In my mind exists a temple; a museum of the works of art that helped shape my inner world. Some works are on loan and some are part of the permanent collection. The permanent works that name and sustain me are existentialist: Solomon’s Ecclesiastes, Aurelius’ Meditations, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Hendrix’ Axis: Bold as Love, Dylan’s electric Manchester performance, Rippel-Ronai’s Park at Night, the Bhagavad Gita. These are useful for determining how to live authentically and courageously in an unknowable universe. A less obvious addition to this collection is Tosches’ The Last Opium Den. I found the little gem a decade ago in the bargain bin of a now-defunct brick and mortar bookseller. I was an undergraduate at the time. Some of the text was like reading foreign language at the time. It was a gilded text – unintelligible to me, but beautiful. I stashed the little volume with my Bibles and let it sit on the shelf for a decade. It seemed like good fireside reading, so last night I cracked it open to see if it still captured my imagination.
It did. The writing is beautiful and the questions raised are profound. This is what I love in art.
Nick Tosches is a New York based writer and editor. While sitting in a friends’ restaurant where “connoisseurs” paid $35 to eat an onion and pontificate on the endnotes of wine (while missing the cow shit and pesticides), he decided he’d had enough of the PG shopping mall of modern NYC. “My limousine pulled up,” he writes. “It looked like a hearse. I decided to live.”
The Last Opium Den is a short travel log and a long essay on a frustrated man’s two-year search across Europe and Asia for real life via opium den. “Most people in the world who think they’ve smoked opium have only smoked shit.” He didn’t want the touristy ripoff opium available behind the Golden Triangle Paradise Resort (a real place, at the time). He wanted to inhale the vapors the way the Egyptians and Homer had. Most of the people that he runs into, though, only have heroin or other quick and rough rush drugs. They are about oblivion, not the gentle and warm and connecting enlightenment of smoking opium – “the celestial drug”.
Eventually, in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia, Tosches meets a friend of a friend of a friend who knows how to smoke (vaporize, really) opium. What is it like?
“We lie back and smoke; and now, wordlessly, we understand each other perfectly in the eloquence of a silence that not only contains all that has ever been and ever will be said, but also drosses the vast babel of it, leaving only the ethereal purity of that wordless poetry that only the greatest of poets have glimpsed in epiphany…Enough of this profundity. You want enlightenment? Go get it yourself…paradise has no words.”
You can read it yourself to find out if he ever finds his opium den. Best of luck in your own quests, wherever they lead you.