Thus the celebrated cool of black people and jazz musicians and junkies. And when you are alienated enough from your feelings to be able to identify with the exterior viewpoint, you decide you're cool. It's not an aesthetic term at all.

Cool and dope inform each other; they share an underIying banality of blank affect. That is, after you've done enough heroin to feel withdrawal symptoms, you've also done enough to exhaust the drug's repertoire of new sensations. Once getting high is no longer the greatest thing in the world, once, in fact, it's a routine you undertake to feel good again, you might as well quit. But this is just when your use has become cool, when you're cool about the drug, when you are becoming cool.

Despite my skepticism, I use the word as a compliment as often as everyone else I know.

Digital culture began with television and the humble rerun, and blossomed with MTV and the video industry. First, advertising breaks accustomed us to discontiniuous narratives and the effortless shifting between the tragic and the trivial. TV routinized everything it touched, including violent death. Then the increasing pace of editing and MTV's rapid and brutal cuts suggested new habits of mind, new ways of processing experience. The present became a collage, an edit, moving under your very feet. The widespread use of VCRs and video cameras brought another phase. Taping favorite TV shows or sports events cuts them loose from their original setting, the snowy Wednesday at seven that explains the antifreeze and cold medicine ads. They become endlessly revisitable time capsules, every unimportant detail preserved forever. On the other hand, taping family birthdays or a baby's first steps envelops these events in a timeless banality fading memory doesn't gloss or veil. Every moment becomes equal.

Video technology also destroys our unconscious assumption of time's linearity. It unknots the rope of history, which no longer seems to tell a story or, maybe, have a point or an interpretation. The teleology we read into simple chronological order (c happened after b, therefore it was caused by b) is weakened by the endless playback and editing of recorded life. Chronological order no longer seems the invariably right way to read experience. And why, while we're at it, do our lives have to end in death anyway? What makes that the right edit?

The Internet, too, frays time's bonds: the order in which you visit Web sites is dictated by no constraints other than desire. They are always open, always accessible. There's no hurry: you get the illusion that there's always more time, just as there's always more cyberspace. For a generation shaped by experiences of TV, video and cyberspace, the past isn't there, fixed, inert. Like the present, it's a video edit, a collage of fragments. It's not out there somewhere, and neither are we. Asking where we "are" in time becomes what the ordinary language philosopher John Austin called a category mistake, in his example being guided around Oxford's Colleges and asking, dissatisfied, "But where is the university?" And whether we're consciously aware of it or not, this new state of uncertainty we have entered causes anxiety. The body, its clocks fixed, says something different from what digital culture suggests.

A fair number of post-Beat novels have been written about junkie life and the dope trade, but they are all unsatisfying: The Story of Junk, The Lotus Crew, Meditations in Green, The Last Bongo Sunset.... None measures up to Burroughs, or to Alexander Trocchi's undeservedly obscure 1960 novel Cain's Book. About the only one I like is Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, much more for the Vietnam scenes and vintage counterculture ambience than for the silly sections about doing heroin.

The problem with heroin fiction may be that the aura of the drug is so strong as to lead the writer to neglect conventional lures like suspense, character development and convincing dialogue. He forgets that nonusers won't accept fulsome descriptions of the glory of the heroin high in exchange.

On a deeper level, heroin is stronger than imagination; it enforces its own reality. Dope is antifiction. A novel about heroin is weighed down by the inherent consistency of everyone's experience of the drug in a way that a novel about love or revenge is not; those experiences are universal but not identical. Few writers are skilled enough to overcome this obstacle. So heroin demands nonfiction, memoir, truth-telling, but even here the trick is to outwit the drug, to introduce what the drug will not: surprise.

What novels of addiction do have going for them for the nonusing reader is the pleasurable security of reading about a disaster that won't afflict you.

All writing about dope, like all taking of dope, harks back to the mythological, the glorious First Time. This is the truth behind the calumny "to write about it is to glamorize it." But to be silent about it is also to glamorize it by making it secret and forbidden. The charge of glamorization comes from those who don't consciously understand why writing about dope makes it seem appealing; it comes from the same impulse that powers all censorship: if your truth isn't ours, shut up.

When I published a cover story on heroin in The Village Voice in 1994, I got lots of nasty letters that all agreed on one thing: because I emerged from years of heroin use without noticeable health, career or financial effects, I wasn't qualified to write about dope. I didn't really have the experience, because the sign of really having the experience is ruining your life. This is a circular argument of course--"we will only trust accounts of dope use that end in ruin, because dope use always ends in ruin." But who said Americans are rational about drugs?

Writing about heroin will ALWAYS be perceived as "glamorizing," the drug, no matter what you say. No, I don't think taking heroin is a good idea. Period. But given that I did it already, I might as well write about why and what I learned from those years. And one of those things is that doing heroin isn't as scandalous as writing about it, and this is a very interesting wrinkle in the social drama of addiction.

I think of a letter sent to The Village Voice after my cover story; the writer blamed my article's evocation of the attractions of dope for the fact that a former addict friend had started using heroin again. Several other letters also argued that any writing about heroin risked "glamorizing" the drug. But this is only plausible because the general public already has bought into a fetishization of dope according to which it is all-powerful.

Only pornography ("it causes rape!") and writing about drugs are supposed to have this ability to function as immediate incitations to action. If I wrote an article about how wonderful a time I had surfing, I doubt readers would blame me for any injuries they received trying to duplicate my experience. But accounts of heroin use (and sex), like the real thing, are supposed to be irresistible, powerful drugs in their own right. Read it, and you're lost, or changed.

People who say that pornography is an incitement to rape forget that rape is a crime of violence, not lust. Pornography may be an incitement to masturbation, but it's no more an incitement to rape than a Cartier ad is an incitement to jewel theft. And addiction isn't a hunger for a high, it's a disease, a system of thought and a way of being. Reading about dope doesn't create addicts; a combination, probably, of biochemistry and life experience creates addicts. Many people try heroin once or twice and simply decide it's not for them (as I did with cocaine). And many, if not most, people could read a thousand pages about the supposed glories of dope and never want to try it.

We distrust writing about heroin (and sex) almost more than heroin (or sex) itself. The structure of addiction is maintained by this taboo about writing about it. The more heroin is hyped as ultimately powerful and irresistible--to the point that merely reading about heroin is thought to cause heroin use--the more people are going to addict themselves to it. The biggest, darkest secret about heroin is that it isn't that wonderful: it's a substance some of us agree to pursue as though it were wonderful, because it's easier to do that than to figure out what is worth pursuing. Heroin is a stand-in, a stopgap, a mask, for what we believe is missing. Like the "objects" seen by Plato's man in a cave, dope is the shadow cast by cultural movements we can't see directly.

Using the alphabet as an organizing device for a book allows the writer the appearance of authority, logic and order. But the framework is completely arbitrary. The real threat of the loss of organization is symbolized by the vertiginous suggestion of infinity implicit in alphabetical order: you can always sandwich another word in. And so the price paid for the borrowed authority of the vertalphabet: how do you stop? In theory, the book you are reading might go on forever; in practice, it's difficult to say whether it ought to be forty pages or four hundred.
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Excerpted from How to Stop Time by Ann Marlowe. Copyright © 2000 by Ann Marlowe. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.