Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
Thomas De Quincey’s debut is an intense exploration of the liminal, from the evanescing ‘beatific druggist’ and the illuminatus prostitute of Oxford Street to the phantasmagoric godfather of logos revolutionaries such as Baudelaire, Kafka, Woolf, Huxley, Borges, Camus, Kerouac, Trocchi and Burroughs. At Oxford, the neuralgic De Quincey turned on, tuned in and dropped out, becoming besotted with Wordsworth, Coleridge et al (though latterly his relationship with the junkie ‘mariner’ was often tense). He lived much of his adult life (co-habiting with an hallucinatory Nile crocodile) in Edinburgh, working as an essayist, journalist and critic for Blackwood’s and London magazines, and becoming, by degrees, ‘The Pope of Opium-Eaters’.
Confessions documents ‘the whole of my past life, not as recalled by an act of memory, but as if present and incarnated in the music’. Continually revising the text which, like his own being, he saw as broken, contingent, ambiguous and mediated by both printing press and reader, De Quincey quite simply expanded the concept of prose. Shaman, synaesthetist, syncretist, proto-psychoanalyst, explorer of worlds both abstract and analytic, hawker of paradox, irony and dialectic: De Quincey was integrated by opium.
Even as it punctures utilitarianism, Confessions documents the political economy of consciousness. It is an imperialist, Orientalist text – and unlike many of the other Romantics, this Mancunian dope-fiend was always a Reform Conservative – yet there is an intense, struggling integrity and a recognition of context: the authorial subject as object. A visionary creative tension arises from the fugue of revelatory unity and ‘a thousand fantastic variations’. An analysis of the effects of mills, microchips and corporatism on the mind seems even more relevant today: ‘Might it not be as well to ask after the most beautiful road, rather than the shortest?’
The text is repeatedly ‘broken’ by digressions and footnotes; the opium-eater as polymath. Surrounded by tomes of German metaphysics, (‘I read Kant and again I understood him or fancied that I did’) in the depths of a Scottish midwinter, he decanted prodigiously of the ruby-coloured laudanum. It is too easy to adopt the moral high ground. Europe was a bloodbath; De Quincey took opium. The late daguerreotypes betray the face of a broken prophet, someone whose life exists in virtuality, in the text. To read Confessions is to read oneself; ‘there is no such thing as forgetting’, there is no escape. An habitué of the debtors’ prison, for De Quincey it was not easy to earn a living as a writer. Nothing changes.
Further reading: The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth (1823) similarly examines altered states; Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) is an investigation into the criminal mind.
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