The Physiological Action Of Opium

(From) “Opium And The Opium Appetite”, by Alonzo Calkins, MD (1870)

Chapter VI: The Physiological Action Of Opium

“Impia sub dulci melle venena latent.” – Catullus.

“A dance of spirits, a mere froth of joy, That mantling high, now sparkles, now expires, Leaving the soul more vapid than before.” – Young.

Opium exerts its stimulative action in a twofold direction; upon the body, and upon the mind. The earliest ab-interiori impression is an indisposition to locomotion and an inaptitude to exertion every way. Muscular play, whatever there is of it, seems fortuitous rather than determinative, the lower propensities abate their intensive force and settle into torpidity, and the physical state is that of an automatic inertia. The will too, “that power triumphant where it dares,” lapses into a careless quiescence, the dormancy of reverie.

The transformations wrought upon the intellectual sense and the emotional susceptibilities during the opium-paroxysm partake indeed of the marvellous. The volitional faculty, that primum-mobile of the intellectual man, having shrunk into a mere passivity, judgment the balance wheel, now swayed this way and that in the conflict between the centripetal and centrifugal forces reason and imagination, is jolted. Opium, from its pivot-poise, and the soul now disenthralled from terrene clogs is wafted away upon fancy’s exultant pennons as by an electric rebound.

“Winging its flight from star to star, from world to luminous world, as far as the universe spreads its flaming wall,” to traverse if it may find some empyrean of a more ethereal and enrapturing entrancement than dull earth affords. The vision is as of some fairy mirage, without the tantalizing sense of vacuity, without the vapid disrelish arising from satiety.

Illustrative of this spiritual metamorphosis is the recorded experience of the hospital patient Mr. B.:

“Opium intensifies all the capacities for thought, with all the emotional capabilities; lifting the man to a higher plane of existence, where he may enjoy in panoramic perspective as it were, illusions no longer negations in seeming but veritable realities rather. The votary has now become a child in sensibility, a youth full-grown in vividness and splendor of conception, a more than man in copiousness of ideas and grasp of thought.”

The emotional developments are as novel and incongruous as are the proper conceptual creations. Querulousness and irascibility, though native to the man, recede for a space and give transient place to an amiable self-complacency, a self-satisfied disposition that would maintain accord with everybody and everything. Flashy wit in turgid declamation (the “rauca garrulitas”) here breaks out, to expire perchance even in the very utterance.

Another scenic “Paradise of Fools” has opened to the view; yet through all these transitional stages of rhapsodic exaltations and ephemeral inanities, the sense of personal identity is at no stage altogether effaced.

A few hours at the longest having lapsed, sleep begins. This may for a brief space be profound and death-like, a “consanguineus leti sopor,” as indicated by stertor and a dropping of the nether jaw, or it may be unquiet and fugitive at best, a hurried slumbering merely. The pattamaras (letter-carriers) on their journeys from Lahore, having reached their halting-stations, drop at once into a slumber which is profound only in the appearance; woe to the wayfarer who carelessly disturbs them! Not like the sleep on whose inventor the Governor of Barataria so piously invokes a blessing is this opium sleep, but rather a fitful yet oppressive somnolence, that leaves behind an aching brain, a fevered throat, and a languor and depression paralyzing to the whole body.

In sleep (but not with all) comes the dream. This, as if through some, spontaneity of working, takes shape and coloring less or more from the occupations and the musings of the day just gone, when, however, the “ruling passion,” under all diversities “Simulacra lacessunt Haec eadem animos nostros, quae cum vigilamus.” – Lucretius, of temperament or bias, is sure to come uppermost. The gamester is shuffling his cards once more, the stump orator boils over in vociferous harangue, the miser gloats again over his coffered hivings, the gourmand renews the feast at tables laden with appetizing viands, the castle-builder awakes to raptures anew, in a “chateau d’Espagne” his fancy has reared and decorated, the enthusiast devotee bending before Superstition’s shrine, hails in rapturous ejaculation the paradise o£ his dream where hope shall be exhausted in fruition.

Here too, libertinage finds its congenial atmosphere, but in enjoyments “linguae reticenda modestae,” for “Les sensations d’un tel reveur sur l’appareil genitale sont non-seulement voluptueuses, mais en rapport avec les tendences habituelles” (Libermann).

Such in its “best estate” is the virginal paroxysm of the opium-dreamer; a spasmodic ecstasy, an illusory enchantment, which in the recurrence becomes toned down to what has been termed a “static equilibrium, that can never be transcended again by any effort or device”.

The Bazaars and shops present a various and altogether a very repulsive picture. In a company some may be absorbed in their reveries and incognizant of the scenes around them; others grow mirthful and loquacious, breaking out into cachinnations the most absurd, and all because they cannot help it; others again, with pallid face and shrunken lips, are earnestly waiting in expectation of that excitement that shall dispel care and melancholy, and make them for a season oblivious of themselves.

Fatuity bordering on idiocy is the prominent feature around. Madden, on making acquaintance with the theriakis, remarked the glassy lustre and the incessant agitation of their eyes, the flushy hue of face, the swaying to and fro of the body in its unsteadiness, the ridiculous incoherency of their talk, and the extravagance of their maladroit gesticulations.

In the New Court, London, the camp-ground of a colony of foreigners, Chinese, Bengalese, Greeks, and others, is one of these opium dens under the direction of Ya-Hi, a man eighty-years old and himself an inveterate smoker, who makes the ordering of the nightly entertainment. Here in a close room styled “the Divan” the air of which is enough to stifle a stranger, may be seen numerous visitors arranged squat around the tea trays upon which their pipe-bowls rest, now indulging in vapid twaddle, now relapsing into idiotic mutterings, with the accompaniment of a motion of the lower jaw, sheep-fashion, or all may be quiet for the time, ready to break into mirthful extravagance at any instant – and for any or no cause. These people confess their willingness to work all day for procuring the furtive but fugitive enjoyment this receptacle holds out for the night.

Certain amateur explorers in the mines of experiment – all of course having specially in view “the general weal,” have recorded their sensations from making trial of opium.

Dr. Madden then sojourning at Constantinople visited the Theriaki Tchartchiffi or Grand Bazaar – the Lunatic Asylum, by some singular conjunction, stands fronting directly opposite – partly with the view of taking notes, but as much for making trial of the course, secundum artem, in his own person. After swallowing in succession several lozenges to the amount of 4 grains in all, he began to have an unwonted feeling of self-expansion corporeally, while at the same time things as seen in vision appeared in an exaggerated amplitude. Singularly indeed, so often as he opened his eyes the phantasmagorial figures would flit off and vanish, to return again and again. The doctor’s anticipations were in the sequel fulfilled only very indifferently.

Dr. Macgowan experimented upon himself in China, and with more satisfaction. His sensations assimilated much to those that come of inhaling nitrous oxide.

Note. In Winslow’s Journal of Psychology, 1859, is described in its details a very curious phenomenal case, that of a lady, who, for an organic sexual malady, had recourse occasionally to morphine. The case is the more remarkable in consideration of the extreme disproportion of symptoms to the inconsiderable amount of dose, which was 3 1/2  grains only.

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