Nick Tosches on Opium Dens | Culture | Vanity Fair
I was born to smoke opium.Don’t get me wrong: I am against drugs, having long ago forsworn their use and embraced the spiritual path as set forth by The Celestine Prophecy and that guy with the big, shiny forehead. Drugs kill.
Nonetheless, I was born to smoke opium. More precisely, I was born to smoke opium in an opium den.
Why opium? Thomas De Quincey’s description of it as “the celestial drug” is not far from perfect: “Here,” said he, “was a panacea, a φάρμ˘ακον νηπενθές, for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness about which the philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered.” This celestial drug, this panacea, “communicates serenity and equipoise to all the faculties, active or passive,” and “introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony.” No one, “having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium, will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol.”
Ponder these words; then pause to ponder too that De Quincey never experienced opium in its purest essence. As the title of his classic work, The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, indicates, De Quincey never inhaled the vapors that are the transubstantiated soul of the drug in its most celestial form. De Quincey betrothed opium in London in the early years of the 19th century, before the pipe came west. He took his opium by means of the tincture known as laudanum, a dilution of the drug in alcohol, 25 drops of laudanum containing perhaps a single minuscule grain of opium. Thus the effects of the drug, no matter how celestial, were degraded and deadened by the overwhelming quantity of the “gross and mortal” alcohol which constituted the basis of laudanum. The mixture of opium with wine is alluded to in the Odyssey, and as Homer praises it mightily and knowingly, we can assume that the first and greatest among poets was no stranger to the celestial drug.