Category: Non-fiction

Hans-Christian Dany
Speed. Eine Gesellschaft auf Droge
[Speed a society on drugs]

Review

Every society has its own drugs, and over the centuries people have experimented with them. For either religious or “consciousness-expanding” purposes, alcohol, tobacco, opium and cocaine have all found their consumers, and continue to do so to this very day. In his book Speed, Hans Christian Dany takes his readers on a ride through the history of the substance he claims to be the motor of our highly competitive society. The class of drugs known as amphetamines, to which both speed and ecstasy belong, began their triumphant ascent at the end of the 19th century. Meanwhile, amphetamines are the drugs with the highest sales – both legal and illegal – worldwide. By revealing the highs and lows that accompany the use of this drug, Dany lets his readers experience for themselves both the dazzling world of intoxication as well as its darker sides.

Amphetamines promise quick solutions to your problems, or at least a deferral thereof. Similar to the effects of adrenalin, amphetamines propel the body into a “state of alarm”, in which basic necessities, such as eating and sleeping, are put on hold. The substance increases your ability to concentrate, makes you more alert and provides an almost limitless supply of energy. But it also has dangerous side-effects: heightened aggression, hallucinations and psychoses.

From early on, it was the military, above all, that took advantage of the drug’s effects. In 1883 a Swiss doctor secretly mixes cocaine in the Bavarian army’s water – and subsequently notices how even severely wounded soldiers continue to fight without any apparent difficulty. The rise of synthetic drugs is soon to follow. In 1887 the Berlin chemist Lazar Edeleanu produces the drug “1-phenylpropan-2-amine” for the first time. It’s the world’s first amphetamine, and it soon enjoys tremendous popularity.

Dany’s book reads like a Who’s Who in the history of drugs: Andy Warhol creates one picture after the other while using, Johnny Cash invents hotel vandalism, and Elvis has so many amphetamines in his body at the time of his death that the doctor performing the autopsy can hardly believe it. Writers, too, such as Kerouac and Philip K. Dick, have written their books, long considered classics, on drugs. Jean-Paul Sartre pens volume after volume under the influence of amphetamines, thrilled at the automatic conversion of thoughts into language which he feels the drugs enable. They give him the feeling of being in complete accordance with himself, as if he were in direct connection with an inexhaustible pool of ideas.

For Dany, speed is the drug of our times. He sees the history of amphetamines as the history of modernity’s longing for perfection. “The human’s desire to improve conforms neatly to a central theme of amphetamines: to breathe more deeply, think more precisely and have a better body, to shoot better and work faster. Those are the desires that the drug is to help fulfill.” Consumption continues to increase not least of all because the social barriers have given way. Today, taking pills for or against whatever– to gain or lose weight, to go to sleep or stay awake, to calm down or to work around the clock – has become the norm. The latest varieties are the trendy drugs known as speed, ecstasy, pep or yaba and are meant to guarantee the “perfect” party feeling and a successful day at the office. Synthetic amphetamines have also been introduced by the U.S. army to “ease” soldiers’ lives in Iraq.

So are we turning into a society on drugs? As Dany writes, the title Speed also designates the “state which people in the coming century will consider to be the most desirable” since our contemporary capitalist society continues putting more and more pressure on us to “be on speed” at all times. We’re expected to function quickly, effectively and creatively. But how is that supposed to work? The Financial Times prophesies: “Speed-heads are going to be thinking faster, working longer, looking more energetic. They’ll be passing their sober-minded competition right on by…”

For Dany, the principal danger of amphetamines is when it is prescribed as a means to help overstrained individuals adjust to their surroundings, whether in the military or the playroom. Today, children are already the largest user group of legally traded amphetamines (in Germany alone, the number is roughly 1.8 million). Amphetamines such as Ritalin are used to treat ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in hopes of balancing children’s erratic behavior – a dubious therapy, indeed.

Dany’s assumption that amphetamines will soon be as common as cell phones is rather bold, and yet the drug’s broad social acceptance is jaw-dropping. Still, Hans Christian Dany supplies the reader with good reasons “to stay sober”. His reconstruction of the relation between an achievement-oriented society and the history of amphetamines is both riveting and rich in detail. For just as Ernst Jünger once wrote: “Even drugs are slaves to fashion. They form substantial analogies to the intellectual world, leaving perhaps only small traces in the history of style and yet leaving them all the same.”
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By Andrea Müller, 04.08.2009