Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey
‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ by Thomas De Quincey was first published, anonymously, in two parts by the London Magazine in 1821. The following year it appeared as a novel and has been regularly reprinted ever since. This literary review is written from the Penguin Classics (2003) edition; ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings’. It includes the Confessions follow up text ‘Suspiria De Profundis’ and ‘The English Mail-Coach’.
Confessions of an English opium-Eater is often described as being a minor character in English Romanticism and, in being understood as such, becomes almost a footnote to the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. However, as a work of Western drug-writing, it stands out as not only one of the earliest examples, but as also one of the finest of the genre. In his introduction Barry Milligan notes that De Quincey “almost singlehandedly changed opium’s popular status from the respectability of a useful medicine to the exoticism of a mind-altering drug.” And it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to recognise in De Quincey’s work many of the signifiers we find so prevalent in post-WW2 drug-writing i.e. psychedelic literature.
De Quincey begins the text by surveying how widespread opium use was at the time and the effect of which is to reasonably ground the relevance of the text in a social phenomenon. He wishes, he says, to confess not out of guilt but in order to translate something of the experience to the reader. He also addresses doctors and claims that it is only their ‘truths’ that were known of opium in the written record; how it looked, what it cost and that if you have too much you will die “and, therefore, worthy doctors, as there seems to be room for further discoveries, stand aside, and allow me to come forward and lecture on this matter.” De Quincey believes that their knowledge is either wrong or doesn’t tell the full story, he wishes to break from the clinical descriptions of the age and, in doing so, he creates a literary phenomenology of opium.
Doctors, according to De Quincey, described opium’s effect as making the individual “inactive” and having “torpor” but, in arguing against this description, De Quincey recounts his own visits to markets and theatres whilst under the influence (albeit not in the heavy use of later years.) However, he does then concede that the opium-eater “naturally seeks solitude and silence, as indispensable conditions of those trances, or profoundest reveries, which are the crown and consummation of what opium can do for human nature.” Throughout the text though there remains an allusion to the medicinal properties of opium. For example, he states that it isn’t simply for pleasure that he consumed it: “It was not for the purpose of creating pleasure, but of mitigating pain in the severest degree, that I first began to use opium as an article of daily diet.” Having been hit by a reoccurring illness throughout his life, at age 28 it became to unbearable and it was this sudden increase in pain that led to his daily, habitual use.
Suspiria De Profundis (meaning Sighs from the Depths) is described as an account of the third “or final stage of opium” and also as a sequel to the Confessions. In it De Quincey reasons why he has included childhood memories, he asks the question: “Was it opium, or was it opium in combination with something else, that raised these storms?” (95). This question actually underpins the content of this whole text. De Quincey, in utilising biographical stories, is eluding to the connection between memory and opium; for during the experience lost memories are recounted in his visions. By way of pointing out that this isn’t unusual, he recounts the tale of a near-death experience (a topic contemporary psychedelic literature still explores, see Strassman): “At a certain stage of this descent, a blow seemed to strike her – phosphoric radiance sprang forth from her eyeballs; and immediately a mighty theatre expanded within her brain. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, every act – every design of her past life lived again – arraying themselves not as a succession, but as parts of a coexistence.” He describes the mind, or what we today might name consciousness, as “the palimpsest of your brain.” A palimpsest being an old parchment that has been almost totally cleaned of its old text in order to be reused, but through which the markings of old can still be made out; these, in says, are our memories.
Three reasons are given in the Confessions for outlining the biographical details. Firstly, what could have led him to becoming an opium-eater? Namely, his illness, which afflicted him throughout his life. Secondly, the influence his life had on the visionary landscapes produced by opium, as discussed above. And thirdly, to create a personal interest in the “confessing subject”, which is to say he wants to produce familiarity or empathy within the reader. This style is laced with interesting literary devices that De Quincey plays wonderfully with. For example, in Suspiria De Profundis he describes his family life as being neither rich nor poor and it has the effect of beginning the narrative on a balance. As he goes onto describe the innocence of childhood disappearing, as death and cruelty become known to him, the calm balance begins to tip as the layers, or perhaps more accurately the weights, of life build up. He notes in The English Mail-Coach that these episodes “had so large a share in developing the anarchies of my subsequent dreams” that real life and “opium dreams” become conflated into one, which De Quincey’s free-flowing style mimics within the text.
At the height of his addiction, when it was his “daily diet”, De Quincey describes how he had no control of his visions, a “deep-seated anxiety and gloomy melancholy” would descend upon him with the changing dreams. Space and time became distorted – “I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night” – and this profoundly disturbed him. Yet, whilst the visionary aspect distorted reality, his sense of self was generally retained: “The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities, or aspirations: he wishes and longs, as earnestly as ever, to realize what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt.” Unlike much of the tryptamine inspired literature from the 20th century, which focussed on a transcendence of the self, he became embroiled in the depths of his experience. He later described an intellectual torpor, whereby he was unable to bring fruit to his thoughts, losing the ability to write and edit. Visually and metaphorically he lived in a different world, unable to function coherently in one, yet he, himself as a thinking body, remained.
The language and imagery is very contingent with the romantic movement. De Quincey, our humble narrator, is confronted by romantic archetypes like the ‘noble vagabond’: “Generally speaking, the few people whom I have disliked in this world were flourishing people of good repute. Whereas the knaves whom I have known, one and all, and by no means few, I think of with pleasure and kindness.” He writes about living and spending time with prostitutes, not to procure their business, but as friends and contemporaries (“partner[s] in wretchedness”,) who shared in his period of poverty in London. One, “Oh noble minded Ann”, who helped in his moment of greatest need he describes in detail. They separated for a time, whilst De Quincey went to retrieve some money and agreed to meet once more at a designated spot. When he finally returned, delayed, he waited at the spot every day and searched London for her, but she was lost to him; fleeting like his opium dreams.
The object of the confession is not the physiological, or what he calls “the ugly pole, the murderous spear, the halbert” that the doctors are so interested in but rather the psychological “those parasitical thoughts, feelings, digressions.” This approach came to be the dominating paradigm within drug writing, wherein first-person narratives became contingent with exploring the phenomenology of drug experiences and thereby eliciting meaning. Can we draw any lines of flight between the language employed in Confessions and 20th century psychedelic literature? Yes, but they do reveal different approaches: “All is finite in the present; and even that finite is infinite in its velocity of flight toward death. But in God there is nothing finite; but in God there is nothing transitory; but in God there can be nothing that tends to death.” Here we find not an identification with God, or divinity, like in the work of Leary or Dunlap but an allusion to God, as a descriptive metaphor that certainly rings true of the romantic style.
It appears, for De Quincey, that meaning revolves around its effect on his exterior, social life and not on some revelation purportedly produced by opium. One argument for this different attractor for meaning could simply be the different nature of the drugs – chemically opiates are of course different from tryptamines – but, in psychological speak, De Quincey describes ‘repressed memory’, which is brought to light through opium use and this is also central to much of the 20th century discourse. Equally, one could argue that the approach from these two periods of drug writing were different. Opium, in Confessions, was a literary framework through which to explore De Quincey’s life, whilst for Jane Dunlap in Exploring Inner Space, she was the framework through which to explore the efficacy of LSD.
De Quincey’s writing is fluid (indeed it had to be to account for some narrative elements that are missing) and it is grandiose in the finest romantic tradition. But to what extent are his descriptions accurate accounts of both his life and experience of opium? Is there embellishment? Questions of authenticity raised by De Quincey’s work cast a long shadow over the way we ought to approach later drug writing. Unpicking texts and the motivations for their production is important in understanding the content. The degree of De Quincey’s authenticity, however, shouldn’t take away from what is an excellent book, which read alongside Suspiria De Profundis and The English Mail-Coach paints an enthralling picture of a man, his drug and his life.