Updated on May 19, 2015
3. ‘Opium’ by Jean Cocteau
‘Opium’ is a diary written by Jean Cocteau during his recovery from his addiction to the drug. It is written as a collection of thoughts, from longer musings about the impact opium had upon his life, to sentence-long fragments one can imagine him writing at the dead of night, as he suffered from withdrawal-induced insomnia.
Cocteau has a complex relationship with opium. On the one hand he claims that he owes his “perfect hours” to the drug; it sends him into incomparable euphoria and opens his mind creatively. On the other, he sees the need to recover from his addiction and he suffers immensely as the opium leaves his system. Cocteau dreams of an ideal world, in which the positive effects of opium are removed from the negative, so that there’s never a need to stop taking it. What I found particularly fascinating was his suggestion that opium has its own form of consciousness. The drug chooses its addicts, it knows the person, and it has its own personality.
“Opium leads the organism towards death in euphoric mood.”
Naturally, opium had a huge impact on Cocteau’s writing. In this book he describes how it allowed him to give clear form to abstract concepts, but was so debilitating that he was unable to communicate his revelations. During his recovery he went through a crossover period, in which he had the clear sight given to him by opium and he had recovered enough to write. In this brief period he wrote ‘Les Enfants Terribles’.
I found this book truly fascinating. Cocteau’s writing brims with beautiful turns of phrase and poignant moments of tragedy. It’s amazing to see a man in the grip of addiction gradually becoming calmer and more coherent. This is reflected by the drawings that appear at the back of the book: at first Cocteau scrawled terrifying images of screaming people, which eventually turn into relaxed figures, composed of pipes.
For an insight into addiction, related in immaculate style, ‘Opium’ is an intriguing and compelling read.
“Living is a horizontal fall … Without opium, plans, marriages and journeys appear to me just as foolish as if someone falling out of a window were to hope to make friends with the occupants of the room before which he passes.”
I added this book to my to-read list quite recently, and I got it as a Christmas present last year. I think it’s about time I read ‘Les Enfants Terribles’, now I know more about the conditions of its creation.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?