05 October 2009

Opium: Then and Now


As you faithful know, I love to write. I recently entered a Victorian Art Essay Contest put on by the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. I was informed today that my entry was selected as one of the top three submitted. It will be published in The Daily Universe as well as the Museum of Art's InSite magazine. If you would like to come to the awards ceremony it will be at the Museum Auditorium at 7:00pm on Thursday, October 8th 2009 at the MOA on the BYU campus. I will find out if I got first, second, or third place at that time. I would appreciate all the support I can get! I have attached my essay below so that you may judge its content for yourself. Enjoy, and indulge on more...
Opium: Then and Now

Opaque and plethoric, the opium smoke gently caresses the lips of the pipe while it spills out. The user exhales methodically; the drug massages his cranial nerves and belittles his patriarchal responsibilities. His actions mock the crying child beside him. As whimpers turn to sobs the haze envelopes and agitates the baby’s eyes and pulmonary reflexes. Everything is calm. The inception of the savage addiction has already begun- before the stripling has even spoken her first word. With opium users sitting in putridity in present day Afghanistan, the popularity of opium is easy to observe.*

As the primary ingredient of heroin,* opium has the diabolic capacity to destroy much needed altruism and turn families and communities into cesspools of poverty and filth.* But despite its current extirpative power, opium has not always been treated as an assassin.  In William James Muller’s painting, Opium Stall (1841), opium is used as a bright medium to explore the exciting and brilliant world of the bazaar (see picture #1). In Muller’s own words- describing a Cairo bazaar- he writes “The sun streams through a little opening in the wall and falls on the figures, lightening them up with all but a supernatural brilliancy; reflection acts its part, and bit by bit the whole is revealed, as figure after figure passes by."**  In Muller’s painting the sun shines like a spotlight onto a man using opium through a hookah, surrounded by muffed darkness. A woman sits in the corner with her healthy baby; the opium is central, and dignified by the celestial light. The resplendent glow shines down onto the bearded user like a golden smile of approval from above.  The effects of opium were not known in 1841, and therefore ignorance gave way to pleasure and thrill.
In 2009, the adverse effects of opium are anything but a deus ex machina to its users. As one Afghan user wails, “’I am ashamed of what I have become. I’ve lost my self-respect. I’ve lost my values. I take food from this child to pay for opium’ he says, pointing to his 5-year-old-grandson, Mamadin. ‘He just stays hungry… If we have 50 cents, we buy opium and we smoke it. We don’t use the 50 cents to buy soap to clean our clothes. I can be out of food, but not out of opium.’”* This harrowing tale is unfortunately not an isolated case in many villages today (see picture #2).*
In Muller’s eyes, the mother and child were a footnote to the opium; in the present-day Afghani’s eyes, the baby is even worse- a budding addict with a growing, involuntary need. What Muller visually describes in 1841 as a pleasurable addendum to any bazaar has grown into a menacing maw of destruction. The opium of the Victorian age, as described by Muller, is hopeful, peaceful, safe, and exciting. The opium of the 21st Century is degrading and annihilative, but unfortunately still exciting and ever more addicting. Opium of the Victorian age was shown as a glorified drug; today it is pestiferous.  As aforementioned, Muller writes, “And bit by bit the whole is revealed, as figure after figure passes by.” He solicits opium in his painting and links it to a human becoming truly revealed. Today, opium deracinates the humanity inside its users and quiets the God given goodness gestating internally.
And yet some things never change. The men in both centuries wear turbans and live in similar stone houses. They both smoke opium in the presence of women, children, and peers. However, the difference in how opium is represented over a 150+ year span is bewildering and peculiar. Mercifully for the current generation opium is no longer seen as a harmless bazaar experience, but as a deathly excursion into apathy.


*Callimachi, Rukmini. Opium Addictions Grip Families in Afghanistan’s Remote Villages. August 9th 2009. http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2009/08/09/opium_addictions_grip_afghan_families_villages/. Web: September 16, 2009.
**Muller, William James. Opium Stall, 1841, Museum of Art- Brigham Young University, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.
^I have not printed the two accompanying pictures in lieu of legality, but if you follow the link above you can see the image of a present day user. Muller's painting can (at least temporarily) be seen here.

7 comments:

Becky said...

Wow, congratulations! That's so awesome that you're in the top 3!!

Symantha said...

This is REALLY awesome, Wally, congratulations!

justpulse said...

YAY Dave!!! You are awesome. I would totally be there if I could.

Side note: I totally love the new layout!

Cat said...

I wish I could write like that. You rocked that essay!

Landen said...

So I think that it is pretty much awesome that you have this amazing knack for versatility! Crazy! I think that you are good at everything!

Michael and Emilie Davidson said...

That was a good read, David. Thanks for sharing. I am sorry we only found out about the awards ceremony now.

Becky said...

Thanks to your Yankees love, I knew what my friend's husband was talking about in this post:
http://bigtnilly.blogspot.com/