Opium: Reality's Dark Dream

Jesper Vaczy Kragh discusses the ecstasy and the agony of humanity's ancient companion

July 5, 2012

Stone Age men and women in Switzerland probably did it in the sixth millennium BC. The Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Persians undoubtedly did it centuries later, and the people of the classical world of Greece and Rome followed suit. They all used opium, which was cherished as a gift of the gods. And it went on. Since the beginning of human civilisation and up until today, opium and its derivatives, such as morphine and heroin, have been smoked, swallowed, scoffed, sipped, sniffed and injected in all thinkable and unthinkable ways. Opium has inspired poets, artists and musicians, eased the pain of countless numbers of people, but also ruined the lives of millions. It has generated wars and destroyed governments.

In his new book, Thomas Dormandy sets out to explore the pros and cons of opium, from the Stone Age to the present. He is not the first to examine the troubled history of the drug, but he covers a longer period than most studies. Other monographs, such as Virginia Berridge's Opium and the People (1999), have focused on 19th- and 20th-century addiction and drug control policies. The work closest in style and content to Domandy's is The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs (2001) by Richard Davenport-Hines, yet Dormandy is less polemical than Davenport-Hines, who is no friend of drug control.

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream is not a book preoccupied with drug wars and street addicts, and there is a reason for that. By tracing the early history of opium, Dormandy shows that drug addiction and prohibition are recent inventions. In classical antiquity, opium was praised by poets and priests, and even the medical oracle of the Roman Empire, Galen, had nothing to say about the dangers of addiction. Whereas excesses in alcohol use were well known and often punished in Rome, opium was not linked with criminal or immoral behaviour.

With the fall of Rome in AD476, opium lost its position in the Western world for a time, but the tradition of using the drug for medical and recreational purposes lived on in the Muslim world. It also became a valuable commodity for Arab traders who sold their goods in India, Indonesia and China, and created a demand in these parts of the world. At the same time, alcohol was the intoxicant of choice in Western Europe. But alternatives to booze emerged during the Crusades when holy warriors brought opium back to the Continent. With the introduction in the 1660s of Thomas Sydenham's laudanum, a combination of opium and alcohol, opium became available to people from a variety of backgrounds. More potent remedies such as morphine and heroin came on the market in the 19th century. Initially, these drugs raised the prestige of doctors who used them to alleviate a wide range of painful conditions; later, however, it became clear that pain relief went hand in hand with addiction and crime. As Dormandy notes, no satisfactory solution to this dilemma has yet been found.

Dormandy is a knowledgeable author in the field of medical history, and Opium is elegantly written and certainly worth reading. It is a shame, however, that the book is seriously marred by inaccuracies: the fall of Rome is incorrectly dated as AD456, the beginning of the Black Death as 1384 and the last trial of Teresa of Avila as having taken place in 1589 (although she died in 1582). There are a surprising number of errors for a book published by Yale University Press. Hopefully these will be corrected in a second edition.

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream

By Thomas Dormandy

Yale University Press, 352pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780300175325

Published 31 March 2012

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