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Written by Wolfgang Schivelbusch   
Monday, 18 February 2013 00:00

The preceding sentences about a new tolerance, written in 1979, sound hopelessly out of date in 1992. We all know that the eighties saw a fundamental change in the way we look upon drugs. The decade returned to a traditional intolerance, as David F. Musto, the historian of medicine, noted in 1987 in his new edition of The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, a book first published in 1973. Far from having replaced tobacco, both hashish and marijuana have come to share the same social stigma. But of course this too will not be the last word in society's dialogue with drugs. America's history of drug use during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Musto demonstrates, is a history of more or less regular fluctuations between periods of tolerance and intolerance. One might add that they are not mechanical swings like those of a pendulum. Each time changes in the taste for drugs occur, they are peculiar to their respective historical period.

At first glance, it would seem that the new intolerance of the eighties failed to produce a substitute drug to make up for the lost pleasures of the tolerance it replaced. In fact, however, what came to assume a dominating role in the culture of taste and pleasure during those years was a substance viewed more like the opposite of pleasure and taste until then. Water, a very basic substance with a totally neutral taste, came to be celebrated as the height of gustatory delight. The European mineral waters Perrier and Pellegrino achieved a status approaching that of Moet-Chandon and Mumm. No doubt there is some truth in the usual explanation for this phenomenon—that it is a fashionable celebration of a healthy and natural lifestyle. But it fails to take into account that for the yuppies of the eighties, mineral water actually was a gustatory delight. If we assume that every drug stimulates the narcissistic nature of the individual—his self-pleasure—then the fad for mineral waters in the eighties may well have been a unique chapter in the history of drugs; totally neutral in itself, indeed the very neutrality of water, now venerated as a chic drink of prestige, transported its consumer to a yet-unknown level of narcissistic well-being.

W. S.


Our valuable member Wolfgang Schivelbusch has been with us since Tuesday, 19 February 2013.

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