Oct 4, 2020

version #1

Smoke, Drug, Poison: A Philosophy of the Faramoosh-Khaneh (Opium Den)

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh

We must enter the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’ (Persian ‘house of forgetting,’ meaning opium den). We must rest horizontally across its smooth planks and breathe deeply of its dust in order to contemplate a philosophy of willed oblivion. For opium is not a simple business of annihilation, but rather of processes of temporary transmutation; it conducts a paradox of physical ethereality wherein one learns to become at once smoke, drug, and poison. There is an elegant ritual in play: the reclined body, the slanted head, the lit pipe and charcoal grills, the careful assortment of objects and implements, the choreography of postures and the channeling of consumptive fumes. All of these make possible the delicate exercise of inhalation and exhalation that allows us to begin devising an ‘atmospheric methodology’ (or perhaps a ‘phenomenology of mood’).

Fumomania (Obsession with Smoke)

Principle 1. Vanishing (becoming-subtle)

I was sitting beside my opium brazier. All my dark thoughts had dissolved and vanished in the subtle heavenly smoke.

Sadeq Hedayat1

To enter the opium realm, we should become servants of this small corner of experience that synchronizes mouth, throat, and lungs in a near-lethal rhythm of fumomania (captivation by smoke traces). Nevertheless, the smoky half-sleep that rises here must be radically differentiated from that of the unconscious: indeed, the opium daze is more an art of gradual disappearance (outward, skyward) than a plunge into psychological depth (inward, downward). And the key behind such aptitudes of flight and evanescence? The elevation of a single object (the brazier) over any centrality of the knowing subject (I). The apparatus of resins and charred seeds, the micro-oven of shaved poppies, its juxtaposition of burners, apertures and bowls, its seamless conversion between sticky waxes and crushed powders: all this is rendered viable by the subordination of consciousness (in a non-sacred ceremonial offering) to the all-encompassing brazier. It assumes the function of magnetic pole or reed instrument through which “dark thoughts” undergo a becoming-subtle (“dissolution”, “vanishing”). He blows himself through the wooded mouthpiece, and thereby approximates the narrowness within: never transcendence, just dispersal (via the article). “Heavenly” means something altogether different here, amid the vial’s dominion: a plane of existential thinning, evaporation and fineness.

[Opium and the brazier; dark thoughts; dissolution; vanishing; subtlety; heaven]

Principle 2. Immolation (becoming-merciless)

Writers, a call to cigarettes! Literature considered as opium smoke! […] Literature as a physical test of intellectual suffocation! Literature and smoke, literature up in smoke.
The city is giving birth to my cerebral death, I feel my head airing out its atoms of the great state, I feel my head airing out its atoms of literary opium, and I expose my bare skull to the healing rain…

Reda Bensmaia2

The opium smoker must not simply lose himself in the complex staging of accessories: the dangling of glowing oil lamps, the positioning of ceramic trays and metallic paraphernalia, the scraping or wafting motions of the once-called 'dream sticks.' There is also a severe “test” at stake in the first excerpt above (manifesto of disintegration), an insurgent imperative of the rebel, dissident, or saboteur that turns the opium den into a headquarters and stronghold of miasmic plots. It is in this sense that opium’s reactivity fulfills both a perfect philosophy of distraction and a perfect philosophy of focus: the gray-white mist forms an exclusive perimeter around the execution of an urgent gesture; its haze barricades awareness of any outer reality (revolutionary indifference) while concentrating the gaze instead on the circulation of an emergent, all-important design (revolutionary passion). Sensation thereby becomes a call-to-arms, the thick air emulating that of the tear gas inhaled during street riots, or even that of the crazed fog of war, and with it all aesthetic actions in this domain are equally consigned to a literal trial-by-fire (martyrological “suffocation”).

What outer threshold of creative fanaticism requires the burning of one’s work? What outer threshold of creative conviction requires the burning of oneself? We have certainly seen avant-garde movements take flame to their own artistic products, setting alight their canvases and sculptures according to suicidal-masochistic creeds or proclamations of euphoric purging, and even avant-garde performers inflict perceptible damage to themselves in a sort of subject-object exchange whereby they become yet another dispensable stage property, but in the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’ we find ourselves speaking of another register of violation. No mere symbolic theaters of operation anymore; all representational orders are since overtaken by the borderline materiality-immateriality of ash and ember.

What exactly is being choked (to death) here in this time-space contraction around a single smoke-ring, and what are the exact terms of this immolation reflex whereby all language or thought goes “up in smoke”? On whose undressed bodies are this era’s writers suddenly commanded to put out their still-crackling cigarettes (whose pleasure bought by pain)? Why must they seek the exposure of “bare skulls” beneath the oppressive city’s rain, all the while enduring conflagration with the ferocious look of armed devotees? Headless authors, marching in succession, their cerebra enkindled in service of the “atoms of the great state.” Is it like the calculated act of brush-clearing in forest lands, or more the naturally spontaneous effect of the wildfire? Either way, it is intended to evacuate an otherwise saturated horizon of the event, to restore the zero-degree and thereby prepare infinite conceivable room for whatever inflections of chance, destiny, potentiality. The pipe is more an epochal knife (sharpened against history); the pipe infuses unstoppable momentum; the pipe teaches its smoker to proceed mercilessly. Rage, storm and the veritable transubstantiation of the exhausted subject into pure exhaust: such is the militancy of the opium den’s inscription.

[Opium and writing; testing; suffocation; cerebral death; atoms; exposure; bareness; healing]

Narcomania (Obsession with Drugs)

Principle 3. Solitude (becoming-innocent)

In caves of loneliness
futility was born,
blood smelled of bhang and opium,
pregnant women
gave birth to headless infants,
and cradles out of shame
took refuge in graves.

Forugh Farrokhzad3

Opium’s storytellers have fashioned several narrative genres to attempt capturing the elusive touch of the drug, though none coming closer than the fairy tale (and by extension the poetic imagination of the child). For despite the fairy tale’s chaotic shapes and intimations, all of which gain it autonomy from psychological sub-structures and mythic archetypes, there are certain recognizable conceptual paths to enable trespass into unrecognizable places. The first aspects, scrawled in large letters like signposts before the open mouth of the jungle, island, labyrinth, or rabbit-hole: “Loneliness”; “Futility”. Radical solitude and absurd perception are thus the initial points of departure for this procedural wresting of reality into unreality: And could we think of a better agent than opium to confer this very wisdom of the loneliness and futility of things?

Still, these thematic strands forge only a nihilistic springboard, not a nihilistic destination, which effectively isolates the child’s wonder (“in caves”) and resurrects their ever-threatened innocence (“was born”) so as to unleash experiences of wildness, curiosity, adventure, and formless temptation. Uncorrupted narcomania (as encountered exception) is thus diametrically opposed to addiction (as neurotic repetition-compulsion), for it never aspires to an identical trip but rather always to an untold dimension (by traversing the hollow spot). Opium: Surrealism five thousand years before Surrealism; Pataphysics five thousand years before Pataphysics (the study of imaginary phenomena and imaginary solutions).

So why such drastic distance from the human species (fatigued by one’s race), and why this kinship with trivial perspectives on Being? Because it then allows a conspiracy of boredom, derangement, and desire to fill the void with innumerable prototypes—animality, monstrosity, machines, ghosts, celestial or vegetal visitants, abnormally animated or talking things. Notice that she is not alone in her aloneness: she quickly speaks of “pregnant women” and “headless infants” who clamor and flood the otherwise empty forum of the cave (itself a lesson in the relation between wish and will). For if Hell is brought by static otherness, then paradise is not the retreat into absent seclusion but rather the invention, projection, and accompaniment of a phantom-carnival whose participants blur all lines between the beautiful and the grotesque, the lyrical and the vulgar, the moral and immoral creature. The drug’s latex residue thereby serves both as enclosure (it banishes the ideal body) and portal (it invokes physiological strangeness). The ‘faramoosh-khaneh’ (in its highest orchestration) follows this same logic of the festival, masquerade, or playground where mad indulgence reigns above limitation, expectation, or need. First she locates the cavern; then she summons those of diluted-smelling blood to dance across its stone walls: an invitation to those who might smoke freely in her “refuge”, unearthing new entourage (of the unspeakable gathering), those who master the minor techniques of pretending and shadow-puppetry behind all visions of remoteness.

[Opium and the cave; loneliness; futility; pregnancy; infancy; headlessness; the cradle; the grave; refuge; shame]

Principle 4. Secrecy (becoming-entranced)

He sprinkled a secret drug onto the water. The suspect particles flashed in the light as they fell and then scattered over the water’s surface. He watched them quickly spread—zealously, like entranced mystics—to contaminate the entire pool.

Ibrahim al-Koni4

We should perhaps overlook the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’s’ centuries-long intersection with actual mystical circles for the more insidiously fascinating relation between narcomaniacal zones and mysticism. Temporally, they are connected by their shared preferences for nocturnality, untimeliness, stillness and eternity. Spatially, they are connected by their congregation in outskirts, undergrounds and confined quarters. Epistemologically, they are connected by their predilections for obscurity, perplexity, circularity and imaginative excess. Sensorially, they are connected by the throes of ecstasy, serenity and vertigo. Metaphysically, they are connected by their varying quests to devour godliness (through immanent contamination, never purity), by the compartmentalization of the universal by the particular (a single swallow, puff, or drag) and by the conceptualization of otherworldliness as a nearby surface (though stretched endlessly across a lone layer).

Principally, though, it is a profane adoration of Lightness that binds the territories of opium and mystical worship. Notice the terminology of the above passage—“sprinkled”, “particles”, “flashed”, “quickly spread”—for clear evidence of how the mystic or opium dealer aligns their followers toward the insubstantial. Priests, sorcerers and shamans of both pagan civilizations and nomadic tribes understood this collusion (against gravity) in their earliest trances, their populations forever oscillating between famine and opulence, strung across the desert’s infernal dawns and freezing cold nights, its blinding suns and luminous stars, all testaments to the frailty of creation’s spiral. Opium: Revocation of any unifying theory of the ground (dwelling, habitation); rather, there is only manipulation of the drift (abandonment, hovering, pneumatic trajectography). This is the philosophy of Secrecy and Trance flowing across the watery pool and through the inner chambers of the drug den: “they fell and then scattered” (epithet of existence, condemned to lightness).

[Opium and sprinkling; secret; water; suspicion; the particle; light; scattering; surface; spreading; zeal; the mystic; the trance; contamination]

Principle 5. Horror (becoming-caged)

Here they recommend the leeching of healthy hearts
so that somewhat high and delirious like an intoxicated canary
you give yourself over to the tune of the sweetest melody
of your existence up until death’s threshold
for you know that
is roasted corn in the stomach’s reed-tripe
which fulfills its destiny in a cage,
as the security officer places the paper slip of relief in your palm
and the pill-bottle of codeine in the pocket of your gown
— one in the morning, one at night, with love!

Ahmad Shamlu5

What rare typologies of fear arise when the otherwise illicit tonics and ingredients of the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’ are thieved by regimes of bio-political power? What fresh paranoia now accompanies those once-savored narcotic clouds when displaced from their badlands and assimilated into pale, regimented institutions? When its beautiful malevolence filters through mechanisms of sadistic control? We call this stolenness the Hospital, where opium is deprived of its wayward qualities and made to “fulfill its destiny in a cage,” its tropospheric veils now condensed into the foreign compositions of the pill and the syringe.

A new definition of Horror accompanies the Hospital, though funneled through a false high or perverse delirium that facilitates “the leeching of healthy hearts.” It is the pseudo-intoxication of the stupor as opposed to the drug slumber of older periods, one that imports the awful logic of nightmare, suspicion, and anonymous threats behind the mask of alleviation. The poppy’s carelessness morphs into a totalitarian prescription of care, its prior capacities for hypnosis and pacification now imitated by analgesic regulation. For opium is misanthropically transformative (one sheds their human scales); the opioid is anthropocentrically binding (seeking a cruel utopian sameness). Opium bestows a certain arche-intelligence; the opioid leaves patients strolling courtyards with half-comatose stares. Opium endows hyper-sensitivity (through ventilation); the opioid breeds numbness (through domination). The broker of the unbound somehow becomes the broker of containment, its former sub-cultural hiddenness wrenched into mass epidemic waves: a sedative to promise countless slaves.

Thus we return to the poetic passage above and its careful sketch of a Horror based not in pain but in the painkiller. In the opium den, we found attendants graced with indistinct presence and refined passivity, quietly entering and exiting each corner with almost spectral aspect; in the opioid hospital, we hear the loud interventionist footsteps and feel the authoritarian looming of the staff (systemic minions). No, the gentle narcomaniacal overseer, caretaker, or curator is not the same as the warden, superintendent, or administrator of synthetic compounds. In the opium den, we set an elaborate backdrop for sentiments of micro-exaltation, micro-apotheosis, and insignificant invincibility; in the opioid hospital, we sustain states of impoverishment, disadvantage and subsistence-level perception (kept barely alive). In the opium den, we prolong the true aim of the eternal return (recurrence of the most perfect hour, or “the drunken happiness of dying at midnight”6); in the opioid hospital, we are obligated to play out the most wretched conditions of weakness (inexorability of the worst possible moment). This is how Horror becomes routinized into Dread—official, codified, trading short-lived desertions for long-term dependencies—as “death’s threshold” finds itself resewn each day into the “pocket of your gown” (gift of the watchkeeper).

[Opium and leeching; delirium; intoxication; sweetness; threshold; tranquility; destiny; the stomach; the cage; the bottle; the pocket; relief]

Iomania (Obsession with Poison)

Principle 6. Distillation (becoming-sunken)

I sink into your hell and I scream out:
I distill a poisonous elixir for you
and I give you life


Opium, in the hands of the incompetent or malevolent supplier, transitions the milky liquid almost unnoticeably from tranquilizing agent to venomizing agent. “I distill a poisonous elixir for you, and I give you life,” he rasps like someone with elite knowledge of the balancing-point between vitality and terminality, transience and permanence, momentary calm and irrecoverable sunkenness. For just as Sleep and Death were deities often personified as brothers, lovers, or close allies in mythological descriptions of the first civilizations, so does the opium den’s trade tiptoe across this fine iomaniacal line between two untrustworthy gods.

Modern thought should study those ancient and medieval orders (of physicians, astronomers, alchemists) who diagrammed toxicological classifications of salves and ointments extracted from dangerous plant species: deadly nightshade (‘Atropa belladonna’), black henbane (‘Hyoscyamus niger’), and mandrake (‘Mandragora officinarum’), each with their unique alkaloid mixtures of atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Moreover, they were among the earliest to employ the opium fields for medicinal purposes of anesthesia (soaking sponges during surgical operations) and even euthanasia (mixing it with hemlock), again walking the nameless tightrope between salvation and demise. So it is that the grand libraries and palace laboratories of Baghdad, North Africa and Persia became accomplices to the forbidden lounges of the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’ and its customs of sublime impairment.

Such early scientific visionaries initiate us in a great philosophy of Concoction. They developed intricate methodologies of delivery (ingestion, inhalation, skin absorption) and of brewing (fermentation, acidification, frothing) in order to experiment with the internalization of semi-fatal substances. An expert practice of measuring proper degrees, weights and dosages of the inconsumable that would bring their willing disciples to the fragile limits of poison time and again. The heart stops beating, a slight excision or antidote administered to wrench them back among the living, and an acute notation scribbled in the tables of some esoteric pharmacopoeia (to warn future generations what goes too far).

[Opium and sinking; hell; scream; distillation; elixir; gift; life]

Principle 7. Beastliness (becoming-massacred)

While I wait for the poison to work
The blood of a demon bile spit out
Spit out by beasts all massacred.

Joyce Mansour8

Is there a modicum of evil borne by the opium experience, and does the opium den situate itself amid base materialist dregs? For she speaks of an iomaniacal demon, of the diabolical patience required to “wait” for poison’s symptomatology to take hold, and of the viscous pouring of blood, bile and spit in a single line.

Let us picture the actual tactile setting of the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’—its partly-ruined edifices and paint-chipped walls, its poor velvet couches and linen beds lain ever-close to the floor, its dim-lit lanterns and candles—as a site coalescing both luxury and dilapidation, something that restores us to the paradoxical aesthetics of decadence (in the best artistic sense of the term). Like all concepts of Waste, it bears both lavish and crude temperaments; it is built for an inverted aristocracy (that of superior outcasts) for which one must be simultaneously cultivated, discriminating and tasteful while also negligent, contemptible and self-destructive. Supreme stylization of the dishonorable.

[Side-Note: Nearly 100 years ago, in the salt desert provinces of central Iran, an elder family member was known to withdraw each evening into a private room and smoke opium. However, it was also common knowledge that a long white snake lived between the walls of the house, and would emerge each night from a hole in the upper right-hand corner of the ceiling to partake alongside the elder man. It had become equally accustomed to the nocturnal ritual and the drug’s alluring potency, and would slither slowly upon detecting the first scent to join its familiar human counterpart for several lost hours, resting at the foot of the opium brazier and flicking its tongue in satisfaction. We might speculate whether serpents too hallucinate.]

Animality is a natural inheritance, whereas Beastliness signals another (lower) primordialism: defective, anomalous, cryptogenic. A poison derived from “beasts all massacred,” she tells us above, such that this entire discourse brings us to the doorstep of the ‘faramoosh-khaneh’ as a kind of bestiary geared toward the encapsulation of fantastical traits. Indeed, the den’s own funhouse architectural arrangement reminds one of the illuminated manuscripts of bestiaries and ‘aja’ib’ literature (compendia of ‘strangeness’) from the Middle Ages—Zakariya al-Qazvini’s Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) or Abd al-Hasan Al-Isfahani’s Kitab al-Bulhan (Book of Wonders)—which combined calligraphic text with illustrations of exotic, rumored, or supernatural entities. No mere coincidence that opium finds itself fastened to the expression ‘chasing the dragon’ across decades: for beasts (like opium) are extravagant, ornate forces beheld with both seduction and repulsion; they also share remarkable capacities for adaptation and murkiness. But above all else, they sweeten the prospect of non-being (for both predator and prey): namely, beastliness alleviates the negative concern with death’s finitude by charging it with the attractive purpose of dying-on-the-run. It seals the original philosophical task of learning to die well (‘ars moriendi’) with the ultra-violent timing of massacre (i.e., at the nebulous climax of ability, energy, hunger).

[Opium and waiting; blood; bile; spit; the demon; the beast; massacre]

Principle 8. Ephemerality (becoming-dream)

He knew that we all, like human rags, imagine and say to ourselves day and night things that are degenerate, even alarming. The important thing is that the hallucination should continue, that the viper of time should bite the ephemeral people who visit the field, that in all our life we should write one story or poem: This market is my world, my grave and my wings. I am the house of worms that is troubled by a number in a dream.

Hassan Blasim9

Opium’s epilogue should be composed precisely by sloping or leaning silhouettes, those “troubled by a number in a dream” (i.e. under its fleeting spell awhile). For this ‘faramoosh-khaneh’, house of forgetting, house of oblivion, shelter of transient degeneration and degenerate transience, is somewhere we must leave in the end. Thought becomes an emulsion to identity, a banned flower in the garden, contrasting past selves with rising chimeras. But it does not last forever (all are but visitors). In this respect, opium embodies reversibility at its finest juncture: that split second when the idle ones rule the world, and then become undone again. We should beware events that are irreversible; we should also beware events that are reversible: for those who master ephemerality are likewise masters of the return (“that the hallucination should continue”). They will find their way back to the faintness; they will reawaken the “viper of time”, wear their best silken rags, and draw strong influenced breath once more. Everything that is elsewhere and suspended in air belongs to them.

[Opium and rags; degeneracy; alarm; hallucination; continuation; the time viper; ephemerality; visitation; trouble; the dream number]

– –

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Babson College. He focuses on tracking currents of experimental thought in the Middle East and the West, with attention to concepts of chaos, violence, illusion, silence, extremism, mania, disappearance and apocalyptic writing. He has published nine books to date, including the recent Omnicide: Mania, Fatality, and the Future-In-Delirium (Urbanomic/ Sequence/MIT, 2019) and Night: A Philosophy of the After-Dark (Zero Books, 2019). He is also Director of Transdisciplinary Studies for the New Centre for Research & Practice and Founder of the 5th Disappearance Lab.

  1. Sadeq Hedayat, The Blind Owl, trans. D.P. Costello (New York: Grove Press, 1957), 104.
  2. Reda Bensmaia, The Year of Passages, trans. T. Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 39/106.
  3. Forugh Farrokhzad, “Earthly Verses” in A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry, trans. M. Hillmann (New York: Three Continents Press, 1987), 49.
  4. Ibrahim al-Koni, The Seven Veils of Seth, trans. W.M. Hutchins (Reading: Garnet, 2003), 20.
  5. Ahmad Shamlu, “In The Struggle With Oblivion” in Born Upon the Dark Spear: Selected Poems of Ahmad Shamlu, trans. J. Mohaghegh (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2016), 118.
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Drunken Song” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1954), Verse 6.
  7. Adonis, “A Grave for New York” in A Time Between Ashes and Roses, ed. S. Toorawa (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 135.
  8. Joyce Mansour, Essential Poems and Writings, trans. S. Gavronsky (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008), 73.
  9. Hassan Blasim, The Madman of Freedom Square, trans. J. Wright (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 58.

Ghazal Zamani, House of Forgetting Series, 2019.

+Add to your Compilation
 Generate PDF