Sunday, December 14, 2014

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings by Thomas de Quincey

Here was a panacea -- a pharmakon nepenthes -- for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoast pocket: portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.

De Quincey's memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is separated into sections called "The Pleasures of Opium" and "The Pains of Opium," interwoven with biographical passages that describe the poverty and homelessness that led him to seek comfort in opium.  But it's hard to shake the impression that the pleasures outweigh the pains--often de Quincey's description of the opium experience seems to foretell the pro-hallucinatory rhetoric of the 1960's.  "I sometimes seemed to have live for 70 or 100 years in one night," he writes, "nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millenium passed in that time, or however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience."  But when shit gets bad, shit gets bad:

But now that which I call the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself.  Perhaps some part of my London might be answerable for this.  Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear: the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens: faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by the thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: -- my agitations was infinite, -- my mind tossed -- and surged with the ocean.

De Quincey's descriptions of his opium dreams are intricate, harrowing, and often grotesque.  I wanted more of them.  I think I hadn't expected the extensive autobiographical stuff that dominates the first section--mostly about de Quincey's endless drifting through London--and so it was difficult to adjust that expectation.  I really just wanted to the get to the opium.

I think I enjoyed the appended writings a little more for that reason.  One is a collection of essays and scraps of memoir called Suspiria Profundis, and one a short meditation on the English Mail-Coach, which apparently doubled as a kind of hired long-distance transportation.  I especially liked a brief piece from Suspiria Profundis called "Savannah-la-Mar," which uses the image of a drowned Jamaican city to meditate on the passage of time and its relationship to God.

Apparently The Confessions lead a bunch of people to actually become addicted to opium.  It didn't have that effect on me, but maybe I didn't read it closely enough.  How about you, Liz?

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

Liz has been in an opium fog since 2009, but I'll ask her if she ever comes up for air.