Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The devil in a bottle

The experience of Mikhail Bulgakov's short story Morphine is exquisite and hallucinatory, but its meaning is a little elusive.

On the surface it's the story of a young country doctor who turns to morphine to quell his stomach pains, perhaps the manifestation of a deeper suffering. Polyakov had been in love with an opera singer, but she left him. "I was a man full of joie de vivre until my domestic drama."

Add a layer of biographical context. Bulgakov himself was addicted to morphine. During the First World War he served as a doctor on the front, where he suffered serious injuries and developed a habit.

Polyakov tries to wean himself from morphine by taking cocaine. "The Devil in a bottle. Cocaine is the Devil in a bottle":
There's no pain. On, on the contrary: I'm anticipating the euphoria that will soon be coming. And then it does come. I know of it because the sounds of the accordion which Vlas the watchman, rejoicing at spring, is playing on the porch, the ragged, hoarse sounds of the accordion, which come flying to me, muffled, through the window pane, become angelic voices, and the rough basses in billowing furs hum like a heavenly choir. But then, after an instant, obeying some mysterious law which isn't described in a single one of the pharmacology books, the cocaine in the blood is transformed into something new. I know: it's a mixture of the Devil and my blood. And on the porch Vlas flags, and I hate him, while the sunset, with an uneasy rumbling, scorches my innards. And that's how it is several times running in the course of an evening until I realize that I'm poisoned. My heart starts thumping such that I can feel it in my arms, in my temples... and then it sinks into an abyss, and there are sometimes moments when I think that Dr Polyakov won't come back to life again...

But a Bulgakov-loving Russian I know tells me this is a story about the revolution, how morphine (or vodka, or whatever) is the only means of coping with the insanity, horror, devastation, absurdity of sovietism.

Indeed, Polyakov's diary runs from January 1917 till his death in February 1918. "There's a revolution going on there." "Far, far away is dishevelled, turbulent Moscow." Perhaps the woman he pines for, unreasonably, is Mother Russia.

Medical professionals will view Morphine as a document with educational value, for example: "Bulgakov's short story Morphine documents the decline of Dr Polyakov and illustrates a number of salient professional issues such as self-medication, abuse of authority and risks to patients."

So many stories in this one story. And if we go back to the beginning, it's still not clear where happiness lies.

Morphine was originally published in 1926 and is generally collected in A Country Doctor's Notebook. Morphine is also published on its own as a New Directions Pearl.

Has anybody seen the adaptation of A Young Doctor's Notebook with Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe?
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