Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Painless Poppy

By Steven Robert Allen

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson (Chronicle Books), 145 pp., $22.95

As I'm sure you're all aware, life is painful. Though you may on occasion become distracted by a few flickering moments of joy, happiness is always fleeting and superficial. In fact, if happiness has any lasting effect at all, it's to make our pain that much more pronounced. It's pain above all else that characterizes human life. We are born miserable wretches, and we die miserable wretches. In our youth, we're torn apart by false love and the futility of impossible dreams. In old age, we're left stranded alone inside rapidly decaying bodies, our thoughts occupied with the single, simple truth that our lives have been squandered away for nothing.

This is why people once turned so desperately into the yellow, sickly sweet arms of opium, and continue to turn to it in even more concentrated (and dangerous) forms like heroin. The principal active ingredient in opium is morphine, an alkaloid which "blocks messages of pain to the brain, producing euphoria and deadening anxieties and tensions." All morphine-based drugs are highly addictive, and their long term abuse has crushed countless souls over the last few thousand years.

Yet even though smoking opium has certainly been detrimental to the poor saps who've let themselves get hooked, it's also played several other dramatic roles in world history. Barbara Hodgson's new book, Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon, digs into every conceivable aspect of this exotic, deadly drug. From the beautiful cover to the lavish illustrations to her articulate, exhaustively researched text, this book offers up everything you could possibly want to know about our little poppy pod friend.

Hodgson begins with a bit of history. Opium was originally introduced to the West through Asia where the British, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, preserved their monopoly over the opium trade with trickery and outright force. In China, where the emperor sought to suppress the trade because of widespread addiction among his people, the British eventually sparked the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1858 to ensure that they could continue trading Indian opium to the ailing Chinese populace.

Soldiers, travelers and immigrants brought opium to the West. Opium wasn't made illegal in most countries around the world until the early years of this century. Before that time it was included in countless medications. From the mid 1800s until about 1910, thousands of babies in the U.S. and Britain were raised on opium-laced syrups designed to stop the bawling caused by teething or hunger. Opium-based medications were also used to treat cholera, dysentery, ague, bronchitis, measles, morning sickness and piles. Most cough syrups also contained opium; to this day the drug remains unsurpassed as a cough suppressant.

Of course, it was smoking opium, or drinking it in the form of laudanum (an opium-alcohol mixture), that most captured the imagination of a Western world which was becoming increasingly fascinated with Asian exoticisms. Hodgson spends a goodly chunk of her book examining the various famous opium-obsessed writers. They seem to fall into two categories: those like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe who injected opium intrigues into their fiction to add a bit of color, and those like Charles Baudelaire and Thomas de Quincey who wrote non-fiction treatises based on their firsthand experiences with the drug.

In Europe, opium may have been the domain of artists and intellectuals, but in North America it quickly infiltrated the lives of common men and women. Chinatowns first began to appear on the West Coast in the 1850s with the arrival of Chinese laborers in San Francisco. Chinese communities quickly became the focus of social crusades and racist attacks based on their perceived insidious introduction of opium into the continent's white populace.

By the 1920s, though, anti-drug laws had made opium inaccessible to the average citizen. Violence, gangs and criminal activities of all sorts rose up around an illicit drug trade. It's a problem that remains prickly to this day.

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon is an ode to the past, both real and imagined. Hodgson's extraordinary, beautiful book almost makes you yearn for the old days, when even right here in Albuquerque, anyone could drop down into a smoky den behind a Chinese laundry, stretch out on some dirty, fragrant cushions and smoke life away, painless and free, all worries washed momentarily clean.

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