Confessions of an English Opium Eater

I was disappointed I confess, though I don’t know why I had high expectations given I have always found people on drugs profoundly boring—although they seem to find themselves extremely interesting. De Quincy writes ‘I have, for the general benefit of the world, inoculated myself as it were, with the poison of 8000 drops of laudanum per day (just for the same reason as a French surgeon inoculated himself lately with cancer…)’. Right.

An opium eater is not the most interesting person in the world.

What struck me most was privilege, even in his poverty after running away as a teenager. After all, he heads to Eton, where he will always be at home, to get Lord so-and-so to co-sign a loan against his expected fortune from the Jews. I was sad but not surprised to find such a stereotypical view of jews as existing simply to lend money to wealthy but under-age men. A window of empathy into the lives of the poor and oppressed emerged, but he only opened the curtain a little, hardly even looked properly through it. There is disappointingly little here about London and walking its streets, which is what I expected to find given all I had read mentioning this book. He describes some of Soho, an empty house he lives in for a while, how he finds friendship with a young prostitute whom he believes saves his life then loses her…I was a bit at a loss to understand how this always occurs in psychogeographic lists of London literature.

Deborah Epstein Nord made me rethink this a little, writing that while the first part of the Confessions and London itself seems peripheral to the main obsessions:

‘It seems to me…that the London episode is crucial to the meaning of the Confessions and, more important, that it enacts in a hallucinatory way the essential nature of the London experience I have been describing [as theater]. The Confessions also articulate the centrality of female sexuality to the evocation of the city’s meaning and the construction of bohemian identity…The dreams or images of the London experience were to act as a thread connecting his early with his later days… (41)

I thought this observation interesting too:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

But this reflects my own critique of the book, and the ‘mysteries’ of London, to me, do not seem so mysterious.

What I hadn’t expected to find was a crazy reflection of imperial angst and racism. He’s in the remote mountains in a cottage when a ‘Malay’ comes to the door and doesn’t speak English. He contrasts ‘the beautiful English face of the girl and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude … with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay…his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations’. They can’t communicate, but apparently all the man wants is somewhere to rest before he goes on his way. As a parting gift, de Quincey offers him a chunk of opium, which the man proceeds to eat entire–‘the quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done?’ Nothing apparently, he sends him out in the night, and is anxious for his life the next few nights but upon hearing no reports of the dead body turning up, his mind is relieved.

Except it’s not. After the years of happily enjoying his regular opium habit, it eventually spirals down into pain and terrible dreams/hallucinations. These are regularly frequented by what he calls ‘Oriental’ dreams (part of the reiterative process of being influenced by, and contributing to, Orientalism). He writes ‘The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes…The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia in general is the seat of awful images and associations.’ Holy crap I thought, the inscrutable asian ‘other’ that he might well have murdered comes back to his dreams, takes him to the very places his opium comes from — though that isn’t thought through or even mentioned. I suppose this is before the Opium wars and Britain’s great Opium-dealing adventure overseas, it prefigures it in a way. And unlike the Heart of Darkness fear of ‘primitive’ man (though he brings up that up as well in relation to ‘barbarous’ Africa), it is instead fear and trembling before an older greater culture–‘the ancient, monumental, cruel and elaborate religions…The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual’.

There is so much to think about there, I hope to come back to it at some point, though surely this must have been written about. The only other interesting thing, funny really, was the statement on political economists of the day: ‘I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head…might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus-heads to powder with a lady’s fan’. Which I love, though I am not sure exactly how that insult works…

3 thoughts on “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.