Opium: Reality's Dark Dream (2012)
By: Captain Red Eye on April 16, 2012  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
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Author: Thomas Dormandy
Pages: 366
Publisher: Yale University Press
Few substances in human history have been as revered, or as reviled, as the by-products of the humble poppy.

Used extensively by both Eastern and Western physicians for many centuries as a potent analgesic, cough suppressant and cure-all, opium has addled and inspired in equal measure. It remains the only drug to have a war named after it, has been a mainstay of pharmacology since the time of the Ancient Egyptians and as late as the 17th century the more learned of its adherents could still rightly claim that 'medicine would be crippled without it.' As its derivatives became ever more refined, however, and as the preferred method of opioid ingestion moved from pipes and pills to the syringe, a host of heretofore unthinkable social ills were born and the spectre of addiction began to be seen not as the domain of drug fiends, reckless dandies and hookah-toking 'Orientals' but as a very real problem for many thousands of users across Europe and the Americas.

A rollicking and fabulously entertaining account of opium's inimitable influence on medicine, culture, economics and the arts, Thomas Dormandy's latest work charts the drug's millennia-long decline from palliative miracle to pernicious evil, taking into account its earliest uses and methods of cultivation, famous users (and abusers), the unique role played by opium's progeny such as morphine and heroin and the corresponding slew of social crusaders that ensured the first hesitant steps towards legislation, and ultimately criminalisation. It is a story which spans not only centuries but continents – the drug's role in trade and warfare is discussed at length, as of course are the Opium Wars and the resultant 'Yellow Peril' that so haunted the gentrified whites of a bygone age.

Several of the book's more sensational historical assertions come across slightly gossipy out of context, such as the unsourced claim that leonine German statesman Otto von Bismarck 'never ventured into the Chamber without fortifying himself with an injection of morphine' or the lurid, tabloid-esque account of the final tortuous days of Wan Rong, last Empress of China. Yet Dormandy incorporates it all into such an engrossing and eminently readable whole that any nitpicking is simply superfluous. A brilliant and endlessly eye-opening read, and the definitive exploration of humanity's dark entanglement with this fascinating drug.
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