Sweet Dreams of a Slaver

November 11, 2010

From Eugene Sue’s novel, Atar-Gull:  The Slave’s Revenge


Brulart had carefully closed, bolted, padlocked, the door of his cabin. Without, not the slightest sound was to be heard, except at times the whisper of the breeze among the rigging, the rustling of the sails, and the murmur of the waves as they beat gently against the vessel’s poop, and opened in her wake into a long furrow of phosphorescent light; no more.

Again he listened; again gazed eagerly to see that no one was watching his movements. Then he advanced toward his great chest and opened it.

At first, you would have thought that the old hutch contained nothing; but, on examining it attentively, you would have discovered that it had a false bottom.

He raised the false bottom, and from one corner of that secret place drew out a little coffer covered with Russia leather.

That small casket, which was richly ornamented, bore a handsomely-emblazoned escutcheon. . ‘ It was, perhaps, Brulart^ coat armorial.

Brulart hermetically closed the curtains of the cabin window, and placed the precious casket upon his foul and greasy table, which he drew up toward the cot .

He stretched himself out in a half-reclining posture, after having disdainfully cast away the hat, the crown, the vest, and the trousers, of the late M. Benoit. Then he lifted the lid of the casket, and his eyes gleamed with a singular fire.

His face, ordinarily rude and savage, seemed to clear itself of its coarse and thick mask, and his powerfully-marked features appeared really handsome, so sudden and inimitable an expression of sweetness was displayed on them. He shook his thick hair, as a lion who scatters his mane from his eyes, parted the long, wild locks, and drew forth from the casket a little flask of crystal beautifully cut, and almost entirely concealed under the gold and jewels which adorned it.

Then he placed that marvellous toy close to the smoky and ill-savored lamp, and by its ruddy light observed its contents.

It was a thick, viscous, dark-colored liquid, at once deeper hued and more brilliant than coffee. It would seem that to him it was almost above price, for his eyes beamed with a sort of celestial joy, when he perceived that the precious flask was still nearly three quarters full.

He kissed it with unction, almost with affection, as one would kiss the hand of a virgin, and eet it down, not on his filthy table, — O, not so!— but on a little cushion of black velvet, all embroidered with pearls and with silver.

He also drew out from the same casket a little cup of gold, and a large flask of the same metal.

But during all these operations, there was on the face of Brulart as much reverence and adoration as there is on the face of a priest who is producing the sacrificial chalice from the tabernacle.

And delicately opening the little phial, he passed out drop by drop the seductive liquor, which fell in gouts brilliant as rubies.

Of these he counted twenty. Then he filled the cup with another liquor, as limpid and as clear as crystal, which thereupon assumed a ruddy, golden tint.

And he raised the cup to his greedy lips, drank it off slowly, with his eyes closed and his broad hand pressed upon his bosom. After this was done, he again locked up the cup and flask in the small casket, and the small casket in the chest, with the same reverence, the same care, the same adoration.

And when he arose, you would almost have lowered your eyes before his glance of inspiration, which seemed to dim the lustre of his lamp. He was handsome, magnificent, nay, admirable. His rags, his long beard, all were forgotten, all seemed to disappear before the incredible consciousness of bliss, which glowed over that brow, of late so dark and frowning, now smooth and pure as that of a young maiden.

“Farewell earth! now come heaven!” Such were his words, as he cast himself into bed.

Within ten minutes he was buried in deep sleep.

He had just taken his nightly dose of opium.

Now, by a singular phantasy, which can, however, readily be explained by custom and the continued practice of taking that drug, Brulart had come at last to take the factitious existence which he procured to himself by means of opium, with all its marvellous poetical creations, all its delirious imaginations, all its ravishing visions, for his true and actual life, the vague and confused memory of which seemed to glitter at moments through his spirit, in the daytime, amid the frightful scenes which were the usage of his days, even as the consciousness of some day of happiness will at times cause our hearts to expand even in the midst of some horrid dream. While, at the same time, he regarded his real life, — the life which he spent in the midst of his brigands, of robbery, and of murder, — almost as a dream, as a hideous night-mare, into which he allowed himself to be carelessly inveigled, and which he mechanically urged onward into the darkest horrors, according to the impulse, the whim of the moment, without reflection, without remorse, nay, even with a sort of secret enjoyment, like that of those persons who say to themselves vaguely, in the midst of some hideous dream, ” What matters it to me ? I shall awake, and all will bo well.”

In one word, it was a life reversed.

The fantastical had taken the place of the positive.

A dream had taken the place of reality.

It is difficult to believe,I know it. But try opium, madam, and you will believe me.

Moreover, it is well to put some confidence in a man of experience.

Beautiful Decadence

September 9, 2010

click for video

Opinion on The Shanghai Gesture (1941) by Josef von Sternberg seems to be divided in the blogsphere.  Some see it as wonderfully camp, the perfect cult film, while others hail it as a masterpiece of decadent noir.  I enjoyed it mostly for its incredible sensuality, and atmosphere of erotic decadence, and for its outright oddness at times.  Of course, Gene Tierney, my newest cinema hearthrob, was fabulous as the petualnt, spoiled rich girl (alias Poppy Smith) doomed by her bad blood.

When she first comes to Mother Gin Sling’s casino (yes, that’s her name) she is overjoyed to be there.  She tells her nerdy companion that “Every place you’ve taken me before this was like kindergarten…It has such a delicious evil smell…I thought such a place could only exist in my dreams...”  Just watch the video linked to the top image; it’s all there.

The action is set in a casino that seems like a modern recreation of Dante’s circles of hell.  At the lowest point, there is the roulette well, around which people loose their fortunes, their virtue, and sometimes shoot themselves – usually on Saturday nights.

Poppy sets to gambling, saying she can stop anytime she wants, but she can’t.  It doesn’t take much for her to be sucked into the vortex of gambling, sex, and probably drugs.  Although it will seem tame to audiences used to seeing any sort of sex and violence on screen, the film was heavily censored, and still manages to convey a sense of sadism and utter debauchery as Mother Gin Sling manipulates Poppy for her own ends.  Victor Mature, as “Dr.” Omar, is happy to help out, picking up the sexual favors he craves along the way.

The pace of the film is slow, sometimes excruciating.  There are sequences that seem to go on two or three times as long as they need to.  When two old fogeys try to approach Poppy at the bar, they are shooed away by Omar.  The rotate about one another once, twice, three times before they make off…why?

Poppy plays hard to get…for a minute, and the falls hard for Omar, who has nothing to offer her except sexual charisma.  When she begs him for forgiveness after throwing a drink in his face in fit of jealousy, he enfolds her in his cape, looks both ways, and then dives in for the kiss.  (Kisses are simply lips to lips in this censored cinematic realm.)

Much is often made of Mother Gin’s outrageous hair, but I think it suits her.  She just dares anyone to gasp, “What the hell was she thinking..?”  She’s no-nonsense, and all about power and domination.  Her costumes and hair are part of the game, and it has worked well for her.  When she appears on the stage of her casino floor, the soundtrack swells with orchestral music.

Yes, the dialogue is often absurd, the Chinoiserie is ridiculous, but it reeks of opium and sex.  And I must say, the very ending did surprise me.  Mother Gin Sling is quite a gal.

She makes sure that all of her dinner guests have the dishes they need, and she includes an appetizer for the men – a view of girls in cages being bid for in the street during the New Year celebration.  By the time Polly is ushered into the room, disheveled and sullen, swaying a bit unsteadily in a dress that fits like her skin, we can only guess what she’s been through…

The culture clash between the Chinese and the West has its typical Hollywood silliness – Mother Gin Sling and many other Chinese characters are played by Americans and Brits – but a running gag of the film is the fatuous arrogance of the Westerners towards the ‘natives’ of Shanghai.  At one point, a young, handsome Chinese servant delivers a message in perfect English to a group, and one Brit cackles, “Listen to how these Asiatics attempt to imitate the language!”  No one around him is laughing.

And what about that title?  I didn’t hear a clue about its meaning in the film, except for the red herring of when Mother Gin Sling asks if a certain man used a certain gesture, raising his arm to the ceiling, when she was trying to be certain of his identity.  The movie is based on a play of the same name, and according to this book, it’s a very old phrase of uncertain meaning.  Perhaps it is related to the kookie sequence at the dinner from hell when Dixie, the American floozie who finds work at the casino, hams it up, thumbing her nose with a spoon.  This essay by an academic provides a new twist for the meaning of the phrase, and analyses the use of Chinese themes in noir along the way, but it doesn’t explain its original meaning.

Sublunary Druggist

February 7, 2009


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.

Maakies Ahoy!

March 30, 2008


I am always on the lookout for sources of new stimulation, literary and visual. Sometimes this means I stumble on something that has been around for a while without my knowing about it. So it is with the comics of Tony Millionaire. He is known not so much for “graphic novels” as for a syndicated comic strip, “Maakies” that I am sure that I have seen many times – I don’t know where – and for which I now have an intense enthusiasm after reading his latest book of collected strips.

Millionaire (presumably a pen name, though he has denied it) has a style that is rich and detailed. His landscapes recall to my mind those of R. Crumb, though their style is otherwise very different. They do share an intense dedication to the possibilities of black and white ink line work and to exploiting control and detail. I also think of Windsor Mckay (Little Nemo and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend). Another illustrator, one of my favorites, W. Heath Robinson, comes to mind, but in a recent email exchange with Millionaire, he said he’d never heard of Robinson. (“Is he funny?” he asked.)

Maakies (why the name, I dunno) is very funny, absurd, wierd, extremely vulgar, sometimes scatological…I could go on. It also veers into the literary and metaphysical with bizarre wit. I frequently exploded in laughter to tears on reading some of the strips in “With the Wrinkled Knees,” the new collection. The ones I read mostly featured a perpetually drunken crow (Drinky Crow) that seems like Heckel or Jekyll on a bender, and his Uncle Gabby, a mentally deviant (Irish?) monkey. Many of the strips play out in a nautical setting that seems lifted from hallucinations induced by 19th century searfaring stories – Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym”, and London’s “Sea Wolf” come to mind, but you need to imagine them through the fog of psychosis or radical inebriation.

Click on the strips below to see a full-size image –

Philosophical Maakies:

Philosophic Maakies

Nautical Phantasy Maakies:

Airship Maakies

Surreal Maakies:

Surrealist Maakies

Escapist Maakies:

Literary Drug Maakies

These strips bring up an arcane association in my mind, the 19th century novel, Atar Gull, by Eugene Sue. That story shared a nautical setting with Maakies, and it was about Gull, a captured African being transported to the slave market and his subsequent escape and adventures. The slave captain is a total opium addict – in fact, so deep is his addiction that he believes his opium dreams to be reality, and he is certain that the hellish life on board the slave ship is simply his bad dreams.

Speed, Opium, and The Man

April 29, 2005

That’s speed, as in velocity, not the drug. That’s opium, as in the drug, not the perfume. That’s The Man, as in Thomas De Quincey, not Yves St. Laurent or Keanu Reeves. Does anyone read De Quincey anymore, or is he persona non grata in the “Just Say No” era? Well, times were different then, circa 1812.  I wonder if there is a literary influence at work between De Quincey’s piece, “The English Mailcoach” and the the screenplay of the movie, “Speed.”

Let’s see, the story of the Mailcoach is of a young man hitching a ride on the roof of a mail delivery stage, stoned on laudanum, i.e. opium, who sees in the distance a cart approaching down the endless tree covered lane. Its driver and passenger are in the midst of amorous billing and cooing and don’t see that they are in the way of the hurtling stage, rocketing along at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour. Nor can they know what the opiated author knows, that the mailcoach driver has fallen asleep, the reins grasped tightly in his hand. For thirty pages or so, the author spins a tale of hyperactive imagination, tracing his efforts, moment by moment, to rouse himself out of his narcoleptic state and to shout, like Stentor, a warning that would alert the young couple to their certain doom if they do not act. I detect some general similarities here…

De Quincey was my muse for many years. His wild prose, his total immersion in the realm of the fantastic and the imaginary, his long, convoluted sentences were music to my ears. He declared himself the true pope of the Church of Opium, and penned lines such as these:

Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm;

He created a personal mythology, based on his torrid hallucinations and his will to create, of whole cloth, a world of imagery. He describes his first ecounter with the drug, brought on by terrific facial pains that struck him as an undergraduate. He found his way to a pharmacy and was dispensed the narcotic by a man who appeared to be an ordinary man like any other “sublunary” citizen. Later, he revisted the spot where the shop had been, but could not find it, convincing him that it had been, indeed, a heavenly messanger who had sold him the magical dose.

He wrote of eating opium and going to the opera, where he sat fixed to his chair, in ecstasies of enchantment as the soprano sang. And he wrote of the Pains of Opium, which became dominant as his addiction deepened:

I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feeling, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hates me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams…

De Quincey wrote on many topics, supporting himself through journalism, but it is by his Confessions of an English Opium Eater that he is remembered. These quotations were taken from later additions to that work that were entitled “The Pleasures of Opium,” and “The Pains of Opium.” Althea Hayter wrote a book called The Milk of Paradise that discusses the importance of opium in romantic literary history – Coleridge, De Quincey, Crabbe, and others.