An ounce of opium
ounce of opium
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.
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."
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introduction to an unpublished 1843 manuscript titled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.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.
(trans. Joseph O'Malley)
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.