What a gas

Financial Times, June 2022
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De Quincey. Huxley. Welsh. These are just a few examples of authors who got wasted on mind-altering substances and then wrote ecstatic books about it. But what about one who had the opposite experience, who took drugs and had a drab time, but nevertheless went on to produce a major work as a result?

For this niche crown, I nominate Peter Mark Roget, author of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, that hefty volume of synonyms or near-synonyms that has been reached for by struggling writers ever since it first appeared in 1852. A seed for the Thesaurus, which has sold more than 40 million copies and never been out of print, was sown when Dr Roget inhaled laughing gas in the name of medical science, had a bad trip and couldn’t find the words to describe his experience. From this failure, came the success that would define his life.

A thin Englishman with a French surname, Roget was a bit of a square. He was shy, literal-minded and prone to depression. Relatives who suffered from mental illness included his mother, his grandmother, his uncle, his sister and his daughter. From an early age, Roget coped with the threat of madness by making lists, of Latin vocabulary as a schoolboy, then of the most important deaths and dates in his life and finally, and most famously, of linked words and phrases to help with literary composition.

Of course, as with any book, the majestic list of lists that is his Thesaurus was inspired by more than just one thing. Growing up, Roget had no great gift for writing. In his teenage journal, he repeatedly describes the Scottish countryside as “beautiful”. Clearly, he could have done with a Thesaurus. The book he later wrote might have suggested “charming”, for example, or “sublime”. Or “ravishing”, or “winsome”. Or “laetificant”.

What got him going, though, wasn’t literature. It was knowledge. As a medical student in Edinburgh in the 1790s, he attended a lecture by the charismatic philosopher Dugald Stewart, who listed eight things that, in his opinion, were slowing the progress of knowledge. First among them, he named the “imperfections of language, both as an instrument of thought and a medium of communication”. Roget, who so loved a list, would brood upon this problem.

A couple of years later, he got his first job, as assistant to the precocious 20-year-old Humphry Davy at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. Many gases now familiar to us had only just been discovered, and one aim of the place was to find out if any of them might have a medical use. How? By inhaling them and seeing how they made you feel.

In this heroic age of self-experimentation, Davy, who would go on to become one of the century’s greatest chemists, cut a dash. A pint-sized Cornishman who was as impulsive and impassioned as Roget was methodical and mild-mannered, in his first year at the institute he asked the engineer James Watt to build him an apparatus for breathing gases, then nearly died after inhaling carbon monoxide. Nitrous oxide, now also known as laughing gas, was another matter. Davy loved it.

“By degrees,” he wrote, “as the pleasurable sensation increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas.”

I lost all connection with external things. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas

Davy used to take pouches of nitrous oxide down to the banks of the river Avon in the evenings and inhale the gas to see if it improved the quality of his poetry. Once, off his head, he scrawled in his notebook “DAVY” and “NEWTON”. This note-to-self gives some sense of the man’s ambition.

Resolving to add the testimony of others to his own, he turned to his assistant, Roget, who was also 20. Although reluctant to do anything that might lead to his losing control, Roget agreed, as Joshua Kendall describes in The Man Who Made Lists. On the morning of May 17 1799, guided by Davy, Roget nervously raised a pouch of nitrous oxide, kissed the wooden mouthpiece and inhaled several quarts.

As he later recalled, he felt dizzy, then weightless, then drowsy. Then he had trouble seeing. Then he had trouble speaking. Then he began to shake violently.

Half an hour later, Roget tottered out into the back garden at 6 Dowry Square, where he lived and worked with Davy, and walked among the apples and strawberries until he had composed himself. Then he returned indoors and tried to make some notes about what he had just been through. Two months later, he wrote these up into a fuller account, which concluded earnestly, “I cannot remember that I experienced the least pleasure from any of these sensations.”

What a contrast this makes with the enthusiastic descriptions of Davy’s other volunteers, a motley collection of young scientists and poets, including two who would earn a memorial in Westminster Abbey: Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When it came to drugs, it has to be said, this wasn’t Coleridge’s first rodeo. After drinking laudanum, he had written the unfinished masterpiece “Kubla Khan”, whose last lines are a glamorisation, in part, of the realms reached by intoxication:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This wasn’t, to say the least, the kind of experience that Roget had had in Bristol. Soon after, he decided no work of importance was being done there and left.

Davy, too, would conclude that inhaling the gas was little more than an intriguing pastime. He hinted at, but didn’t follow up on, the idea that nitrous oxide might be used for pain relief — an approach that was embraced decades later by dentists and midwives, and which continues to this day. Yet Davy’s experiments with the gas were also productive personally, as the sober scientific report he wrote about them, which included the descriptions of Roget, Coleridge and others, so impressed the administrators of the Royal Institution in Mayfair that they offered him a job.

By then, Roget had also taken a post in London as assistant to another chaotic genius, Jeremy Bentham. When this also ended in dismay, not least because he couldn’t abide the philosopher’s slovenly ways, Roget moved to Manchester to work as a doctor. Oppressed by the dirt and disease of the industrial town, he found solace in compiling lists of words and phrases that meant the same thing or something similar. His scientific approach was to divide all knowledge into six categories — substances, feelings and so on — then separate these into exactly 1,000 subsections.

By 1805, Roget had finished a slim first draft of his Thesaurus. The prototype was initially for his own use and, armed with this linguistic howitzer, he became a star of the lecture circuit. The talks by his former employer Davy at the Royal Institution were so popular the street outside was made one-way to avoid traffic jams. Roget sat enraptured in the audience. Soon he too spoke there and became a hit.

The man worked hard. He believed his magnum opus was his 1834 contribution to The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Creation. This compendium of natural phenomena was the work of eight authors, each selected to write about a different topic that could illuminate God’s beneficence through science. Roget covered animal and vegetable physiology. (The treatises would be studied by Charles Darwin, though they steered him to the opposite conclusion.)

Roget’s roaming intellect also led him to design his own version of the slide rule, known as the “log log”, to calculate the roots and powers of numbers, and a travelling chess set, thought to be the first in England.

In the 1840s, approaching 70, he stepped back from more strenuous work. He was by any normal standards a great success. He had been professor of physiology and comparative anatomy at the Royal Institution. He had been secretary of the Royal Society. But what did all this amount to? The progress of knowledge, as Dugald Stewart had observed, is slow. Yet sometimes someone, instead of making a single discovery, invents a tool that allows us all to advance.

Around this time, Roget’s daughter Kate suffered a breakdown from which she never completely recovered. Her father turned again to his list of lists. He set himself the task of expanding the Thesaurus until it was comprehensive: not just tailored to his needs, but suitable for everyone.

On April 29 1852, the first edition of Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published to great acclaim. The Times hailed it as “learned” and “admirable”. The Literary Examiner praised its “great value”. For Roget, it seems, things had come full circle. A half-century earlier, he had inhaled nitrous oxide and tasted madness. Now, with the passing decades, his precise intellect had found a way to counter the disturbance, arranging concepts and their labels into such order, they represented not only the opposite of disorder, but also a way to answer it by finding the words to describe and tame it.

There is no proof that, if he hadn’t taken laughing gas, Roget wouldn’t have written his Thesaurus. There were other inciting incidents: above all, his experience of depression, and lifelong habit of making lists to control the chaos around him. Yet the question remains, what prompted him to write this list in particular?

In Bristol, uniquely in his life, he had a deeply disturbing experience that he was compelled to think about and try to describe. That wasn’t easy for him. In his account for Davy he emphasises that his description is “very imperfect”, before going on to offer reasons for why this might be so. When you’re high, he points out, analysis is pretty difficult. More​over, he adds, a couple of months have elapsed between his taking the gas and writing about it, so some of the details may have escaped him.

Roget saw something that amounted to a deep insight: that if we’re to understand the world around us, we need to be able to name it

Put this in the context of the accounts that surrounded it. Coleridge wrote that he felt a warmth “resembling that which I remember once to have experienced after returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room”. Another time, he fixed his eyes on some distant trees and found that “they became dimmer and dimmer, and looked at last as if I had seen them through tears”.

Davy’s collection of testimonies also included one that compared the feeling to “climbing mountains in Glamorganshire”. To a music-lover named Henry Wansey, the sensations were “so delightful” he could only liken them to those he had felt “in Westminster Abbey, in some of the grand choruses in the Messiah, from the united powers of 700 instruments of music”.

It’s striking how much we rely on comparisons when describing things. More striking still is the fact that Roget himself draws attention to this in his account. Another reason for the flaws in his description, he persists, is the “novelty” of the feelings, which makes them “unfavourable to accuracy of comparison with sensations already familiar”. In these phrases, he reveals the cognitive process that would become the underlying rationale for his Thesaurus: to provide a storehouse of comparable concepts and feelings.

Dig out a first edition of the book, and Roget’s own preface reveals he wrote it to make up for his “deficiencies” as a writer — failings he may have felt more acutely then than at any other time in his life, when his paragraphs were printed alongside lyrically eloquent passages by the likes of Davy and Coleridge. He goes on to confess that he, as much as anyone, knows how it feels to try to conjure words, only to find that, “like ‘spirits from the vasty deep’, they come not when we call”. The quote from Shakespeare hints, however inadvertently, at his suspicious attitude towards the whole business of literary composition.

In their descriptions of inhaling laughing gas, both Davy and Roget remark that it was like witnessing a sequence of concepts in physical form.

As Davy put it, “Trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind”. Once, in the grip of the gas, he cried out, “What a concatenation of ideas!” As for Roget, he recalled everything “running headlong into confusion”. His ideas “succeeded one another with extreme rapidity” and “thoughts rushed like a torrent through my mind”. A torrent, a train, a succession, a concatenation. A list? There’s an odd similarity, it seems, between the experience of breathing laughing gas and reading Roget’s Thesaurus.

Today in Britain, nitrous oxide is the second most popular drug among 16- to 24-year-olds. That explains all the finger-sized silver gas canisters that litter the pavement in London and other cities. It isn’t illegal to inhale it; only to sell it. Yet government guidance suggests it can be harmful when used without medical supervision and for prolonged periods. If you want an idea of what it’s like, without any risk, I advise downing a couple of glasses of red wine and then getting someone to read aloud to you from Roget’s Thesaurus.

This is only a guess. Having a Roget-like aversion to most drugs, I haven’t done it myself. As we’ve seen, Roget himself took little pleasure in honey-dew. When it came to the milk of Paradise, he preferred to pass.

Which makes it a quirk of fate that his greatest achievement would be embraced with relish by bohemians and boozers after his death. The poet Sylvia Plath declared that on a desert island she would prefer to have a Thesaurus than a Bible. Elsewhere she described herself as “Roget’s strumpet”. Shortly before Dylan Thomas died, he wrote “Poem On His Birthday”. Critics found the manuscript dotted with mysterious numbers. It was only after a decade or two that one of them realised they referred to the relevant Thesaurus entries. In all, about 30 of the 370 words in Thomas’s poem were apparently selected by this method. More recently, Martin Amis has admitted to being a devotee of Roget’s masterwork, saying it helps him to perfect the rhythm of a line.

Roget wasn’t especially cool. He couldn’t match the dazzling discoveries eventually made by Davy, from the chemical elements sodium and potassium to the invention of the miner’s safety lamp. His powers of expression were dwarfed by Coleridge’s. Yet he saw something that amounted to a deep insight: that if we’re to understand the world around us, we need to be able to name it. The naming is part of the understanding. Roget understood that all writers order things by describing them. In creating his Thesaurus, he was taking part in the same great project, and arming others for the struggle.

That is a considerable achievement. You could equally describe it as an “accomplishment”. Or you might say that it’s a “feat” or an “exploit”. It’s a “tour de force”. It’s a “coup de maître”. It’s a “consummation” devoutly to be wished. Thanks to Roget, I could go on.