Kurt Cobain’s Heroin Kit

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kurt cobain works

You can tell a lot about someone’s personality with a simple glance at their works. An unkempt cigar box. A dirty spoon. Cotton Q-Tips. The inescapable black marks of carbon from flame on metal. The hyper-real clutter of a ritual made to escape reality.

The world’s most famous heroin kit belonged to Kurt Cobain, and now we can stare at it in misery and angst thanks to the Seattle Police Department and their newly developed crime scene photos that are just back from the lab, twenty years too late.

An old cigar box named after an Irish singer and poet. It isn’t very dirty but it’s a bit spartan. Maybe he didn’t use this kit much. Maybe it was a backup. Maybe he just wasn’t as much of a junky as he’s been made out to be. The spoon is dirty and it looks like it has been used two or three times without cleaning. When he cooked up he let the heroin really cook, which left rings of the drug where the water evaporated. He wasn’t compulsive about it, he didn’t try to soak up every last drop clean from the spoon or save every used cotton. It didn’t matter.

There’s some cut left in the spoon. The heroin is street quality black tar. He wasn’t trying to score better gear. Maybe he just didn’t care.Two standard 1cc BD insulin syringes, but at least they’re fresh and new. Nothing to stir with except the plunger end of the syringe. Not even a cup for the water from the sink.

The cotton in the spoon is a huge misshapen lump. Those adept guitarist’s fingers working the cotton off a dirty Q-Tip and fumbling to make a pathetic cotton ball. The dirty towel laid out. A chunk of the drug chosen and placed in the dirty spoon. Going to the sink to drip water in, no longer caring if it spills. Watching the drug liquefy and cook above the flame of a cheap disposable lighter. Stirring with the plunger, carefully removing the cap, tying up with a piece of towel and sending the drug home, wondering if it will change things but knowing nothing will.

There’s nothing to clean up with. Just the dirty towel. No alcohol swabs. Just the open, oozing tube of Dr. Hauschka’s Rosencreme to anoint the burning, sensitive skin.  It may be a mess, but everything’s in it’s right place. And when the ritual is over, it will all go carefully back in the box.

Put the cap back on the syringe, put the spoon back in the box and close the lid and smoke an American Spirit without an ashtray and write about your life in red ink and stab the words into the dirt in an act of defiance against the terrible and absurd rituals of a life in pieces. That’s who Kurt Cobain was. And if you ever find yourself in the Northwest of the United States, go out at night and head west to the water. Stare into the cold darkness of the Pacific. If you feel that darkness staring back at you, then you’ll understand in the moment before you turn away what it might have felt like to be Kurt Cobain.

 

Kurt Cobain crime scene gear

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Drugs, Science and Society – Royal Institution Lecture

“Narcotics have been used by humans since the time of the ancient Egyptians, and even today around 300 million people across the world take drugs each year. But what is a drug? And who is it that should decide what a drug is?

In this Ri event chaired by Kate Kelland, EMEA Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters, Sharon Ruston and David Nutt explore the past, present and future of our societal and political attitudes towards drugs. From supposedly “medical” experimentations in the 18th and 19th centuries, to modern-day government drugs policy and the rise of new ‘legal highs’.

In the 1800s, eminent Ri scientist Humphry Davy carried out numerous experiments on the effects of breathing nitrous oxide, testing it on both himself and others. These experiences lead to his claim that this drug could “destroy our pains and increase our pleasures”. Comparing Davy’s trials with those of Thomas De Quincey with opium, Sharon Ruston, Professor of Romanticism at Lancaster University, explores what were clearly some rather blurred boundaries between medical and recreational drug use at this time. Both nitrous oxide and opium have become invaluable medicines, the first as an anaesthetic, the second as morphine — one of our most powerful forms of pain relief. But it seems during these early experimentations that these drugs’ were heralded as much for their pleasurable uses as for the control of pain, enabling humans to access a new world of “sublime perception”.

Such research was aided by the fact that, in Davy’s day, science had little, if any, interference from politics. Times have certainly changed, and the use and classification of drugs has become heavily entrenched in politics. In the second half of the talk psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt, explores this complex relationship, considering the challenges posed by politics, media and the alcohol industry in the future of drugs policy. Nutt raises some controversial questions, including whether alcohol is more dangerous than other drugs, and gives his thoughts on what drugs, and society’s view of them, will look like in the future.”

Watch more science videos on the Ri Channel http://richannel.org

Media Goes Meow Meow for Drugs and Severed Penis

Media Circus Meow

Over boys and kittens, knives and penises, lastly through a hogshead of krokodil

There’s a sucker for severed penises and crazy drug stories born every minute, and the circus is finally back in town. What do we have to top last season’s wonderful crocodile show? Nothing less than a psychotic boy with severed genitals, stabbing his mother on mephedrone.

Everyone welcome Rolling Stone to this season’s media circus. The magazine just couldn’t resist being a part of the fun after seeing those lovely crocodiles. They may seem new at this, but it’s right up their alley. However, Rolling Stone has made it clear to me that they want you to answer an important question before they perform, so everyone pay attention:

“WHAT IS MEOW MEOW THE DRUG THAT MADE A TEEN CUT OFF HIS GENITALS?”

-Julianne Escobedo Shepherd,

author of “Are online nudie pics an art form

and “Six movies that will make you never want kids

@jawnita on Twitter

I want you all to get a chance to answer Rolling Stone and Julianne (who, unbelievably, or, perhaps, quite predictably, has taught as an adjunct professor at NYU), but first let’s hear what the other circus freaks have to say:

The Huffington Post says they’re more interested in severed penis than the drugs. They want to remind us about recent events in Asia:

A CHINESE MAN WHO HACKED OFF HIS LOVE MUSCLE IN OCTOBER FORGOT TO BRING IT TO THE HOSPITAL WITH HIM !!!

A MAN FROM TAIWAN CHOPPED OFF HIS OWN MANHOOD AND FLUSHED IT DOWN THE TOILET !!!!

@HuffingtonPost on Twitter | HuffingtonPost on Facebook

Lucy Crossley at The Daily Mail also prefers the penis angle. She enjoys long walks and picturing blood gushing from a boy’s groin. The Daily Mail liked the story so much they couldn’t stop writing the headline.

“STUDENT 19 SLICED OFF HIS OWN PENIS AFTER STABBING HIS MOTHER WHILE HIGH ON MEOW MEOW AND WAS FOUND HANGING OUT OF A WINDOW WITH BLOOD GUSHING FROM HIS GROIN”

@MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

Rolling Stone, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to want to be a full-time member of the circus. They want the attention and money without the disgrace of running away from society to abuse rare animals and people with genetic illnesses for fun and profit. Phrases like this have no place in our circus:

“But as with most emerging drugs, there’s an aura of sensationalism surrounding the truth, making clear and concise information difficult to parse. (Recall the Miami bath salts cannibal, who was never proven to have ingested bath salts.)”

Julianne, we can relate. You feel ashamed after writing a tabloid article pandering to drug hysteria with a psychotic penis rampage. You feel ashamed to be in the company of hacks like Lucy Crossley. But you might as well not bother if you’re going to give the game away about the bath salts cannibal. That cannibal has to make a living, and so does the rest of the circus. We know that no one cuts off their own penis on stimulants unless they’re mentally ill.

But the suckers don’t, and you had better keep it that way.

In this way the Daily Mail will challenge the world

Junk Semantics

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It really irritates me to see “drug reform” activists use the same prejudiced language as their opponents. These people remind me of early American abolitionists who often espoused just as much racism as the average slave owner. Abolitionists believed slavery was wrong, but that doesn’t mean they all believed in equality and weren’t subject to cultural indoctrination.

If you’re trying to change society, it helps if you actually understand it. And when you’re fighting for social change, you have to combat toxic ideas, not conform to them. Humans have a tendency to cultural conformity. Even so, you would expect people who are trying to change a culture to be able to see that culture’s prejudices. Instead, most people, whether their hearts are in the right place or not, seem doomed to operate within the bounds of conformity to social rules which were established to support the harmful beliefs they claim they’re trying to alter.

So here’s some junk semantics that need to change and the real meanings behind them, or, in some cases, the words we should be using instead.

Drug reform movement = human rights movement; civil rights movement

Drug related crime = prohibition related crime

Discontinuation syndrome = withdrawal syndrome. The term “discontinuation syndrome” was invented by the makers of SSRI anti-depressant drugs to distance SSRI withdrawal from cultural perceptions of drug addiction. 

Chemical dependence = a positive euphemism for physical addiction

Clean = culturally acceptable drug user. a person who may smoke a pack of cigarettes and consume multiple alcoholic drinks per day.

Sobriety = culturally acceptable drug use. a state in which a person uses any and all drugs that aren’t illegal or culturally taboo.

Drug = medication

use = describes taking culturally taboo pharmaceuticals. “He takes Tylenol” versus “She uses heroin.”

Drug user = a person who uses an illegal or culturally taboo pharmaceutical, even when legitimately prescribed by a doctor, if that medical use is not culturally acceptable (for example, “medical marijuana”)

Junkie = Junky: a person whose central nervous system requires opiates to function normally. The preferred spelling removes the diminutive and reappropriates the epithet.

Addiction = chemical dependence. Currently used to describe a diseased mind or a compulsive habit depending on speaker’s bias; has been detached from the physical so that the word is only used to describe “drug users” and not all people who are chemically dependent; in actuality: the state of being physically addicted to (“chemically dependent” upon) a pharmaceutical.

Medical marijuana = marijuana. A well-intentioned euphemism which necessarily implies that the reason a person takes a particular drug should be subject to regulation and that recreational use should be treated differently than “medical use”, which is then defined on culturally subjective terms.

Makes me want to use some medical aspirin.

Opiate withdrawal, the opera (a playlist)

Take some music along with your paracetamol and vitamins. Ease you down gradually. You’ll really feel this stuff kick in as the opiates wear off. You won’t have that numb tolerance to music any more, so go easy.

 

Methadone Maintenance Man – Tony Scheuren. A James Taylor parody that sounds more like James Taylor than James Taylor.

Stop. Where Is My Mind? – The Pixies

Suffering. Black Water – Timber Timbre

Exhaustion. I’m So Tired – Fugazi

Pain. Used To – Wire (Chairs Missing)

Misery. Miss Misery – Elliott Smith

Angst. Drug Life – The Mountain Goats (East River Pipe cover)

Boredom. Loughborough Suicide – The Young Knives

Frustration. That’s Entertainment – The Jam

Change. New Slang – The Shins

Repeat. Marquee Moon – Television

Prohibition and Prejudice: Demonization of the Drug User

After I quit methadone, people began to treat me like a different person. I unwittingly transcended the untouchable caste of the junky and became accepted as a normal member of this society that so conveniently allows for reinvention. I might as well have been a black man who turned white overnight.

Anti-Mexican racism contributed to the criminalization of cannabis

Anti-Mexican racism contributed to the criminalization of cannabis

Drug users are among the untouchables of the American class system, the melting pot’s social cousins of the Dalit of India, the Romani of Europe and the Burakumin of Japan. In America, like most places, you are treated more or less like a pariah for being on methadone maintenance. Years of negative drug tests will only make you seem to most people a somewhat more trustworthy and less repulsive specimen of your untouchable caste. Get your methadone prescription from a doctor, take the medication for pain (instead of requiring it to be able to function), and miraculously you are considered a normal human being.

Anti-Chinese racism was largely responsible for the criminalization of opiates.

Anti-Chinese racism was largely responsible for the criminalization of opiates.

I quit methadone a long time ago because I was sick of the discriminatory regulations and travel restrictions. I developed medical problems soon after–problems unrelated to methadone or withdrawal. I didn’t know it at the time, but methadone had alleviated the symptoms and functioned as a therapeutic treatment. Now I have to suffer the irony of doctors forever congratulating me for discontinuing the only medication that relieved symptoms they are trying, with little success, to address with drugs and surgeries that are objectively no better, and often worse than being on methadone.

Not many people are aware that opiates treat conditions other than pain, but as late as the 19th century opium was as widely used as aspirin is today. The public today is encouraged to believe the 19th century opium cure-all was quackery. This is a convenient lie that even most doctors believe. Of course, most doctors alive today have very little understanding of opiates. Like most people, they are prejudiced against their use.

Drug prohibition was founded on prejudice. San Francisco enacted the first U.S. opium ban in 1875, motivated by anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism. Similar laws were passed around the world for similar reasons, often by governments and groups with ulterior motives. Before Harry Anslinger demonized cannabis in Hearst newspapers with scare stories about African Americans raping white women, southwestern states were targeting “marihuana” smoking Mexican immigrants. Japan’s right wing government outlawed the same drug when confronted by a red scare and widespread left wing student protests. Many of the students used marijuana, which became a convenient cause for their arrests.

Naturally, these prejudices against targeted groups expanded to include drug users in general. The use of prohibited drugs became synonymous with belonging to a despised race or subculture. Soon, the idea of drugs—the excuse to demonize—became entangled with the act of using the drug, and thus began the demonization of the drug user in general.

Songs that feel like a shot of heroin

My relapse hit list. I hope you like my tracks.

You don’t have to have ever used an opiate in your life to enjoy these songs. For those of you that haven’t, you’ll probably get the vibe anyway. For those of you that have, this is my “relapse” playlist. Not literally. I don’t relapse. I exercise free will. Choose life, Mark.

Regardless, drug use is not some “temporary failure of judgment” (the definition of a “lapse”). It’s a choice; often a medical necessity. But I couldn’t think of another word for “experiencing an opiate after a period of abstinence”. Revisit, maybe. I realise the word has a medical definition that could be used to describe the same circumstances. But the cultural definition is negative. We need to change the semantics if we’re going to change cultural attitudes.

1. Heartbeat – Wire

Anticipation. This is a really interesting song. It’s like the language of music is all but stripped away here, leaving pure feeling. Be careful listening to it. It has magic. It was originally intended as a love song.

2. Cosmic Dancer – T. Rex

Preparation. Nostalgia, a love song. A relapse revisit track. Not my favorite. But it’s nostalgic.

3. Ocean – The Velvet Underground

Here come the waves. Take a shot of heroin [never take a shot of heroin] and I think you’ll find this is Lou Reed’s ultimate heroin song, not that other one. I could shoot up to this song 365 days a year.

4. Long, Long, Long – The Beatles

Warm glow. Obviously, if you listen to this one repeatedly, it will turn bitter. Another one only suitable for a relapse revisit playlist. This is a nice sleepy song to play on guitar. The feeling of playing it matches the feeling you get listening to it, which isn’t as common as you would think.

5. Indian Summer – The Doors

Sedation. This beautiful, simple song is an outtake from The Doors’ first album. You may wonder why the hell it was cut. Supposedly, it’s the first song they ever recorded together.

By the way, just say no to drugs.

How to Quit Methadone, Part 1: Do Not Quit Methadone

Don’t. Switch to something easier to stop using and less dangerous to quit, like heroin. Maybe time-release morphine for six months to two years depending on the duration of your methadone maintenance. Buprenorphine, even. Really, methadone withdrawal is incredible torture and medically dangerous. I think it fucked me up permanently.

I once watched a man dying from methadone withdrawal in a redneck county jail. He was in his forties. They wouldn’t even give him clonidine. After two days he stopped getting up off his bunk. After three days you could smell death coming on him, like a sick animal smells at the pound. Pretty soon it made you want to vomit if you got within ten feet of him. He really was dying, so the redneck jailers took him to a hospital where doctors shot him full of morphine. This was out of character for the kind of scum that ran that county jail, so you can understand how sick he was. He came back looking fantastic, like he’d been to a dinner party where Jesus Christ did magic tricks. Now, he didn’t willingly subject himself to that. But you can, if you want.

If you have strong motivation, you will find you have the willpower to do just about anything. Most junkies develop a strong will. It takes a lot of willpower to go out sick and score, suffering all manner of degradation and discrimination. Most junkies don’t quit in the face of this because they don’t want to. The will to continue using is stronger. The two opposing desires can coexist simultaneously; both an exercise of willpower.

If you want to quit methadone (or any opiate; the others are easier), whoever or whatever your motivation is, it will have to move you on more than a practical level. Quitting to save money is a practical reason. Beyond the impulses of the lizard brain, intellectual and emotional reasons are the only true motivators. Those who do have the emotional will to quit but lack intellect will gravitate towards adopted ideologies as a coping mechanism. Those are the crazy-eyed ex-junkies who go to AA meetings and shout about abstinence with desperation. They have relapses you could set a train schedule by. That’s because they sought out an ideology to suit their needs instead of finding what they believe in. Willpower is an existential urge. It doesn’t really matter what motivates you, but you have to believe in it to the death.

There is no opiate harder to quit than methadone. If you never intend to quit and never have to, methadone is ambrosia, a cure-all elixir, a miracle drug, a fountain of youth. If you want off methadone, it suddenly becomes the kind of thing Nazi scientists tested on freezing Russian prisoners.

If the quitting doesn’t kill you (or seriously harm you) and you make it all the way to the other side, you will suddenly find you have some questions for Nietzsche; because while quitting methadone will kill some people, far more people will survive with lasting damage and new health problems. That which does not kill us makes us stranger.

With or without complications, you will feel like your brain needs rewiring. You will remember that you quit methadone because all it did was make you feel normal, only to find that you can’t feel normal without it, even after your unforgettable withdrawal is a distant memory. You have evolved into Homo morpheus. You will literally become like a fish out of water.

The quitting may leave you so broken you have to get back on methadone for health reasons totally unrelated to the chemical dependency you just beat. When you get to the final stages of tapering (assuming you’re not insane and didn’t try going cold turkey after years on the stuff), you may find that methadone was treating medical conditions you didn’t know you had: anorexia, anxiety, depression, eczema, hypotension, stomach disorders (yes, Kurt Cobain wasn’t just whining). What else? Who knows? Only junkies. Doctors won’t even be able to explain how methadone treats your suddenly revealed health problems, because no modern doctors have bothered studying opiates for anything but pain and addiction. You will probably never find the explanation, because the doctors from ancient cultures that knew the medical value of opium are all dead.

Now that you have stigmata to match your stigma, no drug the doctors prescribe will treat your symptoms as well as methadone did. You will wonder how people suffer these various illnesses without opiate treatment. If you suffered from depression or anxiety while on methadone, you will really have some problems waiting for you. SSRIs are toxic, ineffective garbage compared to methadone when it comes to treating anything but the most extreme depression and anxiety. And benzodiazepines for anxiety—don’t even bother, unless you like withdrawal and dependency-induced anxiety so much you want to experience it every day with symptoms that rival methadone withdrawal in life’s constant contest of miseries.

You will feel like you possess a powerful secret when you quit methadone. You will wonder how people get by without opiates. If you’re free from withdrawal but now a prisoner of any of the potential side effects of quitting methadone, you may refuse to go back to the drug because you’ve been through months or years of agony just to get off it. Even if you want to get back on methadone, you may refuse to go back to the kind of places or people (greedy clinics, rip-off treatment programs, corrupt doctors, etc.) that you were forced to deal with to acquire the medication. It’s harder to subject yourself to being treated like a subhuman when you have the stubborn will to avoid it, and by now your willpower will be very strong.

If you decide to go back, you will wonder why you can’t just go to a normal, decent doctor. You will certainly feel frustrated if you feel that you need to go back to the medication for health reasons, and not because of addiction. After all, if you made it this far, you’re no longer physically dependent, and the terrible months of withdrawal have probably conditioned you to hate methadone. You are supposedly no longer a junky, and they only give this stuff to junkies. Where does that put you? If you didn’t know that methadone could alleviate your symptoms, it would put you with everyone else who has whatever you have. But you know a secret, and with wisdom comes the terrible frustration of knowing when everyone else is wrong.

Regardless of what you do, you will continue to live in an age that treats opiate addiction with hysterical fear and inexcusable ignorance. There are deep historical reasons for this. Public health is not among them. Due to cultural beliefs, the medical community thinks it’s appropriate that you suffer because you are an “addict”.

The insanity of the age means that surviving quitting can be harder than surviving using. the_ludovico_technique_by_biscutbuu-d52inxcIdiots at the FDA who have never ingested Tylenol 3 argue about how much naloxone cut is needed in your buprenorphine to induce the desired punitive effect if you fail to put it your mouth properly. Big Pharma scientists are busy to distraction with their insane quest for the oxymoronic holy grail of “non-euphoric” opiates. Apparently, the foremost thing they need to figure out in order to help you is how to make sure you never accidentally feel good. This is being taken to even greater extremes by the medical foot soldiers of the Drug War, so-called “addiction specialists”, the people who pass for doctors and are supposed to be treating you though they usually know very little about medicine let alone addiction. If they ever knew what the Hippocratic Oath was, they long ago traded it in for a paperback copy of A Clockwork Orange. Nowadays, their “new” idea is to force you to take naltrexone to ensure you never feel good again. Maybe implant it in you. It was done in the 1990s by shady rapid detox clinics. Assorted quacks are “very excited!” to try it again. It only killed a few people and it had no success to speak of, but it has the punishment element.

So, if you do this, if you quit methadone, then at some point you are going to be all alone with your existential angst, and it will be severe. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry, you’ll soon be able to lecture Kierkegaard about his incomplete understanding of the subject.

This is not medical advice. I am not a doctor of medicine.

Meet Alexander Trocchi, Junk Philosopher

Alexander Trocchi

“If eternity were available beyond death, if I could be as certain of it as I at this moment am sure of the fix I have only to move my hand to obtain, I should in effect have achieved it already beyond the pitiless onslaught of time, beyond the constant disintegration of the present, beyond all the problematic struts and viaducts with which prudence seeks to bridge the chasm of anxiety, with the ability to say, avoiding unseemly haste: “I’ll die tomorrow,” without bothering to intend it, or not to intend it, as bravely as the fabled gladiators of ancient Rome.”

“For conventional men all forms of mental derangement save drunkenness are taboo. Being familiar, alcoholism can arouse only disgust. The alcoholic humiliates himself. The man under heroin is beyond humiliation. The junkie arouses mass hysteria. (The dope fiend as the bogeyman who can be hanged in effigy and electrocuted in the flesh to calm the hysteria of the citizens.) … I remember thinking that only in America could such hysteria be. Only where the urge to conform had become a faceless president reading a meaningless speech to a huge faceless people, only where machinery had impressed its forms deep into the fibres of the human brain so as to make efficiency and the willingness to cooperate the only flags of value…”

“Whenever I contemplated our poverty and how it situated me, apparently at the edge of an uncrossable gulf at whose far side strolled those fortunate few who lived their lives in well-mannered leisure, I felt like a tent pegged down in a high wind. Sermons on the sanctity of hard work, and there were many such sermons, were offensive to me. I thought of my mother’s hands, and of her poor bent body, and of her boundless admiration for the chief symbol of that class towards which all people of my acquaintance aspired, the class which did not work, the class of whose scorn my father was afraid, thinking only of money as he did, because he did not have any, because each shilling was doled out to him until he was driven to pawn the spoons…”

“For a long time I have suspected there is no way out. I can do nothing I am not. I have been living destructively towards the writer in me for some time, guiltily conscious of doing so all along… a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada. In all of this there is a terrible emotional smear. The steel of the logic has daily to be strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. …To lose my identity as a writer is to lose all social identity. I can choose no other any more than I can seriously sustain that. I am being left with a subjective identity, something I am discovering (or not) in the act of becoming.””Sometimes, at low moments, I felt my thoughts were the ravings of a man mad out of his mind to have been placed in history at all, having to act, having to consider; a victim of the fixed insquint. Sometimes I thought: What a long distance history has taken me out of my way! And then I said: Let it go, let it go, let them all go! And inside I was intact and brittle as the shell of an egg. I pushed them all away from me again and I was alone, like an obscene little Buddha, looking in.”

–Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book, 1960

Philosophy of the Drug Film: Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 and Louis Malle’s The Fire Within

Le Feu FolletThe philosophical drug film is a modern invention. Its literary equivalent dates at least to de Quincey. Most of these stories are biography, and whether or not you agree with the implication that there can be thoughtful purpose to addiction, even the medical community presupposes (in scientific answers) the philosophical question: “Why?” Unlike Trainspotting, with its emphasis on character, sensation and style (not unlike its source material)—or more didactic/exploitative predecessors such as The Man With the Golden Arm, Trash, The Panic in Needle Park, Christiane F. (ad infinitum/ad nauseam)—this rare breed of drug film distinguishes itself from its cousins by having something to say beyond didactics, grit, shock; even beyond characterisation and style. As of yet, most are literary adaptations; but film is a young medium.

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 (2011) might be called a film about social isolation (Trier has highlighted this theme in interviews) and self-reflection, but it is also that most curious kind of film: a philosophical film about addiction. Like Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), it is a contemporized adaptation of the 1931 French novella Le Feu Follet, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (published in English as Will o’ the Wisp). The novella is based on the life of Dadaist/Surrealist poet/dandy Jacques Rigaut, who promised in his twenties to commit suicide at 30, and was as good as his word. I have long loved Malle’s film, and would like to have updated the story again myself. So it was much to my surprise when, by chance, I came across Oslo, August 31, and scene by scene, noted the story it was based on, as well as the fact that there might not be much point in filming it again for a while in light of Trier’s excellent work. Thankfully, Trier abandons Malle’s outdated moral façade of alcoholism and returns to the source with heroin as the protagonist’s drug of choice. The literary tradition of these stories powerfully suggests there is no more philosophical drug user than the intellectual opiate addict, whose drug does not stupefy the mind, and whose lifestyle presents both a rejection of and by society that surpasses many plights of poverty and prison, let alone the plight of the common drunk.

The Fire Within

“We drunks are poor cousins, and we know it. Anyway, we fade away fast.”

Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet, in his best performance), is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to leave the comfort of his apartment at a luxury rehab clinic. He has made a conscious decision to end his life on July 21. In the meantime, he visits his friends one by one, taking a last chance to look for reasons to live. Sometimes he makes his visitations with the composure of a resurrected messiah, and at other times—when his emotions rise to the fore with alcohol, bonhomie (or lack thereof), or sexual attraction—he loses composure altogether. It is precisely these emotional experiences that present Alain with the opportunity to reconsider.

In a parallel life, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a heroin addict two weeks away from completing rehab, journeys to Oslo for a job interview. His is the converse of Alain’s journey. Anders comes to Oslo with reasons to live, after a sudden attempted suicide in the opening of the film, whereas Alain is giving life one last chance to convince him not to leave it. By this logic, Alain is seeking unconvincing and Anders convincing that he should try again. This departure in point of view is the defining difference of the film.

While Alain starts his journey with composure before encountering emotional experiences, Anders starts his journey with a baptism of sorts. He emerges soaking wet and in tears from a sudden attempt to drown himself. It’s this rebirth that shapes his journey to Oslo, in which he becomes the metaphorical ghost of the past making visitations upon his friends and his world. But Anders journey is really an internal one; more so than Alain’s. Anders’ rationality grows and his emotions subside on his journey in Oslo. He responds like a man tempted by trials, with increasing calmness and conviction. Were it not for the trip to Oslo, Anders may have simply made another miserable attempt to walk into the lake. Instead, his journey provides a quest on which he confronts his fears with realities. Whether the conviction he draws from the experience is morally justifiable is irrelevant. Life offers no simple answers. In a sense, these are coming-of-age stories where maturity is reached in the contemplation of suicide, which is to say contemplation of the meaning of life.

Anders and Thomas

Anders rejects the muddled arguments of the complacent intellectual.

Alain questions the purpose of the academic’s life

Anders exists in a world with more faults than he can accept. But he also refuses to absolve himself of blame, or to accept platitudes as substitutes for the honest appraisal of the world that he demands. His first visitation is upon his friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a university lecturer. Thomas, who looks as if he’s being haunted by a ghost, patronizes Anders with irrelevant quotations. He offers him stale platitudes and an invitation to complacency. Thomas offers an empty defense of life and the world. His head is “bursting with trivialities,” as his lecture culminates in a finale in which he explains how trivial his own existence is. When Thomas says, “Be a loser, if that’s what you want,” he means it literally and without sarcasm, and goes on to explain the boredom of his life, which is only interrupted by intermittent moments of little consequence. “I got a Playstation. We sit and play video games,” he admits, somewhat depressed. For all his ability to quote Proust with little or no point, it is Thomas who is the loser, and he suggests as much with his own total complacency. “Happy is probably an exaggeration, but it’s okay. You can get there if you want to.” To which Anders replies, “It’s not as if I want to live your life… It seems meaningless to me.” From Anders’ point of view, it is Thomas who is the ghost.

“I was dealing a bit as well. Should I put that on my CV?”

“I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.”

Anders assesses himself and the world with growing clarity on his journey. He calls himself stupid and unable to write, yet proves he is capable and intelligent in his job interview at the newspaper. He doesn’t avoid the interview: he takes the reasonable steps society might expect of him. But in the confines of the editor’s office, Anders can’t help but find more fault with more evidence of a vacuous world. At the editor’s invitation to comment, he criticizes the newspaper’s articles about HBO series and video games. The editor’s inane response: “People want something light.”

It is when the world seems unreasonable that Anders refuses to compromise. He won’t lie about his past, and is thus confronted by the editor’s palpable unease when the man finds he’s interviewing a heroin addict. But it’s Anders who rejects the editor, not the other way around. Emotional self-defense notwithstanding, Anders appraises the world with increasing rationality as the journey wears on. Rational appraisal gradually outweighs emotion and ultimately strengthens his convictions. Anders can’t accept a world where his arguably irrelevant past addiction would prevent him from being hired. He won’t even tell a harmless lie to compromise with such a world. He may set too high standards, but his pessimism and self-deprecation isn’t necessarily an emotional weakness. Anders is an intellectual, not an escapist. He reaches nihilism as a matter of logic. It’s hard to imagine Anders voice when Alain says to the object of his dislike, “I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.” Alain is the escapist who wishes he could go through the motions. Anders refuses on principle to try.

Alone in the crowd.

In a memorable scene, Anders sits in a restaurant observing the lives and conversations of those around him. At a nearby table a girl discusses a bucket list of things she would like to do in life: go skinny dipping, get a good job, make useful every day items—little things among the obligatory desires for fame and fortune. Anders will be confronted with some of these same experiences on his journey, and he will reject them all outright. To Anders they sound like ripples on the surface of time. He is looking for something more meaningful and real, but no one has it on offer.

So he ventures into the pretty, sunlit streets, where is alone with his thoughts among the bustling crowds. He recounts to himself what he learned from his parents. It is another inventory of delicate minutia, the small things in life that Thomas and the girl in the restaurant find worth living for. These memories, too, offer no real answers. Like the past, the future has little to offer him either. Children are a metaphor for this future in the film, and children consistently interrupt his journey, but Anders’ world-weariness never shows any cracks. To put off the search for meaning into the next generation is to simply spin a wheel back to the starting point.

The arc of the journey: emotion to reason, coming-of-age as coming-of-death

Anders is relatively self-assured about his ability to restrain himself from relapse if he chooses life. He simply doesn’t make that choice. His visit to the heroin dealer is a means to an end, not a thrill. He stands there bored, with contempt for the aimless life of the dealer who, like Thomas, has nothing to speak of but video games, aside from his depressing accumulation of electronics and shoes. Anders, unsurprisingly, is unimpressed. Perhaps he has a better fix on the meaning of life than those who have lived safer lives, and gone through less tragedy. What doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, but it certainly opens your eyes.

As Anders says to Thomas, “It’s not about the heroin. Not really.”

Joachim Trier’s  Oslo, August 31 is available on DVD and Hulu Plus.

Louis Malle’s The Fire Within is available on Criterion DVD and Hulu Plus.