Tag Archives: opium

“Sonnet to Sleep” by John Keats

Portrait of John Keats by Joseph Severn

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

This poem is about the longing to escape physical and emotional suffering. Keats expresses deep anguish which appears to be a combination of bodily pain accompanied by thoughts and memories which torment him. As he lies awake in bed, he longs for the forgetfulness of sleep, but sleep eludes him.

Sleep is a common metaphor for death, and Keats uses certain words associated with death to convey the sense that he is weary of living and longs to pass from mortal existence. The words “embalmer” in the opening line and “casket” in the closing line actually serve as a way of entombing the entire poem. Also, the fact that the poem is set at midnight implies that he is at a symbolic threshold, ready to move on to the next plane of existence.

There is one last thing I feel is worth noting. In lines 7 and 8, there is a reference to the use of poppy, which in Keats’ time would be opium. It appears that Keats has turned to narcotics as a way to ease his physical and spiritual pain. But in spite of his self-anesthetizing, he is still unable to numb the darkness, “burrowing like the mole” into the deepest regions of his psyche.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 5

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

Episode 5 corresponds with Book 9 in Homer’s Odyssey, which tells of the lotus-eaters. According to Greek mythology, the lotus-eaters “were a race of people living on an island near North Africa (possibly Djerba) dominated by lotus plants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were narcotic, causing the people to sleep in peaceful apathy.” (Wikipedia) This episode of Joyce’s novel incorporates imagery of drugs, plants, and placidness.

Early in the episode, Joyce establishes the connection between flowers and drowsiness.

The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing around in the sun, in dolce far niente. Not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness.

(p. 71)

There are a couple interpretations for this passage. On one level, it implies that narcotic flowers, such as the opium poppy, cause persons to lose themselves in a drug-induced daze, essentially losing touch with reality. But I feel that Joyce is also associating sex with drugs, the flower representing a woman’s sexuality. It is easy to lose oneself in the pleasure of sexual ecstasy and to lose interest in the world around.

We discover in this episode that Leopold Bloom is engaged in clandestine correspondence with a woman named Martha and that these letters they are writing are sexual in nature. While Bloom has not consummated any physical intimacy with Martha, it is evident that she wants to take it to the next level. I couldn’t help thinking how if this scene was written today, they would be meeting in a chat room or sending emails to each other. What I found most interesting about this correspondence and what makes it important to this episode is the pen name that Bloom uses: Henry Flowers. There is the association between his real and assumed last names, both of which tie into the theme of the lotus-eaters. There is also a sense that Bloom is using these letters as an escape from reality. What Leopold and Martha share is an illusion, a distraction from what is actually happening.

According to Karl Marx, religion is the opiate of the masses. Joyce draws on this concept by adding a scene in which Bloom enters a church and then considers how some cultures would actually prefer real opium to the numbing religion offered by the church.

Same notice on the door. Sermon by the reverend John Conmee S. J. on saint Peter Claver and the African mission. Save China’s millions. Prefer an ounce of opium. Celestials. Rank heresy for them.

(p. 80)

After leaving the church, Bloom stops into a pharmacy. The pharmacy is depicted as an almost alchemical lab, where the chemist produces drugs, lotions, and perfumes all intended to induce a state of drowsiness and forgetfulness.

The chemist turned back page after page. Sandy shriveled smell he seems to have. Shrunken skull. And old. Quest for the philosopher’s stone. The alchemists. Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then. Why? Reaction. A lifetime in a night. Gradually changes your character. Living all the day among herbs, ointments, disinfectants. All his alabaster lily-pots. Mortar and pestle. Aq. Dist. Fol. Laur. Te Virid. Smell almost cure you like the dentist’s doorbell. Doctor whack. He ought to physic himself a bit. Electuary and emulsion. The first fellow that picked an herb to cure himself had a bit of pluck. Simples. Want to be careful. Enough stuff here to chloroform you. Test: turns blue litmus paper red. Chloroform. Overdose of laudanum. Sleeping draughts. Lovephiltres. Paragoric poppysyrup bad for cough. Clogs the pores or the phlegm. Poisons the only cures. Remedy where you least expect it. Clever of nature.

(p. 84)

The episode ends with Bloom in a bath. He is giving in to the narcotic state, his flaccid penis floating in the water being symbolic of the dull state of all mankind, having lost all virility.

He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.

(p. 86)

Check back soon for my thoughts on Episode 6, which ends on page 115 with the line “How grand we are this morning.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section5.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus-eaters

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people

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“The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker

GolemJinniI first heard of this book on the Huffington Post. They compared it to The Night Circus, which I loved. Later, I was perusing the shelves of a local bookstore and noticed it was one of the staff recommendations. The book itself was beautiful: quality pages, stunning cover, fine quality. I was hooked. I went ahead and splurged for the hardcover edition.

The story takes place in New York City in the late 1800’s, where two mystical beings attempt to survive and avoid being discovered. They meet and as the story unfolds, they learn the secrets of the magical bond that connects them to each other. The book is very well-written with rich imagery and engaging characters. In fact, for me, I found some of the secondary characters to be the most interesting, particularly Yehudah Schaalman, the Jewish kabbalist who creates the golem.

I love books that weave mysticism and the occult into an engaging work of fiction. It’s like searching for kernels of hidden truths within a fable. This book accomplishes that magnificently. It’s an easy read, but below the surface are some thought-provoking ideas that warrant contemplation.

One of the ideas addressed in the book is the existence of the soul, particularly whether a golem can possess a soul.

On the surface, the answer was a simple no. Only the Almighty could bestow a soul, as he had ensouled Adam with His divine breath. And the Golem was a creature of man, not God. Any soul she could have would be at most partial, a fragment. (p. 157)

I’m also fascinated by the concept of fragmentation, particularly as it relates to Plotinus’ theory of emanation. The short version is this: Everything is emanated from the source, which is the Godhead. From each emanation, other emanations are put forth, expanding the act of creation. But, at each level of emanation, the thing in existence becomes more fragmented and separate from the Godhead. Hence, the golem, being removed several times from the divine source, must be more fragmented.

Throughout history, drugs have been used to alter consciousness and evoke mystic visions. I personally do not recommend this path, since the dangers far outweigh the benefits. That said, there is an interesting passage in the book where Schaalman smokes opium and envisions the world as an illusion.

He now saw that the material world was only an illusion, thin as a cob web. (p. 326)

I like the use of cob web to describe the illusion of the material world. On one level, it is woven, just like the constructed illusion which many of us have come to accept as reality. But a cob web is also diaphanous, allowing one the ability to glimpse through it. With practice, one can learn to see through the web of “reality” and glimpse visions of the infinite.

The section of this book that had one of the most powerful impacts on me is near the end. Schaalman taps into a form of the collective unconscious and is overwhelmed by the experience. While I am fascinated by the prospect of connecting with the divine consciousness, I’m also scared, for the exact reason described in this book, that a human mind can only handle so much of the collective unconsciousness before it becomes overwhelmed and possibly damaged.

The human mind is not meant to house a thousand years of memories.

At the moment of contact with the Jinni, the man who’d known himself as Yehudah Schaalman had burst apart at the seams. He became a miniature Babel, his skull crowding with his many lifetimes’ worth of thoughts, in dozens of warring languages. Faces flashed before him: a hundred different divinities, male and female, animal gods and forest spirits, their features a blurred jumble. He saw precious gilded icons and crude carved busts, holy names written in ink, in blood, in stones and colored sand. He looked down, saw that he was clothed in velvet robes and carried a silver censer; he wore nothing but chalk, and his hands were clutching chicken bones. (pp. 439 – 440)

This really is an amazing book and I recommend it to everyone. I read a fair amount of books and I can say that this is the best book I have read in quite a long time.

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“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe

As Halloween draws near, I felt it appropriate to write about one of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. When I was in elementary school, the first poem that I memorized was “Annabel Lee.” Although I did not grasp the imagery and symbolism completely, I connected to the dark feelings inspired by the poem. It felt like it came right out of the TV series Dark Shadows, which I watched religiously as a kid.

The poem expresses the feeling of loss and despair associated with the death of a loved one. The protagonist rails against the angels, blaming their jealousy as the reason why Annabel Lee died. Near the end of the poem, there are hints that his feeling of loss has taken an even darker turn, driving him to lay with her body within the tomb and hinting at possible necrophilia.

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

I see another metaphor here that deserves mention and changes the necrophilia interpretation. The image of the sea is repeated throughout the poem, so one must assume that Poe intended to do this for a reason. In literature, I often interpret the sea or ocean as a metaphor for the subconscious mind. If you read the poem from this perspective, then the protagonist is keeping the memory of his wife alive, particularly while dreaming. It then becomes apparent that he is losing himself in dreams, or possibly an opium-induced revery, and choosing to dwell in that state where his lost love still exists.

This is a great poem and one of my favorites. It’s accessible yet deep and evocative. If you have not read it, or have not read it in a while, I encourage you to do so. Click here to read the poem online.

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