decorated initial 'T'he question of whether or not addiction was a physical or a psychological phenomenon has persisted to the present day. The history of addiction illuminates at least two characteristics that the early twenty-first century has in common with the nineteenth: first, a faith that medical science can unlock the mysteries of the mind and explain such compulsive behaviors, and second, a belief that in spite of medical advances, addicts can help bring about their own cure through the exertion of their wills. In a more general sense, these two ideas often came into implicit conflict in the second half of the nineteenth century. Discourses on materialism, physicalism, evolution, and degeneration upheld scientific approaches to human behavior, contending that bad habits were manifestations of atavism or disease, whereas champions of man's spiritual side, and later, advocates of liberalism, argued that individuals ultimately retained control of their own wills, desires, habits, and impulses; by choosing a bad habit, they committed a sin or harmed themselves. Some medical writers such as the eminent physiologist William B. Carpenter advanced the theory that if the will repeatedly permitted a bad behavior, it would become habit-forming, and might ultimately lie beyond the will's power to check it. In this way, initial wickedness could lead to an uncontrollable disease. This compromise enabled the British to accommodate competing theories.

Habit enjoyed more favor in the early part of the nineteenth century. Through habits, one could organize and lead an orderly life. Domestic routine and work habits were edifying. One could even access one's deeper self through habit, as William Wordsworth suggested in the second preface to Lyrical Ballads, where he wrote that "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling" could be attained by repeatedly directing one's thoughts toward past feelings, "till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature … that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened…." In this way, the mind disciplined itself; enlightenment came through mental habits. Yet by the end of the century, habit was transformed: it became detrimental rather than instrumental to enlightenment. In the conclusion to The Renaissance (full text), a text widely interpreted as an augur of modernity, Walter Pater wrote, "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike." Here habit sheds its associations with spontaneity, learning, and mental mobility to its more recent connotations of inflexibility and artificiality. As habit began to stifle experience as well as to permit it, it became possible to see it as an instrument of mechanical reproduction — the stereotype — that rendered perception rough rather than fine.

The story of the emergence of addiction has to do with one of its generative discourses, that of habit. For Romantic writers and natural philosophers, habit could be a productive mode of mental life; for them as well, the ritual ingestion of substances such as opium for Coleridge and de Quincey or whiskey for Robert Burns, offered altered mental states in which inspiration could take place. For later writers who sought to emulate the Romantics in this way, substances might have offered similar creative opportunities, but this view formed itself in relation to the new suspicion of habit. Only in a culture in which habit could imprison finer sensibilities and divide the self, could drug habits be considered a problem rather than an eccentric pleasure. If the formation of habits was a failure to reach the dazzling truths of experience, then habit was a domain of inauthenticity. This was perhaps the major problem with people who had drug habits: their experiences, pleasures, sensations, and perceptions were not really their own.

Created 7 September 2002

Last modified 9 December 2022