De Quincey’s wicked book

In The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Immanuel Kant gives the standard eighteenth-century line on opium. Its “dreamy euphoria,” he declares, makes one “taciturn, withdrawn, and uncommunicative,” and it is “therefore… permitted only as a medicine.” Eighty-five years later, in The Gay Science (1882), Friedrich Nietzsche too discusses drugs, but he has a very different story to tell. “Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica?” he asks pointedly. “It is almost the history of ‘culture’, of so-called high culture.” What caused this seismic shift in attitude? How did opium, in less than a century, pass from a drug understood primarily as a medicine to a drug used and abused recreationally, not just in “high culture”, but across the social strata?

The short answer is Thomas De Quincey. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, he transformed our perception of drugs. De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking, not because he was the first to swallow opiates for non-medical reasons (he was hardly that), but because he was the first to commemorate his drug experience in a compelling narrative that was consciously aimed at — and consumed by — a broad commercial audience. Further, in knitting together intellectualism, unconventionality, drugs, and the city, De Quincey mapped in the counter-cultural figure of the bohemian. He was also the first flâneur, high and anonymous, graceful and detached, strolling through crowded urban sprawls trying to decipher the spectacles, faces, and memories that reside there. Most strikingly, as the self-proclaimed “Pope” of “the true church on the subject of opium,” he initiated the tradition of the literature of intoxication with his portrait of the addict as a young man. De Quincey is the first modern artist, at once prophet and exile, riven by a drug that both inspired and eviscerated him.

The Confessions warned some early readers off opium, as De Quincey claimed he intended. “Better, a thousand times better, die than have anything to do with such a Devil’s own drug!” Thomas Carlyle commented after reading the work, while De Quincey’s erstwhile friend and fellow opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge insisted that he read the Confessions with “unutterable sorrow…The writer with morbid vanity, makes a boast of what was my misfortune.” But for many other readers, De Quincey’s account of opium was an invitation to experimentation — his drugged highs almost irresistible, and the gothic gloom of his lows even more so. Within months of publication, John Wilson, De Quincey’s closest friend and the lead writer for the powerful Blackwood’s Magazine, heard alarming reports of people recklessly attempting to emulate De Quincey’s drug experiences. “Pray, is it true…that your Confessions have caused about fifty unintentional suicides?” he inquires in a flamboyant Blackwood’s sketch. “I should think not,” the Opium Eater replies indignantly. “I have read of six only; and they rested on no solid foundation.”

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