The Skeptical Doctor Quote for the Day

From Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book, ANYTHING GOES:

The most famous object in Colmar is the Issenheim Altarpiece, painted by someone the world knows as Matthias Grunewald, though whether anyone of that surname ever actually existed is doubtful. The altarpiece has had a colourful history, having been shifted hither and thither in the last century and a half as a pawn in the cultural politics of France and Germany in their struggle over the ownership of Alsace.

It was painted for the confraternity of St Anthony at Issenheim, an order that no longer exists and that once specialised in the care of the sick on religious pilgrimages in search of a cure. St Anthony had a disease named in his honour, St Anthony’s Fire, which was caused by the growth of a mould on damp rye, the consumption of which gave rise to ergotism. Ergot produced a powerful constriction of the peripheral arteries that was agonisingly painful. Gangrenous extremities had to be amputated (without anaesthetic, of course, and no doubt in conditions of the utmost filth); ergotism also caused dramatic visual hallucinations that led people to behave in bizarre ways. These hallucinatory experiences have sometimes been used to explain the extravagant fantasies in Netherlandish or German paintings of the Temptation of St Anthony, such as one of the panels of the Issenheim altarpiece, and by extension to argue for the mind-expanding properties of psychotropic and pschedelic drugs (it is the same argument that De Quincey used in favour of opium in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater). Thus self-indulgence is given a patina of intellectual and aesthetic enquiry.

I don’t think it necessary for people to have had drug-induced visual hallucinations for them to be able to imagine monsters, or indeed anything else; but even if one or other of the painters such as Grunewald, Bosch or Breughel had experienced them, it is inconceivable that they should have produced their work while still under their influence, when they needed the utmost eye-hand co-ordination as well as self-consciousness. I don’t know of any serious work of art that is directly attributable to the consumption of psychotropic or psychedelic drugs. Thus there is nothing to be said, from the mind-expansion point of view, for repeated use of these drugs.

I insist upon this, because I came to adulthood in the decade when the young were invited to tune in, turn on and drop out. Extravagant claims were made for the beneficial effects, both personal and social, of various illicit drugs; but when I compare these claims today with the devastation caused by the mass use of these drugs, especially by the poor in rich societies, among whom I have spent so much of my professional life, I feel something approaching rage. It has given me an abiding hatred of intellectual frivolity.