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  • Writer's pictureValeria Pugliese

Opium Dream

Monsieur de Phocas, Jean Lorrain: mid-February, I savoured this book to the end.

The weekend after I meandered across the British Museum, searching for the bewitching gaze that tormented Sir Phocas in the glaucous empty orbits of the marble statues; sensually exhausted, I then moved to the East, looking for oriental pipes, specifically opium pipes.

I am easily seduced by heavy, oppressive aesthetics; Monsier Phocas was overflown with them, ad nauseam.

A chapter of the book is entirely dedicated to opium; opium has become a venomous obsession since.

A Eunuch's Dream, Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ, 1874

Not new, really, as a topic and reference in the fin de siècle literature: scenes set in opium dens appear in Dicken's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Holmes' The Man with a Twisted Lip, Baudelaire's Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises).

Dorian Gray (2009), directed by Oliver Parker

The most significant account of opium use (well, addition) in literature remains Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (currently on my reading list for Q2 2023).

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the imagery of dark and sultry Chinatown (at the time, London’s Chinatown was located in the East End) opium dens, where the educated and 'virtuous bourgeoisie would be subjugated by the Oriental poppies, became reinforced by turbid newspaper stories.

I have looked for opium dens in London: historically, two main establishments existed in New Court, Shadwell.

Still from Georges Rémond’s Dandy-Pacha, 1920

I recently visited a modern bar in the heart of the modern, West End, Chinatown; high expectations, higher disillusionment, a desperate longing for an aesthetic that has been lost.

Opium Cocktail Bar & Dim Sum Parlour, Soho, W1D 6JE

I am a rare creature in London, I am a 'drug virgin'.

I read historical accounts on the opium trade, I perused medical articles on its alleged effects, I interrogated people I know asking whether they ever tried it and if they would open up with me completely about their 'visions'; I have been a 'vampiric virgin', sucking knowledge from everywhere I could.

I am left with a toxic dichotomy of fear, listening to vicious opium-taking accounts and a sick fascination for it, now polluting my fantasies, desires, and aesthetic taste.

Georges Barbier perfectly evokes my opium dreams:

I now own a collection piece opium wood pipe: would I ever use it?

It is Sunday today; my afternoon ennui was disturbed by the following poem of Arthur Symons, The Opium Smoker (1887):

I am engulfed, and drown deliciously

Soft music like a perfume, and sweet light

Golden with audible colours exquisite,

Swathe me with cerements for eternity.

Times is no more. I pause and yet I flee.

A million ages wrap me round with night.

I drain a million ages of delight.

I hold the future in my memory.

A phallic empty pipe would not be enough tonight.

The opium fever led me to music: a fake (air synthesizer) shakuhachi, my hair let loose, a suffocating jasmine candle burning; pretension of orientalisme, opium dreaming while clearly awake.


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