Heroin Addiction’s Fraught History

by Rachel Baker on February 25, 2014

It seems, every time more than one celebrity dies from heroin within a year, the media spends a great deal of time talking about the death and more specifically, heroin and its addictive properties. The Atlantic posted an interesting ‘history of’ type of article. Its one of the better ones I’ve read and thought I’d share it.

“Nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium,” Thomas De Quincey writes in his 1821 Confessions of an Opium-Eater, “Its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion.” Confessions is De Quincey’s autobiographical account of his addiction to laudanum, a particularly potent narcotic derived, like the powder found in the bags strewn across Hoffman’s Greenwich Village office-cum-personal-apartment-cum-presumed-escape-den, from the flower of the opium poppy.

It makes a lot of sense that De Quincey’s Wikipedia page links to another on “the effects of opium on literary creation,” since, as the first English writer to really speak candidly about addiction, he ratified both the theme of addiction in Western literature—would we have Naked Lunch or Infinite Jest without it?—and the notion that maybe, there’s some connection between a reality altered by intoxication and a reality vivified in art. It should be said that De Quincey’s manuscripts were often submitted riddled with brown stains—laudanum is similar in color to rust—and that his literary output dwindled to near-nothing during periods of sobriety.

We needn’t delve too far into ancient history here, but it’s important to note that, with the exception of alcohol, opiate dependency is “humanity’s oldest, most widespread, and most persistent drug problem,” according to a 2004 Harvard Medical School report. The doctors of virtually every ancient culture we learned about in ninth grade relied on the plant whose Latin botanical name, papaver somniferum, means “sleep-bringing poppy.” Ana Mari´a Rosso, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires, ventures that ancient Egyptian illustrations of Tutankhamun’s death, typically depicting King Tut splayed in “voluptuous and odd gestures,” aren’t portraying the victim of some foreign plague, as the record typically has it. Maybe, Rosso says, he was high on opium.

Check out the remainder of the article here:

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