Wednesday 21 November 2018

Review: Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

I’m not sure what it was that made me pick ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ up but I very nearly put it down again. I found the voice of Thomas de Quincey to be so instantly unlikeable that  I only continued at first out of morbid curiosity.

The two big problems with De Quincey seem to have been his own huge insecurity and the fact that he was a Romantic without any semblance of genius - the two are pretty linked. 

The insecurity came out in his insistence in reminding the reader of his scholarliness. We are told early on that he was cleverer than his teachers and that lead him to want to run away from a school that wasn’t challenging him intellectually. We are painted a picture of his ‘scholar’s cottage’ where the maid is so impressed with his learning she thinks he knows every language and where he boasts of nearly eight thousand books, ‘the only thing I was richer in than my neighbours’. It is heavily implied that his richness in books reflects his richness in mind. He also feels the need to shove in poetry, Latin and Greek into his text, rarely for any useful reason except to show that he can.

The second problem is that he was a friend of the Lamb, Coleridge and housemate of the Wordsworths. He described his writing as to ‘rather think aloud, follow my own humours, then much to consider who is listening to me.’ This seems to be the Romantic way of doing things and (for me) creates some great stuff and a whole load of crap. De Quincey doesn’t have the strength of character or the will to successfully follow this method and I think this shows in the constant asides to the reader to explain or excuse what he is doing, especially in his later rewrite. I think his insecurity is made larger by his understanding that for all his supposed learning, he can’t do as Wordsworth does.

Why did I not put it down then?

There was a lovely moment, not too far in, when De Quincey takes one last look at his bedroom in Manchester before running away from school. The stillness, quiet and bittersweet nature of this moment drew me in. It was beautifully observed and described and I was ready to run with him. When this was followed up with the difficulty of the suitcase full of books, I knew I’d read the book to the end for other moments like this.

There were a few more. I liked his wanderings around Wales, his strange existence rattling around a huge empty house with nothing to eat but crumbs from the owner’s breakfast, his chaste relationship with a streetwalker. All of this was simple, fairly well told and effective. It wasn’t very much about opium though.

Indeed, I found the book gave into its worst nature when the opium entered. Starting with a slam against other writers on opium, then a description of how it wasn’t like drunkenness, then one of how it ordered the brain and helped him wield his massive cranial instrument - he reminded me of all the up-their-own-arse druggies I have met. He was just like the greasy student in the room next door at university who claimed drugs were keys to his higher self but mainly sat around watching wrestling and playing call of duty. I bet he was insufferable to know.

His talk about the bad side of opium consisted mainly in talking about the pain of withdrawal and the way they made his dreams vivid and frightening. While I was interested in his notions of crocodiles who wanted to snog him, most of the dream bit seemed something of a boast too - a boast that his dreams and nightmares were far more interesting than yours. Incidentally, the sequel to this book ‘Suspira de Profundis’ starts with a boast at how such vivid dreams are a sign of a mind far elevated above the normal humdrum mind - prick. The other night I dreamt about human-penguin hybrids, manguins, and that was without taking opiates.

Essentially this book brings out everything I find most distasteful in Romantic poets and drug addicts, which were often the same thing.

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