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Thomas De Quincey’s bad habits

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.

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.

The Confessions changed De Quincey’s life. He became notorious, courted, flattered. “What wouldn’t one give to have him in a Box,” exclaimed Thomas Carlyle’s wife, Jane, “and take him out to talk!” But fame also sent him further into himself and into his past, made him more resistant to his responsibilities. Although he had a growing family to support (a wife and six children), part of him was mistrustful of — or antagonistic toward — visions of domestic bliss. When he writes, in an 1826 review of Robert Gillie’s German Stories, that “pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea urn,” you sense that conceiving this grim thought wasn’t entirely disagreeable to him. His first appearance in Wilson’s biography speaks volumes: “Having your throat slashed on the open road was never as interesting to Thomas De Quincey as having it slashed in the room of a house.” A few pages on, she remarks that “buildings, for De Quincey, were always crime scenes.” And his crime scenes were always family dramas. De Quincey didn’t want to be in a box, but he very much wanted to write about those who felt boxed in.

A particular felony looms large: the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, supposedly committed by one John Williams. Murderous instincts, like charitable ones, begin at home, and De Quincey was enthralled by the case in part because the killer attacked families rather than individuals. Whatever else his gleefully tendentious essays on murder are about, they are about damage done in and to the home. As a child, De Quincey had been tyrannized by his older brother William; when their sister finally put a stop to this, William wrote and performed a play in which all his siblings were massacred in the first act. You might say that De Quincey wrote about John Williams in order to revisit what his brother had done — and to usurp his place; by choreographing the murderer’s acts in prose, by suggesting that such killings were “a condiment for seasoning the insipid monotonies of daily life,” he tells of his own taste for blood.

De Quincey had traveled a long way from his profligate, impecunious youth. He was now a Victorian literary gentleman and a renowned Tory journalist who’d settled in Edinburgh; but “settled” is never the right word for this man. It befits a life at once shambolic and mesmeric that while writing one of his best short stories, “The Household Wreck” (1838), he should be repeatedly chased from his house by creditors. Wilson acutely suggests that even in his maturity De Quincey was “at home in the realm of indebtedness”; afraid of money, when it came his way he quickly passed it on, “ridding himself of the evidence.” As she also notes, in several languages “guilt” and “debt” are the same word, and De Quincey’s fugitive existence in his later years kept this entanglement alive. His youngest daughter, Florence, was charged with the burden of keeping the family together after Margaret died of typhus, in 1837, and she recalled how her father “delighted to persuade himself (the excitement of terror was a real delight to him) that he was dogged by dark and mysterious foes.” Being a wanted man was a means of ensuring that he would continue to feel wanted.

De Quincey never renounced his incorrigibility. (With less than a year to live, he can still be found writing to his editor, “Did you say, or is it a dream, that I could have till the 22nd.”) Both his style and his lifestyle became glorious refusals to come to the point. In an essay on rhetoric, from 1828, he reserves his highest praise for “half meditative, half capricious” writing that doesn’t quite know what it’s up to. Elsewhere he says to the reader:

If you insist on my telling you what is the moral of the Iliad, I insist upon your telling me what is the moral of a rattlesnake, or the moral of a Niagara. I suppose the moral is — that you must get out of their way, if you mean to moralise much longer.

For him, composition is something between an impulse and a decision — at once a torrent and a bite. The ulteriority of his dreams acts as a sponsor for the delirium of writing. In one of the best of his late essays, “The English Mail-Coach” (1849), he describes how his vehicle narrowly avoided crashing into a small gig bearing a young couple. By focusing not so much on the coach as on the creatures that power it — all “dilated nostril, spasmodic muscles, and echoing hoofs. . . . The sensibility of the horse, uttering itself in the maniac light of his eye” — the vertiginous precision of his style seems intent on freeing itself from intention. “What I meant in my dream was perhaps (but one forgets what one meant upon recovering one’s temper).”

Self-forgetfulness is what De Quincey really desired — and also what fascinated him about the Williams murders. “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” is his most audacious riposte to the demand that we should only admire what we approve of, the piece that most insistently invites us to be not so much judges as co-conspirators, but his last masterpiece — “Postscript” (1854), an addendum to the earlier essay — moves from the forbidden thrill of connoisseurship to something more disorienting. At one moment he pauses to wonder why, after John Williams killed the baby in its cot, the “embarrassed” murderer piled blankets and pillows about its head “with no apparent purpose, as though he had become confused by the spectacle of his own atrocities.” De Quincey stares at this confusion as though it were the key to his own life. He refers later to “this unintelligible criminal,” who — as the writer’s secret sharer — is weirder than a mere aesthete or ironist, less knowable to himself and to others. De Quincey once spoke of descending to “an emotion so humiliating as curiosity.” Curiosity doesn’t only bespeak complicity; it reminds you of just how little you understand what your complicity portends.

His writing would remain his greatest guilty pleasure. The legacy of his style — or the thing that people continue to warm to — is the way he translates his nightmares of exposure and infinitude into a kind of self-surprised delight in insatiability. He once suggested that when depicting a murder, the artist shouldn’t focus on the victim or on “the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This instinct merely “exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude,” one that “would little suit the purposes of the poet.” But the poet in De Quincey — the man who speaks of things “boiling with life and the desires of life” — didn’t believe this.

Wilson is responsive to his writing throughout her book (she makes you want to read him, not merely know him), and she’s right to describe the baker who appears in his first essay on murder as his “finest fictional creation.” This is the man who, when confronted by a would-be assassin who is “enamoured” of his “vast surface of throat,” summons all his powers of self-preservation to box with his assailant for twenty-seven rounds (and several exquisite pages), staggering about “like a cow on the ice” yet continually coming up fighting. “The moral of his story was good,” our narrator explains, “for it showed what an astonishing stimulus to latent talent is contained in any reasonable prospect of being murdered.” De Quincey’s wonder at the baker — his wonder that he’s even dreamed him up — sabotages any thesis he may have about ignoble instincts.

What seems to me to be most beguiling about both the man and the work is that someone who is this well defended could be so open to anything; or, rather, that someone this ashamed could be so shameless. His friend John Findlay, who later wrote the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on De Quincey, tells a story that gets close to the heart of him. Whenever De Quincey was feeling low, Findlay would begin a game called What Would the Baker Say? The question once asked, “the pallid face slowly wreathed into a half-aroused smile, which seemed to convey: ‘Well, that is a good idea. We have not yet considered what can be said and what can be done from that point of view.’ ”

Everywhere in the writing there lurks this sense of speculative arousal, the feeling that supping on horrors is a prelude to another kind of experiment. In a draft passage that didn’t make it into “The English Mail-Coach,” De Quincey explains that, along the journey, he fasted from everything but tea, “a trifle of opium,” and sin. And that sin is to be liberally interpreted; immediately after the near-fatal crash that he describes in such loving, lurid detail, he confesses that on reaching an inn, he had the baseness to talk only about cold beef and port wines. “There is not much to be said in defence of such conduct,” he admits, “but there is always something to be said in defence of any possible conduct.”

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

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