Reviews — From the October 2016 issue

Supping on Horrors

Thomas De Quincey’s bad habits

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Two of the finest biographies of De Quincey — Grevel Lindop’s The Opium-Eater (1981) and Robert Morrison’s The English Opium-Eater (2009) — highlight his drug habit in their titles; Guilty Thing announces a welcome shift of emphasis. Wilson doesn’t neglect her protagonist’s addiction, but she’s more interested in what Thomas Carlyle referred to as his “diseased acuteness” than in the acuteness of his disease. De Quincey diagnosed one illness as his “intolerable procrastination”; delays, deferrals, missed appointments and deadlines, all served to put off the future, but they also helped to create a future that was full of promise. It’s as though the mutilated parting from his sister, the fact that he’d had to leave that room too early, led to a life in which he was determined to avoid being rushed. In an appendix to the Confessions, he drily remarks on the nonappearance of a “third part” that readers had been promised: “This blame, in mere justice, the author takes wholly upon himself. What may be the exact amount of the guilt which he thus appropriates, is a very dark question to his own judgement.” Appropriating guilt — rather than simply feeling it or confessing it — was to become this writer’s gift.

De Quincey’s previous biographers have sometimes felt duty bound to be balanced, comprehensive, to play the straight man in a double act with their grotesquely wayward subject. It’s something of a relief, then, when Wilson suggests that what we need is not another biography of De Quincey but a “De Quinceyan biography.” She takes pleasure in her quarry — and takes enjoyable risks with him — as she tracks him through his various lives as “Romantic acolyte, professional doppelgänger,” and “transcendental hack.” De Quincey’s period of destitution in London ended when he reconciled with his mother; he was soon admitted to Oxford, but he served his apprenticeship as acolyte and doppelgänger to somebody who had much more to teach him. On May 31, 1803, De Quincey initiated a correspondence with Wordsworth by informing him that “you will never find one more zealously attached to you . . . than the writer of this letter.” Later that year he entered Oxford, where he first tried opium (initially as a remedy for toothache, afterward as a source of “divine enjoyment”). A couple of years later, he fled the university and set off in search of his hero. The first meeting — “so long anticipated and so long postponed” — was a momentous event; De Quincey recalled how Wordsworth emerged from the house like a “flash of lightning” and shook his hand. He would soon move into that house, replacing Wordsworth as the tenant of Dove Cottage, and become an intimate of the poet, his sister Dorothy, and their circle.

But De Quincey wasn’t about to leave his past — or his guilt — behind. (It’s significant that he should have gravitated toward a brother and sister who meant everything to each other.) In his “Intimations” ode, Wordsworth had himself alluded to Hamlet when confessing to feeling the “Blank misgivings of a Creature” who “Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised”; De Quincey would later speak of a character who “trembles as a guilty creature before a tribunal unveiled within the secrecy of her own nature.” So guilt turns people into things or creatures, at once deepens and threatens their personhood by putting them in touch with what they may be evading — or what they can’t quite work out about themselves. In Suspiria De Profundis, De Quincey speaks of a “stratagem of grief,” by which he means both a scheme for putting grief to use and grief’s tenacious ability to design new torments for the griever. Self-punishment became a means for him to manage his mixed feelings about the sister he couldn’t forget. (The very strength of his dependence made him feel afraid, humiliated, enraged.)

Guilt, Donald Winnicott suggests, is “anxiety felt because of the conflict between love and hate. Guilt-sense implies tolerance of ambivalence.” From this perspective, guilt is a defense against the fear that hate will prove stronger than love. In Suspiria de Profundis, De Quincey recalls:

For ever I dallied with some obscure notion, how my sister’s love might be made in some dim way available for delivering me from misery; or else how the misery I had suffered and was suffering might be made, in some way equally dim, the ransom for winning back her love.

Within the feeling that he misses her is the suppressed accusation that she betrayed him by leaving him, but within the accusation lies the possibility that she left him because he was found wanting in some way. One pays a “ransom” as a punitive fine in order to obtain a pardon; you might think he’s charging her with emotional blackmail, or that his own affection is holding him hostage.

De Quincey’s life and his writing are fueled by a sense that he abhors what he adores — and vice versa. He recalls that, when he was younger, he had “a perfect craze for being despised. I doted on it, and considered contempt a sort of luxury that I was in continual fear of losing.” This thought shines as much light on those who feel contempt as on those who suffer it. Before the visions of his opium-induced dreams, he admits, “I stood loathing and fascinated.” Loathing, for him, is itself a kind of fascination; to be disgusted is to be implicated. (He writes of how disgust may “fasten on” things, rather than, say, “recoil from” them.) These rhythms of affection and animus, connection and repulsion, were to leave their mark on De Quincey’s life in the Lake District. He fell in love with a farmer’s daughter, Margaret Simpson, and the couple had a son before they were married, in 1817; the relationship, along with his increasing dependence on opium, put strain on his bond with Wordsworth. De Quincey would later recall his alienation from his father figure and admit, “I feel a rising emotion of hostility — nay, something, I fear, too nearly akin to vindictive hatred.”

He fears hatred because it is too nearly akin to attachment; and indeed, the poet’s influence can be felt throughout the Confessions. De Quincey had read early manuscripts of The Prelude, in which the poet reveals how “in dreams I pleaded / Before unjust Tribunals,” confessing to “a sense / Of treachery and desertion” in his own soul. It’s telling that Wordsworth is the only author De Quincey names in the preface. (The very reason he was able to obtain an audience with the editors of The London Magazine to see whether they might be interested in his story was that he arrived armed with a letter of introduction from Wordsworth.) And like his disciple, the poet knew about the strangeness of guilt; in his preface to The Borderers, Wordsworth notes that “every time we plan a fresh accumulation of our guilt” — that is, every time we plan to do something that we know will later cause us to feel guilt — we involve ourselves in a “perturbed pleasure.”

This sense of perturbed pleasure is what made Confessions such a shocking, gripping book for contemporary readers. The baroque black comedy of De Quincey’s style — what Poe described as “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque” — is founded on a portrait of the artist as someone who both colludes with and conspires against himself, someone who wears his predicament like an achievement. There’s a self-relishing archness hidden within De Quincey’s penchant for emergency, a sense that he knows his avoidances are the spur to his insights, as his opium dreams suggest:

I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. . . . I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

Early reviewers of the Confessions didn’t know whether to stare or grin. “It is not easy to say what the author intends by his book,” one remarked, sensing a subtle humor at work, provoking the reader to “laugh, without knowing, why or at what.” De Quincey often makes you feel that his horrified amusements and bemusements might be catching. In response to his critics, he asks: “Did I inaugurate the infirmity of laughter?” Whether you laugh at him or with him, he intimates that your laughter is not a safety net but a trapdoor.

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

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