The Opium-Eater.

by Laura Roman.


Thomas De Quincey’s influence on writers and filmmakers reaches wide and far. In the nineteenth century he was a prominent part of the Romantic circle, confluencing with Wordsworth and Coleridge, later influencing Elizabeth Barrett, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Ralph Waldo Emerson, American illustrator Zhenya Gay (whose rendition of De Quincey is depicted above) and filmmakers Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. De Quincey made his literary mark with his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which captured in lurid detail what it was like to be an addict. De Quincey began using opium when he was an undergraduate at Worcester College, Oxford, and continued to use it intermittently in the course of his life.

Confessions established a genre of addiction literature and inspired a cultish following. Other writers paid their homage to De Quincey; Musset and Baudelaire translated Confessions into French, inspiring Berlioz and his composition of Symphonie Fantastique. Later, Stanley Kubrick opened his film The Shining with a synthesized version of Berlioz, where the essence of the musical storyline traces back to De Quincey and his opium nightmare passages. In the course of his addiction De Quincey discovered that opium heightened his ability to dream and to remember his dreams vividly; this led to a philosophical quest that inspired a sequel to Confessions, and which by far is his best writing: Suspiria de Profundis.

De Quincey intended Suspiria to be his literary masterpiece, the “ne plus ultra,” he wrote, “as regards the feeling and power to express it, that I can ever hope to attain.” Parts of Suspiria were published in his lifetime; more of it was discovered (and subsequently published) long after his death. Reconstructing Suspiria from unpublished manuscripts formed the basis of many years of my doctoral work at Oxford; the story of Suspiria and what happened to it is fascinating, and beyond that it offers a collection of prose-poems that explore hell, purgatory, and the reaching after of what comes next.

Part I – Hell

De Quincey was born in Manchester, England in 1785, into an upper middle class family that valued literature and intellectual thought. His mother, Elizabeth, was a friend of Hannah More, who was an ardent Evangelical. De Quincey read widely as a child, including the Arabian Nights, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe. What was unusual about his childhood was its saturation in experiences with sudden death and loss. When he was four and a half his sister Jane died. Before he was seven, his other sister, Elizabeth, died; within the same year, his father, returning from the West Indies, died of tuberculosis. These were traumatic events for any child; for De Quincey, they also set his imagination to work. His sister, Elizabeth, was the most influential person in his life; he shared with her imaginative games and literature reminiscent of the Bronte children.

Elizabeth’s death conjured up a darkness and melancholy that haunted De Quincey for life: “mere anarchy and confusion of mind fell upon me. .. [it was] the sleep from which there is no awaking, and upon me sorrowing the sorrow for which there is no consolation.”

The most dramatic aspects of Elizabeth’s death were to follow, when De Quincey crept into his sister’s room to see her corpse. There he saw her statue-like, and as if writing a gothic novel, he describes her in full detail: “the frozen eyelids, the darkness that seemed to steal from beneath them, the marble lips, the stiffening hands, laid palm to palm.” Death had transformed her into an awesome being – and no longer was she his sister.

The shock of seeing his sister as a corpse put him into a trace. From this deeply disturbing and profound psychological experience De Quincey coined in Suspiria the term “involute” to describe the associative process: “far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us… as involutes, in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly, in their own abstract shapes.” These indirect associations or images entangled with Elizabeth’s death, into which the subsequent deaths of his wife and children enter, form De Quincey’s hell – experiences he continued to relive in his dreams and from which he tried to free himself in the act of writing. Looking back, he writes: “the horror of life mixed itself already in the earliest youth with the heavenly sweetness of life… I saw from afar and from before what I was to see from behind.”

Ten years passed before De Quincey went up to Worcester College, Oxford, where he first tried opium, and began to relive the death of Elizabeth:

Again I was in the chamber with my sister’s corpse….Dream forced itself mysteriously within dream; within these Oxford dreams remoulded itself continually the trance in my sister’s chamber.

In Suspiria De Quincey expressed that grief educates us through our reveries and dreams in solitude, and opium seemed to heighten both an awareness of his dreams and alter perceptions of space and time At Oxford De Quincey came to be looked upon as “a strange being who associated with no one.” His dreams formed the content and pattern of Suspiria, ultimately read as a repetitive dreamscape of loss:

…the terrific grief which I passed through, drove a shaft from me into the worlds of death and darkness which never again closed, and through which it might be said that I ascended and descended at will.

Part II – Purgatory

Composing Suspiria became a kind of purgatory for De Quincey. The dreams and associations, “involutes” of experience inextricably bound with the death of his sisters and his father when he was a child, then became infused with grief from the deaths of his own children. His descent into “the worlds of death and darkness” finds expression in a context of dreams that aspire to the level of myth. Abstractions of human suffering, classical deities, motifs of the “abyss” and “aurora” were structured around a theme of paradox. ”A paradox,” De Quincey writes, “is simply that which contradicts the popular opinion – which in too many cases is the false opinion.” His idea of paradox comes partly from his reading of Quintilian when he was at Oxford, In De Institutiones Oratoria, Quintilian coined the phrase “lucus a non lucendo” to explain paradox. The relationship between “light” — or “light that is not light” — and dark – translated into a philosophical frame of mind where writing becomes the source of redemption. When he started composing Suspiria he wrote to his friend, Professor Edmund Lushington, who was a professor of Greek at Glasgow University, that he was at work on his literary masterpiece:

…whatever pleasure you may at any time have found in the original Confessions…will be trebled in this second series… these final Confessions are the ne plus ultra as regards the feeling and the power to express it, which I can ever hope to obtain.

Lushington was also a friend of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was at work on his great philosophical poem also inspired by sudden death: In Memoriam (1850.) It is more than likely that De Quincey knew of Tennyson’s poem and was intrigued by it.

De Quincey intended to publish Suspiria as a series in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine – followed by publication in book form – as he had done with Confessions. It was to be introduced by a letter to his three daughters, the only surviving of his eight children. In reality, only an “Introductory Notice” and six essays of Suspiria were published in Blackwood’s in 1845 before the work came to an abrupt end. De Quincey left no explanation as to why he had ceased composition. It was only in the summer of 1994, in the course of archival research in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere, England, that the first clue surfaced to indicate why De Quincey ceased. The clue was a note he wrote to himself in the lower right corner of a page:

There are fools so great that if they had ever read the Aurora they would still suppose me by possibility to design such an essay as transitory…Now that it is which enrages one. ..My horror (on behalf of the truth – not on my own behalf) for inserting my Aurora in Blackwood’s takes this form – that I am thus made a party – nay I make myself a party – to the ill-treatment, to the undervaluation of my own truth.

The “aurora” or “dawn” is a recurring motif in Suspiria. At this point, it may have been his title for the work as a whole. Certainly, the “aurora” applies to the first part of Suspiria, “The Affliction of Childhood.”

“The Affliction of Childhood” lays the foundation of Suspiria by putting forward themes De Quincey returns to in the prose-poems that follow. In “Affliction”, he recollects his earliest experiences and their everlasting effects on his mind and imagination, seeking at once the individual and collective origins of human experience. He recalls his first memory of a dream, and recounts the death of Elizabeth, seeking to understand how his grief might be, paradoxically, the source of his redemption:

For ever I searched the abysses with some wandering thoughts unintelligible to myself. 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.

Here he hints at how the powers of grief might inspire the transformation of grief, a creed he develops more poetically in a subsequent essay, “Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow.” This passage looks forward to the associations between death as an end, though paradoxically a beginning;his use of the word “abyss” has a symbolic meaning.

De Quincey’s editors at Blackwood’s failed to recognize the importance of ‘The Affliction of Childhood’ in content or structure. They altered the text and severed it in half for publication. By doing so, they had imposed upon De Quincey the “undervaluation” of his own truth.

Manuscripts reveal that De Quincey’s literary production is the result of very personal autobiographical experience. In his letter to Lushington, he refers to a child who had died at the age of three. “All children become objects of a deeper tenderness,” he writes,

…when it is remembered that a certain portion of them are always marked down in the unseen registers as consecrated from their birth to an early death.…..with respect to a little child of my own, whom we lost at three years old, I made a discovery – which but for the merest accident I never should have made that his happiness had been disturbed in a way that afflicted me much.

The rest of the letter is lost. Another letter reveals that the child De Quincey refers to is his youngest son, Julius, who died of an inflammation of the lungs in early September 1833. In the letter, he writes of Julius’s death: “No affliction could have fallen more heavily upon us.” Such a loss, tragic in itself, was exacerbated by De Quincey’s wife, Margaret, who mistook the tranquility of Julius’s death for an indication of his recovery. The death of Julius forms the very beginning of “The Affliction of Childhood”:

A boy, interesting in appearance, as also from his remarkable docility, was attacked, on a cold day of spring, by a complaint of the trachea…He was three years old.

The sudden death of Julius resurrects memories of Elizabeth; the experiences with sudden death in De Quincey’s childhood repeated in his own family. Within ten years, his five sons died suddenly and under tragic circumstances. Entering into the picture of loss are the deaths of his wife, Margaret, and Wordsworth’s daughter, Kate, of whom De Quincey was particularly fond. Kate, like Julius, died suddenly in childhood. And so, in De Quincey’s words, “years far asunder [were] bound together by subtle links of suffering derived from a common root.”

In “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow”, a subsequent Suspiria prose-poem, De Quincey’s grief aspires to the level of myth. He reflects on his time at Oxford, where had been inspired by his reading of the German writer Jean Paul, whose Levana: or The Doctrine of Education (1807) had inspired a dream-vision:

Oftentimes at Oxford I saw Levana in my dreams…Who is Levana? …[she is] the Roman goddess….who watches over human education…who works not [by] the poor machinery that moves by spelling-books and grammars, but that mighty system of central forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life, which by passion, by strife, by temptation, by the energies of resistance, works for ever upon children — resting not day or night.

In “Levana”, De Quincey transmutes Jean Paul’s Levana into the theme of an education through personal anguish. The mythical sisters, Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum, become incarnations of human suffering who “disdain the infirmities of language.” Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi also found inspiration in “Levana”, translating the sisters into a trilogy of films known as The Three Mothers, “Levana” ends with a moral where the lowest point of existence paradoxically becomes the individual’s point of ascent:

….so shall he rise again before he dies. And so shall our commission be accomplished which from God we had – to plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities of the spirit.

Here the resurrection is temporal – “so shall he rise again before he dies” – indicating De Quincey’s belief in the “dawn”. However, a letter in the National Library of Scotland reveals that the editors of Blackwood’s also interfered with “Levana.” As with “Affliction”, there were unapproved cuts to his text, against which De Quincey vehemently protested: “there are many passages that will lose all – not only effect – but even meaning, if torn away from context.”

The juxtaposition of sudden death and life finds its starkest expression in the Suspiria entitled “The Vision of Sudden Death.” Here, “death” is “the crowned phantom, with all the equipage of its terrors, and the tiger roar of his voice.” De Quincey had been inspired by Milton’s description of death from Paradise Lost: “none / Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb / …what seem’d his head / the likeness of a Kingly / Crown had on.” He had made note of Milton’s description of death in the diary he kept before coming up to Oxford and actively sought to know the experience of “death” by sleeping in graveyards. The “Vision of Sudden Death” is defined by another Suspiria, “The Vision of Life.” Paradox is now expressed in musical terms: “The rapture of life…does not arise, unless as perfect music arises…by the confluence of the mighty and terrific discords with the subtle concords.”
De Quincey’s original titles for Suspiria also express paradox. In a letter dated December 1844, he refers to his work as “Suspiria ex abysso.” At this point De Quincey evoked the abyss as the title for his work as a whole; it points towards an ideology of human progress defined by his search for origins and ends. The “abyss” motif as a component of De Quincey’s ideology is half of a dialectical framework; the other half is his motif of the “aurora.” Like the abyss, the aurora associates with origins and ends. As celestial phenomenon, the aurora expresses his belief in light coming through darkness: lucus a non lucendo, but also, dark that is not dark. The abyss and aurora are opposites, yet interchangeable and inseparable from his ultimate question about the nature of existence:

Death we can face: but knowing, as some of us do, what is human life, which of us without shuddering…can face the hour of birth?

Ascent cannot be defined without descent; one is inextricable from the other. We are left with the moral that we must fall in order to rise.

Part III – What comes next?

In composing Suspiria de Profundis, De Quincey turned his personal tragedies into literary consumption. His sister Elizabeth becomes at once his archetype of loss and a muse. She is not without her literary counterparts. In past times Dante had constructed a mythology and vision around Beatrice; Petrarch, Laura. In the Romantic period, Wordsworth suffered privately the loss of Annette Vallon, and Coleridge, a relationship imagined or unfulfilled in Asra, or Sara Hutchinson. De Quincey wrote to express profound grief, but also to assuage his own fear of mortality: at one and the same time he immortalizes himself. Suspiria by its nature was ‘unfinished’; he was still at work on it when he died at the age of seventy-four with his daughters at his side. The theme of death itself becomes a defining counterpoint; death is “nature’s great change agent” (as Steve Jobs recently put it) in asking us to burn away what is not essential. In the process we can learn that all experience is subject to how we construct it into meaning; in the words of Milton:

“The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

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