Sublunary Druggist


On a crowded subway trip, I looked over the shoulder of the hefty gentlemen next to me who was reading the first page of the introduction to the letters of T. E. Lawrence.  A nice, older edition.  It began

“I say art for my sake…  When I feel like writing, I write, when I don’t, I don’t”

Oscar Wilde could hardly have put it better.  And what is the “purpose” of art, after all?  Art for art’s sake?  I don’t think so.  No, T. E. had it right:  art for our sake.

But not all of us are artists.  Well there’s this:

The artist is not a special sort of man:  Each man is a special sort of artist.  – Jean Gimpel

That is, we all create our worlds in various ways.  For many, religion is part of this.  For an atheist, that’s not a viable path.   Often, religion tries to take science’s role, and makes itself ridiculous, but there is one thing that religion can do that science cannot.  Science can explain to us our place in the universe, but religion reconciles us to it.

People we love die, and we never see them again.  Earthquakes kill thousands without warning, old, young, good, bad alike.  Brutal, vulgar people enjoy riches while good people live lives of hunger and want.  Evil exists…and often appears to stalk triumphant!  What does science have to offer to calm us, to show us a path through this so that we don’t go out of our minds?  Nothing.

But for those who just can’t stomach that God-thing, there’s art, philosophy, poetry, and myth.  And since we are all artists after a fashion, personal mythologies are perfectly on-point.  As an example of personal mythology, one of the earliest that I cherished, and one that is still a favorite, I cite Thomas De Quincey, telling of his first purchase of opium.

I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless:


and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop. The druggist — unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! — as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that when I next came up to London I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not; and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one), he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford Street than to have removed in any bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as possibly no more than a sublunary druggist; it may be so, but my faith is better — I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour, and place, and creature, that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.

from The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, chapter 3.

16 Responses to Sublunary Druggist

  1. Man of Roma says:

    To me the humanities are a substitute for religion (art, philosophy, history etc.), although in America the intellectuals of the ‘Third culture’ at the Edge Foundation (John Brockman etc., are trying to do the same with science. Science and not philosophy or art, according to them, should be able to provide a meaning to our lives. Of course personal myths are also important, as you point out. It is an interesting debate, although I am a bit sceptic about it.

    Someone on a forum said more or less to one of these guys of the ‘Third culture’: “What are you going to tell a mother that has lost his child …that the universe is beautiful?” This is why people turn to religion. As you argue, “science can explain to us our place in the universe, but religion reconciles us to it.” Also art and philosophy maybe can, although one needs some education for it.

  2. Man of Roma says:

    her child, not his child … 🙂

  3. lichanos says:


    I agree with your comments. Edge seems a bit off the deep edge on this one.

    Darwin hesitated for a long time over his theory for scientific reasons, but also, he was burdened by the implications of what he had developed. He saw its import for religion, and he was loathe to wound his wife and friends, many of whom were deeply religious, and some of whom found comfort in it for loved ones lost. He and his wife had lost a young child.

    Besides, science CAN’T tell us that the universe is beautiful. Scientists may think it is – I do – and bravo for them. But that really begs the question doesn’t it? This whole notion of “beauty?”

  4. Man of Roma says:

    Yes, you are right. Aesthetics for example seems to be better equipped. Science can’t tell why the universe is beautiful or why Mozart’s music is tremendously more fulfilling than Webern’s or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s. It can say something (they have probed human psycho-acoustic reactions etc., tonal music seeming more ‘natural’ etc.) but it is not much. I get much more understanding on that from my old fashioned (but very inspired) Massimo Mila, a critic and philosopher of music and Benedetto Croce’s disciple.

    Besides, as Keats sang:

    “Do not all charms fly
    At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
    There was an awful rainbow once in heaven …”

    Where I think by ‘cold philosophy’ he meant science and by ‘awful’ awe inspiring in the old sense of the word. Although it could be me not being scientifically well equipped to fully appreciate pleasure and beauty via science. Hard stuff in any case.

  5. Man of Roma says:

    I think in that forum they said something like “that the universe is so beautiful because of its complexity.” But I’m not sure. I lost the link to that conversation.

  6. pancime says:

    I have a fondness for DeQ too. Of course my introduction to him was via Confessions of an Opium Eater, of which my parents had a pleasant little edition with Beardsley-like illustrations. I later bought a copy of his collected works. In one article he laments the rise of the philosophical radicals, saying they conquer all before them. In another he retells the story of Catalina De Erauso – highly innacurately – but at least he tells it.

  7. pancime says:

    hmm, maybe better to avoid dQs’s version for the first introduction. This is a good summary:

    See also:

    CdE is one of my favourite historical characters.

    • lichanos says:

      Holy cow! How did this character escape my attention all these years!!

      I wonder also if la monja alférez was in some small way an inspiration for this different sort of transvestite: La Monja

  8. pancime says:

    Glad you like her. By the way, while the summary is a good one, it really does her no justice. It omits, for example, when she crossed the Andes alone on foot, nearly dying, having visions. I have an edition Vida i sucesos del la Monja Alferez, edited by Rima de Vallbona, published by Arizona State University. In a way, what is really interesting about her is the way her story was received at the time.

    • lichanos says:

      Thanks for the pointer to Catalina’s memoir! What a tale! I especially like the closing page, in my edition at least:

      I was struck by the tittering of two ladies…Senora Catalina, where are you going, all by your lonesome?

      My dear harlots, I have come to deliver one hundred strokes to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your honor.

      The women fell dead silent, and then they hurried off.

      Exeunt Omnes

  9. lichanos says:

    …what is really interesting about her is the way her story was received at the time.

    I agree! The pope giving her permission to wear men’s clothes! The fact that her story WAS known…

    I don’t read Spanish, I’m afraid.

  10. pancime says:

    As I understand it she became a minor celebrity. Kind of turns everything on its head. This is just a few years after Don Quixote. Can you imagine a CdE entering stage left in a DQ episode…? What would poor Sancho make of it all, or the Don?

    • lichanos says:

      The public library has an edition of her book with a lenthy intro!

      Can you imagine a CdE entering stage left in a DQ episode…? Gads, that would have been fantastic. It certainly would fit with much of the tone of Don Q. My favorite episode is when he goes to the bookseller to upbraid him for carrying the wrong edition of his story, or something like that. Very post-modern, avante le lettre!

  11. Pancime says:

    DQ is the most post-modern book I know.

  12. pancime says:

    I took some notes from DQ once for my own purposes and organised them into categories:
    See category:
    Cervantes self references/refs to DQ as book/ DQ/storytelling generally
    There is a page/chapter index at the end of the notes.

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