Monday, February 01, 2010

The Yankee Dodge: Solvent Abuse & Diethyl Ether

from Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Dubri durnomu brat
Dity i durni hovoriat pravdu

I first heard about ether abuse during a youth group visit to, of all places, a Bible College. A couple of the students were repeating a campus legend about a bogeyman who used ether to subdue his young male victims before violating them in the preferred method of the citizens of the more memorable (and less hospitable) of the two cities, Sodom & Gomorrah. At the time, I remember it being, like most aspects of a bible college, at once antiquated, comical and fucking weird. Thinking back to the prairie roots of many of these students and their families, an ingrained fear and historical knowledge of ether abuse and lecherous family members makes more sense.* Evidencing a lack of imagination common to Bible College campuses, the midnight molester was known as Ether Man.

Hoffman's Drops were, for many years, Western Culture's greatest boon to ether imbibers - a daily fix in a flavoured lozenge. Called Hoffmanstrophen or Hoffman's Drops (or more formally, spiritus aethereus), the mixture of ether and alcohol was created by Freidrich Hoffman (or Fredericus Hoffmanus), a 17th and 18th century physician and chemist.

From their creator's hands, Hoffman's Drops bounce through Western History like narcotic karaoke balls - making an appearance in many works of literature, including Leo Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood & Youth and War & Peace, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and even Soren Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death. Louis XV preferred to mix it with a bit of sugar, and for Queen Victoria's Royal Consort, Prince Albert, it was his preferred sleeping aid. The Pragmatist philosopher William James reportedly drank it with his students. By the late 19th century, Hoffman's Drops were being used to treat everything from coughs to depression to vapours, and offered as a suitable alternative to alcohol by temperance lobbyists. (The lesson here seems to be that, whenever something is presented as a healthy alcohol alternative, it will be far unhealthier and get you way more fucked up.)

From such initial illustrious heights, Hoffman's Drops fell - becaming the equivalent of crystal meth - prairie fire. To the great number of Canada Ukrainians immigrants to Canada in the first part of the 20th century, upset at having traveled across the globe to find they were in a just as cold and unforgiving place as their homeland, cough drops were their only solace.

Several families who had moved from Stuartburn to Peace River in 1913 actually returned when they realized Hoffman's Drops were not available in the remote colony. Near Calder, Saskatchewan, in 1911, forty-eight bottles of Hoffman's Drops were consumed at a dance in several hours.
Ukrainians in Canada: The Formative Period, Orest T. Martynowych
As you can see, the depressed Slavs took to the drops with a relish that has made their reputation since. In so far as I can tell (and Wikipedia can tell me!), the only notable remaining population of ether lovers are the Lemkos**, a small group of ethnic Ukrainians who primarily reside in the Carpathian Mountains, and drink a kropka of ether along with either milk, orange juice, or water and sugar. As compared to simple spirits, the appeal of ether is in its rapid intake rate and the relative rapidity with which the effects wear off without a hangover, making it possible to get drunk multiple times throughout a day. The downside being that ether is highly flammable, making for some dangerous belching and memorable historic deaths.

This low earth music takes into itself each movement
of ether, grows and slims itself, and rings with light,
And rings the shrouded bell of night until it reaches
The meeting point of the Eternal and of Nothing
Bohdan Ihor Antonych

The poet Antonych, who died at the age of 27 in 1937, and who declared himself a "poet of spring intoxication," provides an early cultural touchstone for ether use amongst the Lemkos.

* Also, that the creator, Friedrich Hoffman, wrote a treatise on witchcraft De Potentia Diaboli in Corpore in 1703, which posited that one's receptivity to the Devil could be determined by a variety of factors, including sex, diet, age, and climate.

** "I have to congratulate the Lemkos," said Mr. Steforak, who came to the Vatra with his Lemko wife. "They keep together better than the Boykos or the Hutsuls."

If Sodom gave us sodomy, what lost act of the Judeo-Christian sexual canon did Gomorrah give us? What of Admah & Zeboim?
When was the last recorded case of vapours? Is the female hysteria epidemic finally over?

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