The junkie in literature: A review of “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” by Thomas De Quincey

confessons of an english opium eaterConfessions of an English Opium-Eater” written by Thomas De Quincey in 1821 is the third book I have read as part of my mini-project examining the portrayal of the junky in literature.

The first book I read was “Monkey Grip” by Australian writer Helen Garner, about a single mother in love with a heroin junkie and writer/artist set in Melbourne in the 1970s.

The second was “Junky” by William S. Burroughs, an autobiographical tale of his life as a heroin addict in New York, New Orleans and Mexico City in the 1940s.

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” takes place in London, Manchester and the remote English countryside of the early 19th century.

It’s a remarkable novella – only about a 100 pages in length – not the least because it gives a glimpse into the life of a drug addict nearly 200 years ago in a very prudish age, at a time when the idea of an English gentlemen meant that you never speak of such abhorrent things.

The book is not just an investigation and illustration of opium use and its effects on the mind and body, but also social commentary on what it means to be a bright, sensitive outsider in an English society of order, privilege and class.

In fact a lot of the book is not about opium at all, but about the events leading up to De Quincey’s addiction including a period of eight years when he took opium in controlled amounts and which enriches his experience of the world:

“Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle and piece of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.”

The book also serves as a 19th century guide about what opium is, what it does to you and also to dispel some of the myths and there is the familiar warning that comes with all tales of addiction.

Apart from affirming that opium is a “dusky brown in colour”, De Quincey says:

“If you eat a good deal of it, most probably you must do what is particularly disagreeable to any man of regular habits, viz., die.”

Throughout the book, De Quincey comes across as a man both ahead of his time and out-of-place.

Ahead of his time, because he is willing to take the reader on his journey into opium addiction and out-of-place, because though an intelligent, educated man, with a seemingly bright future, he shuns his place in society and chooses to tramp around England and Wales. He is as comfortable speaking in Greek as he is in the company of a prostitute.

De Quincey is sometimes an infuriating storyteller – he constantly apologises for what is about to tell and frequently tells the reader that he must spare the full details of his pain and suffering because it would not be proper (one must constantly bear in mind the epoch the book was written in).

As for the true pain of opium, you have to wait until you’re about three-quarters of the way through the book to reach the part where a stomach ailment forces him into “eating” high dosages of opium.

At first though his opium use is controlled giving him a sense of “halcyon calm, a tranquility that seemed no product of inertia”.

He later remarks:

“I ought to be ill, I never was better in my life than in the spring of 1812; and I hope sincerely that the quantity of claret, port…which in all probability you, good reader, have taken…may as little disorder your health as mine was disorded by the opium I had taken for eight years between 1804 and 1812.”

But then in a state of “unutterable irritation of the stomach” he becomes a heavy and daily user of opium, when it starts having a “palsying (paralysing) effect” on his intellectual faculties.

This the most fascinating part of the book, because De Quincey experiences an unusual form of suffering though his dreams and nightmares, which take on a surreal and bizarre quality that would not be out-of-place in painting by Salvador Dali.

This is where does his best writing, describing his dreams with their strange juxtapositions:

“I wa buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the hear of eternal pyramids. I was kissed by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

His “oriental dreams” (the oriental man is one feared at the time for his strangeness) are “monstrous” and fill him with “hatred and abomination” with the main agents being “ugly birds, or snakes or crocodiles”.

The crocodile is a recurring image in his dreams:

“The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him for centuries.”

The dream imagery is astonishing given we are a hundred years before Freud’s theories about dreams and the unconscious, and no doubt Freud would have enjoyed analysing De Quincey’s dreams and his state of mind.

The horror and terror of nightly visions culminates in his declaration:

And I awoke in struggles, and cried aloud – “I will sleep no more.”

As with the moment in “Junky” when William S. Burroughs looks in the mirror and realises he is hooked on heroin, De Quincey reaches a point where he cannot give up, though he wishes to and knows that the drug will kill him.

Somehow he devises a way to succeed – he comes up with a method of reducing his usage of opium (the dosages are recorded in the appendix) though he also suffers relapses.

Outside of the book, I read that De Quincey, having overcome his addictions, got married and fathering eight children, though only three daughters survived him.

He is remembered principally for this book, but also as an essayist and social commentator.

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” beautifully and horribly conveys the journey into addiction and suffering at a time when such things were not discussed in a very prudish, conservative age.

But many modern-day junkies I suspect would wholly identify with his nightmares and sufferings.


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