Opium has fueled people’s dreams since the dawn of creation. Some of history’s greatest writers have been partisans of the poppy. Michael Aldrich, drug scholar, explores the laudanum literature in the November, 1982 edition of High Times.
Opium, raw opium—the best painkiller known since the dawn of creation: yet historians, delicately embarrassed, seem reluctant to admit its profound influence on world leaders and events. The history of the human race might be interestingly revised if all the great opium eaters would rise up and dance where they died. Who are these famous monsters, these immortal addict shades?
They pass before us in a dream, revealing all states and conditions of humanity: Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Avicenna, Paracelsus, Ronsard, Savonarola. Baber, first Mogul emperor of India, and his heirs, poisoning each other with slow-acting poppy juice in a blood feud for control of the subcontinent.
Cardinal Richelieu appears, dueling through eternity with the Three Musketeers. Robert Clive, first British governor of Bengal. Ben Franklin, who died addicted to opium taken for gout, and thereby lived to set a new form of government in motion. William Wilberforce, who got slavery abolished throughout the British Empire. Friedrich von Schiller, giant of German literature.
A thousand Romantic poets fall out of the sky, clutching their laudanum flasks—Elizabeth Barrett Browning keeping hers discreetly tucked away beneath her crinolines. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” she moans, measuring out her drops.
Among millions of recent addicts, seven of planetary influence pass by in a shower of beetles and stones: Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Janis Joplin; in contrast, Hermann Göring, Joseph McCarthy, Howard Hughes; between them stands William S. Burroughs, miraculously alive, gauntly pointing to the future.
It is the Dark Ages of drug addiction, anno Domini 1524. Paracelsus, physician and sorcerer, returns to Switzerland from the Orient. In the pommel of a huge sword given him by the magi of Constantinople, he carries a secret remedy, the “Stone of Immortality.” He never parts with it, not even when he sleeps.
“He had pills he called laudanum which had the form of mouse turds,” a disciple writes, “but he used them only in extreme emergencies. He boasted that with these pills he could wake up the dead, and indeed he proved that patients who seemed to be dead suddenly arose.”
Paracelsus astounds his fellow alchemists, saying, “Don’t make gold, make medicines,” and the science of chemotherapy is born. He discovers that just as vitriol has a spirit that can transform iron into copper, so drugs have arcana or “immaterial talents” (our phrase would be “active principles”) that transform disease into health. Humans are part of a chemical universe: “All a man eats out of the great world becomes a part of him.” With this knowledge he writes the first textbook of medical chemistry in Europe.
Offered a chance to teach at Basel, he blows it by inviting nonstudents—barbers and alchemists—to his classes held off campus. He chucks Avicenna’s famed Canon of Medicine into the fire, urging “experiment and reasoning” instead. Experimentum et ratiocinium: The walls of Scholasticism crumble as he speaks. Learned doctors think him a charlatan; peasants fear his magic.
His apprentice records the Master’s strange drunkenness: “Often he would come home staggering, after midnight, throw himself on his bed in his clothes wearing his sword which he said he’d obtained from a hangman. He had hardly time to fall asleep when he rose, drew his sword like a madman, threw it on the ground or against the wall, so that sometimes I was afraid he would kill me.”
It is not the first or last time an addict will awake to slash at phantoms in the night. Like Avicenna, Paracelsus dies of an overdose. The legend of Dr. Faustus, symbol of our yearning for access to the infinite, grows up in the decades after his death.
About 1670 the English physician Thomas Sydenham perfected a ruby red tincture of opium in alcohol, naming it laudanum (“most highly praised”) in honor of Paracelsus. Henceforth, opium eaters were usually laudanum drinkers. Available without prescription and cheaper than beer, it gradually pervaded all levels of society. Sydenham wrote, “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”
Once a reliable liquid opiate hit the grocery stores, a learning process began which has not yet run its course. Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the perfect cradle for addiction, and vice versa. The poets found it opened up new vistas of consciousness to explore. Many, like Keats and Shelley, took it during illness and wove opium imagery into their finest poems. Others became lifelong addicts, like George Crabbe, who took moderate doses for 42 years without apparent ill effect, though he did have recurrent nightmares of pursuit by nameless phantoms.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, fragile addict genius trapped in a dolphin’s body created the Romantic image of the indolent poet whose masterpieces rose effortlessly in opium dreams. Childhood rheumatic fever brought about a chronic heart disease from which he suffered great pain the rest of his life. He was a miserable, guilt-ridden addict who drank enormous quantities of laudanum—friends saw him drain a pint once in a single gulp—out of strict medical necessity. Pain was endless; euphoria was only occasional.
STC, as he preferred to be called, was quite addicted by the 1790s when he wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and other opium-inspired masterworks. Desperately needing money in 1816, he published three of these visions (“Christabel,” “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep”) together as a pamphlet. In a preface he said “Kubla Khan” had come to him as he was nodding out over an old travel book.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Moreover he asserted that it appeared fully composed: “All the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.”
Scholars have relentlessly disputed this account, some even calling it a fraud. I take STC at his word. He was trying to explain something never explained before: how drug visions actually arise, words and images flashing through consciousness, ready to vanish as quickly as they come. If the author has practiced verse making for years, as STC had, he may be able to get these glimpses down “instantly and eagerly,” the way a Japanese brush painter must capture a whole image in a few strokes before his mind wanders. In so doing, STC gave the world one of the most perfect poems in English, and an unforgettable image of the addict:
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
If one theme unites all literary addicts, it is the search for a cure. STC hired thugs to keep him away from the apothecary shop, but that didn’t work—they were too easy to outwit. In despair he committed himself to the household of a sympathetic doctor, James Gillman, with instructions to give him minimal doses of laudanum and no more. (Typically, he came for a week and stayed 18 years.) In this self-imposed prison his genius flowered once more in philosophic reveries. He thus invented the only mode of treatment yet devised that leaves the addict any self-respect: the voluntary private maintenance clinic.
Coleridge was a pioneer in the kingdom of opium; Thomas De Quincey was an adept. He surveyed its uncharted regions, mapped its dimensions and created a whole new genre of literature with the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published anonymously in London Magazine in 1821 and in book form a year later. Imagine De Quincey’s loneliness, calling his book “the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium; of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member—the alpha and the omega.”
This slim volume is the foundation on which all modern drug literature rests—the first deep probe of drug-altered consciousness. Agatha Christie had it recommended to her as a vocabulary builder. Written hastily (De Quincey needed cash) during a month of high-dose laudanum swigging, it is lively, musical, digressive, impassioned and brilliant—a book of dreams composed in waves and rhythms, slow swells and funny tangents, spontaneous psychoanalysis long before Freud.
De Quincey, a child prodigy, could sight-translate newspapers into Greek at age 15. He ran away from home and starved for months in London, where he met a pitiful child-whore named Ann, who saved his life, vanished and haunted his dreams forever after. Admitted to Oxford, he astonished his tutors with his proficiency in literature, but did not graduate—he took his Greek finals stoned on laudanum and walked out in disgust when told he could answer questions in English rather than Greek.
He first turned on in 1804 as a result of a raging toothache, purchasing laudanum from a chemist who, he said, “has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.” For the next eight years he carefully spaced his trips once every three weeks so he wouldn’t get hooked. Stoned on 25 drops of laudanum, the usual medical dose, he would go to the opera or mingle with the Saturday-night-live crowds of the marketplace. These excursions are described in “The Pleasures of Opium” section of the Confessions, which ends with the famous line, “Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys to Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!”
Then everything changed. De Quincey moved to the Lake Country near Coleridge and Wordsworth, a lovely spot but often cold and damp. There, in 1813, stomach convulsions from his runaway days kicked up again, and only extravagant amounts of laudanum could ease the pain. His dosage leaped to 8,000 drops a day—enough to kill an ordinary mortal, particularly one as frail and tiny as De Quincey. He struggled with this vast tolerance the rest of his life, designing a system of dose reduction that got him down to 1,000 drops a day during calm periods, but this escalated instantly in any physical or mental crisis.
De Quincey is often charged with seducing people into drug use with his book, but anyone who makes this claim (Coleridge was among the first) hasn’t really read it. “The Pains of Opium” he describes are terrifying. He is utterly prostrated, unable to concentrate or complete any task; work revolts him; once-lovely reveries become nightmares so frantic that he dares not close his eyes. He needs those blood red drops every hour of every day. The keys of Paradise become the locks of Hell.
Nevertheless, De Quincey managed to produce a shelf full of fascinating books, and lived out his days as the wizened wizard of laudanum. “He was not a reassuring man,” his daughter wrote, “for nervous people to live with, as those nights were exceptions in which he didn’t set something on fire, the commonest incident being for someone to look up from work or book, to say casually, ‘Papa, your hair is on fire,’ of which a calm ‘Is it, my love?’ and a hand rubbing out the blaze, was all the notice taken.”
The Confessions sparked a horde of imitations, mostly execrable, self-pitying, guilt-ridden and forgettable—precisely the opposite of those qualities that make the original great. Alfred de Musset rendered it into slapdash French, but not until Charles Baudelaire did De Quincey find a worthy translator.
Baudelaire adapted the Confessions as the last half of his masterpiece, Artificial Paradises (1860), which is primarily about hashish. Great mystery surrounds this book. Why, after a most intelligent and perceptive essay on hashish, does Baudelaire dismiss the drug with the preposterous assertion that it destroys the will?
The answer is twofold. First, Baudelaire had just been convicted of obscenity for some poems in The Flowers of Evil, he was trying to appease the censors. Second, he was an addict, taking laudanum most of his life for syphilis, and had himself experienced the dreadful loss of willpower so eloquently described by De Quincey. He transferred the addictiveness of opium to hashish, and inveighed against both. Had he not made this crucial blunder, Artificial Paradises would stand as the greatest book about hashish ever written.
At least Baudelaire made one thing clear: Addiction is not voluntary.
The history of mystery is intimately a history of growing consciousness. Having broken through Victorian reserve by publishing the Confessions, De Quincey then set the tone of the modern whodunit with his lighthearted essay on murder as a fine art. Edgar Allan Poe, occasional opium eater, invented the mystery story in which the key element is the detective’s uncanny, almost extrasensory, perception: Poe called it “ratiocination.”
Back across the Atlantic, the laudanum addict Wilkie Collins added a new twist in The Moonstone (1868), which T.S. Eliot called “the first, longest and best of English detective novels.” Here the plot (chasing nameless phantoms in the dark) turns entirely on the detective’s mental condition: for he is also the person charged with the crime (stealing a cursed diamond) and is not aware of the act—he did it in an opium dream. Unraveling and finally recreating opium consciousness establishes his innocence.
Charles Dickens was an addict at the end of his life, taking opium for gout as his friend Collins did. Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) opens in a seamy dock-side opium den, and again the plot turns on the hero’s mental state, making it the most “psychological” of Dickens’s novels. It is also the first mystery to feature opium smoking. Dickens was unable to complete it before he died; several spiritualists claiming to be in touch with his ghost have tried to finish it. More recently, English novelist Leon Garfield has published an intricate, brilliant and thoroughly Dickensian solution to the hundred-year-old puzzle.
Sherlock Holmes was a sometime morphinist as well as a cocainist. Among more modern drug-related thrillers might be mentioned Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules, and especially Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929), a Chinese box of hard-boiled consciousness in which every time the detective thinks he’s solved the crime, another clue appears to lead him deeper into mystery.
Claude Farrère’s Black Opium (1904) is the first book after De Quincey that I would recommend to anyone interested in opium. Ostensibly a series of unrelated short stories, it is nothing less than psychic autobiography, a long and fateful evanescence of the human soul—from the first pipe of opium ever smoked on earth, to the last musings of stoned consciousness, where the narrator cries, “I am no longer a man, no longer a man at all.” Beyond that lies only nightmare: the disembodied spirit unable to find and return to itself.
Farrère treats the stages of addiction as periods in a mythical history of opium: legends, annals and ecstasies, followed by doubts, phantoms and the nightmare. Here appear some regal ghosts—Emperor Huang Ti, the Comte de Saint-Germain and the famous Dr. Faustus, who beats the Devil by fleeing to the fairy kingdom of opium. These great shades mingle with some splendid low life: a pirate who becomes immortal by drawing blood-opium from the arm of a demon princess; a cowardly chevalier made heroic by nine magic pills; a secret opium priest who carries his stash in his sword and cooks it up at midnight on the altar of a church; a scuzzy Parisian whore suddenly possessed by the medieval spirit of Heloise, Abelard’s doomed nun-lover; an old cemetery guard who can hear his corpses turning under their tombstones as he lights his ancient pipe.
These tales are all the more amazing because Farrère, unique among the masters of addiction literature, was not an addict. He smoked opium in Indochina where he began writing the book, and occasionally after that for inspiration, but never got hooked. His later works are just now being recognized as pioneering examples of science fiction and fantasy—another realm of literature that owes much to drugs.
Picasso to Cocteau: “The smell of opium is the least stupid smell in the world.”
One of Farrère’s stories describes a brilliant artist and bon vivant who turns into a stolid bourgeois dolt when he stops smoking opium. This attitude was shared by a remarkable group of O-heads gathered around the musicologist Louis Laloy in Paris during World War I. Laloy published a classic monograph on the subject, The Book of Smoke (1913), for which Farrère wrote an introduction. In it they defend the honorable rite of opium smoking against not only the French national addiction, wine, but also against morphine or heroin injection.
In 1924 Laloy recommended to young Jean Cocteau that he smoke opium to overcome his suicidal depressions at the death of his friend Raymond Radiguet. Always original, Cocteau became an addict by choice, almost experimentally, and signed into clinics repeatedly to reduce his tolerance. During this time he produced some of his most luminous works: the play Orpheus (whose death-angel Heurtebise appeared to stoned Cocteau one day while riding an elevator to Picasso’s flat), the poems of Opéra and the novel Les Enfants Terribles.
In Opium: Diary of a Cure (1930), written in a clinic at St. Cloud, Cocteau contributes some marvelous aphorisms to the addiction literature:
“Opium, which changes our speeds, procures for us a very clear awareness of worlds which are superimposed on each other, which interpenetrate each other, but do not even suspect each other’s existence.”
“Opium desocializes us and removes us from the community. Further, the community takes its revenge. The persecution of opium addicts is an instinctive defense by society against an antisocial gesture.”
“To moralize to an opium addict is like saying to Tristan: ‘Kill Yseult. You will feel much better afterwards.’”
“It is a pity that instead of perfecting curative techniques, medicine does not try to render opium harmless.”
“Tell this obvious truth to a doctor and he will shrug his shoulders. He talks of literature, Utopia, and the obsessions of the drug addict.”
“Nevertheless, I contend that one day we shall use those soothing substances without danger, that we shall avoid habitmaking, that we shall laugh at the bugaboo of the drug and that opium, once tamed, will assuage the evil of towns where trees die on their feet.”
A century-long learning process: Coleridge felt enthralled by opium and shut himself up in a prison of guilt. De Quincey shrugged off guilt and learned to live with his habit. Baudelaire thought drugs destroy the will and condemned them. Farrère smoked opium judiciously without getting hooked. Cocteau clearly saw the possibility of beneficial opium use if it could be changed chemically.
This was a gradual opening of consciousness from fear to hope, from impossibility to the possibility of intelligent drug use.
By focusing on life-process changes instead of drugs, the wily addicted magician Aleister Crowley made a real breakthrough in The Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922). The novel is modeled after the Divine Comedy, only it starts in Paradise—the cocaine honeymoon of Peter Pendragon and his wife, Lou, who soon descend into the Inferno of heroin addiction. To get them out, a master named King Lamus spirits them off to a secluded abbey and teaches them the meaning of the motto “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Once they discover their true goals in life, they no longer need heroin.
Crowley’s program, a prototype of the modern therapeutic community concept, consisted of five steps: (1) voluntary isolation to force the addict into self-examination; (2) free availability of drugs, a real-world test to emphasize personal choice; (3) a “Magical Record” system, now common in smoker’s clinics, of listing a reason each time a drug is used—which makes the addict conscious of self-deceptions, excuses and meaningless habit; (4) the revelation that one no longer really wants drugs; and (5) the recovery of one’s “true will” or purpose in life, which enables the individual to start fresh.
Once the craving for drugs is overcome, free choice is restored. The addict can choose to remain addicted, as Crowley did, or can end it by withdrawal—painful, perhaps, but finally with some promise of success. Knowing this, the individual is free to use drugs or not, leaving both fear and fascination behind.
In King Lamus and Pendragon we see the “Master” and the “Slave” within Crowley struggling with the problem of will set up by De Quincey and Baudelaire, and for the first time the Master wins: Crowley has the sense that he can successfully use these drugs without danger—if he so chooses.
James Lee, in Underworld of the East (1935), goes a step beyond Crowley. Lee, a British engineer, regularly injected huge doses of morphine and cocaine, smoked opium and hashish, and experimented with other drugs during 30 years of travel in Asia. Not only did he control his drug use with scientific precision at extraordinary tolerance levels, he was also able to stop using drugs any time he wished “without any trouble or suffering.”
“The life of a drug taker can be a happy one,” he wrote, “or it can be one of suffering and misery: it depends on the user’s knowledge.” Lee learned drug yoga from an Ayurvedic doctor in India who first gave him morphine for malaria. “Morphia should not be used by anyone for longer than a few months,” the Babu said, “because the action of the drug is continually in one direction.”
“He told me that he used many kinds of drugs, each in turn; changing over from one to another, using them sometimes singly, and at other times in combinations, so that no one drug ever got too great a hold on him.” The Babu also taught Lee to sterilize needles, eat well and pay close attention to his bodily health, balancing the effect of one drug with another as necessary.
Thus Lee could let his morphine tolerance climb to 10 grains a day by building up his cocaine tolerance to 80 grains a day, starting with tiny doses to avoid “an undue shock on the heart.” When he wanted to cut down or stop entirely, he’d alternate injections at ever-decreasing doses. The key to his unique reduction technique was that instead of injecting more morphine when he felt the need, he’d reduce the amount of cocaine he took, to create a lower dosage equilibrium.
When an addict withdraws by the usual reduction method, he noted, the craving becomes so intense that few have the willpower to continue. Lee instead countered the effects of morphine with cocaine, thereby readjusting his body to weaker doses of both. The process was completely painless and took about a month.
Then, in Sumatra, Lee made an even more startling discovery—the “perfect antidote” for addiction. The Malays brought him many jungle plants to experiment with. Lee boiled down one of these, which he called “Number 2,” and evaporated the decoction to a powder. A solution of this injected gave him a “feeling of great vitality, the absolute perfection of mental and bodily health.”
When he tried it in conjunction with cocaine, he found that “the drug had entirely nullified the effect of the cocaine.” It did the same with morphine, opium, hashish, liquor and absinthe: “No matter what drug I was using, with the aid of Number 2 I could give it up quite easily.” This took a fortnight.
He started calling it “The Elixir of Life.”
Not a botanist, Lee never identified the plant itself. It was probably Combretum sundaicum, a forest creeper which Chinese opium smokers in Malaya in 1907 discovered would completely remove their craving for drugs. Though tested and found effective by British pharmacologist C.A. McBride, and even marketed briefly in the United States as an addiction cure, it was generally ignored by the medical community. Obviously it should be reinvestigated; for if it is half as effective as Lee says, it may indeed contain a chemical miracle.
It is the Dark Ages of drug addiction, anno Domini 1953. A man can get picked up by police just for talking about dope in the subway. Senator McCarthy glowers from the tube, but in the public’s mind a drug user is a wretched drooling creature out of Nelson’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949). The only famous dopers are musicians like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, though Hollywood insiders know Bela Lugosi is an addict and that the whole vampire “I vont, to sock, yore blod” syndrome is secret junk metaphor.
Into this waiting room of consciousness steps young Allen Ginsberg, carrying a stick of dynamite—a manuscript called Junkie by an unknown “William Lee.” Ginsberg talks Ace Books into printing it back to back with a narc novel. Junkie is subtitled Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, and the operative word is “unredeemed.” The editors stick in parenthetical disclaimers.
“An addict never stops growing. Most users periodically kick the habit, which involves shrinking of the organism and replacement of the junk-dependent cells. (Ed. note: the foregoing is not the view of recognized medical authority.)…”
Of course not—doctors abandoned the scientific study of drug use long ago. “Why do you need narcotics, Mr. Lee?” stupid psychiatrists ask. “I need junk to get out of bed in the morning, to shave and eat breakfast. I need it to stay alive,” he replies.
He lays out the junk equation with clinical precision. “Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.”
In 1956 the author signs his real name, William Burroughs, to a “Letter from Master Addict” in the British Journal of Addiction. It is the only intelligent document about drugs published in decades. “Non habit forming morphine appears to be a latter day Philosopher’s Stone,” he writes, remembering Cocteau. “On the other hand variations of apomorphine may prove extremely effective in controlling the withdrawal syndrome.”
“The ill effects of marijuana have been grossly exaggerated in the U.S.”
“Yage.. .is a hallucinating narcotic that produces a profound derangement of the senses… perhaps even more spectacular results could be obtained with synthetic variations. Certainly the matter warrants further research.”
Most authorities haven’t the faintest glimmer of what he’s talking about. Burroughs is as alone in the 1950s as De Quincey was in the 1820s. As Paracelsus was in the 1520s.
In 1959 he sounds the death knell of romanticism about drugs in the first sentence of Naked Lunch: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper…” Reveries of Kubla Khan vanish like phantoms in the night.
“Naked Lunch is a blueprint, a How-To book,” he writes. “Black insect lusts open into vast, other planet landscapes… Abstract concepts, bare as algebra, narrow down to a black turd or a pair of aging cojones… How-To extends levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall…”
Over the next 20 years Burroughs cuts this blueprint up into shards of hallucination and reality, mating the hard-boiled detective story with sci-fi to create an epic of addiction. He learns prose control of interpenetrating consciousness, dissecting his many selves as coolly as a vivisectionist. He probes deeper than the intellectual-moral levels of De Quincey or Baudelaire, exposing the viscera, capturing raw nerves in print. Junk-sick becomes metaphor for a dying planet. There’s only one way to go from here.
The past behind us, the present before; and the future points straight up.