I have just finished the title essay from a collection of Thomas De Quincey’s work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; the book has three longish-essays (the title one was 80 pages) and one short one. I’m planning on reading them all, but Confessions was the reason I picked this book up. I’m not sure what attracted me to it, since confessions of drug addicts aren’t my usual thing, but I’ve heard this mentioned as an interesting essay and as an example of walking literature, and I’m fascinated by De Quincey’s time period (1785-1859), so that’s reason enough.
The essay, as you might guess from the title, tells the story of De Quincey’s addiction to opium, but it does so with lots of digressions and philosophical asides and glimpses of life in De Quincey’s time. After a brief introduction justifying his decision to write an essay that exposes his weakness, he tells of his boyhood school days and his decision to run away from school at the age of 17. He wanders through parts of Wales and ends up in London, where, he says, the seeds of his addiction were planted. He runs out of money and comes very close to starving to death, which causes him stomach problems that come back to haunt him — at which point he becomes an addict, taking opium every day to relieve the pain.
But De Quincey takes his time with the Wales and London episodes, and they are some of the most interesting sections. Particularly moving is the story of his friendship with the prostitute Anne; they offer each other companionship and aid — she saves him from starvation at one point. Tragically, De Quincey leaves London briefly to try to find some money, and when he returns he can’t find her. He mourns the loss of their friendship for the rest of his life.
De Quincey took opium regularly before he became addicted; he was careful to let enough days go by between indulgences so that the drug would maintain its potency. And he writes about the pleasures of opium quite beautifully; one of the things I like best about this essay is that De Quincey is fully honest about both the pleasures and the pains. He writes:
And, at that time, I often fell into these reveries upon taking opium; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I would overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of L—-, at about the same distance, that I have sate, from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, and without wishing to move.
A bit later he goes into raptures over the drug:
Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!
He goes on like that for a full paragraph. But he is also clear about the horrors of opium addiction:
[The opium-eater] lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing disease, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love: — he curses the spells which chain him down from motion: — he would lay down his life if he might but get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise.
He does, you will be happy to know, overcome his addiction, but he is still haunted by one of the worst effects of addiction — horrible nightmares, some of which he describes in detail.
I am looking forward to seeing what the other essays are like; he’s got a style I enjoy — digressive, allusive, difficult to categorize.