The Opium Den on the End of your Street

The reflection and archane ritual of a single smoke filled room


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Reflection Pool

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In a long absence brought on by illness, I saw the truth of opium. Opium is a reflecting pool, spurned by those who dream of blackened, abyssal oblivion. A reflecting pool is but a shallow pond, yet to the pious soul its horizons border on nothing short of eternity.

Opium demands the highest degree of piety.

 

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Excerpt from Akiko Yosano

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“Mr. Wakabayashi also took us to see an opium den. It was located along a narrow alley crowded with brothels and eateries. The brothel next door was a small house with one door and a single room. The sight of a prostitute (between fourteen and twenty years of age) standing in the door, beckoning to potential customers was too painful to watch. Above the door into the opium den hung a sign reading, “Restricted Opium Use Here.” By moderating and eventually bringing an end to opium smoking, the authorities actually allowed opium use, which they then taxed as a source of revenue for the Fengtian government. In recent years, Zhang Zuolin [1875–1928] had been compelling farmers in the Northeast to cultivate opium for the same reason that he could extract a heavy tax on it. This opium den was a run-down house, not the sort of place frequented by persons of wealth. In the center of the room was an earthen floor, and several customers were lying prostrate on their sides on bed matting to the left and right as they smoked opium. People were wearing whatever they happened to have on. Already completely intoxicated, they were adrift in the land of dreams, sleeping with their faces turned upward. With the flames from a hand-held lantern, an assistant enabled those customers half-awake and half in a daze to smoke from a large pipe bowl full of opium the color of refined dark sugar. Not a single customer there seemed to notice us looking at them. Perhaps they were lost at the peak of their pleasurable dreams, but to those of us looking on it was a wretched, horrific sight.”

(Akiko Yosano, Travels in Manchuria and Mongolia: A Feminist Poet from Japan Encounters Prewar China)

Notes: Akiko, as a Japanese woman of means, encounters the opium den as a representative of a radical exteriority. Interestingly, her horror at the sight of the “prostrating” smokers, identifying them as worshipers of the lamp, expresses a sense of disgust with inhibition. The cultivated, post-Victorian individual sees only abjection in a complete loss of composure. Perhaps this further marks a distinguishing characteristic of opium smoking, namely that opium is about collecting a patch of ground for one’s ownmost self–even if only for an hour.


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Life is Boring

54a182246cd7bD’Alambert would not be the first, or the last, to describe, in his New Philosophy, the sum of humanity’s technological artifice and scientific endeavor is scarcely more than a flight away from pain and a search for pleasure. This perspective ought to almost certainly be shifted to opium.

It is an oft conceived trope: the fiend flees some filthy demon buried in the aphotic chasms of their soul–an awful ghoul, of gnarled face and browning tusk. Something of this course is certainly in the mix, but more common by many thousand leagues is the common human struggle of boredom.

Is boredom not the eternal strife of humankind? It has certainly felled marriages, shattered careers, given birth to great works, and silently fanned the flames in the bellies of warring nations.

Oh Opium, deliver us from this misery.

 

 


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On Finding the Proper Den

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On can scarcely be captious of where one smokes when abroad. The question of the private den is another matter altogether. Inevitably, the composition of a private den is read as an objectification of the smoker’s interiority, the outgrowth of some like-wise cool and torrid inward-life.

The very first ‘eve upon which I became acquainted with the ways of opium I smoked astride a cold, hard wooden floor. Some say insufficient comfort deprives the airways of the freedom necessary for proper circulation.

Thereafter, I accustomed the meager trappings of my private quarters to the comportment required to facilitate a proper den. Given my limitations, this meant the employment of my low mattress as a smoking platform, and the acquisition of a table of suitable height. Ever since, I have never had a nights sleep that did not mirror the days it lays between. For, so accustomed to reclining on one’s side, knees together, and the arch of the top foot resting on the ball of the lower, I can scarcely sleep unless I assume my customary smoking position.

As my condition changed, I came into the use of a dedicated space; no longer should the parliament of  my belongings smell of that oily smoke. Barely more than a windowed closet, I constructed a modest space of considerable ambition. A woven rice mat was placed upon the floor, and a folded blanket upon it on one side. Tapestries were hung from the walls, between which hung the pipes available for usage. Lit only by red lanterns and an opium lamp, I would betray the heartfelt confidence of any party to defend my tender sanctuary, so inundated with the scent of opium and incense.

It was in this netherworld of my ownmost phantasie that I found fountain of youth, the fruits of Elysium. It was in such caves of ice that one gleans a subtle truth:

Opium is a monarch; and a monarch’s hidden splendor only unfolds in the bounds of a kingdom.

 


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Notes by Lamplight

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Any smoker, any denizen of this sickly lamplight, knows that opium has dreadful little to do with alkaloids and their physiological effects. I have never known even the most pious tender of the pipe to say “Oh! Were it that I had just smoked opium!” The grace of opium dances in that subliminal space, somewhere between the lighting of the lamp and the final breath. The addict wishes only that they could always be in the process of smoking.