Les MorphinTes. From a painting by M. Moreau de Tours. Le Petit journal, 21 February, 1891, 8.
The modern cult of confessional memoir has fascinated both the reading public and literary critics for some years now. It is not enough to be dopey or dissipated or depraved, one must scream one's secrets to the sky, either on camera or in print, and be redeemed by the public's pointed approval.
Whether you've slept with your father, suffocated your children, craved the needle or bottle of bizarrely creative anal suppositories, there's a place for you on the podium, usually just behind the millionaire sports stars and invidious evangelists. Oh yes, there's a line up to petition society with your adult's portion of self-abasement.
Personally, I'm all for keeping secrets. It's the mysteries and enigmas that make life fun, not the stolid unravelling of them. But judging from the marketplace I'm in a distinct minority, and definitely run the risk of being a right old party-pooper. Will power? Self-discipline? Being cheerful and sociable and civilised? Not a chance, those babies got thrown out with the bathwater. So bring on the oh-poor-me brigade: the confessional and the couch are obviously no longer enough; let them bleat and snivel and bare their souls in print.
Now this is not to say such vainglorious effusions are not interesting and edifying. In fact, despite the police court odour and general all round ickyness (like you really care about the colour of Patrick Lane's vomit), the genre can and does have its moments. In Addicted, a recent compendium of home grown pathos to set next to the many volumes from our friends south of the border, edited by the husband and wife team of Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, we come face to face with the dark side of Canadian Literature.
After many decades of ignorance and denial, and a brief hiatus of mythmaking and salacious gossip (that's right, the seventies), recent biographies of Margaret Lawrence, Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn McEwan have softened up the ground considerably. We now seem to be able to face the fact that Canadian writers can be as craven and dissolute as their British and American cousins. The outline of dipsomania has been drawn; now the blanks can be filled in. Those dark little creatures hiding in the closet under the stairs can appear and prance about the dining room, snitching the odd cracker from a side table. Nurture and attention is what they desire, a craving so deep and immediate they fail to see that's what the rest of us are after too. But such is the nature of breast-beating, especially the public variety.
Need the reader be forewarned that a good deal of the action herein takes place in that portion of the gutter artsy types love to dignify? Probably not. These are, after all, notes from the belly of the beast. What the beast had for dinner is very definitely on display. Seven boozers, one nicotine stained wretch, one junkie, one bulimic and sex fiend: the usual suspects spilling their guts into the pop psychology landscape. Fine as far as it goes, but what about a rainbow bridge to the rest of us? The gamblers, the caffeine factories, the shoe fetishists, the shopaholics, the compulsive runners ratcheting up those lovely endorphins, and most significantly for litterateurs, the agoraphobics and workaholics? Each of the aforesaid are common expressions of addictive compulsive behaviour. Why are some socially acceptable and others most definitely not: now there's a study! Perhaps it's as Ann Marlowe elsewhere suggests: we'd rather have someone stand up and testify about his daily struggles against temptation than "send him to learn what he's really fascinated with." That as subscribers to a consumerist ideology we demonise dope rather than luxury cars or designer clothes to deny our own "feverish needs". Why is obsessing over doing dope any different than "obsessing for hours every day about buying a pair of Gucci loafers?"
A beachhead has been forged on the shores of denial, and for that we should be grateful. Yet, for Canadians, the topic has merely been broached; it remains to be embraced and elevated to that noble plateau where the grace of transcendence awaits. Meanwhile that particular castle of purity has been inhabited most recently by Ann Marlowe's How To Stop Time, Lesley Stern's The Smoking Book, and Susan Cheever's Message In A Bottle. Let me recommend.
Now in case you think this voracious appetite for public confession is merely the product of the aprFs-Freud guilt ridden society, let Barbara Hodgson's In The Arms Of Morpheus turn back the pages ever so quickly, to the middle of a century minus telephones, movies and television, where "Confessing seemed to be a side effect of opium addiction. Driven by the need to admit to a lack of will, by the desire to save others from enslavement or by remorse, addicts frequently published testimonials in books and magasines."
In this short illustrated history of the medical use and abuse of the eternally processed poppy, a companion to her earlier "Opium", which concentrated on the smoking of said flower seed, Ms. Hodgson provides an entertaining and provocative backgrounder to our current epoch's obsession with the opium derived heroin. After perusing both volumes one is inclined to the notion that no-one, not the poor or the rich, the artistic or powerful, ever escaped the 19th century without a spell or two in the clutches of C17 H19 O3 N. Its fumes and dilutions pervaded society, both East and West. Common as aspirin, cheaper than beer, rubbed on nipples and open sores alike, its adherents and addicts might have formed some massive new religion had they been able to climb off the couches of their dopey contentment and, as E.M. Forster suggested, only connect.
In her first epistle to our modern ignorance Ms. Hodgson sneaks in her own little confession. "The world of opium: it is rich, complex and pervasive, and this book is but the tip of the iceberg." And how right she is. Studiously avoiding the kind of encyclopaedic and revelatory disclosures of Martin Booth's Opium: A History, where, literally, no stone is left unturned, she cleaves to the chatty catalogue of alluring ephemera formula, fascinating round-ups of the sort of gossipy tid-bits accumulated by any serious researcher on virtually any topic.
The lady casts her net far and wide, but manages to wind up with only baubles and seashells; charming to behold and perhaps collect, but unfortunately, without the necessary frisson of intellectual engagement, she only tickles her subject, drawing forth murmurs and snuffles, but never rousing it from that centuries long sleep which enables it to snuggle unsuspected in society, arms continually entwined with illicit profit, repressive regimes and civil strife.
For those disinclined to consume any more than eighty pages of text without the accompanying eye candy of posters, portraits, engravings and prescriptions, this little book is just about perfect. Witty and informative without ever taxing the poor brain with the unfortunate complexities of the historical process, it enchants the dabbler with the very contemporary conceit that the headlines are the story. Hell, with opium not even the story is the story, subject as it is to the swamps and shifting sands of political and public morality agendas. But it has to be admitted, such inventories of the visually and socially arresting are popular in our literary culture, and given the extended life promised by the internet and television, probably will be for the foreseeable future. And so, let me say with a smile, this would make a great Christmas present.
And although she sometimes descends to mere laundry lists of who-did-what-to-whom, Ms. Hodgson never seems to lose that lilt of the bemused and laconic so apropos to a project forever verging on the salacious, especially in her tallying of the cultures' hypocritical treatment of the hypodermic and pipe. This reviewer would certainly cross the street to see The Mystery Of The Leaping Fish(1916), starring Bessie Love as the fish-blower girl and Douglas Fairbanks as the narcotics powered detective Coke Ennyday. ò
Gordon Phinn is a writer living in Mississauga who has never knowingly inhaled anything but smoke.