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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Heroin taps into an authentic aesthetic of the verboten

When I lived in Bondi in the late 80s there were occasional scares because junkies would leave their used needles on the beach where they would stick unsuspecting visitors in the foot. This is the ideal kind of social response to heroin and is the kind of narrative that a new BBC program about the drug is designed to counter. In this Guardian story journalist Andrew Hussey glances back at how the drug has operated as an aid for artists as well as a point of reference for late-era boomers and he ends up proposing reasons why the drug remains such a no-go subject for the middle class:
[I]it is clear that artists who are heroin users have a clearly developed sense of negativity in relation to society, and that has its own aesthetic. This indeed is the true art of heroin – to refuse life, to refuse society; terrifyingly, in every absolute sense: to just say "no".
Culture products that operate in this space include the 2006 movie Candy with the great Heath Ledger, a movie I found so disturbing - especially because of the masterful acting of the male lead, played by Ledger - that I just couldn't watch parts of it. This doesn't often happen to me. I remember staying over at a friend's house when I was a boy and refusing to watch the vampire movie they'd chosen as the evening's entertainment; it was too psychically disturbing for me at the time. Later, when I was a bit older, there was on TV QB VII a drama based on the Leon Uris book about the Nazi concentration camps; as it was playing in the sunroom I had on David Bowie's Fame, the song, in my room and so I've forever been unable to comfortably listen to this song.

There's something truly awful about heroin that taps into this same, authentic aesthetic of the verboten, the prohibited. It's not simply a matter of the laws of the land; I used marijuana on and off during the 80s - but not since - and happily scored and rolled joints in my Glebe apartment. But I never even got near using heroin, and it was completely by design that this was so. I did come close to heroin at one time, though. It was after I had returned from Japan, where I'd gone after year two of my undergraduate degree to work on a casual basis and to travel, in 1983. Looking for work in Sydney before the academic year started in March I replied to an ad for art salespeople and ended up in a terrace house in Darlinghurst, up a flight of stairs. There were a few of us and we got into a car and travelled out into the western suburbs of Sydney to sell posillipo paintings - production-line paintings, created in studios where several artists work, each putting the same marks on the canvas under production. We sold door-to-door.

One of the other salesmen was a Frenchman who in my long poem about those years I called "Henri". He was a special soul and we talked about philosophy, modes of living, and art. We became friends. I visited him in the squat in Darlinghurst, north of Oxford Street down the hill, where he lived. One day we went out to score heroin in my car, a green Toyota station wagon. We drove into the underground carpark at the bowling centre in Rushcutters Bay and then headed back to Henri's place so he could shoot up. I sat in the room while he prepared the implements and the powder, and then hung around as he spaced out quietly.

Henri had one physical deformity: he'd lost some of the fingers from one hand. This didn't stop him rolling joints but it certainly drew your attention. Henri said it was from an industrial accident; it may have been true. I didn't mind. When Henri suddenly disappeared one day I was briefly but deeply saddened. The main outcome from this friendship was that Henri operated as a kind of prophylactic against my experimenting with heroin. What I'd enjoyed about him were the talks we had and the laughter we shared. There were the wry, knowing barbs flung at middle-class consumer society. There were recounts of his amatory successes when he'd persuaded a bored housewife to sleep with him when he was supposed to be flogging canvases. There were lots of great things about Henri and I wish I knew where he lived today so I could send him a Christmas card. 

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