This 1821 book introduces one of the most famous and well-loved heroes in fiction. It stars in Junky by William Seward Burroughs, Trainspotting by Irving Welsh, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, and Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, and countless others besides.
You’ll find the book’s hero in a green pod behind the amaranthine petals of a Papaver somniferum poppy plant. The resin inside the pod is called opium, and it contains the analgesic alkaloid known as morphine. When this alkaloid is ingested, injected, or snorted, it attaches itself to receptors in nerve cells, inhibiting neurotransmitter release, and giving you a pretty good weekend in Vegas.
Opioids have uses, but they’re also dangerous. Take enough, and you forget to feel pain. That’s the plan. Take too much, and you literally forget to breath. Sometimes that’s the plan, too.
“Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium” – Physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-89)
Opium (whether smoked or consumed in the liquid form of laudanum) was the cat’s pajamas in Romance-Era Britain. It was an effective painkiller in a world with a lot of pain. Additionally, it was fashionable: Romantic writers tended to view it as a gateway to a mystical oriental experience that only a cultured and wordly mind could appreciate.
But many opium users were clearly addicts. Confessions of an English Opium Eater is a rare bird: a Romantic account written by an ex-addict with the self awareness to know it.
It’s not packed with outrageous sin and depravity. Nor is full of incoherent drooling about the divine fractal oneness of the cosmos (etc etc). It’s a conventional narrative, and some of the most fascinating parts don’t involve drugs at all. You’ll learn a lot about how things were in England at the time, or at least I did.
The beginning section describes the author’s early life and matriculation, followed by his descent into poverty and homelessness that’s basically self-inflicted (he picks a fight with a bishop who he believes has insulted him, and loses his lodgings). He subsists at the margins of society, eating berries and earning money by writing love letters for illiterate young people. Apparently you could make a living doing that at one point.
De Quincey writes affectingly of the conditions affecting London’s lower classes, particularly orphans and prostitutes. A lot of the book could be viewed as proto-Dickensian. There’s a terrifying sense of atomization to this dark gaslit world that has no modern parallel – once De Quincey loses track of a person, he can usually never find them again. Friends just disappear, like they were never there. These people have no fixed address, no way of receiving mail, and sometimes not even a surname. But they’re loyal to each other – often De Quincey gets out of trouble with the police because a helpful urchin or streetwalker vouches on his behalf.
His fortunes improve at the intercession of some moneylending Jews, and while trying to establish a trade, he winds up on Oxford Street, buying opium to help the pain of a toothache (ironically, he becomes an addict perfectly legally, and only after he escapes the underground). He describes his first dose like this:
I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.
“Abyss of divine enjoyment” is both paradoxical and religious in tone. But drugs are paradoxes, combining the holy and profane. They midwife beautiful literature, midwife insanity and necrotizing fasciitis. And the religious connotations aren’t strange: religious ecstasy and drug trips look very similar to the outsider, and perhaps the psychological effects are similar.
Across the Atlantic, the Civil War was brewing, where countless tons of opium would be used to treat battlefield injuries. It would be called “God’s Own Medicine”. Later doctors would refer to opium’s primary alkaloid as morphine, after Morpheus, Ovid’s God of sleep and dreams. The last and most devastating of opium’s children is heroin, derived from hero, who were traditionally men with divine ancestry. Drugs are debased spirituality inside a dirty needle.
De Quincey’s tail leads us on in familiar directions. Higher dosages. Higher thrills. He takes 1,000 drops of laudanum a day! He reads Kant, and actually understands him! There’s some great writing about his drug-created hallucinations. These have potential to drag, but they’re kept brief enough that they don’t. If the first section is proto-Dickens, the second is proto-Timothy Leary.
But things start going bad. The dreams become extremely disturbing nightmares.
The waters now changed their character—from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and in fact it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.
De Quincey might have actually killed a man in this period. While on an opium trip, a Malaysian gentleman knocks upon his door. Neither of them can talk to each other, but as a show of brotherhood, De Quincey hands him a large slab of opium.
I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and, to use the schoolboy phrase, bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done? I had given him the opium in compassion for his solitary life, on recollecting that if he had travelled on foot from London it must be nearly three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any human being. I could not think of violating the laws of hospitality by having him seized and drenched with an emetic, and thus frightening him into a notion that we were going to sacrifice him to some English idol. No: there was clearly no help for it. He took his leave, and for some days I felt anxious, but as I never heard of any Malay being found dead, I became convinced that he was used to opium; and that I must have done him the service I designed by giving him one night of respite from the pains of wandering.
Was the Malaysian man really “used to opium”? Or was this a self-serving fiction to ease a guilty conscience? Whatever happened to the Malaysian man, he returns to haunt De Quincey’s nightmares, along with a host of other spectres.
The inevitable part where he hits rock-bottom is dealt with only briefly. That’s my main issue: the tale feels lopsided and front-heavy, giving too much weight to his lodging disputes while neglecting the story’s main thrust of addiction. In a later edition, he expands his experiences, but apparently the earlier version is the better one. More words doesn’t always equal more meaning, as any reader of Stephen King can tell you.
So, an interesting read, and an educational one, but perhaps not always a truthful one. I’ve always wondered how much of a drug experience comes from the user, instead of the drug. Thanks to the placebo effect, drugs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Haven’t we all seen someone at a party drink one beer and suddenly start slurring his speech and groping girls’ asses? He’s not drunk. He just thinks he’s drunk. He’s granting himself permission to let go. The beer could have been tablewater – all it really did was act as an emotional go sign.
De Quincey didn’t know of the placebo effect, but he was aware that drug experiences are idiosyncratic toward the user.
If a man “whose talk is of oxen” should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen; whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher; and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams (waking or sleeping, day-dreams or night-dreams) is suitable to one who in that character.
Roland Fisher famously described Aldous Huxley’s 1954 drug book The Doors of Perception as “99 percent Aldous Huxley and only one half gram mescaline”. The same might be true for De Quincey’s adventures, over a hundred years earlier. The fault, in the end, lies not in our doors, but in ourselves.
No Comments »
The God, uneasy ’till he slept again,
Resolv’d at once to rid himself of pain;
And, tho’ against his custom, call’d aloud,
Exciting Morpheus from the sleepy crowd:
Morpheus, of all his numerous train, express’d
The shape of man, and imitated best;
The walk, the words, the gesture could supply,
The habit mimick, and the mein bely;
Plays well, but all his action is confin’d,
Extending not beyond our human kind.
Another, birds, and beasts, and dragons apes,
And dreadful images, and monster shapes:
This demon, Icelos, in Heav’n’s high hall
The Gods have nam’d; but men Phobetor call.
A third is Phantasus, whose actions roul
On meaner thoughts, and things devoid of soul;
Earth, fruits, and flow’rs he represents in dreams,
And solid rocks unmov’d, and running streams.
These three to kings, and chiefs their scenes display,
The rest before th’ ignoble commons play.
Of these the chosen Morpheus is dispatch’d;
Which done, the lazy monarch, over-watch’d,
Down from his propping elbow drops his head,
Dissolv’d in sleep, and shrinks within his bed.
The Metamorphosis, Book the Eleventh 11:891 Ovid
Apocalypse Culture is a 1987 survey of “fringe” culture. It’s not a book, it’s a pointing finger. “Hey, were you aware of this satanic cult? This serial killer? This illegal medical procedure?”
But we have the internet now, and the 2edgy4u info junkies in Parfrey’s target audience just answered “Yes, yes, and yes.” And even if you didn’t know these things, a print book isn’t a good way to learn about them. Books are good but also bad: you can’t drill deeper into an interesting topic by clicking a hyperlink, can’t look up the definition of an unfamiliar word, can’t view a comment challenging the author’s theory and positing a different one, etc. Dives into the tangled parts of the world are better done online, and publications like Apocalypse Culture (including Russ Kick’s Psychotropia, V Vale’s Re:Search, David Kerekes’ Killing for Culture, Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex, etc ad nauseam) are obsolete, no longer worth buying, reading, or writing.
Or, if you buy and read them, it won’t be for their original purpose. They’re interesting as historical documents: the late 80s and 90s are occupy a fuzzy position in society’s light cone: too recent to be historiographed like the 1960s, too old to be reliably archived by the internet. There’s a lot about the specific weltanschauung of 1995 (for example) that is largely forgotten except by the people who were there.
Millenium psychosis, for example. Kids often find it hard to believe that a lot of people thought the world was going to end in the year 2000. They were counting down the days until 1/1/2000, when computers would explode, the banking system would crash, and the human race would be dragged back to the Middle Ages. I had a friend ask me if I owned a pet, I said yes (a cat), and he advised me to emotionally prepare myself for the day I killed and cooked my pet for food. Twenty five winters ago.
A lot of this “not long…not long…” mentality is found in Apocalypse Culture, – more accurately, it saturates the text, like a layer of salt or spice. Every aberrant sex act and laceration is adduced to the fact that the end is coming, and we deserve it. JG Ballard describes the book as “terminal documents” for the 20th century. That sort of fits. The world didn’t end in 2000, but if it had, this book’s contents could be filed under Cause of Death.
In The Unrepentant Necrophile: we meet Karen Greenlee, “an American criminal who was convicted of stealing a hearse and having sex with the corpse it contained”. She explains the appeal of necrophilia (without success, it must be said), as well as the mechanics – for example, how does a woman perform a meaningful sex act with a corpse (answer: with a strong imagination). Necrophilia isn’t what it was in the 70s. Once, one of Karen’s signature moves was straddling a corpse and making it purge blood from its mouth into her own. In the age of HIV, it’s no longer safe to do this.
There’s a rare pre-arrest interview with Peter Sotos, who offers some typically sensitive thoughts on the gender issue (“Homos are a bit more attractive than women when they’re on top but disgusting when they’re on bottom. That sort of submissiveness stinks of femaleness.”)
Many essays assume you’re already ass-deep inside their particular intellectual rabbit hole, so to speak, and are inaccessible to newcomers. The Cosmic Pulse of Life is a discussion of psychoanalyst UFO researcher Wilhelm Reich’s work, and slings around terms like “orgone energy operation” and “kreiselwelle functions” without the slightest clue that the reader might need a guiding hand. The article gets silly at the end, with Reich zapping UFOs hovering over his lab with orgone-powered laser weapons. It might have been written as a joke.
There’s a bit of 1488, if you catch my meaning. Another reason books like Apocalypse Culture are out of vogue is that even fans of edgy media don’t really want to platform Nazis. Parfrey (who, under the Amok Press name, published a novel by Goebbels) didn’t give a fuck. One of the longest pieces in the book is his surprisingly well-read histography of eugenics, which he concludes is a good idea that should be practiced again. He paid the social price: a lot of contemporary discussion of (half-Jewish) Parfrey and his works consists of rebarbative arguments about whether he was a Nazi or not.
There are some unreadable things by Hakim Bey and Anton Szandor LaVey, who probably got in the book because of their names. Famous names are dangerous: they tend to open doors that should have stayed shut. The Invisible War ranks as the stupidest thing in the book. It reads like it was written by your 80 year old hippie aunt who just got into QAnon. I’m convinced Parfrey would have published the High Priest of Satan’s grocery list.
Maybe my favorite thing is Every Science is a Mutilated Octopus, by Charles Fort.
Every science is a mutilated octopus. If its tentacles were not clipped to stumps. it would feel its way into disturbing contacts. To a believer. the effect of the contemplation of a science is of being in the presence of the good, the true. and the beautiful. But what he is awed by is mutilation. To our crippled intellects. only the maimed is what we call understandable, because the unclipped ramifies into all other things. According to my aesthetics, what is meant by beautiful is symmetrical deformation.
This is bad writing but an interesting perspective, and one that’s withstood the years better than LaVey’s talk of subsonic earthquakes. Science is dangerous. Not as a side effect, but as a direct product. The more science we do, the more danger we expose ourselves to. Think of the things we’ve gained since Fort died in 1932. Nuclear weapons, defoliants, Biopreparat. The future holds worse. A superintelligent AI with goals misaligned with humanity would conceivably eliminate us with the unthinking inevitability a land-grader crushing an anthill. Science must be mutilated if we’re to survive it. Science with its tentacles intact might be more than just an octopus, it might be Cthulhu.
Books take the wild flux of changing times and freeze a snapshot of it. A lot of the past looks strange now, but was compelling when you were in the midst of it, and Apocalypse Culture brings it all back. And perhaps tomorrow, these alien fears and obsessions might become relevant once again. The universe is the site of a neverending apocalypse, and we’re standing in the middle of it, wondering how everything can be exploding all the time without the sky ever going dark.
No Comments »
Movies about animals are legally required to have a pun in the title, and An American Tail walked so that Dog With A Blog and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked could run.
It’s one of the grim, high-concept films Don Bluth made after he left Disney. Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time are famed for their craftsmanship, but they’re tough sledding, darker than any Disney film except for The Black Cauldron. A lot of people remember these films as classics. A lot of them also remember being scared and covering their eyes.
Fievel Mousekewitz’s family lives in a mousehole underneath a shtel in 1880’s Russia, but then Cossacks burn down the shtel, while a gang of cats destroy their home. Tail is clearly intended as a parable about antisemitism, with mice standing in for Jews and cats standing in for goyim. The setting is two generations before that of Maus, but it was still close enough for Art Spiegelman to ominously rumble about a lawsuit.
The opening scene is kind of hilarious, with mice being chased around by fez wearing, black-mustached cats roughly the size of Shetland ponies. Their growls have been pitch-adjusted into half-terrifying, half-comical gurgles. If the cats could breathe radioactive fire, this would be a kaiju film.
The displaced Mousekewitzes board a steamer bound for America, where (they have been told) there are no cats. Fievel unwisely ascends to the fore-deck during a storm, is blown overboard, and eventually washes ashore in a bottle. The rest of the film involves him looking for his family, along with some other complications.
Tail’s plotting is less surefooted than NIMH’s or Time’s. After the central drama is established (“Fievel has lost his family”), a great number of supporting characters are dumped into the story – a friendly pigeon, a streetwise Italian mouse, a rabble-rousing agitator, a rich lady mouse, a back-slapping politician type, a helpful vegetarian cat, and more – turning the film into an top-heavy mass of character right when it needs to be racing into the third act.
I remember being confused and uninvolved when I first saw it. I couldn’t follow the story: it just became a series of events. Although the final showdown is impressive and memorable, the villain was so forgettable that I did exactly that.
And although the animation is clearly Bluth’s, the film looks a little dull next to his other films. Secret of NIMH sparkled and twinkled, as if the cel sheets were studded with jewels. The Land Before Time was imbued with the hot, ferocious glow of the old world. Tail is just plain colorless. Dark seas. Sewers. City streets blanketed in smog. Average out all the pixels in the film and you’d get a muddy green-gray.
But it’s heartfelt, for all that. And again, the final showdown is both exciting and clever in how it pays off IOUs incurred at the start of the movie.
Roger Ebert criticized the film for being about anti-Semitism while not explaining this in a way that children can understanding.
One of the central curiosities of “An American Tail” is that it tells a specifically Jewish experience but does not attempt to inform its young viewers that the characters are Jewish or that the house burning was anti-Semitic. I suppose that would be a downer for the little tykes in the theater, but what do they think while watching the present version? That houses are likely to be burned down at random?
I understand his point, but children can hear the music without hearing the words. They might not know what a ghetto or a blood libel is, but they’ll have encountered playground bullies – people who pick on you because you look different or talk weird. It’s not too hard a concept to grasp. We’re not meant to sense any difference between the cossacks and cats: they attack at the same time, like they’re part of the same force.
Additionally, the Mousekewitzes are clearly different from the others in a way that transcends species. One of Fievel’s problems in America is that everyone think his name sounds silly, so he changes it to a more goyische Phil. This is matched by a shot of a human Jew likewise changing his name. It’s pretty well done and I had no problems understanding it.
In short, a messy but compelling picture. It’s not true that Don Bluth could do no wrong, but he was doing very little of it the 80s.
Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective came out the same year, with nearly the same concept (a society of mice running parallel to ours). An American Tail is a worthy example of an animated twin film, along with Aladdin and The Princess and the Cobbler in 1992-3, Antz and A Bug’s Life in 1998, The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000, Treasure Planet and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2002/3, etc. How to explain this? Animated films typically take years to make, which prohibits quick imitations and knockoffs.
(I got Mandela effect’d. I distinctly remember that Fievel sees whales when on the ship. On the rewatch I conducted for this review: nope, no whales. His father describes “fish as big as this boat”, and we hear mournful whalesong, and a later Don Bluth film (The Pebble and the Penguin) features whales, so maybe my brain made a lot of connections. Another example of how movies in memories are not real movies.)
No Comments »