THE PURSUIT OF OBLIVION
A Global History of Narcotics
By Richard Davenport-Hines.
Illustrated. 576 pp. New
York: W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95.
September 29, 2002
‘The Pursuit of Oblivion’: Drug Taking as Part of Human Nature
By CHRISTINE KENNEALLY
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.
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
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
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.