When Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923) died of typhoid fever contracted during an African trip with Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), Cocteau was inconsolable. Eventually he resorted to opium to find some relief and became addicted. This addiction continued for several years, weakening and enervating him. Nonetheless, he managed to write Les enfants terribles and La voix humaine, among others, during this time. But it was making him ill, and he decided to place himself in physicians' hands in order to kick the habit. The first attempt did not hold. During the winter of 1928-1929 he tried again, while making the notes and drawings which became this book (published in 1930). What emerged is quite different from Thomas de Quincey's famous Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) or Charles Baudelaire's Les paradis artificiels (1860).
Though there are passages where one sees something of the disintoxication procedure, one will not find any trace of the gritty descriptions of the withdrawing addict's ignoble and demeaning sufferings commonly found in late 20th century confessions. In fact, though suffering is alluded to (primarily in the drawings), Cocteau remained a defiant aesthete.
N'attendez pas de moi que je trahisse. Naturellement l'opium reste unique et son euphorie supérieure à celle de la santé. Je lui dois mes heures parfaites. Il est dommage qu'au lieu de perfectionner la désintoxication, la médecine n'essaye pas de rendre l'opium inoffensif.
Mais là, nous retombons sur le problème du progrès. La souffrance est-elle une règle ou un lyrisme ?
Il me semble que, sur une terre si vieille, si ridée, si replâtrée, où tant de compromis sévissent et de conventions risibles, l'opium éliminable adoucirait les moeurs et causerait plus de bien que la fièvre d'agir ne fait de mal.
(Do not expect me to be a traitor. Naturally, opium remains unique and its euphoria superior to that of health. I owe it my perfect hours. It is a pity that instead of perfecting disintoxication, medicine does not try to render opium harmless. But here we come back to the problem of progress. Is suffering a rule or lyricism? It seems to me that on an earth so old, so wrinkled, so made up, where so many compromises and laughable conventions are rife, opium rendered harmless would soften manners and cause more good than the fever of activity causes harm.)
This book does occupy itself with opium, its effects and their consequences, which are contrasted with those of other drugs, tobacco and alcohol. But it is primarily about Cocteau's state of mind, what he was thinking of, what he usually thought about: art, cinema, theater and literature and those who make it. The text jumps about in a kind of heightened stream of consciousness. Many passages have the density and quality of prose poems. One must read slowly, with delectation. And some of the drawings are quite striking.
Most of Cocteau's productions have autobiographical elements encoded in recurring figures, situations, and symbols which form part of his private mythology (and part of the pleasure in reading and viewing his work). In Opium, La difficulté d'être and Portraits-Souvenir, Cocteau occasionally lifted a corner of the veil of his poetic mythologizing, permitting us brief glimpses into his life.