“The Very Ecstasy of Love”: Prescriptions for Bliss in Irvine Welsh and John Donne

  • Michael A. Winkelman
Part of the Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance book series (CSLP)


“Ecstasy”: most grown-ups probably understand the concept, whether or not their knowledge comes from direct personal experience. To be precise, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as “an exalted state of feeling which engrosses the mind to the exclusion of thought; rapture, transport. Now chiefly, Intense or rapturous delight.” Additionally, its Greek root ekstasis carries the sense of being beside oneself, and hence it was “used by mystical writers as the technical name for the state of rapture in which the body was supposed to become incapable of sensation, while the soul was engaged in the con-templation of divine things” (OED). But “Ecstasy” means something else for the majority of young people nowadays: it is the moniker of choice for C11H15NO2, the club drug 3,4-methylenedioxymetham-phetamine or MDMA. In the words of a contributor to, the online lexicon of the vernacular: “Ecstasy is a drug whose slang name is perfect for it.” So then, without exactly reinscribing a belief in the essential res-verba relationship between something’s designation and its properties à la Quintilian—nomen est omen—I do wish to suggest that the sobriquet that has evolved for this illicit substance is significant and worth exploring, and will relate directly to Donne.


Cognitive Approach Oxford English Dictionary Club Drug Crystal Meth Amyl Nitrate 
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    Irvine Welsh, Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance (New York and London: Norton, 1996). Welsh citations will be referenced parenthetically. N.b. Welsh’s work is distinctive enough to be subjected to a spot-on parody by master satirist David Lodge in Thinks… (New York: Penguin, 2001), 91–92.Google Scholar
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    See Alina Clej, A Genealogy of the Modern Self: Thomas De Quincey and the Intoxication of Writing (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), and Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). Thoroughness also compels me to cite a recent work that is utterly ludicrous: Richard Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2011).Google Scholar
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    A plausible suggestion has been put forth that an episode in a sequel to the popular Castilian chivalric romance Amadís de Gaula provided a main source for Donne’s presentation of amorous ecstasy; it also influenced Sir Philip Sidney. See John J. O’Connor, Amadis de Gaule and Its Influence on Elizabethan Literature (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 149–53; and Graziani, “John Donne’s ‘The Extasie’ and Ecstasy,” 123–28. Occurring between the characters Arlanges and Queen Cleophile, it is found in the French translation by Jacques Gohorry (1554) of Rogel de Grecia, composed in Spanish by Feliciano de Silva (1535), the third part (in two books) of Don Florisel de Niquea, Book XI of the Amadís series. Neither Graziani nor O’Connor knew of Donne’s 1610 letter to Bridget White, first printed in Letters to severall persons of honour (1651), which he concludes: “For now my letters are grown to that bulk that I may divide them, like Amadis the Gaul’s book, and tell you that this is the first letter of the second part of the first book” (Selected Letters, 50–51); nor his 1614 letter to Sir Robert More regarding the state visit to England of King Christian IV of Denmark: “The rest of hys history, yow may finde, I thinke, in some part of Amadis the Gaule, at your leysure” (Marriage Letters, 56–58). It’s a bit like the multivolume Donne Variorum project. There is a mountain of criticism on the Amadís cycle and its widely read European continuations; for more background, see, inter alia, Pascual de Gayangos, ed., Libros de Caballerías, con un discurso preliminar y un cátalogo razonado, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 40 (Madrid: M. Rivadeneyra, 1874), esp. i-vi, xxi-xxxviii, lxvi-lxx; José Manuel Lucía Megías and Ma Carmen Marín Pina, eds., with Ana Carmen Bueno, Amadís de Gaula: quinientos años después, Estudios en homenaje a Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua (Alcalá de Henares: Centro de Estudios Cervantinos, 2008); and Michael A. Winkelman, “Las Sergas de Esplandián as Praise of Breton Chivalry,” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 32 (1998): 557–72.Google Scholar
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    See Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, trans. Sears Jayne (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1985). Regarding Donne’s platonism, the work known since the 1635 second edition of his Poems as “The Undertaking” was entitled “Platonique Love” in early MSS, while Lord Herbert has lyrics with “platonic love” in their titles too. Debates over platonism were frequent in seventeenth-century English poetry.Google Scholar
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    Christina Peri Rossi, El Amor es una droga dura (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1996).Google Scholar
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    See, inter alia, Laura Kipnis, Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield, eds., High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2002); and Anna Alexander and Mark S. Roberts, eds., High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).Google Scholar
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    Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873; New York: Mentor Books, 1959), 158. For the record, I have never tried Ecstasy; my concern lies in written accounts of ecstatic states, both naturally and artificially induced.Google Scholar

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© Michael A. Winkelman 2013

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