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March 12, 2014 1:32 PM A Review of Confessions of an English Opium Eater

By Keith Humphreys

Johann Koehler’s resurrection of a wonderful Thomas De Quincey quote reminds me of the hold his most famous work still exerts today. A decade ago, I had a chance to explain the enduring appeal of Confessions of an English Opium Eater in the journal Addiction:

In 1821, Baldwin’s London Magazine published, in two installments, an evocative, haunting account of habitual opium use by the pseudonymous X.Y.Z. The author provided a careful cost-benefit analysis of his drug use career, gave a meticulous account of his use pattern down to the precise drops of laudanum consumed per day and per week, offered a unblinking description of life on the street and its villains and victims, and closed with one of the most vivid accounts ever written of drug-induced dreams. This is no memoir of recovery: at its conclusion the author is still using opium. Further, despite an expressed belief that he was on the verge of being able to abstain, the author kept on using opium (and writing about it) for the rest of his life.

The author’s real name was Thomas de Quincey (b. 1785 – d. 1859). He was a short, wan, elfin-featured, 36-year old Oxford University dropout who had long been on the edge of important circles without completely belonging to them. De Quincey made friends among the gentry and had an inheritance from his merchant father, but was neither titled nor rich. The ‘de’ in his lofty sounding appellation was a fabrication on his part, and by living as if he were independently wealthy he was well on his way to bankruptcy even before he began using opium. He chased after the famous poets of the era with the devotion of a rock and roll band groupie and insinuated himself into their social circles without ever being perceived as their literary peer. His yearning for Lake School-level fame and acceptance is visible in his writing when he mimics the style and themes of his fellow opium-eater Samuel Coleridge, and approvingly quotes William Wordsworth. But de Quincey needn’t have worried. His autobiography, which was reprinted in book form in 1822 with his real name revealed, became an international best seller that gave him more than an intimation of literary immortality.

The book’s importance stems partly from its place in literary history as the first extended English language autobiographical account of drug addiction. The word ‘autobiography’ had just entered the English lexicon, and it conveyed to the British mind suspicions of being egoistic, shameless, or even worse, French. In his opening pages, de Quincey raises all these worries himself, but argues that his work is not Rousseau-esque wallowing in personal reminiscence but a respectable ‘extract from the life of a scholar’ (A subtitle he underlined on the original handwritten, manuscript page, see Lindop). Reflecting the historical periods his life would straddle, de Quincey married a Romantic’s belief that universal truths could be revealed in deeply personal experience with a Victorian’s faith in objective scientific description. By making a dispassionate study of his drug use and his interior life, he intended, like a good natural scientist, to educate his readers about the world.

Why did Confessions of an English Opium Eater draw more notice than other equally well-crafted books of the period? Contrary to what a modern reader might think, de Quincey’s opium use per se was not particularly shocking in his day. The drug was readily and legally available in England, and public concern about its non-medical use was directed mainly at the working classes. The Victorians increased the stigma and legal controls around opium use, and saw not a few critics castigate de Quincey for seducing the innocent with his rapturous descriptions of the joys of opium use and his alleged understatement of its pains. But even then, and even today, the attention this slim volume commands can’t be fully explained by its fine writing and focus on drugs. Rather, contemporary and modern readers’ strong reactions to this book, whether fascination or disgust, may be attributable more directly to de Quincey’s amoral, scientific approach to his subject.

For starters, despite the suffering he experienced and caused, de Quincey disavowed regret almost entirely, arguing that ‘Infirmity and misery do not of necessity, imply guilt’. Some contemporary commentators were particularly scandalized that de Quincey never condemned his friend Ann, a 15-year old girl, for making her living as a prostitute. In fact, the tenderness and humanity of their friendship as they endure gut-wrenching hunger and poverty on London’s streets is probably the most moving section of the book. The medical community, by whom this book was read throughout the 19th century, no doubt did not appreciate this outsider’s comment that ‘of professors of medicine, writing ex cathedra, I have but one emphatic criticism to pronounce - Lies! Lies! Lies!’. To wit, de Quincey documents taking more grains of opium than it was believed possible to survive, categorically rejects the idea that ‘subtle and mighty’ opium causes torpor (rather he considered it a stimulant that ‘orders the mind’), and challenges the view that the drug causes sensory dullness by detailing how it enhances a night at the opera.

Following scientific form, he balances his descriptions of the above ‘pleasures of opium’ (which closes with a virtual love poem to the drug) with a section on ‘the pains of opium’, including vivid nightmares, and struggles to limit his use. Like many heavy drug users, he gives an unduly self-focused assessment of the costs of his behaviour. For example his long absences from and poor treatment of his wife and children are never mentioned. He also lacks insight into some of the longer-term emotional consequences of his opium use. When he dramatically cuts his dose, an extended major depression vanishes, but he never draws any causal connection between the drug and his unhappiness. But even these shortcomings in his understanding further the goal of the book by conveying accurately the interior life of a habitual drug user.

In style, the book is exactly what one might expect from an intelligent, erudite, polyglot with poetic aspirations who was regularly using opium even as he wrote. De Quincey never uses the word ‘job’ where ‘channel of pecuniary emolument’ will do, and his book is replete with literary allusions and Latin and Greek quotations. His fevered leaps from one disparate thought to another are sometimes inspired and sometimes half-baked. But even when his florid descriptions run on too long or his chain of reasoning becomes desultory, he is never boring, even after repeated readings.

Many a good autobiographer has mapped the terrain of alcoholism, but far fewer have done the same for drug addiction and none in my opinion have done so as well as does Thomas de Quincey. The original book itself makes wonderful reading as a stand-alone; scholars may prefer an edition such as Lindop’s, which brings together letters of reaction from readers, critical comments, and subsequent, extensive revisions de Quincey made to his famous work over the course of his remarkable life.

[Cross posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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