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Nick Tosches trades civilization and its discontents for the possibility of one moment of pure bliss.
Driven by romantic, spiritual, and medicinal imperatives, Nick Tosches goes in search of something everyone tells him no longer exists: an opium den. From Europe to Hong Kong to Thailand to Cambodia, he hunts the Big Smoke, bewildered by its elusiveness and, despite the meaning it continues to evoke as a cultural touchstone, its alleged extinction. Weaving his spiritual and ...
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Nick Tosches trades civilization and its discontents for the possibility of one moment of pure bliss.
Driven by romantic, spiritual, and medicinal imperatives, Nick Tosches goes in search of something everyone tells him no longer exists: an opium den. From Europe to Hong Kong to Thailand to Cambodia, he hunts the Big Smoke, bewildered by its elusiveness and, despite the meaning it continues to evoke as a cultural touchstone, its alleged extinction. Weaving his spiritual and hallucinogenic quests together with inimitable, razor-sharp prose, Tosches's trip becomes a deeper meditation on what true fulfillment is and why no one bothers to look for it any more.
You see, I needed to go to hell I was, you might say, homesick. But first, by way of explanation, the onion.
A friend of mine owns a restaurant that is considered to be one of the best Italian restaurants in New York. As is the case at most other Italian restaurants in Manhattan, the food is prepared by Dominicans or sundry other fellows of more exotic and indiscernible ethnic origin. This particular Third World truffle joint where I take my lunch possesses the added cachet of `cucina toscana,' invoking the all-American theme park, Florence, where today one would be hard-pressed to find a vero fiorentino amid the overcrowding herd of estivating tourists that is Dante's revenge.
Anyway, there I sit, and I cannot help but see and hear what surrounds me, as modish men raise glasses of wine and discuss balance, body, bouquet. My friend the proprietor is not a stupid man when it comes to business. He encourages them, engages them in the subtler points of their delusory expertise. The smile on his face — he has sold them for several hundred dollars what cost him far less — is to their purblind eyes both gratification and benediction, an acceptance of their expertise and knowing.
And I sit, and I sit, and I ponder the onion that has been placed before me. For this particular onion bespeaks more than the whole of the Uffizi the true nature of Italian creativity, more than the whole of Machiavelli the true nature of Tuscan cunning.
It is, to be precise, not even an onion, merely half an onion. Ah, but it is half a WallaWalla onion — this fact is flaunted — roasted and topped with a smidgen of caviar. The price is thirty-five dollars. As the cost of a single, one-pound Walla Walla onion is about a dollar, and the cost of beluga caviar well under twenty five dollars an ounce, this half an onion and its smidgen must be worth about five or six bucks. Mysticized into a rare and precious delicacy by my friend, it is a very popular item: whenever the caviar runs out, the fifty-cent half-onion is served at a price of ten dollars.
As I ponder the onion, my memory wanders back, a quarter of a century ago and more, to this place before my friend took it over and made it into one of the great chi-chi joints of Manhattan. It was in those days a small semi-private eating establishment, a joint whose patrons were mostly gentlemen of a darkly taciturn sort. I can just imagine the gent by whose name the place was known setting before one of them half an American onion as if it were a treasure, and then suggesting not only that he pay for it but that he pay twenty-fold for it. It would have been the owner's end. For his truly were customers of worldly discernment. It is my friend's fortune that they are a dying breed, replaced by the neo cafoni of today.
* * *
Anyway, let's get to what Kant called the ever elusive point. It has something to do with the halved onion, yes, but it has to do, too, with the balance, body, and bouquet of the wine.
Ours, increasingly, is the age of pseudo-connoisseurship, the means by which we seek fatuously to distinguish ourselves from the main of mediocrity. To sit around a bottle of rancid grape juice, speaking of delicate hints of black currant, oaken smoke, truffle, or whatever other dainty nonsense with which nature is fancied to have enlaced its taste, is to be a cafone of the first order. For if there is the delicate hint of anything to be sensed in any wine, it is likely that of pesticide and manure. Of a 1978 Château Margaux, one `connoisseur' pronounces: `With an hour's air, this wine unfolded to reveal scents of sweet cassis, chocolate, violets, tobacco, and sweet vanillin oak. With another ten years or so, this wine may evolve into the classic Margaux mélange of cassis, black truffles, violets, and vanilla.' As if this were not absurdity enough, there is `a note of bell pepper lurking in the cassis.'
How could so sophisticated a nose fail to detect the cow shit with which this most celebrated estate in Bordeaux fertilizes its vines? A tree wine connoisseur, if there were such a thing, would taste the pesticide and manure above all else: he would be not a goûteur de vin but rather a goûteur de merde. But there is no true connoisseurship of wine outside of those who know that the true soul of wine, l'âme du vin, is vinegar. It is in sipping straight those rare aged vinegars designated da here that one truly tastes wonders: the real thing, an ichor far beyond the jive-juice of that industry of adjectives and pretense which was once the artless and noble drink of artless and noble peasants — peasants nobler and of greater connoissance than the moneyed suckers of today who have been conned into believing that the tasting of wine calls for words other than `good,' `bad,' or `just shut up and drink.'
But, yes, the ever elusive point.
I'm sitting there, and I remember the old days, and I remember the taste of that vinegar, and I remember a thousand other things, and I remember the rarest taste of all: the taste of the breath of illimitableness.
Fuck this world of thirty-five-dollar onions and those who eat them. Fuck this world of pseudo-sophisticated rubes who could not recognize the finer things in life — from a shot of that vinegar to the first wisp of fall through a tree — let alone appreciate them, these rubes who turned New York into a PG-rated mall and who oh so loved it thus.
They were dead. The neighborhood was dead. The city was dead. Even the goddamn century was dead.
My limousine pulled up outside. It looked like a hearse. I decided to live. That is the ever elusive point, the point that eludes us all too often unto the grave.
* * *
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 [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 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 nineteenth 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, twenty-five 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.
Both as medicine and as holy panacea, opium is older than any known god. Its origins lie in the prehistoric mists of the early Neolithic period. It was glorified in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, emerged in the Mediterranean region with the primal Great Mother, and remained tied to her, in her evolving guises, through the archaic and classical periods. As attested by Homer, it was a theophanous substance to the Greeks, who gave the wondrous poppy-sap its name, [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Latinized as opium. The Doric word for the opium poppy, [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which to the classical Greeks became [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] — mekon — gave the opium-rich town of Kyllene its olden name of Mekone, or Poppytown. There, in a sanctuary of Aphrodite, a gold-and-ivory image of the goddess later stood, an apple in one hand, a poppy in the other.
As with the mysterious confluences of religion, there are echoes and enlaced winds, defying both history and linguistics, that pervade the mysterious world of opium. Throughout Asia, regardless of language or of dialect, the many words for opium are resonant of the oldest known word for it, which itself is a resonance of the unknown. From the Poppytown of ancient Greece to the ancient town in the opium heartland of modern Turkey whose name, Afyan, and the name of opium are one; from vanished Mekone to the Mekong river that today runs through the Golden Triangle: it is as if the stuff, transcending time and place, imbued all voice with its strange numinous breath.
De Quincey never smoked opium. Had he done so, one can only imagine the extent to which his extravagant reverence would have been drawn. But as the origins of the holy marriage between man and opium are lost to the mists of the primordium, so too are those of the Big Smoke. There is the tale, commonly accepted as troth, that the Dutch introduced the practice of smoking opium in a tobacco pipe to the Chinese at the turn of the eighteenth century. But it is impossible to `smoke' opium in a tobacco pipe, as opium neither bums nor converts into smoke. Rather, it is distilled into vapor through a chemistry quite unlike that of any other `smoking.' The process, or art, of this chemistry, though quite simple when mastered, demands many things: the combined exactitudes of appropriate lamp oil, design of lamp and lamp chimney, properly trimmed wick of fitting fiber; the craft of employing the slender spindle to heat, spin, and knead the opium — to say nothing of the lengthy previous preparations of the opium — prior to its insertion into the tiny hole of the pipe bowl, or damper; the precisely manipulated distance and downward angle of the pipe bowl over the lamp flame. These are all necessary to facilitate the exact degree of latent heat required to convert the opium into vapor. There are those who might say that the chemistry of opium smoking is chemistry as much in the original sense of the word chymistrie the dark and magic art of alchemy — as in the current.
It has been put forth that opium smoking was practiced in China as early as 1500, that the stuff itself had been introduced to China by Arab traders as early as the year 400. Recent archaeological discoveries in Cyprus have brought to light what very well may be opium pipes dating to the late Bronze Age — discoveries detailed in the deep-seeking scholarship of Mark David Merlin's On the Trail of the Ancient Opium Poppy. How was the secret of the Big Smoke — the key to paradise — lost for almost 2,000 years, if the practice was indeed known to Bronze Age Cyprus? The mystery befits the mystery of its powers.
All that is known for certain is that opium smoking was widespread in China by the mid-18th century, and that its vapors reached Europe and America a hundred years later, about the time of poor De Quincey's death in the country that had started it all by imposing its Indian opium on China. But this is no place to touch upon the Opium Wars, nor upon the fact that nothing really began either with Europe's bringing from India to China what Alexander the Great had brought to India, or even with that Bronze Age pipe so long ago. When God put His mouth to the nostrils of Adam, there was probably opium on His breath.
* * *
The one irrefutable fact is there is nothing like opium on the face of this earth. For more than 5,000 years, from `the plant of joy,' as the Sumerians knew it, to `the celestial drug' of De Quincey's seduction and thralldom, `the forbidden, fabulous opium' (in the words of another addict, Jean Cocteau) has been the dangerous glimpse of paradise from which no initiate has passed unchanged. This, the supernal power of opium, is not a fact of ancient mysteries and visionary poets alone. As acknowledged by Edward M. Brecher, whose monumental study Licit and Illicit Drugs was in 1989 recognized as a `towering work' by the straitlaced New York Times, the nineteenth-century medical community commonly described opium in terms as mighty with awe as those of any Mesopotamian seer: `God's own medicine.'
So, then. Why opium? That's why. And why the opium den? The answer to that can be expressed in one word: romance.
Visions of dark, brocade-curtained, velvet-cushioned places of luxurious decadence, filled with the mingled smoke and scents of burning joss sticks and the celestial, forbidden, fabulous stuff itself. Wordless, kowtowing servants. Timelessness. Sanctuary. Lovely loosened limbs draped from the high-slit cheongsams of recumbent exotic concubines of sweet intoxication. Dreams within dreams. Romance.
Yes, I was born to smoke opium, born to smoke it in an opium den. There were a couple of problems, however. For one thing, opium is illegal. True, I am no saint, but I am no scofflaw either.
I suffer from diabetes. My failure to maintain control of this disease through diet, exercise, medication, and the avoidance of stress has mystified physicians, including the foremost of endocrinologists. Only recently was it brought to my attention that, among its many proven age-old medicinal uses — as a cure for dysentery, asthma, rheumatism, etc. — opium was considered to be effective in the treatment of diabetes.
The thought of breaking the law troubled me gravely. But I have always had another disease as well: the desire to live. To not do everything in my power to save my own life would be to break the law of God and of the sanctity of life as well. I deliberated. I meditated. I prayed. I shared my thoughts with a priest — I did not share with him the bit about the envisioned gams draped from the slits of the doped-up broads' dresses; there was no need to — and he told me, Go for it. I felt better. Now if ever I ran afoul of the law, I could blame it on the priest.
* * *
But, as I said, there were a couple of problems. Now that this law-abiding diabetic was right with God, he faced the second of those problems. It was almost impossible to get opium these days anywhere in America or Europe. For two years, with the help of many, even those not unfamiliar with the less savory strata of society, I searched. New York, nothing. Paris, nothing. London, nothing. Rome, nothing. Berlin, nothing. Finally, from a Turkish art dealer, I got hold of something that was supposed to be opium. It looked and felt like all the other stuff that was bought and sold as opium years ago when it was not so rare. God only knows what this stuff was, what it had always been: some sort of Turkish junk, perhaps containing something of opium, more likely something of the toxic residue of opium; but it wasn't opium, and, as I was to discover, it never had been. Besides, even if it was, even if it ever had been, no one had a real opium pipe, no one knew how to use one. Sure, one could eat it, stick it up one's ass, `smoke' it in a hash pipe, but whatever effect it had, other than to make one ill, was all in the suggestibility of one's mind.
As for opium dens, forget it.
America had been involved in the opium trade since the early nineteenth century, when John Jacob Astor, among others, made a fortune smuggling tons of Turkish opium to Canton. And as laudanum, opium was no less familiar in the States than it was in England. But it was the Chinese immigrants, come to build the railroads and work the mines, who brought the paradise of the pipe to America.
The phrase `opium den' had barely entered the language when San Francisco banned the smoking of opium within its city limits in the 1870s. For thirty years and more, as the Chinese population spread across America, an ever increasing number of opium dens, amid ever increasing anti-opium legislation, operated in open secrecy in every major city. The fever of public indignation grew as the habitués of the dens became ever less confined to the Chinese whose souls were as nought on the scales of American values. Periodicals and their readers thrived on lurid exposés, vicarious visits often embellished by fancy, or wrought of fancy pure, to those lairs of iniquity where gangsters, the demimonde, and the slumming vampires of Broadway and high society — in short, the hip — gathered together in the languor of the irredeemable.
The word `hip,' whose currency was common enough for it to have appeared in print by 1904 — around the time, coincidentally, that the first opium song, `Willie the Weeper,' seems to have originated — may have derived from the classic, age-old, pelvic-centered, side-lying opium-smoking position, and may have been used originally as a sign of mutual recognition and reference by those who were in the know about the big sweet smoke.
Amid raids, seizures, and arrests, opium dens continued to operate in New York and elsewhere. In the early decades of the twentieth century, as the drag trade was taken over by the Judeo-Christian coalition that came to control crime, Jewish and Italian names became almost as common as Chinese names in the reports of those arrested for smuggling, selling, and den-running. While the old Chinese opium smokers died off, the new drug lords actively cultivated a market for the opium derivatives, first morphine and then heroin, two nineteenth-century inventions that offered far greater profit margins — the Onion Principium — than opium itself.
These drugs offered oblivion, not ethereality, a rush into the void rather than a slow drifting to blissful serenity. Younger people — strangers more and more to opium smoking as its presence ebbed, or knowing it only in the increasingly impure form in which the Judeo-Christian consortium delivered it forth; strangers more and more perhaps to the possibility of serenity itself, or to the appeal of any slow drifting — were easily won over to oblivion and the visceral rush. They did not want a drawn-out ceremony, a ritual; they wanted the rush. While the cultivation and supply of opium increased beyond knowing, the smoking of opium vanished. Its end was an ouroboros: a decrease in demand, with no cause to rekindle or sustain that fading demand, as those who were the satisfiers of demand could make far more money by processing opium into heroin. The flower of joy, crushed into the flower of misery, could yield tenfold in gold, tenfold in addiction, and thus; exponentially, on and on.
By the late 1930s, opium dens were rare. A 1936 book, Chinatown Inside Out, tells of fake opium dens operated in cahoots with tourist-bus companies to offer a bit of `false local color.' (As for false local color, the book's author, Leong Gor Yun, was in reality the multi-pseudonymous Virginia Howell Ellison, the author of The Pooh Cook Book of 1969 and The Pooh Party Book of 1971.)
The bust, in the fall of 1950, of a den in
Excerpted from THE LAST OPIUM DEN by Nick Tosches. Copyright © 2000 by Nick Tosches Inc. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.