BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

“And I guess I just don't know …”

I'd thrown in this Dover Thrift Edition of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater at some point in the past few years to nudge the total of an Amazon order up towards either free shipping, or the point where one can get “add on” products (with a $3 cover price, it's a great way to both do this and get some “classic” I'd missed previously). This had sat around for a while, but it was mentioned a number of times in a book I'd recently reviewed, so it seemed like a good time to throw it into the “currently reading” mix.

To be frank, I expected something more. That book on dreams made this sound practically psychedelic, which it hardly is, and copy like that in the introductory essay (which introduces De Quincey as “one of the great prose stylists of the English language, and a singular and interesting figure in the British literary milieu of the early nineteenth century”) sets it up to be something far more substantial than it struck me to be. It is also fairly short, at 70 pages, and was initially published in London Magazine in September and October of 1821. The introductory essay additionally notes that this reprint of the original release is considered the “best edition”, as De Quincey's expansions and revisions (such as an 1856 version that is three times the length of this) did nothing positive for the literary value of the piece.

As it is, the book is in two parts, the first consisting of “To the Reader” and “Preliminary Confessions”, and the second having “The Pleasures of Opium”, “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, and “The Pains of Opium”. The introductory essay notes that De Quincey was generally (although this hardly seems the case in most of the book, where his descriptions seem to be of some solid form) taking laudanum, “a tincture of opium commonly used and legally available in early nineteenth-century England”, which the author echoes in the first chapter, when he's discussing the availability: “Three respectable London druggists, in widely remote quarters of London, from whom I happened lately to be purchasing small quantities of opium, assured me, that the number of amateur opium-eaters (as I may term them) was, at this time, immense ...”.

A bit of biographical background might be useful here … the author appears to have been a sickly child, and had health issues which initially led him to taking opium to reduce pain. He was born into an aristocratic family, but not one with great wealth. He seems to have been quite taken with the class thing, and certainly had impressive surroundings (when not penniless). He is reported to have been a bit of a prodigy at languages, having been an expert at Greek by age 15. He also was rather aimless, having a hard time staying at any school long enough to actually graduate, and spent a lot of time searching out the famed writers (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb) of the day. When he did have money (he got an inheritance at age 21), he tended to fritter it away, and repeatedly ended up totally destitute (which seems to be the main reality of this book), only attaining financial stability in his 60's.

While I have a couple of my little bookmarks in this, there weren't many “must use” passages that came up as I read it … and, honestly, my general take-away was that he was whiny, unfocused on anything other than his fix (oh, and this one girl), and constantly complaining. It's hardly an “autobiography” in the sense that it brings any linearity to his telling, and while there is a general arc of his life, with the writing coming from (it would appear from what I could tease out of the introduction, the book, and assorted biographical materials) ages 19-36 (although I'm not sure when he initially finished this, that would be his age at its serialized publication). The fact that this is (at least nominally) a “drug journal”, brings with it the predictable downsides of the genre – the writer is on drugs while trying to write (despite the famous quote mis-attributed to Ernest Hemingway) – leading to a certain degree of haziness in the product.

Anyway, I'm going to dip into this to grab some bits to use that I hope will at least give my readers a sense of De Quincey's book. The “Preliminary Confessions” section starts off with a bit of his history, how he was much smarter than any of his professors, and his attempt at sneaking away from Oxford in the middle of the night (he gets away, but not without issues). Oh, one thing I should mention about the writing … it is fairly small type, tightly set, which goes on and on and on, with a paragraph break every three pages or so … making the flow of the narrative just a fire-hose. At one point he gets some money from his family and goes on a hike through Wales, occasionally trading letter-writing for shelter. This, like most of his plans, falls apart, and he eventually finds himself in London. Here is a little of his description of his state there:
And now began the latter and fiercer stage of my long-sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression I might say, of my agony. For I now suffered, for upwards of sixteen weeks, the physical anguish of hunger in various degrees of intensity; but as bitter, perhaps, as ever any human being can have suffered who has survived it.
Really, this is pretty much the tone of most of the book. For a time he seems to be “squatting” in a house, with a young girl, it's cold, they have no food, but it's shelter. He eventually finds some of his aristocratic contacts, and at least gets fed on occasion. He loses track of his “Ann” (he never got a last name), who he was infatuated with. I won't burden you with the text dealing with that, but it, like most of this, goes on and on.

Part II begins with a section which is pretty much just the author showing off his knowledge of Greek drama, myth, and footnotes set in Greek that “the scholar will know”. He starts “The Pleasures of Opium” section with a recalling of his first encounter with the drug:
By accident I met a college acquaintance who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it was I had of manna or of Ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound was it at that time! what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time, and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards led through Oxford-street and near “the stately Pantheon,” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. This druggist – unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! – as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look of a Sunday: and, when I asked him for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do: and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.
OK … so, he then gets into discussing other reports of opium, comparisons with it and alcohol, goes on about “the Turk” as a source of opium, and how other cultures view it, spins back off into his aristocratic friends and their relationships to alcohol and drugs, and into places for experiencing drugs, such as the theater, orchestra, or opera house (and where it's worth it to pay more for better seating).
Thus I have shown that opium does not, of necessity, produce inactivity or torpor, but that, on the contrary, it has often led me into markets and theaters. Yet, in candour, I will admit that markets and theaters are not the appropriate haunts of the opium-eater, when in the divinest state incident to his enjoyment.
So, we next move to “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, which, I must confess is so much of a blither that I can't find a coherent bit to excerpt for your illumination. There are pages that go along just fine, and then swerve off into sub-references that would, unfortunately, take paragraphs to put in a reasonable context (the whole tale of “the Malay” who comes unannounced to his house is particularly bizarre, as well as the “painting” parts). So, I will spare you.

I do, however, have a bookmark in “The Pains of Opium” section … this, however, is not that, but something that might more plainly illustrate this point in the book:
… This was now lying locked up, as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct; and, instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labor dedicated to the exaltation 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. In this state of imbecility, I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy; my understanding, which formerly had been as active and restless as a hyena, could not, I suppose (so long as I lived at all) sink into utter lethargy; and political economy offers this advantage to a person in my state, that though it is eminently an organic science (no part, that is to say, but what acts on the whole, as the whole again re-acts on each part), yet the several parts may be detached and contemplated singly. Great as was the prostration of my powers at this time, yet I could not forget my knowledge; and my understanding had been for too many years intimate with severe thinkers, with logic, and the great masters of knowledge, no to be aware of the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists. …
What I had marked was a discussion of his “re-awakening to a state of eye generally incident to childhood”, which while fascinatingly expounding “four facts” on the topic (and, perhaps, being the most useful part of the book), runs a solid two pages. which doesn't seem to have much chance of abbreviation. The rest of the section sort of drifts off, with a couple of additional brief sections (from 1818 and 1819) tacked on at the end.

Needless to say, while Confessions of an English Opium Eater had its charms (both as a historical window to its time, and some rather entertaining writing), it wasn't exactly a pleasant read. Of course, as a Dover Thrift Edition, the cover price on this is a mere three bucks, so you're not going to be out-of-pocket much to give it a go.

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Tags: book review
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