The Pursuit of Oblivion

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Richard Davenport-Hines is a well-respected journalist and author. He is the author of such intriguing books as Sex, Death, and Punishment: Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality in Britain Since the Renaissance (1990), The Macmillans (1992), Auden (1995), and Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin (1999). Never one to shy away from a taboo topic, Davenport-Hines must have known that at some point in his career that he would have to tackle the subject of addictive drugs. He makes it clear from the start in The Pursuit of Oblivion that he views “intoxication” as neither “unnatural” or “deviant.” Davenport-Hines only has contempt for the sheer folly of the so-called “war on drugs.” This study details how humans have seemingly always been in search of the perfect altered state. It is pointed out that opium was being used as far back as 1552 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt. Davenport-Hines makes mention of an Egyptian papyrus that lists seven hundred different mixtures of opium.

While references are made to ancient examples of drug use, Davenport-Hines spends the bulk of The Pursuit of Oblivion covering the history from the 1700’s to the late 1990’s. He is meticulous in his examination of how addictive drugs have been developed, marketed, abused, and regulated. Those who believe that the use of drugs is a moral issue will take little comfort from Davenport-Hines’s study. Ultimately, he sees that contemporary society is harmed more by the punitive laws that attempt to stamp out the use of “dangerous” drugs than by an individual’s indulgence in the illegal substance in the first place. The author commends the Netherlands for its more “enlightened” approach to drugs. Hashish and marijuana can be bought at Dutch coffee shops, and heroin addicts can get help from the medical community without fear of being prosecuted by the legal system.

It probably comes as no surprise that Davenport-Hines finds the more puritanical approach to regulating drug use in the United States as wrongheaded and self-defeating. No matter which side of the argument readers finds themselves on, they cannot help but be stimulated by the thoroughness of The Pursuit of Oblivion.