James S. Lee “The Underworld of the East”

[suggested soundtrack: Tom Waits “Shore Leave”]

“The Underworld of the East” invites the reader to the world of dense Asian jungles and decadent ports of call, seen through the eyes of a British engineer with a curious mind and open eyes. A colonial world swarming with man-eating tigers and head hunting tribes; Chinese quarters rife with vice and iniquity; exotic river banks covered in a dreamy opium haze. And, what the book is most famous for, copious use of drugs – morphine, cocaine, hashish and the mysterious Elixir of Life, all taken extensively and with positive results.

James Lee was a British mechanical engineer, commissioned in the 1890s to supervise mining and railroad constructions, first in India, then in Sumatra and China. Bored by the bland, monotone life back home, he took a great interest in exploring the hidden parts of life in the colonies, and the use of drugs in particular; driven, in his own words, by desire to “delve below the surface, and to find out all I could about the drug habit there”. Lee records his day to day life, from engineering work to travels and, of course, experiments with drugs. While the adventures are not special by themselves (ranging from an encounter with a man-eating tiger to visits in opium dens), what shines through is Lee’s remarkable curiosity and keen, intelligent mind. Always “ready to learn anything that I can see which seems to be out of the ordinary”, he comes across as a warm, open-minded and likeable person.

Of course, the most interesting part are his drug experiments and narcotic visions. Lee developed a system which allowed him to take in enormous amounts of morphine, cocaine and other drugs, seemingly without adverse effects or developing an addiction. In fact, he found drugs to be an immense source of happiness and vital force, if only used responsibly. Of course, back in his time everything was legal, and he only stopped his drug use when anti-narcotic legislation was enacted (wasn’t the world more normal 100 years ago than it is now?). He took great interest in trying out various native plants, especially hallucinogens, and he book contains many records of hallucinogenic visions. Again, these are not exceptional by themselves (nothing beats Witkacy’s “Peyote”, anyway), but it’s very interesting that a plain engineer had a more curious and open mind, in this respect, than most of his contemporaries (and let alone all future bigots decrying drugs as the source of all evil). It’s a pity that his “Finding No. 2”, or “The Elixir of Life”, a Sumatran plant supposedly capable of clearing all adverse effects of other substances, had been lost for good.

While Lee modestly declares that “the reader must not expect to find this book written in the language of a professional writer”, the prose is surprisingly readable and atmospheric. Stories of his life and exploits are interpersed with thoughts on the nature of evolution, spirituality and the universe, often drug-inspired. These, combined with frequent loneliness among the exotic scenery of dense, savage jungles, evoke a somewhat dark atmosphere. Although the backdrop of colonial exploitation will be jarring to a modern reader, Lee was a decent fellow, caring about the working conditions and well-being of his workers much more than a typical colonial administrator.

I found Lee’s book via “The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960”, an anthology of essays and stories about drugs. It’s a very interesting read, containing an enthralling selection of texts about various periods and substances. Though, it left me with a sad feeling that 100 years ago, we lived in a better world, where people could experiment freely, without the drug hysteria that’s so prevalent today. Well, maybe I’ll live long enough to see Sasha Shulgin treated with the same respect as Chopin or Shakespeare, and don’t even get me started about Steve Jobs…

I’ll end with two marvelous quotes from reviews that capture the book’s spirit:

(from Erowid) “Far more than almost any other example of the turn-of-the-century travel genre, it presents our jaded palates with the sort of Orient of the Mind which we imagine far more often than we get: a twilight world of ports, red light districts, drug dens and secred chambers of vice from Aden to Kyoto, and our guide not some prurient flaneur protesting his shock and disbelief at every step but a mining foreman from Yorkshire who, during the course of the book, is largely preoccupied with smoking, swallowing and injecting as many drugs as possible.”

(from Goodreads) “A work of rare transcendental beauty presented with none of the pretence of solving anything, or reassuring anything, a certain sadness and a definite acceptance of the abyss, albeit to Lee a divinely created abyss, related as a pragmatic travelogue – if only Michael Palin had filled his veins with morphine and cocaine like this.”

[thanks for Piotr Achinger for giving me “The Drug User” as a gift]

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