The Man Who Invented The Drug Memoir - Thomas De Quincey

Long before he tried opium, Thomas De Quincey, the English essayist, was addicted to books. The cycles of “remorse and deadly anxiety” that he suffered in his adult life began when he was seven, after a kindly bookseller lent him three guineas. This, according to Frances Wilson’s new biography, “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was De Quincey’s “earliest trespass”: a “mysterious (and indeed guilty) current of debt” that he feared would carry him away. Among the books De Quincey acquired, there was a history of Britain, expected to grow in time to “sixty or eighty parts.” But he craved something vaster and more dangerous, so he purchased “a general history of navigation, supported by a vast body of voyages”: a work that was, like its subject, “indefinite as to its ultimate extent” and, as he was told by a jesting clerk, might involve as many as fifteen thousand volumes. It would “never end,” De Quincey reasoned, since by the time “all the one-legged commodores and yellow admirals” of one generation had finished, “another generation would have grown another crop of the same gallant spinners.” You can hear the elation mixed in with the dread: according to a logical short circuit that was characteristic of his thought, an infinite subject meant infinite books. Debt was only the punctuation between ecstasies. De Quincey was happiest when he was chipping away at the sublime, volume by volume or vision by vision, and his happiness was always dangerously leveraged.

Wilson’s book is a revelatory study of its subject. De Quincey was thirty-six when “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” his sensational memoir of addiction, was published, anonymously, in 1821. At the time, Wilson writes, England was “marinated in opium, which was taken for everything from upset stomachs to sore heads.” It was swallowed in the form of pills or dissolved in alcohol to make laudanum, the tincture preferred by De Quincey. The Turks, it was said, all suffered from opium dependence. But English doctors prescribed it with abandon. The drug was given to women for menstrual discomfort and to children for the hiccups. All the while, its glamour was growing: it was ancient, shamanic, a supernatural tether to otherworldly visions. You could find reference to it in Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare. In his essay “Coleridge and Opium-Eating,” De Quincey wrote that he had found it referenced, too, in John Milton’s great Biblical epic:
You know the Paradise Lost? and you remember from the eleventh book, in its earlier part, that laudanum already existed in Eden—nay, that it was used medicinally by an archangel; for, after Michael had “purged with euphrasy and rue” the eyes of Adam, lest he should be unequal to the mere sight of the great visions about to unfold their draperies before him, next he fortifies his fleshly spirits against the affliction of these visions, of which visions the first was death. And how? “He from the well of life three drops instill’d.”
The image of Adam getting high in the Garden of Eden may seem outlandish, but opium had made a kind of Adam out of De Quincey: in “the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain,” he wandered through ancient cities “beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatómpylos,” crammed with “temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles.” Opium deepened his “natural inclination for a solitary life” by giving a cosmic cast to idleness. “More than once,” he wrote, “it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window . . . from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, without wishing to move.”

Motionlessness is not peace of mind, but De Quincey, who struggled his entire life to find a comfortable way to inhabit time, had good reason to prize it. Writing late in his life to his daughter, he identified “procrastination,” which he linked with unpardonable guilt, as “that most odious of vices”: the procrastinator is doomed, since “in midst of too-soonness he shall suffer the killing anxieties of too-lateness.” “Our fate is always to find ourselves at the wrong station,” he wrote. Once he’d bought one book, it was too late; he had, in effect, bought them all, which excused him to buy a second book and then a third. This was the destructive logic behind his opium use: to have started something was to be already too late to stop it, as though a delegate, sent to the future, were messing things up for the innocent De Quincey, back here in the past. It was an insight about time, and also about identity. De Quincey seemed to fear the idea that there were others of him, distributed throughout time and space, acting as his agents without his explicit command. He understood himself, for good or for ill, to exist in duplicate or triplicate. Probably every great autobiographer, characterizing the choices and dilemmas faced by an almost unrecognizable younger person whose name he bears, feels a version of this; for De Quincey, it was a lifelong fixation, heightened by his addiction and marring his happiness even as it informed his greatest work.

His confusion set in early. He was born Thomas Quincey, in Manchester in 1785; the prefix was added when he was around eleven, in one of his mother’s many attempts to suggest an aristocratic lineage. A series of blows levelled the family before De Quincey’s tenth birthday. His sister Jane died when he was four. Two years later, his beloved sister Elizabeth, his “leader and companion,” died at the age of nine, likely of meningitis. In “Suspiria de Profundis,” De Quincey writes that on the day after her death he sneaked up the back staircase to view her body, laid out in her bedroom:
Entering, I closed the door so softly, that, although it opened upon a hall which ascended through all the stories, no echo ran along the silent walls. Then turning round, I sought my sister’s face. But the bed had been moved; and the back was now turned. Nothing met my eyes but one large window wide open, through which the sun of midsummer at noonday was showering down torrents of splendour.
The corpse is dispatched with stock adjectives: “frozen” eyelids, “marble” lips, “stiffening” hands. De Quincey is fixated, instead, on the “solemn wind” that “swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries . . . the one sole audible symbol of eternity.” He adds, “And three times in my life I have happened to hear the same sound in the same circumstances, namely, when standing between an open window and a dead body on a summer day.”

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