Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Thomas de Quincey Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821)
I bought my mother a copy of this for Christmas one year, a fancy looking illustrated hardback edition which I assumed she would appreciate because of its vintage and a vague impression I had of it being considered a classic; although I'm no longer sure where that idea came from, now that I've actually read the thing, albeit with some skimming near the end and skipping the extensive tangential footnotes which frequently compress the main narrative to a couple of lines at the head of the page.

In its favour, I suppose you could argue that Confessions examines the subject of substance abuse without any of the usual hysteria, as such foreshadowing Burroughs and the like; and de Quincey seems to have held a more sympathetic view of the lower classes than many of his contemporaries, at least where prostitutes were concerned.

These unhappy women, to me, were simply sisters in calamity; and sisters amongst whom, in as large measure as amongst any other equal number of persons, commanding more of the world's respect, were to be found humanity, disinterested generosity, courage that would not falter in defence of the helpless, and fidelity that would have scorned to take bribes for betraying.

Otherwise, I get the unfortunate feeling that my impression of de Quincey's reputation may have come from Grant Morrison or some other Crowley fanboy banging on about him, and Confessions of an English Opium Eater certainly seems like the sort of thing Morrison would strategically place on his coffee table so as to give you the impression that he'd been reading it, should you happen to pop by for tea and a chat about Austin Osman Spare; and the problem with this is that it's largely unreadable, not in the way people think Burroughs is unreadable, but because de Quincey was essentially Lord Percy from the second series of Blackadder - a precocious upper class twit, and worse - a precocious and overeducated upper class twit who has written a book despite that he can't actually fucking write and has assumed rakish charm alone will compensate for any shortfall. The problem with the book is most succinctly identified by some bloke on Goodreads called Tyler, who writes:

De Quincey's main goal seems to be to twist language into a pretzel. It's a matter of indifference to him whether he actually communicates anything to his readers.

Our boy even admits as much, more or less:

You will think, perhaps, that I am too confidential and communicative of my own private history. It may be so. But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to inquire who is listening to me; for if once I stop to consider what is proper to be said, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part is at all proper.

Out of nearly three-hundred pages, somewhere in the region of twenty are dedicated to the actual subject of opium intake, because de Quincey views more or less everything that has ever happened to him as relevant on the grounds of it having happened to him.

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.

Yes, and you seem also to have felt a mystic importance attached to every other aspect of your drearily privileged existence, my Lord, which is presumably why you've written about it all, every last tedious fucking rumination which has ever occupied your thoughts whilst reminding us of your close personal friendship with Wordsworth roughly every third page.

But I have already given it as my opinion, that there is no proportion held between a man's general knowledge of Greek, and the special art of writing Greek; that is, using it as a vehicle for ordinary and familiar intercourse. This advantage, not necessarily or usually belonging to the most exquisite Greek scholarship, I myself wielded with a preternatural address for varying the forms of expression, and for bringing the most refractory ideas within the harness of Grecian phraseology. Had the bishop yielded to the temptation of replying, then I figured to myself the inevitable result - the episcopal hulk lying motionless on the water like a huge three-decker, not able to return a gun, whilst I, as a light agile frigate, should have sailed round and round him, and raked him at pleasure, as opportunity offered.

Oh what sport, your Royal Highness!

Here's why de Quincey's insight is so much more special than that of anyone else on the Clapham omnibus.

Some great advantages I had for colloquial purposes, and for engaging the attention of people wiser than myself. Ignorant I was in a degree past all imagination of daily life - even as it exists in England. But, on the other hand, having the advantage of a prodigious memory, and the far greater advantage of a logical instinct for feeling in a moment the secret analogies or parallelisms that connected things else apparently remote, I enjoyed these two particular gifts for conversation: first, an inexhaustible fertility of topics, and therefore of resources for illustrating or for varying any subject that chance or purpose suggested; secondly, a prematurely awakened sense of art applied to conversation.

I was planning to write a review of Confessions of an English Opium Eater in the form of a single twenty-thousand word sentence mostly squashed up towards the top of the page by a million sarcastic footnotes*, but I can't be arsed, although it would still have been better than this pointless tweedy wank. At least Confessions of a Driving Instructor pretended to tell a story. I'm not in the least bit surprised that Robin Askwith turned this one down.

*: The joke makes more sense on the printed page than read from a screen, so you'll have to wait for the Lulu edition.

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