Embracing the Opium of the People

Photo by Jim Liestman https://flic.kr/p/4YuFCW

Friday evening, before the sun went down, we took a walk down a path through the marsh. The sun shined radiantly to the left, and to the right, water seemed to slope gradually upwards toward the sandbars. We saw some egrets too.

I thought about an apparently literal translation of that famous Rubaiyat, that I had recently read… a little different from Fitzgerald’s version:

“If hand should give of the pith of the wheat a loaf, and of wine a two-maunder jug, of sheep a thigh, with a little sweetheart seated in a desolation, a pleasure it is that is not the attainment of any sultan.”

The bugs had come out by the time we turned around. That was unfortunate, but the vegetation emitted a newly inspired fragrance as the sun went further down. I thought about Fourier and his “paean to the neglected implications of smell and taste,” as described by Hakim Bey.

That night we went to a bar called The Whaler, a real dive, in the most excellent sense of the term. We drank $1.75 Bud drafts, hung out with the six other locals in the bar, looked at wood panels and black velvet paintings of ships, and listened to the band. Listened, that is, first to the guitarist chatting me up at the bar, then to the band playing up on stage. Another guy at the bar, when asked if he wanted a ride home, said this: “I don’t wanna go home. Ever. I want this moment to last forever.” Wiser words….

The next afternoon, another bar, getting ready to watch Uruguay take on Ecuador. It was a hot Saturday afternoon. We drank two transcendental Vermont beers and one pretty decent New York one with Vermont hops. We felt good.

Our ride picked us up to go home, but we stopped on the way, at a Russian Orthodox church, for the Saturday service. The heat, the stickiness, the incense rhythmically shaken around the room, the beer, the late afternoon sun through stain glass windows, the communal bread sprinkled with wine… they conspired to bring about feelings similar to those of the previous night, in the marsh.

I thought of a passage from a Hemingway short story, “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” based on Marx’s “opium of the people.” Hemingway:

“Religion is the opium of the people. He believed that, that dyspeptic little joint-keeper. Yes, and music is the opium of the people. Old mount-to-the-head hadn’t thought of that. And now economics is the opium of the people; along with patriotism the opium of the people in Italy and Germany. What about sexual intercourse; was that an opium of the people? Of some of the people. Of some of the best of the people. But drink was a sovereign opium of the people, oh, an excellent opium. Although some prefer the radio, another opium of the people, a cheap one he had just been using. Along with these went gambling, an opium of the people if there ever was one, one of the oldest. Ambition was another, an opium of the people, along with a belief in any new form of government. What you wanted was the minimum of government, always less government. Liberty, what we believed in, now the name of a MacFadden publication. We believed in that although they had not found a new name for it yet.”

Hemingway’s character goes on to suggest that the real opium of the people is something else, but I would like to forgo that momentarily, to make my own suggestion, that there is not one “real” opium of the people. There are many, as indicated above. And they can all be good….

Saturday night, we came back to the garden, after a couple of days away. Things looked fine, growing well. Sunday, we went over to a friend’s house to watch more soccer, and eat. From their garden, we picked arugula, basil, lettuce, and spinach, and made a salad. The basil went on pizza.

The pizza was great, and it gets me back to Hemingway’s character, who had in fact said that bread is the opium of the people. That’s fine, I can buy that. Add bread to the list – I like opium in all its forms.

It may seem counterintuitive, but each of the experiences I had had over the weekend took on a form of opium. And I say this not to get away from Marx’s opium, only to modify his conception of it. Marx didn’t want opium to mask (or attempt to mask) the “real suffering” caused by the organization of society. I agree, and feel furthermore that opium need not distract us from changing that organization; rather, “opium” — whether it appears as a descending sun, beer and bar music, soccer, ritual and celebration, gardening, or pizza — along with critique and organization, can actually bring us closer to happiness.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.