An ounce of opium

An ounce of opium

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters Bloom contemplates the Catholic church from at least three points of view: as a man of business who judges its effectiveness in organizing people politically, economically, and socially; as a Jew who is bemused by the strange rituals and beliefs; and as a sympathetic human being who observes the effects those things have on believers. This last perspective is obliquely introduced as he stands outside St. Andrew's reading the announcement of a priestly mission: "Save China's millions. Wonder how they explain it to the heathen Chinee. Prefer an ounce of opium." He is considering the opium habit of Chinamen here, not the religious faith of Christians, but it is tempting to suppose that Joyce may be subtly alluding to Karl Marx's famous description of religion as the opium of the people, because Bloom's thoughts about the worshipers in the church, a moment or two later, will be quite similar.

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The stereotype of Chinese opium addicts was no fantasy: opium use was widespread in China and also in Chinese communities abroad. It was an affliction created and sustained by the trade policies of the British government and the British East India Company, who exported opium from their Indian possessions to China in exchange for tea and other Chinese goods. The trade was not optional: Britain fought and won two so-called Opium Wars in 1839-42 and 1856-60 to force China to keep ports like Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, and Shanghai open to its merchant ships. As a consequence of this enforced trade, millions of Chinese became addicted to opium. (So did many British and French when opium dens sprang up in the home countries of the colonial powers responsible for keeping China in subjection.) Bloom imagines that missionaries trying to sell the Chinese on Christianity may find that their spiritual needs are already met: "Prefer an ounce of opium."

The fact that he thinks of opium as competition for Christianity speaks volumes about his view of the religion. As soon as he enters the church he observes women kneeling "in the benches with crimson halters round their necks. A batch knelt at the altarrails." The words "halters" and "batch" suggest that these women waiting to receive Communion are bovine or sheeplike—an impersonal mass of blind believers. Bloom's critique becomes more overt when the priest who is slipping wafers into the women's open mouths intones a sacred formula: "Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first." The people that he sees shuffling back to their pews express no human emotions: "He stood aside watching their blind masks pass down the aisle." And yet, Bloom thinks, something very pleasurable must be going on inside them: "Look at them. Now I bet it makes them feel happy. Lollipop. It does." A sleepy analgesic haze suffuses the entire church, as in an opium den: "Old fellow asleep near that confessionbox. Hence those snores. Blind faith. Safe in the arms of kingdom come. Lulls all pain. Wake this time next year."

Karl Marx called religion "the opium of the people" in the introduction to an unpublished 1843 manuscript titled Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. He used the word Volk rather than the demeaning language usually attributed to him ("masses"), and his comments were more sympathetic to religion than is commonly supposed:

Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.... Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people…. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.
                                                        (trans. Joseph O'Malley)
Marx cannot have meant the drug comparison to sound simply hostile and insulting: opium use was perfectly legal in 1843, and not just common people leading tedious lives but many leading European artists and intellectuals found solace in it. He envisions a world in which people will not need either mood-altering substances or otherworldly consolations to distract them from the manifest insufficiency of their existence. Such pleasures are "illusory," but in the world as presently constituted they are also necessary.

Bloom's ambivalent responses to the worshipers in the church invite sustained comparison with these views. Seen objectively, the people in St. Andrew's may resemble the dazed and dehumanized inhabitants of an opium den, but Bloom makes an effort to sympathetically imagine the consolations that their faith provides: "Now I bet it makes them feel happy. Lollipop. It does. Yes, bread of angels it's called. There's a big idea behind it, kind of kingdom of God is within you feel.... feel all like one family party, same in the theatre, all in the same swim. They do. I'm sure of that. Not so lonely. In our confraternity…. Thing is if you really believe in it."

Two annotators of Ulysses, Kiberd and Slote, cite Marx as a possible analogue or source for Bloom's "ounce of opium," but Thornton, Gifford, and Johnson do not. Both decisions are defensible. It seems likely that most readers of the novel have thought of Marx when they see opium mentioned in connection with religion, but Joyce does not explicitly assert any resemblance or equivalence. There is also the question of how he could have known the expression. Marx published his introduction to the Critique in 1844, and in the same year he used it also in a piece for an obscure radical magazine, but these publications were not widely read. Not until the heyday of international Communism in the 1930s did "the opiate of the masses" become a popular meme. Skeptics may ask whether Joyce could possibly have read or heard of it.

Long odds notwithstanding, it is seldom a good idea to bet against Joyce's nose for obscure, telling details, and this detail feels almost too perfect to discount. In a chapter modeled on the Homeric story of a psychotropic plant that makes life feel bearable but distracts people from reality, Bloom compares a psychotropic plant that does the same thing with a religion that is competing with it. And Marx is mentioned later in Ulysses. In Cyclops, Bloom shouts out his name as someone whose work he is proud of: "Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God." Alas for less-than-totally-obsessive readers of this novel, it is all too characteristic of Joyce to signal in one chapter the importance of an author whose ideas are explored in a different chapter.

JH 2022
Opium den in a Chinese lodging house in San Francisco ca. 1890, held in the Bancroft Library of U. Cal. Berkeley. Source: Wikimedia Commons.