The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics 1500-2000 By Richard Davenport-Hines 466pp, Weidenfeld and Nicolson Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography By Dominic Streatfield 510 pp, St Martin’s Press The Pursuit of Oblivion is British freelance scholar Richard Davenport-Hines’ prodigious approach to what is probably, after sex and war, humankind’s most enduring habit. The author adeptly tackles his sprawling subject by telling familiar tales (Sigmund Freud’s coke addiction and the origins of Coca-cola) in a meticulous manner. He leans heavily on a tremendous collection of anecdotes of famous people’ addictions, weaving them together with short, sweet renderings of prohibition, the drug-trafficking trade, the Ecstasy craze in Britain and the US presidential drug wars.
Amid the collection of factoids, however, lies real intent. This is a serious scholarly undertaking. Davenport-Hines creates an almost all-inclusive social history of drugs as a way to trace the evolution of Western culture, as far as that culture can be defined by its own deep-seated conflict between self-control and the determined urge to lose control. Or, as his epigraph from George Bataille succinctly puts it: “The need to go astray, to be destroyed is an extremely private, distant, passionate turbulent truth, and has nothing to do with what we call substance.” Despite its girth,
Davenport-Hines’ tome is missing something.
Although his stated scope is a “global” history, he remains largely concerned with the Western concentration on narcotization of drugs.
Thus he skims over what, certainly for Americans at least, is the major target of their obsession: the leafy Third-World fields where oblivion flowers in the hot sun.
Though The Pursuit of Oblivion devotes several chapters to an examination of the American “War on Drugs,” as well as offering an excellent biography of Colombian coke king Pablo Escobar, it doesn’t really address the cosmic seesaw of drugs’ supply and demand. For every addict in our hemisphere willing to skin his pockets for a dance with the Snow Queen, there is a farmer somewhere with kids to feed. Davenport-Hines passes on an in-depth examination of the foreign supply routes and the many who depend on them. Third-world economic reality, after all, is hardly the most riveting aspect of the drug trade. Or is it? British journalist Dominic Streatfeild, in Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, devotes an entire brick of a book to the vagaries of one particular drug. He maps its travels meticulously and coherently, with entire chapters on Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia (though he also, inevitably, includes entry on Freud).
By his own account, the author devoted two years of his life to cocaine. To Streatfeild, the intricacies of the trade, especially on the production end, are at least as sexy as the drug itself. This is, quite possibly, the planet’s most fascinating import-export racket: the United Nations estimated last year that the cocaine trade is worth up $92 billion a year – that’s more than Microsoft, Kelloggs and McDonald’s generated together.
Streatfield is intrepid, taking us on a dizzying 500-page-plus time-travel from the coastline of Brazil – where in 1499 Vespucci was greeted by a throng of bright-eyed natives, mouths stuffed with erythroxylum coca – to a shed behind a Texaco station in rural Colombia containing a submarine owned by the Russian Mafia.
Still, as we all know, the story of cocaine can’t all be told from afar, and Streatfield studs his tales of tropical intrigue with a comprehensive rendition of the drug’s use in our backyards. Even more cleverly, he manages what most social historians aspire to do: analogize the human condition through careful study of just one thing: in other words, to find the universe in a grain of blow.
“Buried Incas are invariably found buried with their [coca leaves],.. legend relates that he who appreciates the flavour of coca at the moment of death is propelled directly into paradise,” he writes. And we can easily follow him along to his rendition, later, of how the drug was mainly used in the 1960s to counterpoint opiate addiction in the middle class.
Though Streatfield’s careful research binds him to a heady string of narrative, his prose is exhilarating: though he’s no Gonzo journalist, his stop-start, adventurous and quote-studded progress reads like a long conversation with someone whose nose has led him through his fair share of snowdrifts. It all makes sense at the time, perfect sense. But when all is said and done, the drugs have been telling their own story all along. Still, it’s a hell of a good yarn.
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