The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

Opulence, Opera & Opium ~ The Associative Mind at Work

For some weeks now I have been concentrating my research on a single family that made a very quick rise from the obscurity of the vast middle-classes to the upper regions of wealth and influence, in the eighteenth century.

The (male) members of this family made their fortune as servants of the Dutch East-India Company, with a ‘bit of black market trading’ on the side. After some time the family returned to the Republic of the Netherlands, where they ended up comfortably seated on the velour pillows of local governance; the perfect place to enjoy one’s fortune and exert the entailing power. It is an almost classical tale of climbing the Dutch social ladder during the Ancien Régime. It is resulting in a story with many interesting aspects, ranging from colonial and socio-economic history to the history of science and the arts.

But during my research, at various moments, I hear ‘le Sommeil’ in the background of my mind; it is the third act of the opera Atys (1676), written by Louis XIV’s court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. This is, of course, not just out of the blue, otherwise I would not have recognized it instantly. This beautiful piece – where the personification of sleep, the Greek god Hypnos, along with his sons, the so-called Oneiroi: Morpheus (dreams), Phobetor (nightmares), and Phantasos (fantasy) sing their song while the protagonist Atys falls into a deep sleep – is one of my favourites since many years. But is there a connection? I now wondered.

Associations – I have never been bothered by them, on the contrary, it is interesting to learn how the mind turns and sometimes runs away with things. The only serious matter is: It does distract from the actual work of research and writing. Yet I cannot help but to try to figure out how I got there and it is not always easy to pinpoint the route of associations. There is, however, a particular part at the beginning of the scene, that clearly keeps repeating itself in my mind; and now, today, I have figured out why. Just one of those moments when all falls into place: The lyrics. The key is found in the libretto of Atys, written by Philippe Quinault, where Morpheus sings:

Régnez, divin sommeil, régnez sur tout le monde,
répandez vos pavots les plus assoupissants;
calmez les soins, charmez les sens,
retenez tous les cœurs dans une paix profonde.

(with a quick translation:)
Reign, heavenly sleep, reign over the world,
scatter around your appeasing poppies;
calm all concerns, charm all senses,
and hold all hearts in blessed peace

As stated earlier: The main figure of this family, I am researching currently, came to wealth in the East Indies; after which he returned home with his family and settled down in his home province. There he led a comfortable life of leisure – the sleep. But the main link to recall Atys must be the pavots (poppies). The poppy, known under its latin botanical name as Papaver somniferum, or ‘sleep-bringing poppy’, was widely considered the symbol of relaxation and sleep. In Greek mythology it even serves as the symbol of the god of sleep, the afore-mentioned Hypnos. Of course this is all not in the least because of its intoxicating powers when converted into opium. And there it is – because the only way the aforementioned main figure could have accumulated such extravagant wealth, was the black market opium-trade; which was rife in the area where he was director of a factory of the Dutch East-India Company.

Somehow my subconscious reasoning was already pretty far ahead of my on the spot realisation. And this brings, once more, proof that the mind apparently can work its way through memories and general knowledge – associating them, crossing continents and centuries, to finally land where the music starts.


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