Wednesday, October 21, 2009

artificial paradises

I know. Baudelaire’s essay speaks of Les paradis artificielles – artificial paradises. To every psychoactive agent, its own Eden. But I speak of one. The tree of knowledge in every artificial paradise in the happiness culture is the same tree. Universal history, with its Mordspiel and night ecstasies, is a history of universals in the making. And what are those universals, in this context, but commodities – of which this subsection, the drug, has a cultural privilege?

From sugar to imipolex G, the “aromatic heterocyclic polymer” in the nose of the V-2 rocket that gives Slothrop his premonitory erections, the building of the artificial paradise has been put together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, covering the face of the earth. We – the uncertain spirits who try with all our might to arise from our little pieces and get one glimpse of the picture of the whole – have used whatever stash of artificial paradise we have on hand to go through our impossible tasks.

Baudelaire’s phrase comes from the work he did on Haschisch and Opium. The latter was a work of translation – oddly, De Quincey, who hated the French, became part of French literature through Baudelaire, whose translation of the Confessions of an Opium Eater truncated the 1821 edition as radically as De Quincey expanded it in the 1848 edit he made for his collected works. De Quincey’s expansion of it has generally been ignored, as it explores, at great and tedious length, De Quincey’s childhood, to which he had already devoted many long essays. The additions are distressing – meandering, garrulous, a sort of bibulous blather that detracts from the hectic sharpenss of the original. As, one feels, they were meant to – De Quincey felt, acutely, the damning effect of the text that made him famous.

I’m going to try to move from De Quincey to Baudelaire to Marx and then to Burroughs – my sci fi crew as I orbit the planet of Plato’s Pharmacy.

To begin in the beginning – one of the rare moments in literature in which the druggest, the bane of Flaubert and Ludwig Hohl, the village positivist who grinds the mystery of the world as he grinds his pills until all that is left are atoms of ego and matter and a bland eye staring from a pigstye – one of the rare moments in which he receives the highest poetic encomium:

… And my introduction to opium arose in the following way. From an early age I had been accustomed to wash my head in cold water at least once a day: being suddenly seized with toothache, I attributed it to some relaxation caused by an accidental intermission of that practice, jumped out of bed, plunged my head into a basin of cold water, and with hair thus wetted went to sleep. The next morning, as I need hardly say, I awoke with excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face, from which I had hardly any respite for about twenty days. On the twenty-first day I think it was, and on a Sunday, that I went out into the streets, rather to run away, if possible, from my torments, than with any distinct purpose. By accident I met a college acquaintance, who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it as I had of manna or of ambrosia, but no further. How unmeaning a sound was it at that time: what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than
a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near "the stately Pantheon" (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. The druggist--unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!--as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he 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. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that when I next came up to London I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not; and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one), he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford Street than to have removed in any bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as possibly no more than a sublunary druggist; it may be so, but my faith is better—I believe him to have evanesced, {11} or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour, and place, and creature, that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...