Pleasures and Pains by Barry Milligan

‘Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-Century British Culture’ (1995) by Barry Milligan utilises a multidisciplinary approach, including psychology, literary criticism, history and psychology, in order to examine the relationship between Britain and the Orient. Broadly speaking a work of cultural studies, the book concentrates on the trade of goods and ideas as a grounding for understanding British identity in the nineteenth century; opium being at the heart of this treatment.

The question of Orientalism threads through, not only the history of Britain, but also drug literature. While the 1950s and early 1960s concentrated on the importation of religious and spiritual language as explanatory models for understanding the effects of the psychedelic experience, over one hundred years previously it was a question of reciprocal  cultural influence. This confluence was readily explored through opium, a drug which, although having its most distant roots in the West, was then being grown on a grand scale in India and China and was tied up with commercial and military power; most obviously exemplified by the two Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60).

Opium, as a symbol of this socio-political and economic movement, became a cultural symbol that was utilised in literature as an exploratory tool for understanding the affect of the confluence on British identity and social life: “In the world of the opium vision, British consciousness is the theatre and the Orient is the terrifying actor of the fantasies dramatized there” (Milligan 1995, 20). Barry Milligan’s Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in the Nineteenth-Century examines the cultural effects. Taking into account the works of a number of writers, the Victorian opium den and the domestic scene in Britain, Milligan seeks to demonstrate that the products of the British imperial stretch in the Far East was, in fact, a two-way affair.

The introduction and opening chapter deals with the problematic of terms like ‘imperialism’, ‘Orientalism’ and ‘national identity’. Milligan concedes that “having upbraided the totalizing uses of the term “the Orient,” I then resort to the label myself” (Milligan 1995, 11). Self-admittedly, however, Milligan is clearly aware of the necessity to do so. He overcomes the problem by its recognition within the text and, secondly, by understanding that far from it being used as a “totalizing” term, the use of “Orient” unfolds as a multiplicity. In other words, it becomes a signifier to the many “conflicts between generalization and specificity in the discourses I treat” (Milligan 1995, 11). Therefore, the book takes into account a milieu of cultural effects that lead to a variety of understandings.

“The story told by the preface of “Kubla Khan” is at least as familiar as the poem itself: after having taken “two grains of opium,” the author [Samuel Coleridge[ says, he was reading in what he calls Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1614) about the palace of Kublai Khan… when he fell into a deep sleep and saw before him the turbulent and paradisal Oriental landscape” (Milligan 1995, 36).

The second, third and fourth chapters deal with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and the writers Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) and Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) respectively. Coleridge, of whom the above quote refers, is famous for his purportedly opium-inspired poem Kubla Khan (?), yet a number of other poems like Fears in Solitude (1797) explore Anglo-Oriental commerce and confluence. Coleridge, while concerned over British actions in the Far East, is also concerned with a reversal as British commercialism brought over ‘foreign’ artefacts. Opium acts as the axiom of this ‘pernicious’ exchange, “for both England and the Orient ultimately occupy the same body under the influence of opium” (Milligan 1995, 45). For Coleridge, and the majority of other writers in the text, opium is both the writers tool and his example.

Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) had a huge impact on writers in Europe and America; both for his take on opium and the Oriental imagery of his prose. De Quincey’s Orient is an alien ‘other’ but, far from it being one of complete separateness, he uses it to the effect of suggesting Englishness and vice-versa. The two elements, being suggestive of one another, become an interchangeable hierarchy within his opium visions; suggesting a mutual origin. The upshot, for Milligan, being that “De Quincey takes Coleridge’s insights even a step further: he views such non-differentiation not as a breach or an infection of one entity by another but instead as a unity” (Milligan 1995, 68).

The Oriental entanglement with Britain, the diffusion of ideas, and the cultural tension therein are movements in an expanding military and commercial world in the nineteenth century. The understandings that various writers, including Charles Dickens, have manifested on the movement are deeply laced through the opium motif. Opium, as it was for Coleridge, is an exemplifier of the socio-political climate as a commercial product and, simultaneously, it is the dream landscape onto which British identity, or the loss therein, is explored textually. Milligan’s Pleasures and Pains admirably explores these movements in a book beautifully contextualised in the history of its subjects. A valuable read for cultural studies, historians and those with a love of the drug effect in texts.

Via the House

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1 Response

  1. Daniel Williams says:

    Nice piece, Rob!

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