Supping on Horrors - Thomas De Quincey’s bad habits

“Secret, selfish, suicidal debauchery.” This summary — from an early reviewer of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) — wasn’t wholly true. The secret was already out. Thomas De Quincey had become a sensation overnight; “no book,” another contemporary proclaimed, “has ever so energetically depicted the pleasures and pains of opium.” In 1981, William Burroughs concurred, stating that “no other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky.” De Quincey had inaugurated the addiction memoir before the term “drug addiction” had even been coined. The penniless writer had completed the book fast, seeking to avoid debtors’ prison. He was holed up in the former rooms of John Scott, the recently murdered editor of The London Magazine, and when the Confessions appeared there, he was spurred to project a work entitled “Confessions of a Murderer.” Like many of his plans, this one eventually went awry, but a few years later he would publish “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827); that essay, along with two follow-ups, had an influence that continues to be felt in crime fiction and in the distinctly modern predilection for the dandyish killer. Alfred Hitchcock paid tribute to the “delightful essay,” adding that murder should always “be treated delicately” and “brought into the home where it rightly belongs.” De Quincey is so domesticated a part of our collective consciousness that we’ve forgotten he’s there. The last sentence of Guilty Thing, Frances Wilson’s absorbing new biography, certainly rings true: “We are all De Quinceyan now.”

But De Quincey didn’t merely reveal dangerous appetites; he was one of the first to think through what such appetites might be concealing. He virtually invented the categories of modern psychology — the OED credits him with bringing the words “evadable,” “pathologically,” and “subconscious” into the language — and when speaking of his drug-induced hallucinations, he wondered: “Was it opium, or was it opium in combination with something else, that raised these storms?” He was suggesting that the addiction, for which he’d become most famous, might be the least interesting thing about him. When the Confessions came out opium was cheaper than beer or gin, readily available in shops, and a staple of British medicine cabinets, recommended for everything from diarrhea to pneumonia. A century later, G. K. Chesterton would observe that while some of De Quincey’s followers had found it easier to imitate his drug habit than his eloquence, he had still “cast a gigantic shadow on our literature.” He was highly regarded by Hawthorne, Poe, and Emerson (the first collected edition of De Quincey’s work was published in America, not England); Baudelaire translated him; when he was exiled to Siberia, Dostoevsky brought along a copy of the Confessions; and Borges once posed the question, “I wonder if I could ever have existed without De Quincey?” De Quincey’s writing is itself a pioneering, perplexed inquiry into indebtedness; opium is an alibi for another story he traces via circuitous routes — the story he refers to elsewhere as “my labyrinthine childhood.”

In a style that is somehow both loquacious and surreptitious, De Quincey is frequently drawn to enclosed spaces. Recalling a teenage boat trip with the young Lord Westport to Ireland, he remembers meeting a certain Lady Conyngham, who took a fancy to him and talked with him for most of the day. That night she slept in her traveling coach (it had been placed on deck for the crossing); because of the summer heat, De Quincey and his friend slept on deck, too:
Having talked for some hours, we were both on the point of falling asleep, when a stealthy tread near our heads awoke us . . . we traced between ourselves and the sky the outline of a man’s figure . . . the figure moved in the direction of the coach. Our first thought was to raise an alarm, scarcely doubting that the purpose of the man was to rob the unprotected lady of her watch or purse. But to our astonishment, and I can add, to our real pain, we saw the coach door silently swing open under a touch from within. All was as silent as a dream; the figure entered, the door closed, and we were left to interpret the case as we might.
This has De Quincey’s characteristic blend of the trancelike and the tactile. He’s often captivated by habitats that don’t merely contain bodies but act as metaphors for them, wordlessly divulging the things that bodies might want to do. The “case” is also the casing of the coach, and — given the thrillingly touched door and the unforced entry — other meanings may be loitering with intent. (A “case,” according to the OED, can be a brothel, a person’s body, or a vagina.) Everything is as silent as a dream because this is the boys’ fantasy and their nightmare; the criminal turned paramour stands for their desires even as he stands in the way of them. De Quincey later cut the phrase “and I can add, to our real pain,” but his first impulses were usually his best; the frisson of being privy to an act while being excluded from it, the delectable discomfort of such arousal, is what he really wants to bequeath to us. The reader’s position is not unlike that of the narrator: “to interpret the case as we might” is to seek some kind of solace for our not being able to experience it.

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