Reviews — From the October 2016 issue

Supping on Horrors

Thomas De Quincey’s bad habits

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Discussed in this essay:

Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, by Frances Wilson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $28.

“Secret, selfish, suicidal debauchery.” This summary — from an early reviewer of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) — wasn’t wholly true. The secret was already out. Thomas De Quincey had become a sensation overnight; “no book,” another contemporary proclaimed, “has ever so energetically depicted the pleasures and pains of opium.” In 1981, William Burroughs concurred, stating that “no other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky.” De Quincey had inaugurated the addiction memoir before the term “drug addiction” had even been coined. The penniless writer had completed the book fast, seeking to avoid debtors’ prison. He was holed up in the former rooms of John Scott, the recently murdered editor of The London Magazine, and when the Confessions appeared there, he was spurred to project a work entitled “Confessions of a Murderer.” Like many of his plans, this one eventually went awry, but a few years later he would publish “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827); that essay, along with two follow-ups, had an influence that continues to be felt in crime fiction and in the distinctly modern predilection for the dandyish killer. Alfred Hitchcock paid tribute to the “delightful essay,” adding that murder should always “be treated delicately” and “brought into the home where it rightly belongs.” De Quincey is so domesticated a part of our collective consciousness that we’ve forgotten he’s there. The last sentence of Guilty Thing, Frances Wilson’s absorbing new biography, certainly rings true: “We are all De Quinceyan now.”

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

But De Quincey didn’t merely reveal dangerous appetites; he was one of the first to think through what such appetites might be concealing. He virtually invented the categories of modern psychology — the OED credits him with bringing the words “evadable,” “pathologically,” and “subconscious” into the language — and when speaking of his drug-induced hallucinations, he wondered: “Was it opium, or was it opium in combination with something else, that raised these storms?” He was suggesting that the addiction, for which he’d become most famous, might be the least interesting thing about him. When the Confessions came out opium was cheaper than beer or gin, readily available in shops, and a staple of British medicine cabinets, recommended for everything from diarrhea to pneumonia. A century later, G. K. Chesterton would observe that while some of De Quincey’s followers had found it easier to imitate his drug habit than his eloquence, he had still “cast a gigantic shadow on our literature.” He was highly regarded by Hawthorne, Poe, and Emerson (the first collected edition of De Quincey’s work was published in America, not England); Baudelaire translated him; when he was exiled to Siberia, Dostoevsky brought along a copy of the Confessions; and Borges once posed the question, “I wonder if I could ever have existed without De Quincey?” De Quincey’s writing is itself a pioneering, perplexed inquiry into indebtedness; opium is an alibi for another story he traces via circuitous routes — the story he refers to elsewhere as “my labyrinthine childhood.”

In a style that is somehow both loquacious and surreptitious, De Quincey is frequently drawn to enclosed spaces. Recalling a teenage boat trip with the young Lord Westport to Ireland, he remembers meeting a certain Lady Conyngham, who took a fancy to him and talked with him for most of the day. That night she slept in her traveling coach (it had been placed on deck for the crossing); because of the summer heat, De Quincey and his friend slept on deck, too:

Having talked for some hours, we were both on the point of falling asleep, when a stealthy tread near our heads awoke us . . . we traced between ourselves and the sky the outline of a man’s figure . . . the figure moved in the direction of the coach. Our first thought was to raise an alarm, scarcely doubting that the purpose of the man was to rob the unprotected lady of her watch or purse. But to our astonishment, and I can add, to our real pain, we saw the coach door silently swing open under a touch from within. All was as silent as a dream; the figure entered, the door closed, and we were left to interpret the case as we might.

This has De Quincey’s characteristic blend of the trancelike and the tactile. He’s often captivated by habitats that don’t merely contain bodies but act as metaphors for them, wordlessly divulging the things that bodies might want to do. The “case” is also the casing of the coach, and — given the thrillingly touched door and the unforced entry — other meanings may be loitering with intent. (A “case,” according to the OED, can be a brothel, a person’s body, or a vagina.) Everything is as silent as a dream because this is the boys’ fantasy and their nightmare; the criminal turned paramour stands for their desires even as he stands in the way of them. De Quincey later cut the phrase “and I can add, to our real pain,” but his first impulses were usually his best; the frisson of being privy to an act while being excluded from it, the delectable discomfort of such arousal, is what he really wants to bequeath to us. The reader’s position is not unlike that of the narrator: “to interpret the case as we might” is to seek some kind of solace for our not being able to experience it.

The passage is fed by the author’s resistance to the first important woman in his life. De Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785 into an upwardly mobile, middle-class family. His father, a textile importer, contracted tuberculosis and tried to recover his health by living abroad (he returned home to die in 1792). The boy’s childhood was dominated by his mother; a fervently religious woman, she warned him that “desultory reading, without an object, is an evil of such incalculable extent.” He was on the ship to Ireland because his mother, fearing that her doubting Thomas wasn’t moving in the right circles, had engineered a trip for him with Lord Westport to visit the latter’s family estate in Mayo. But De Quincey returned from the voyage hungrier than ever for the dangerous and the desultory. He’d also fallen under the spell of Wordsworth’s poetry; two years later, at only sixteen, he absconded from school with a copy of Lyrical Ballads in his pocket — and with a plan to head to the Lakes to meet the author. Fraught by the idea of arriving as a “pecuniary embarrassment,” he turned back and ended up taking a walking tour of Wales, sleeping at inns or in the fields as finances dictated. Then, severing all contact with his family and traveling to London, he lived on the streets by day and squatted in an unfurnished house by night. In the Confessions he describes Oxford Street as a “stony-hearted step-mother,” but something about it was preferable to home — and to a mother who demanded, “Must you govern me or must I govern you?”

If there was one woman De Quincey needed to avoid, there was another he was denied. His beloved sister Elizabeth died (probably from meningitis) when he was six years old. In Suspiria De Profundis (1845), the astonishing sequel to Confessions, he writes that, the day after she died, he crept into the room where her corpse was laid out. Struck by the contrast between her beautiful, stiffening figure and “the tropical redundancy of life in summer,” he fell into a kind of daze:

When I returned to myself, there was a foot (or I fancied so) on the stairs. I was alarmed; for I believed that, if any body should detect me, means would be taken to prevent my coming again. Hastily, therefore, I kissed the lips that I should kiss no more, and slunk like a guilty thing with stealthy steps from the room. Thus perished the vision, loveliest amongst all the shows which earth has revealed to me; thus mutilated was the parting which should have lasted for ever; thus tainted with fear was the farewell sacred to love and grief, to perfect love and perfect grief.

Coming back to the room a few hours later, he found the door locked and himself “shut out for ever.”

De Quincey returns to this scene throughout his life, as if trying to work through some unfinished business. Even when he’s not exactly remembering the moment, his prose seems to be twisting it into new shapes (the scene on the ship, for example, which features sultry midsummer weather, a beautiful woman, a stealthy footstep, a possible crime, and a shutting out). The boy’s mixture of shady culpability and wounded pride comes to a head in “like a guilty thing,” an allusion to Horatio’s description of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. De Quincey transposes an external viewpoint (the ghost only seems “like” a guilty thing — Horatio can’t be entirely sure what it signifies) into a testimony for his own psychological state, even as the passage coaxes readers to ask what, precisely, the boy is meant to have done wrong. Elsewhere he imagines how one might be “in the odd position of a criminal without a crime,” and the king’s ghost, after all, appeared before Hamlet in order to speak primarily of the guilt of another.

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teaches English at Keble College, Oxford. He is writing a book about Wordsworth.

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