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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Loveless oblivion

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 28 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4028
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    Anna Kavan (1901-68) was the great granddaughter of Richard Bright, of Bright’s disease. She took heroin regularly for more than 30 years, wrote 18 books, and, during the time when she could not make a living by her pen, ran a property development company.

    She attributed her prolonged addiction to heroin to her loveless upbringing. In a posthumously published book of stories, Julia and the Bazooka (she called her syringe her bazooka), she wrote of herself, in the third person, that “her personality has been damaged by no love in childhood so that she can’t make contact with people or feel at home in the world.”

    She also wrote that it was a tennis coach who introduced her to the drug, to improve her serve. It is hard to imagine that a tennis serve would be improved by a shot of heroin, and it is probably cocaine that he gave her.

    Whether her childhood was quite as loveless as she later made out is not certain. She grew more bitter about her experiences as she grew older, which is not the same as more accurate. It is true that she was sent away to school early in her childhood and that her father committed suicide by jumping overboard from a ship when she was 14; but her mother was often good to her, and she kept her portrait prominently in her sitting room after her death. She never acknowledged her good fortune in receiving from the age of 18 an allowance equivalent to £40 000 a year.

    Kavan (who changed her name by deed poll from Helen Edmonds, née Woods) formed few attachments, her strongest being to one of her doctors, Karl Theodore Bluth. Dr Bluth was a refugee from Nazi Germany who prescribed her heroin until his own death. In Julia and the Bazooka we learn that “Julia likes the doctor as soon as she meets him. He is understanding and kind . . . He does not want to take her syringe away.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge liked the surgeon James Gillman, with whom he went to live, for more or less the same reason.

    What was it that Anna Kavan liked about heroin? It was the blunting of her own awareness. “She hardly remembers how sad and lonely she used to feel before she had the syringe.”

    I have never read a better account of this blunting, deemed desirable by her, than in her short story “Fog.” Told in the first person, it describes how she drives a car under the influence of heroin: “I felt calmly contented and peaceful, and there was no need to rush. The feeling was injected, of course . . . helping me to feel not quite there, as if I was driving the car in my sleep.”

    She runs over a young man and kills him. The police stop her and take her to the police station, where a policeman questions her. “The mask-face across the desk was frowning at me . . . A mask [that of the young man] had been put out of circulation. So what? A mask wasn’t human. It was meaningless, unimportant. The whole thing was unreal.”

    But the heroin begins to wear off: “All I wanted then was for everything to go on as before, so that I could stay deeply asleep, and be no more than a hole in space, not here or anywhere at all, for as long as possible, preferably for ever.”

    Of course, oblivion cannot gratify, except in contrast to consciousness.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4028

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