Saturday, 5 December 2015

Opium - Jean Cocteau


Jean Cocteau's Opium is not so much an ode to the drug but a diary of his thoughts, memories and dreams during his withdrawal from his addiction to it during his stay at a French clinic. There's no explanation of how he became addicted to the pipe in the first place and no description of the cure process but instead is a record of his state of mind laid down in words and drawings.
Curiously, in many ways Cocteau's drawings convey a lot more about where his mind is at than his words but then again maybe that's understandable? Does not a picture, after all, paint a thousand words?

In saying this, however, there are three notes in the book that do stand out, the first (and one of Cocteau's most famous quotes) being:
"Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing towards death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death."
The second being:
"The smoker has a bird's eye view of himself."
And the third being:
"The Normal Man: Elder pith addict, why live this existence? It would be better to throw yourself out of the window.
The Addict: Impossible. I am floating.
The Normal Man: Your body will quickly reach the bottom.
The Addict: I shall arrive slowly after it."

Listen. I'm not one to romanticise or glamorise drugs at all. I've seen the needle and the damage done. I'm not about, however, to deny their existence or become sanctimonious about drugs. I'm not a drugs zealot but neither do I run scared of them. In this world you choose your poison or if you don't then it will choose you. Jean Cocteau chose the poppy and though he became addicted he regretted it none.
Written in the 1920s, his was one of the first books (along with De Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium Eater) to discuss opium and addiction without prejudice nor shame and in doing so, a doorway - a portal - was prised open just that little bit further allowing others to squeeze through and report on twilight worlds hitherto unexplored.

I don't believe for one moment that Jean Cocteau influenced anyone into experimenting with opium just as I don't believe the works of William Burroughs or Lou Reed led people into taking heroin. Drugs have always been with us and always will. They have always been used and will always continue to be used no matter whether they're condoned, condemned, legalised or prohibited.

Jean Cocteau's Opium (or to give it its full title, Opium - The Diary Of A Cure) isn't an essential read at all, in fact it's probably of more interest and of more relevance to his admirers than to those interested in drug culture as in it he writes more about the theatre, poetry, art and his friends (such as Eisenstein, Proust and Picasso) than he does about opium. It is, however, an important book if only for the fact that it was written by an important artist who these days appears to have slipped from people's consciousness. Apart, that is, from in Exmouth where a Jean Cocteau revival is spluttering into life...
John Serpico
Jean genie

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