two morphinomanias


– H.H. Kane, Drugs that Enslave: The Opium, Morphine, and Hashisch Habits (1881) –


– Eugène Grasset – La Morphinomane (1897) –

In searing contrast [to the other prints in the album in which it’s collected], Morphinomaniac discloses a disturbing glimpse of narcotic addiction through aggressive stylization and an acid palette that pushes the lithographic print to its chromatic limits. The lithograph strikes the viewer with such immediate force partly due to its claustrophobic point of view as a close-up of three-quarters of a frail woman’s body compressed into a rectangular frame that barely contains her, with only her legs beneath the knees escaping exposure. The beholder’s point of view peers down at her as she hunches uncomfortably over a chartreuse fauteuil. As if preparing for a blow from without or a convulsion from within, her abdominal muscles are tightly retracted and her shoulders are raised to the point of shrouding the neck entirely. The flat, densely hued yellow background pushes her form against the picture plane and lends her silhouette even more severity.

– Abigail Susik, “Consuming and Consumed: Woman as Habituée in Eugène Grasset’s Morphinomaniac

An intervening “anti-mimeticism,” to borrow Curtis Marez’s paraphrase of Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” (1889), lacquers over the subcutaneous denudity pockmarking Kane’s habitué. (possibly sexless). What smoothed out the second picture?

Counterintuitively, secret bodies multiply by contagion. Needles fascinate women especially, according to Morphinism and Narcomanias from Other Drugs (1902). A susceptibility to “neuromimesis,” among others, allows “addiction” to “become contagious, spreading in some instances throughout the community.”

Open wounds lay out open secrets – scarred bodies turn up on the scene of autopsy. “Diagnosing Opium Habitues by Snap-Shot” (1895) knew all about what stripping could disguise. Aggressively stylized, perhaps the prurience of Grasset’s flat yellow scopophilia glosses something over – the public fantasy of a wound so obvious it disappears into the thin shadow cast by needle on skin.

On the former body, by contrast, results multiply. Not just because skin had already, in the first decades of the 19th century, become a “visible organ,” as Irene Tucker has it – also because in both pictures skin finds the conditions of its visibility in shedding clothes, or undergarments turning outward (somewhere Roland Barthes talks about this).

But can the “Result of Subcutaneous Injection” turn to striptease? Why the loincloth’s concessionary modesty if every site of negative pleasure already accumulates across the surface? What does it concede to?

Maybe this is a way to invert that question: knowingness can, it seems, read its own confirmation on the first body, even if its incomplete objectification of that body compels it to resist the urge to jerk back in disgust – but can it do the same for the second? If something goes beyond the glaringly obvious, beyond any context in which it would make sense to evaluate it as concealed or obvious, as the second body seems to, how does knowingness keep operating, or not? Maybe contagion (that which you can catch from a sensation like that of the second body, but not exactly of the first) is the limit of open secrecy – there’s nothing to know about the needle’s fascination, since any exposure puts the would-be knowing subject out of the bounded space from which it could objectify the addict’s body, and not just by disgust, as in the former case. Sensation dissolves that space.

(My shot in the dark is that genre — treatise vs. album — doesn’t fully reduce the difference here: aestheticizing relies on the decorative erotics of empire, but the involution of that erotics around the morphine habit remains a question for historical research that can’t boil down to the axis of the clinical / pathologizing  and the lurid /  sensationalizing, especially if those two modes cross over some supervening logic).

Perhaps Kane’s frontispiece bears reproducing, too, especially as it classicizes (and thereby seeks to subordinate anti-mimeticism):

Mimeticism, taken too far beyond an ideality that softens affect’s disfigurations, depraves the taste in Lessing’s most famous acct of the above. Imagination needs to outstrip the striptease if it is to yield any pleasure — otherwise one risks conferring “a duration that outrages nature” on what ought to be a “transient access of passion” (19). (quoting from the 1874 translation)


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