Thomas De Quincy
Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Area: History of Rhetoric and Memory Studies
From Robert Lurie’s Report:
Here is the classic “disclaimer” which seems, in some form or another, to have graced the beginning of every literary work dealing with sin up to the 1970s. From Moll Flanders to Naked Lunch, there was always, in the foreword or first chapter, some kind of apology, rationalization, explanation, or, in De Quincey’s case, an attempt to distance himself from the other confessions and then divert the reader’s attention entirely by slamming the French!
“Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings, thanthe spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that ‘decent drapery,’ which time, or indulgence to human frailty, may have drawn over them: accordingly, the greater part of our confessions (that is, spontaneous and extra-judicial confessions) proceed from demireps, adventurers, or swindlers: and for any such acts of gratuitous self-humiliation from those who can be supposed in sympathy with the decent and self-respecting part of society, we must look to French literature, or to that part of the German which is tainted with the spurious and defective sensibility of the French.” (“To the Reader,” p.xxii-xxiv)
De Quincey brings up a very good point here that most people still don’t quite understand: drugs have different effects on different types of people. The literary folks can’t help but read deeper meanings into the whole experience, whereas ‘regular folks” just like the way the drugs make them feel
“If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen,’ should become an Opium-eater, the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) – he will dream about oxen : whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher; and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams (waking or sleeping, day-dreams or night dreams) is suitable to one who is in that character.” (“Preliminary Confessions,” p.2)
Like Charles Lamb, De Quincey varies his style by occasionally slipping into anachronistic language (or dropping Latin and Greek) when he feels the urge to wax poetic. Here he bids farewell to his life of poverty.
“So then, Oxford Street, stony-hearted step-mother! thou that listenest to the sighs of orphans, and drinkest the tears of children, at length I was dismissed from thee: the time was come at last that I no more should pace in anguish thy never-ending terraces; no more should dream, and wake in captivity to the pangs of hunger. Successors, too many, to myself and Ann, have, doubtless, since then trodden in our footsteps -inheritors of our calamities : other orphans than Ann have sighed: tears have been shed by other children : and thou, Oxford Street, hast since, doubtless, echoed to the groans of innumerable hearts.” (“Preliminary Confessions,” p.42)
By the time he finally gets around to really talking about opium, De Quincey delivers the most passionate writing of the entire book. Almost all of that writing is in praise of the drug.
“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; to the guilty man, for one night gives back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood; and to the proud man, a brief oblivion for ‘wrongs undressed and insults unaveng’d;’ that summonest to the chancery of dreams, for the triumphs of suffering innocence, false witnesses; and confoundest perjury; and dost reverse the sentences of unrighteous judges; – thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles – beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos; and ‘from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,’ callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the ‘dishonours of the grave.’ Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!” (“The Pleasures of Opium,” p.62-63)
A chilling portrait of how opium had insinuated itself into his daily routine.
“Whether desperate of not, however, the issue of the struggle in 1813 was what I have mentioned; and from this date, the reader is to consider me as a regular and confirmed opium-eater, of whom to ask whether on any particular day he had or had not taken opium, would be to ask whether his lungs had performed respiration, or the heart fulfilled its functions.” (“Introduction to the Pains of Opium,” p. 70)
De Quincey delivers some more inspired writing in his description of the happiest days of his life, which consisted of many winter hours spent sitting by the fire, reading, blissed-out on opium.
“Surely everybody is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a winter fireside; candles at four o’clock, warm hearth-rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies on the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without,” (“Introduction to the Pains of Opium,” p 76)
De Quincey defends his “frankness.”
“You will think, perhaps, that I am too confidential and communicative of my own private history. It may be so. But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.” (“The Pains of Opium,” p. 81)
Inexplicably, De Quincey is roused from his extended opium torpor by…a book about political economics?
“At length, in 1819, a friend in Edinburgh sent me down Mr. Ricardo’s book : and recurring to my own prophetic anticipation of the advent of some legislator for this science, I said, before
I had finished the first chapter, ‘Thou art the man!’ (“The Pains of Opium,” p. 85)
When it comes time for De Quincey to detail “The Pains of Opium,” he side-steps the issue for the most part, and instead goes into long, detailed descriptions of his dreams and how extended opium use altered their character. Here is one of the insights he gained from these dreams:
“Of this, at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions of the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil, and that they are waiting to be revealed when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.” (“The Pains of Opium,” p. 90)
De Quincey describes what it was like to give up drugs in the days before Betty Ford.
“I triumphed : but think not, reader, that therefore my sufferings were ended; nor think of me as one sitting in a dejected state. Think of me as of one, even when four months had passed, still agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, shattered; and much, perhaps, in the situation of him who has been racked, as I collect the torments of that state from the affecting account of them left by a most innocent sufferer.” (“The Pains of Opium,” p. 103)
In the Book’s final passage, De Quincey discusses some lingering effects of his long period of drug use. (Funny, maybe he was still experiencing these symptoms because he didn’t actually quit. Hmmm.)
“One memorial of my former condition still remains: my dreams are not yet perfectly calm : the dread swell and agitation of the storm have not wholly subsided : the legions that encamped in them are drawing off, but not all departed : my sleep is still tumultuous, and, like the gates of Paradise to our first parents when looking back from afar, it is still (in the tremendous line of Milton)- ‘with dreadful faces throng’d and fiery arms.’” (“The Pains of Opium,” p. 104)