Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Hopes Defeated: Thomas De Quincey’s

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Near the end of his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey describes a great philosophic book that he’d planned and abandoned because of the weakness of mind and body that a lifetime of opium use had brought upon him:

I had devoted the labour of my whole life, and had dedicated my intellect, blossoms and fruits, to the slow and elaborate toil of constructing one single work…. This was now lying locked up, as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct, begun upon too great a scale for the resources of the architect; and, instead of surviving me as monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labour dedicated to the exultation of human nature in that way in which God had best fitted me to promote so great an object, it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations that were never to support a superstructure,—of the grief and ruin of the architect.

Working intermittently throughout his life as a essayist and journalist, De Quincey read deeply in philosophy, both ancient and modern, and he planned to construct an opus inspired by one of Spinoza’s unfinished works, but waylaid by his opium use, he never got to become a philosopher himself, and despite producing a large and wide-ranging body of work, he is today almost solely known for his memoir of hopes defeated.

Serialized in two consecutive months’ editions of London Magazine in 1821, when De Quincey was thirty-six, the first version of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was hurriedly and haphazardly composed during a short period when his opium-use was at a temporary minimum. He promised a third installment that was to elaborate upon his opium dreams, which provide the most haunting and affecting—and tantalizingly brief—section of the narrative, but he was unable to deliver on the extension and left even this short work’s superstructure unfinished. The 1822 book edition contains an appendix explaining why he hadn’t been able to continue the account, reporting in excruciating detail his battle with his addiction and with his body, and along with the few earlier pages describing his dreams, this appendix offers the book’s most penetratingly raw portrait of De Quincey’s tormented existence. Appearing so briefly at the end, these horrors show us what De Quincey either couldn’t or wouldn’t give us in the whole of his story, leaving the reader with the impression that only the pressure of meeting a deadline (and failing) had squeezed some of the darkest truth out of him.

Knowing that his opium-dreams were to provide the greatest fascination and appeal for his memoir, it’s clear that De Quincey planned on describing them at great length, but in building toward them in his “Preliminary Confessions,” he too often diverts the reader—and himself—with both too much and too little foundation. The rushed 1821/2 version describes how he ran away from school and ended up in London, where he nearly starved to death, but it glosses over his motives for leaving school, fails to explain certain logistical and financial details of his journey, and gives the reader no idea of what brought him to London in the first place. In place of such information, De Quincey regales the reader with his intellectual achievements, which are both formidable and fascinating but which are no substitute for the physical and psychological truths that led him to a life of drug addiction.

The London segment of the memoir offers more valuable—and moving—material, because here we see De Quincey become both physically and emotionally human. Starving, he finds refuge—but almost no food—in a lawyer’s house, where he shares a floor with an orphan girl whom he calms during the ghostly night hours. His violent hunger affords him very little rest at night, and during the lawyer’s business hours in the house he meanders the streets, where he befriends a young prostitute named Mary, who becomes a deeply sympathetic companion and who at one point literally saves his life. Their friendship and their accidental separation—a separation that haunts him for the rest of his life—give the reader access to some of De Quincey’s most profound emotions, and as he desperately tries to keep himself alive and connected, he truly becomes alive for the reader. This period of deprivation also lays some of the foundation for his subsequent addiction, because it’s sickness and pain that a few years later lead him to opium, which is at first a revelation to him and which for many years he uses only once a week for recreation. Then about ten years later it’s a recurrence of the intense stomach pains that he’d experienced during his earlier hunger that leads him to a lifetime of daily use, his stomach pains probably a recurrence of the overload of adrenalin that’s pumped into the body by out-of-control anxiety, an experience described by many drug addicts who are desperate to numb the pain, most famously in our era by the pop musician Kurt Cobain, who was sadly never diagnosed in his lifetime.

Although he’s obfuscated much about himself, the descriptions of his suffering and of his kinship with his fellow sufferers allow the reader to feel a similar kinship with De Quincey’s sensitivity and fragility, and so when the book finally arrives at its ostensible subject—opium—we have enough of a grasp of the author’s frame of mind and body that even the book’s narrative elisions and diversions don’t keep us from comprehending how powerfully this drug affects the human being who simply wants a respite from his suffering. De Quincey divides this final section into two parts: “The Pleasures of Opium,” which are marvelously enticing and gorgeously elucidated, and “The Pains of Opium,” which are the real heart of the matter and which even in their truncated state give the reader a profoundly terrifying tour of the addict’s physical and mental horrors.

An illustration by Laurence Chaves of
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
The memoir made De Quincey famous, and its exquisitely hewn hall of terrors has influenced generations of writers—most notably Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Jorge Luis Borges—but this of course didn’t alleviate any of De Quincey’s suffering during his lifetime or allow him to become the writer that he felt he was meant to be. In 1845, more than two decades after the first edition of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, he published sections of a never completed work called Suspiria de Profundis, which comprised short, fantastical prose pieces and which was billed as a sequel to the Confessions because of the works’ fevered affinity to the author’s opium-dreams. Then in 1856, for inclusion in a volume of his collected works—which also included a revised and expanded but still uncompleted Suspiria de Profundis—he produced a revision of the Confessions that was twice as long as the original but that still failed to give the reader what it promised. Rather than completing the work’s original plan or expanding the section about his dreams, he instead quadrupled the length of the “Preliminary Confessions” and merely added a short piece from Suspiria de Profundis as a bizarrely disconnected coda.

The 1856 revision has much to recommend it, especially in how it fills in the details of De Quincey’s childhood motives and methods—and, most significantly, his early struggles with his health—but rather than standing as an autonomous and completed masterpiece, the revised version works more as a lengthy and often tedious explication of the more lively and imperfect 1821 version. While revising, De Quincey was working from a severely corrupted printing of the text—it was the only copy he could get his hands on—and he both cleans up some of its mistakes and enriches certain sections and passages, but mostly he just adds enormous chunks of material to the beginning and sews it all together into a kind of lopsided Frankenstein’s monster. It’s often fascinating to read the intricate details of how his early life worked, but the interpolated digressions are often intolerably dull and pointless and in fact make De Quincey much less of a sympathetic character than before. The passage of time has allowed him to name many names that were left out of the original version, and this occasionally affords De Quincey the chance to draw richer portraits and to make more complete connections for the reader, but it also causes him to aim torrents of abuse at people who he feels have wronged him, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was also an opium addict and who criticized De Quincey after the first edition of the Confessions appeared—a criticism that results in astonishingly frequent, involved, and vitriolic reprisals in the revised Confessions. Conversely, De Quincey’s adoring passages about William Wordsworth’s world and works paint an incomparable portrait of the Lake District and provide some of the book’s richest and most rewarding passages.

An illustration by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
The most jarring addition to the 1856 revision, however, is the author’s extensive claim for the good that opium has done him over the course of more than five decades. Although it may be possible that opium helped to keep him alive through certain periods of his pained existence, the idea that it corrected his respiratory problems and kept him from developing tuberculosis is simply wishful writing. De Quincey should not be faulted for trying to put a positive spin into his painful memoirs—and he should also not be faulted for simply being an addict, which can happen to anyone unfortunate enough to be born with a human body—but this unfinished and contradictory book tells the real story despite itself. The section vindicating his lost/saved years of addiction comes right before the almost completely unrevised “Pains of Opium” section, which in contrast hits with even more astonishing force—although he silently deletes the horrific 1822 appendix and replaces it with the wholly incongruous “The Daughter of Lebanon,” from Suspiria de Profundis, followed by a different appendix expounding upon his family name and providing an expanded account of one of his servants. Compounding the wild imbalance of the life and memoir is the fact that he still couldn’t deliver any elaboration on what he knew to be his Confessions’ greatest draw: his dreams. Claiming that the dream-material that he’d prepared in journal form had either been lost or stolen, De Quincey is unable to conceal the truth of his wholly disordered existence, and the uncompleted and uncompletable book—which wasn’t at all the philosophical book that he always intended to write—stands as his true memorial: an unforgettable and lasting memorial, but nonetheless a memorial of hopes defeated.

—David Wiley