The Confessions of an English Opium Eater

dequincybook by Thomas De Quincey

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Thomas De Quincey’s “Iliad of woes” serves as a forerunner to the contemporary trend of addiction memoirs about sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeking relief from stomach pains, De Quincey first takes opium (in the form of laudanum tincture) on the advice of a pharmacist. Like many addicts, he begins his spiral into pharmacopoeia through self-medication. Plagued by health troubles (he views his body as a “wretched structure”), there is limited medical aid available to him. A resourceless, homeless teen, impoverished and lacking higher education or vocational training, opium is his only steady friend. It quiets his hunger pangs, cushions his loneliness and smothers his grief.

Opium is a deranged and seductive lover to whom he returns again and again, despite the dangerous, vampiric nature of the relationship. His dance of indulgence and repentance continues for more than half his life. Again and again, he promises to quit the habit, only to slide back into use. He tinkers with his dosage and bargains with himself about where, when and how much he can safely take without risking negative health effects or reigniting an insatiable craving. The inevitable decline and descent into withdrawal fills his tumultuous sleep with hallucinations and terrors, dreams of vicious crocodiles, ancient “mystic ages” and “battlements [that] bore bright stars” (prophesying buildings lit with electric lights?) and “a greater influx of thoughts.”

Recovering alcoholic and advice columnist Cary Tennis states that addiction is akin to “pressing the pause button” on your emotional processing, as De Quincey proves, ruminating the pains of unhealed emotional wounds and grieving the loss of his first love, Ann, a 15 year-old prostitute from his days on the streets. During yet another attempt to quit the habit, he writes, “It seems as though all the thoughts which had been frozen up for a decade of years by opium had now … been thawed at once–such a multitude stream in upon me from all quarters.”

“Confessions…” is a weak purgative. Written for money (financial troubles dogged De Quincey throughout his life), he openly acknowledges his audience’s salacious desire to rubberneck at the seedy side of life. His narrative wanders, less a chronological account than one given in spurts with gaps of time. Likewise does the story lack detail. De Quincey was married and had eight children with his wife but only two of the children are mentioned in passing (as an interruption in his opiated haze). The faceless wife remains unnamed.

A cathartic attempt to purge sin through public revelation, De Quincey does not deeply probe his motivations or the emotional subtext underlying them. This is telling of the era, however—Alcoholic Anonymous’12 Steps of recovery and the self-help movement was still a century and a half away. Addiction treatment and concepts of psychiatric analysis had yet to infiltrate popular culture. Or perhaps he felt he gave away enough of himself to satisfy his audience, readers who expected less of the memoir genre than we do today.

 De Quincey’s fantastic vocabulary and flowery prose take a moment to become accustomed to (along with his paragraph length sentences) but logophiles like myself will relish the breadth of his linguistic abilities. He unselfconsciously uses phrases like “limitary peripatetics,” “pecuniary emolument” and “shabby habiliments” along with a casual sprinkling of French and Latin, a testament to the rigors of his education (or at least those of 19th century merchant-class boys). His is the quintessential portrait of the melancholic writer, fearing a book he yearns to write to be a labor “too great for the architect.”

De Quincey shifts fluidly from a discussion of factual events and his emotional responses to philosophical, social and economic ruminations. By today’s publishing standards, his work feels both overwrought and experimental. Rejecting traditional linear storytelling for an elastic exploration of his topic, he fears no censure. “But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.” This is perhaps the greatest lesson for my own writing: to fearlessly apply the full palette of linguistic and stylistic techniques to a piece; to birth and nurture the work without regard to imagined future criticisms; and to hold on to the things I love and value–lyricism, musical phrasing, tiny details, complex, sink-your-teeth-in sentences and unwieldy yet perfect words.

It is almost comforting to read a firsthand account of De Quincey’s creative floundering and his daily battle to remain hopeful in the face of poverty, addiction and ill health. Writers endure many miseries, most of them silent. We are players in a vicious dodge ball game, and our fiercest opponent isn’t critical and public censure or ridicule, but our own knuckle-biting anxiety and self-doubt. Though we may labor through many a dark night of the soul, it’s reassuring to know that our words may resound through the years to deliver pleasure, camaraderie and inspiration to those who toil alone through the lonely hours, all the while dodging that cruel, ceaseless ball.

Despite the vast distances between us (centuries, continents, classes, gender), I closed the book feeling that I had met a kindred spirit. Light sleepers who adore winter, we both value wit and the flexibility of sound, meaning and function in language. Most importantly, De Quincey understands what is most important in life: a good cuppa. “Tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities … will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual.”


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