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Full Review
Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon
by Barbara Hodgson
Chronicle Books 
Reviewed by Midevil, 5/16/2005

Barbara Hodgson’s Opium: A Potrait of the Heavenly Demon is bound in a deep purple cloth hardcover and filled with glossy pages. The book deals with a wide variety of art and literature concerning the opium dens and smoking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She focuses on North America, Europe, India, and China, with brief mentions of other places on the world map, such as Indochina (Vietnam) and Japan. Throughout, Hodgson provides a variety of images, from etchings to photographs and magazine covers, which are explained in great detail to the reader. Along with the visuals, she outlines a brief history of opium and its rise and fall in the regions mentioned above.

Hodgson’s choice of pictures covers a wide variety of issues centered on opium. She provides correction notes when images present opium use inaccurately. One such piece, the cover of the 1958 edition of Claude Farrier’s Black Smoke, shows an opium pipe with curls of smoke rising up and around a naked woman. Hodgson points out that sex and opium together is something that couldn’t “be further from the truth.” Continued use of opiates suppresses the ability to have orgasms and can also result in a decreased interest in sex in general (see The Big Smoke for further explanation). Images also display a variety of smokers, from the obscure to well-known writers such as Thomas De Quincey and Edgar Allan Poe. One of my only criticisms is that although Hodgson includes photographs and drawings of pipes and opium smoking kits, she does not include as wide of a variety of images of the opium kit as is found in Peter Lee’s The Big Smoke (Thailand: Lamplight Books, 1999). Lee’s work demonstrates opium-related paraphernalia (e.g., bowls, lamps, pipes, stands, cleaning tools) that range from the lower to ruling classes. However, Hodgson’s overall wide range of pictures lends credibility to her presentation of the opium culture in general.

Along with visuals, Hodgson provides a brief history of opium dens and the politics behind the opium trade that spanned continents. She marks her approach early on, stating that her “book is but the tip of the iceberg,” of the study of opium. At first, her introduction might put off the experienced reader who is a productive opiate user, with such comments as, “The waste of time, energy, and health is shocking.” Although many people who abuse substances do waste time as a consequence of intoxication, Hodgson gives ample evidence that some opium addicts of the time were productive. Among the examples she includes is Jean Cocteau, the prolific, multi-talented artist who wrote Opium: The Diary of a Cure, and failed miserably at drug rehab after checking into a clinic in the 1920s. According to Hodgson, Cocteau maintained success as an artist despite his addiction. As stated in the intro, the era’s preoccupation with intoxicating drugs wasn’t ultimately dysfunctional overall, if the rapid growth in the arts and sciences and industrialization is taken into consideration.

In creating a short reconstruction of a bygone era, Hodgson sends up the opium culture as a mirror of the current global drug war, although she does not specifically address it. There are so many instances within the text that cry out for comparisons; but those in the know are already aware of injustices, such as the fact that what one country prescribes for its own population can be completely at odds with countries that it controls. The British Christian condemnation of opium use within its own parameters during the period discussed clashed with its governmental pressure on China to allow Chinese citizens to suck up opium in vacuumed addiction, an hypocrisy which Hodgson fully illustrates through the British colonization of India and trade/smuggling with China (see the chapter entitled “Opium and the East” for full details). The Chinese government’s reluctance to allow British opium imports appears as an earlier echo of the Taliban’s ban of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, before the American government and military took over the country and poppies blossomed once again*. The Chinese government was ultimately unable to stop opium imports after losing to the British and French in the opium wars.

As an author who attempts to recreate the feel of the faded opium den, Hodgson leaves out one critical perspective: first hand testimony. While she offers numerous accounts of others, she does not in any way indicate that she herself has used, stating instead that she, like other non-smokers, is part of a group who partially “envies the ability of the opium smokers to commit fully to inertia and pleasure. Above all, [they] covet their poppied dreams.” The lack of personal experience in smoking, drinking, or taking opium pills leads to a few generalized comments, including “Socializing in opium dens was very important, not for the conversation, which was essentially nonexistent, but for the mere presence of other bodies. Rare were the smokers… who chose to smoke alone.” As with marijuana, group smoking tends to be the more popular route, but that does not mean that people did not or don’t smoke opium alone or abstain from conversing with others when smoking together. It would have been interesting to see an account of the author’s own take on doing opium, or an opiate such as morphine. Her lack of experience explains why Hodgson does not discuss important elements of opium smoking and use of opiates in general, like side effects or withdrawal symptoms, which users would expect to read about.

Despite Hodgson’s apparent opium virginity, she presents a decent collection of accounts, experiences, and arts through pictures and stories, both factual and fictional. The work was an easy read and did not condemn users of any drug (other substances are mentioned at various points in the book). Opium is presented as a substance that can destroy or complement the user, just like any other drug. The pages are filled with both dreamy and realistic records of lives that opium affected. Hodgson shows that members of all levels of society were involved in the opium industry. As an added benefit, the work also includes an index and bibliography for those readers that are interested in reading beyond the brief but well documented study. It’s also good for flipping through the illustrations and photos while socializing.

*For details concerning opium harvesting in Afghanistan, see the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and various dated articles from the BBC archives.

[Ed. note: A new paperback edition was released in 2004.]

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