Homer is, I think, rightly reputed to have known the virtues of opium.
–Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Finally the moment has arrived for me to appreciate De Quincey. I’ve waited years, I’ve namedropped him in stories, I’ve wondered what it was Borges saw in him. But I stayed away until now, when a narrative about the pathologies of addiction carries lessons I’m actually ready to taken in. Serendipity. Fate. The grinding of the great wheels.
De Quincey is a windbag. The book is blissfully short and would be shorter if not for caveats, preambles and convoluted ex-chronological asides. And I’m reading the 1821 original, not the 1856 revision where from even further illusionarily objective remove he added yet more windbaggery. Still, I now completely understand Borges’s fascination. Because De Quincey’s mind–thanks in no small part, no doubt, to the opiates–is a labyrinth.
I was once told by a near relative of mine, that having in her childhood fallen into a river, and being on the very verge of death but for the critical assistance which reached her, she saw in a moment her whole life, in its minutest incidents, arrayed before her simultaneously as in a mirror; and she had a faculty developed as suddenly for comprehending the whole and every part. This, from some opium experiences of mine, I can believe; I have, indeed, seen the same thing asserted twice in modern books, and accompanied by a remark which I am convinced is true; viz. that the dread book of account, which the Scriptures speak of, is, in fact, the mind itself of each individual. Of this, at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains forever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereat, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil–and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.
To De Quincey the mind is monolithic, an ineluctible thing that demands to be examined, though it may well be impossible to perceive, as a whole. Confessions is his flawed, rambling, subjective, unhinged, chemically mitigated attempt to do so. And it’s a result of this approach that he makes the insane but thoroughly enjoyable mistake of applying the same lens to the entirety of human experience and history. Leading to statements like the above about Homer. Historical revisionism? Man remaking God in his image. Whether deliberately or at the relentless encouragement of bathtub-loads of laudanum, he removes from practical consideration the distinction between waking reality and dreams, and in doing breaks down the distinction between dreams and everything else.
[A] sympathy seemed to arise between the waking and the dreaming states of the brain in one point–that whatsoever I happened to call up and to trace by voluntary act upon the darkness was very apt to transfer itself to my dreams; so that I often feared to exercise this faculty; for, as Midas turned all things to gold, that yet baffled his hopes and defrauded his human desires, so whatsoever things capable of being visually represented I did but think of in the darkness, immediately shaped themselves into the phantoms of the eye; and, by a process apparently no less inevitable, when when thus once traced in faint and visionary colours, like writings in sympathetic ink, they were drawn out by the fierce chemistry of my dreams, into insufferable splendour that fretted my heart.
Maybe my favorite part is his relationship with the fifteen-year-old, consumptive prostitute Ann he befriends while living stoned and destitute on the streets of London. She saves his life through kindness, he promises to save hers through the economic and social resources he was born with and cast aside, fails because he’s too wrapped up in his own head and the opiates, loses her, regrets it the rest of his life, dreams about her. Is this even true, or is the whole thing an opium dream? Or a little of both?
I have done this, to others and to myself, romanticized it, ground myself into the dirt about it, rhapsodized my guilt. Does everyone? Is it a universal of the human condition? I suspect so.
He calls himself a pursuer of happiness, an Eudaemonist. But his first step in this pursuit is to give up everything that keeps him safe and warm to sleep on frozen ground among hedgerows or in an abandoned building in London with only a homeless orphan to cuddle for warmth. From this condition, opium is first a source of happiness, seemingly inexhaustible, then, eventually, a black hole, insatiable. By the end, De Quincey, brilliant prose stylist, classically educated show-off in Latin and Greek, has lost the ability to read or even write, except by dictation, and spends his nights and days wallowing in visions of grief and regret.
It’s an old story, one that by now can be found pretty much anywhere. But something about it being the first of its kind, for me, makes its lessons hit harder. Because as you go through these things yourself, when you finally recognize all that subjectivity and delusion for what they are, it’s always going to feel like the first time. De Quincey has no frame of reference. So of course he’s going to try to shoehorn his own self-induced fever dreams of lost love onto those codified dreams of his heroes, Milton’s visions of paradise or Homer’s epics.
For me it was exactly the same.