The Pursuit of Oblivion

The Pursuit of Oblivion
Posted by CN Staff on September 29, 2002 at 10:35:16 PT
By Christine Kenneally
Source: New York Times 
In a sunless room in Bengal in the 1670's, a group of English sailors enacted a scene that would, in spirit, be repeated in basements, bedrooms and alleys of the Western world for centuries. First, they each swallowed a pint of bhang, a local drink. One of the sailors then sat and sobbed all afternoon, another began a fistfight with a wooden pillar, yet another inserted his head inside a large jar. The rest sat about or lolled upon the floor. They were completely stoned. 
Psychotic, depressed or mirthful, the sailors' behavior was induced by bhang's crucial ingredient -- cannabis, also known as ganja, charas, grifa, anascha, liamba, bust, dagga, hashish, hemp and marijuana. Their drug-addled afternoon, reported firsthand by the merchant Thomas Bowrey, who sat sweating throughout it, is the earliest account by an Englishman of recreational cannabis use. With this report, the English writer Richard Davenport-Hines begins ''The Pursuit of Oblivion,'' a history of drug taking that is dense with scholarship and, because it is a ''history of emotional extremes,'' highly absorbing. Early on, Davenport-Hines presents with appealing plainness a radical idea: ''Intoxication is not unnatural or deviant.'' This small statement shapes his book. In refusing to view drug use through the lens of the modern criminal justice system, Davenport-Hines extends his focus beyond the ''drug problem'' or the miseries we bring upon ourselves (though it includes many examples of that). Instead, he sees it as part of the repertoire of normal human activities. He also states that ''absolute sobriety is not a natural or primary human state.'' Humans have always used drugs, a fact that underpins ''The Pursuit of Oblivion,'' a history of the controlled and uncontrolled use of substances that alter consciousness, shift feeling and meet an immense range of human wants and needs. Davenport-Hines, whose books include studies of Auden and the gothic genre, notes that his view conflicts with a prohibitionist view of drugs. He briefly categorizes the major drug groups (opium is a narcotic, cannabis and LSD are hallucinogens, amphetamines and coffee are stimulants) and points out that their physiological effects have been truly understood only in the last 30 years. He presents a multitude of capsule biographies, official reports, literary excerpts, government inquiries and medical histories that provide overwhelming support for the idea that drug use is not deviant and, moreover, that it often reflects the ideal of ''human perfectibility, the yearning for a perfect moment, the peace that comes from oblivion.'' The documentation of specific drugs and desires is dazzling. Opium is one of the oldest known drugs. An Egyptian papyrus describing 700 different opium mixtures (including one for calming bothersome children) dates to 1552 B.C. Cocaine is one of the most recent. It was first extracted in 1860 by a chemistry student, Albert Niemann, for his doctoral thesis. In between are betel, qat, pituri, alcohol, chloroform, mescaline and tea, among others. History's drug users have been rich and poor, despairing and lighthearted, educated, unemployed and holders of political office. They have imbibed, inhaled and injected to allay physical discomfort, increase sexual stamina, feed addiction, soften coughs, take a mental holiday or just feel normal. Marcel Proust was fond of the stimulant amyl nitrate before bedtime (it helped his asthma). Arsenic-eaters in 19th-century Austria were in search of clear skin and a good aphrodisiac. Civil War soldiers took opium to prevent malaria and diarrhea. Crawford Long, a young doctor in Jefferson, Ga., was motivated by fun. In 1842, he staged ''ether frolics,'' riotous parties where the chemical was dispensed. When Long noticed that his guests sustained wounds while stumbling about drunk but did not seem to feel them, he began to experiment with the drug as a medical anesthetic, thus shaping the course of modern surgery. Inevitably, the story of narcotics is closely intertwined with the story of the Western medical establishment. Yet this connection has rarely been as uncomplicated or benevolent as Long's ether experiment. For hundreds of years, doctors have been users and often addicts. In the late 1800's, most of the male morphine addicts in the United States were physicians. Through ignorance or therapeutic intent, they also made addicts out of many of their patients. Similarly, no account of drug use is complete without a thorough analysis of commerce, global trade, politics and antidrug legislation. Dozens of perfectly legal drug products were once available, like morphine and heroin pastilles (available through department store catalogs in England). In the 1930's, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, airline stewardesses would regularly offer barbiturates, asking, ''Dear, do you want an aspirin? . . . or Nembutal?'' Davenport-Hines assembles strong evidence to support his belief that criminalization has created the modern drug problem. Indeed, history offers few examples of punitive legislation curing addiction or ending trafficking. He contends that because risk is closely tied to profit, enforcing laws against drug trafficking actually increases the economic reward for those willing to run an illegal business. The facts he cites bear him out: world coca production doubled between 1985 and 1996. Opium production tripled. Because the book spans continents, millenniums and subjects, from the opium habit of Emperor Marcus Aurelius to the invention of hypodermic needles, the sheer volume of detail in ''The Pursuit of Oblivion'' makes it demanding to read. But it is an extremely impressive work, not just for its common-sense argumentation and encyclopedic breadth, but also because of Davenport-Hines's sharp eye for a good story. He skillfully weaves anecdotes into his analyses, like that of the Derbyshire schoolteacher in 1911 who demanded that a pupil tell him why the geography class was so sleepy. The reply: ''Percy Toplis brought in a bottle of laudanum, Sir, and passed it round the class, Sir.'' ''The Pursuit of Oblivion'' follows a long trail of desire, despair and bad decisions, and it is impossible not to feel a sense of connection with many of its case studies. Whether or not the book's readers are personally familiar with the effects of narcotics, they will understand at least some of the emotions that surround their use. After all, who hasn't longed for oblivion or dreamed of ecstasy? Who hasn't wished for something, anything, to take the edge off daily life? Christine Kenneally is writing a book about the evolution of language.Complete Title: 'The Pursuit of Oblivion': Drug Taking as Part of Human NatureThe Pursuit of OblivionA Global History of Narcotics. By Richard Davenport-Hines.Illustrated. 576 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95. Source: New York Times (NY)Author: Christine KenneallyPublished: September 29, 2002Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company Contact: letters Website: Related Articles:Legalisation: The First Hundred Years Views: Afghan Heroin Trade Will Live On
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Comment #2 posted by DdC on September 29, 2002 at 11:58:01 PT
From Whom Did (Does) the Fascists Get Support?
"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the
leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked,
and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to
Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Nazi Air Force (Luftwaffe) commander,
the Nuremberg Trials "How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries
and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the
young, can only be conjectured...No one knows, when he places a marijuana
cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveller in a musical
heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer..."
Commissioner of the US Bureau of Narcotics 1930 1962 "The masses have little time to think. And how incredible is the willingness of
modern man to believe." "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes,
Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing,
result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek
sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
Harry Anslinger, U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, testifying to Congress on
why marijuana should be made illegal, 1937.
(Marijuana Tax Act, signed Aug. 2, 1937; effective Oct. 1, 1937.) "Another weapon I discovered early was the power of the printed word to
sway souls to me. The newspaper was soon my gun, my flag - a thing with a
soul that could mirror my own."
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini together in the heyday of 1930s fascism. From Whom Did the Fascists Get Support?
Italian fascism and German Nazism had their admirers within the U.S.
business community and the corporate owned press. Bankers, publishers, and
industrialists, including the likes of Henry Ford, traveled to Rome and Berlin
to pay homage, receive medals, and strike profitable deals. Many did their
utmost to advance the Nazi war effort, sharing military industrial secrets and
engaging in secret transactions with the Nazi government, even after the United
States entered the war. During the 1920s and early 1930s, major publications
like Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Saturday Evening Post, New York Times,
Chicago Tribune, and Christian Science Monitor hailed Mussolini as the man
who rescued Italy from anarchy and radicalism. Cannabis Hemp: The Invisible Prohibition Revealed Elkhorn Manifesto drugs produce different effects and pose different risks. The legal status of any given drug is not necessarily a reliable indicator of its potential for harm. Whereas marijuana has never been shown to cause an overdose death, alcohol poisoning kills more people every year than all illegal drugs combined. Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D. has described tobacco as more addictive than heroin. Anti-social behavior is oftentimes associated with illegal drugs, when drug prohibition plays a critical role in exacerbating problem behavior. During a 1988                    government hearing Dr. Koop testified that "[i]f tobacco suddenly were unavailable and was as expensive as heroin and cocaine, I think that you would find that the behavior of some tobacco addicts would be very much like the behavior of some addicts of heroin and cocaine."Perilous Play, by Louisa May Alcott stretched his hand to her with his heart in his face, and she gave him hers with a look of tender submission, as he said ardently, "Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!" The USA Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy 1987 
"Cannabis can be used on an episodic but continual basis without evidence of social or psychic dysfunction. In many users the term dependence with its obvious connotations, probably is mis-applied... The chief opposition to the drug rests on a moral and political, and not toxicologic, foundation". Peace, Love and Liberty or the Fascist!...DdC
Cocaine Toothache Drops Advertisement, 1885
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Comment #1 posted by Toad on September 29, 2002 at 11:21:31 PT
Pot makes you violent and do dangerous things
Thank the New York Times for perpetuating the most ridiculous claims about cannabis. Starting fights is an old one but sticking you're head in a jar is really good stuff.
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