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.
“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.
D’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.
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.
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.
The Ancient Greek understanding of τέχνη (rendered as techne) is tremendously dynamic. It’s the root of the word “technology”, but it essentially describes a craft in the sense of something that is done. Techne, then, refers to a systematic knowledge of something which is utilized in a task. Techne refers to an artform and, indeed, it was synonymous with making art in Ancient Greece. There is a techne of chimney sweeping, a techne of chariot riding, and a techne of opium smoking.
Of course, it is difficult to imagine a techne of opium smoking as such. The knowledge and practices of the art are localized and deeply historical. Nor can it be reduced to the most “effective” consumption of alkaloids via smoking opium; the practice itself is always firstly encoded with perceptions of meaning and value. For the Chinese smoker, the best pipes were made of bamboo, silver, and ivory. These preferences are grounded in a specific cultural history: the influence of classical Chinese philosophy encourages the use of the Yang ivory to balance the Yin opium. But, they are also encoded with culture notions of taste: bamboo is preferred over wood or metal because it absorbs the flavor of the smoke and can become “seasoned” by repeated use.
You see some of these preferences opposed in, for example, middle eastern renditions of the opium pipe. It’s worth noting that, today, the vast majority of, at least, 13 million opium users in the world live in the cultural sphere of the near-East. There, you see a preference for darker, even aromatic, wood, something shocking to the sensibilities of smokers in the Chinese style. Of course, though, there are different technes, there is no style to opium smoking as such. I take this occasion to give some mention to the style of opium smoking primarily practiced today.
The Middle Eastern opium pipe is something altogether different from the Chinese pipe. Generally shorter and made of wood, the pipe bowl is attached to the end of the stem rather than the side. Almost all of the representations I’ve seen and own have threading on the pipe bowl and stem, which allows the user to “screw” the bowl on tight. Generally, this method makes an excellent seal. It should be said that a similar, cruder design is seen throughout South-east Asia, likely because of how easily it can be made.
The opium is almost always prepared in a dried state, broken up into peas-sized chunks before it’s heated and attached to the bowl’s face with a needle. Nicer Chinese bowls have indentations, to allow the bowl to better receive the “cone”. Middle Eastern bowls do not. They simply have a small hole in an otherwise rounded ceramic bowl. It is possible this makes it easier to heat the opium with the use of a hot coal, as is the custom in some parts of Afghanistan and Iran. As a smoker in the Chinese style, the use of a hot coal pollutes the rich flavors of the opium, adding the taste of charcoal and ash. This also, of course, breaks up the closed stance and postioning of the Chinese style, where two smokers can lay across from one another but only one can smoke at a time. By sitting in a circle and sharing a pan of coals, the communal activity of eating is mirrored in the process of opium smoking. Naturally, this changes the way selfhood is imagined as a smoker. This quality carries over into the idea of connoisseurship. Connoisseurship is a form of individuated self-cultivation and is a major component of Chinese opium smoking that is noticeably less present in the Middle Eastern practice.
The question this leaves the opium smoker is: if there are disparate forms or “crafts” of opium smoking, does this undermine the Chinese idea of opium smokers as being a nation, unto themselves? Does the smoker of the Chinese style seeing themselves in the near-East, even if they could never part with a well-seasoned bamboo pipe?