The Pope of Opium

There is a little-known film entitled Confessions of an Opium-Eater, shot on a shoestring by Albert Zugsmith in 1962 and starring Vincent Price, an attempt to cash in on and extend his successful series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. It opens with vaseline-fogged images of a Chinese junk and a delirious Price voice-over (‘I am De Quincey…I dream…and I create dreams…out of my opium pipe…’) before clarifying that his character is in fact Gilbert De Quincey, a presumed descendent who wanders the seas as a captain-for-hire searching for ‘…well, what every man searches for’. In the Chinatown of late nineteenth-century San Francisco he is drawn into an intrigue between Tong factions that cues a breathless farrago of opium dens, secret passages, caged Oriental women, masked thugs, rooftop chases and hatchet fights: a two-fisted De Quincey against the Yellow Peril.

Beyond the passing observation that Thomas De Quincey would have applauded its racial politics, the film demonstrates two points very clearly. The first is the remarkable persistence of De Quincey the Opium-Eater as the archetype of the modern drugtaker, recognisable enough even to hook teenage audiences in the drive-ins of the southern States (Poe might have been on their school syllabus, but De Quincey surely not). The second is that this recognition depends on no element of either his life or his work beyond his name and the title of his most celebrated book.

De Quincey’s status as the first modern drugtaker is not simply an artefact of hindsight. It was a perception that formed almost immediately on the publication of his Confessions in the London Magazine in 1821, in which he pronounced himself ‘the only member’ of ‘the true church on the subject of opium’ (by the time of the revised edition of 1856 he had promoted himself to its Pope). He published anonymously, but within weeks his flimsy cover had been blown, and ‘The Opium Eater’ became a transparent and self-advertising pseudonym that he cultivated and burnished for the rest of his remarkably long life. While he continued to promise, and occasionally deliver, further instalments, by 1840 the Opium Eater had taken on a cosmopolitan life of his own. In Russia, Nikolai Gogol had adapted his London dream-wanderings to his own St. Petersburg in Nevsky Prospect; in America he had been extolled by Emerson and pilfered by Poe; in France, Alfred de Musset’s eccentrically elaborated translation had inspired Théophile Gautier and Honoré de Balzac to create their own versions of the new archetype, and Hector Berlioz to transpose its nightmare-fugues to his Symphonie Fantastique. The Opium Eater’s time had plainly come.

But the eager congregation at De Quincey’s church makes it all the more puzzling that he should have been its first and only celebrant. There was no mystery about opium itself, which was perhaps the best-known medicine of its day and available in any high street pharmacy. It was a recourse for pain of all kinds, a sedative, a specific against diarrhoea, coughs and fevers; laudanum, its tincture in alcohol, had been a standard preparation since at least the time of the seventeenth-century London doctor Thomas Sydenham, after whom its most familiar recipe was named. It was not taboo to celebrate its mind-altering effects or even to identify oneself as an addict: if it were, De Quincey could hardly have parlayed his fame into a column for the vigorously Tory Blackwood’s Magazine, a platform from which he would defend ultra-establishment causes for many years to come. Nor was he staking a precious reputation on his confession: after a decade of false starts, it was among the first pieces he had ever published. Nor did he anticipate a breaking wave: some of his other trademark habits, such as riding on the outside rather than the inside of carriages, were spreading among the thrill-seeking dandies of his day, but these trend-setters saw no appeal in opium-eating. What was it precisely, then, that De Quincey had been the first to do – and, given the instant popularity of the gambit, why had somebody else not already done it?

The familiar answer is that his new church was that of the ‘recreational’ drug user, but this begs more questions than it answers. The label would not have been understood at the time, because it was coined in opposition to a notion of the medical that was yet to fully emerge. De Quincey himself would be instrumental in clarifying the distinction, but he would also resist any such neat demarcation of his own motives. Moreover, the notion that opium had the power to confer pleasant states of dream and reverie was already a familiar one. As far back as 1700, the doctor and opium enthusiast John Jones could write of its intoxication that ‘people do call it a heavenly condition, as if no worldly pleasure was to be compared with it’; and indeed Jones went further than De Quincey ever would in describing its effects as ‘a permanent gentle degree of that pleasure, which modesty forbids the naming of’. By the time De Quincey was born, its use was being championed for all manner of conditions, notably by the Edinburgh doctor John Brown, whose controversial medical theory elevated it into an elixir that stimulated the life-force directly; and Brown himself was observed to down fifty drops of laudanum in a glass of whisky five times during a lecture.

Sydenhams-opium-tincture-300x228Although Brown’s theories were questionable, and his personal habits even more so, he was not alone by this time in recognising that opium was the most potent and effective medicine in the doctor’s bag, and its use for nervous conditions among the leisured classes was generating a more sophisticated understanding of its psychic hinterlands. Its euphoric qualities were hymned by Erasmus Darwin in his vastly popular verse epic The Loves of the Plants (1789), in which ‘Papaver’ nods in luxurious semi-consciousness on silken sheets, while

‘Faint o’er her couch in scintillating streams
Pass the thin forms of Fancy and of Dreams’

Meanwhile Darwin’s colleague Thomas Beddoes, though he recommended the use of opium widely, saw its effects on the imagination in less benign terms. For him, it was becoming a symptom of a broader malaise: the hypochondria of the new middling classes. Ever more fastidious and introspective, their ennui was leading them to overuse anodynes and euphoriants such as opium and ether, and in so doing to create ill health out of self-indulgence. The likes of Darwin and Beddoes – both poets as well as doctors – were well aware that opium’s effects, when they were given the chance to weave themselves into the fabric of a patient’s life, were anything but anodyne.

We learn little of such precedents from De Quincey himself, who wishes to stress his own originality and paints the ignorance of the medical profession with a broad brush. As a result it is easy to mistake his tone, and to miss his ironies. The mystique that he cultivates around opium reads neatly across to our modern situation, where it has (in the West) become a quasi-mythical substance, evoked as the ne plus ultra of decadence by mass-market perfumes but never encountered in reality. To us, the famous passage of the Confessions in which De Quincey buys his first dose of opium from a mysterious Oxford Street druggist, ‘unconscious minister of celestial pleasures’, is charged with the illicit buzz of the modern drug deal. To his contemporaries, however, it would have read as bathetic parody of his own Romantic pretensions, a taste of the perverse and facetious wit that would make him such an enduring favourite of the Tory press. The joke is on the prosaic laudanum-drinker who little suspects that his palliative is a secret key to Paradise; but it is also on De Quincey’s younger self who, like the hashish-eaters of the Arabian Nights, has mistaken a hovel for a palace.

There is broad humour, too, in the epithet ‘English Opium Eater’, at first glance an absurd oxymoron but also pointing to the central conceit of the work. An opium-eater was quintessentially foreign, usually Turkish or Persian; he used the drug to while his life away in reveries like Homer’s lotus-eaters, in whose image he was conceived; he sought oblivion, and was released only by death. But an English Opium Eater, De Quincey insisted, was of a superior type: ‘I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had’. Although De Quincey did eat his dose on occasions, sometimes carrying a snuff-box of small opium pills, he typically (like most English people) drank it; by identifying himself as an opium-eater, he was entwining something like our modern sense of ‘recreational user’ with the sneer of a cultural outlaw, appropriating a foreign habit and deliberately courting the reader’s disapproval, even disgust.

Later in the century, this complex of meanings would coalesce around the habit of opium-smoking, which was explicitly Chinese, social and (to Western eyes) hedonistic. But they are already audible in John Wilson’s exasperated response to his friend: ‘Hang you, De Quincey! Can’t you take your whisky toddy like a Christian man, and leave your d—-d opium slops to infidel Turks, Persians and Chinamen?’. By announcing himself as the English Opium Eater, De Quincey was not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening. It was a Byronic double game: baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion while delighting the elite with the invention of a new vice.

Yet this was not the type of literary prank that could have been pulled off by any ambitious young provocateur. The key to the Opium Eater’s genesis, and to his originality, is to be found in De Quincey’s relations with his mentor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. An avid reader of John Brown and friend and patient of both Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Beddoes, Coleridge was deeply immersed in medical theory but reluctant to consider the effects of opium on himself. It was an open secret among Coleridge’s circle that opium lay behind his most eloquent dinner-party performances: all recognised the telltale signs that De Quincey enumerates, the ‘shining countenace’ and ‘the insensible perspiration which accumulates and glistens on the face’. De Quincey was among the inner circle who were equally familiar with its paradoxical effects on his productivity: its ability to support brief bursts of inspiration while defeating ‘the steady habit of exertion’; the authorial revulsion provoked the following morning by the words choked out under its influence the night before; its gradual silencing of his poetic voice, overwritten by clotted and convoluted metaphysics.

coleridge_portrait_11-225x300But while others despaired at Coleridge’s weakness, De Quincey saw the root of the evil not in the drug but in his refusal to acknowledge that opium was a ‘source of luxurious sensations’. His insistence that his use of the drug was a matter of simple medical need – ‘my sole sensuality was not to be in pain!’ – was the self-deception that destroyed him. It is in his accounts of Coleridge, rather than his own case, that De Quincey makes his most clinical and censorious distinctions between medical and ‘luxurious’ use: Coleridge, despite his protestations, was medicating not pain but ‘ennui (which it is, far more than pain, that saddens our human life)’. By blaming opium for the human condition, Coleridge had become its martyr; by confessing what his mentor could not, De Quincey would become its Pope.

Once again, the clue is in the title: although he declares opium the ‘true hero’ of his book, it is rather the author himself. It was the confession, more than the drug, that was the novel aspect of De Quincey’s engagement with opium. ‘You will think, perhaps’, he informs the reader, ‘that I am too confidential and communicative of my own private history’; but he knew that it was precisely this self-exposure that was his trump card. His youthful worship of Coleridge and Wordsworth, by his own account a stalker’s obsession, had been a symptom of a new species of fascination with the author that he was now offering to gratify with his own narrative, confident in the existence of a readership who would wish to get under his skin in a similar way. His months as a teenage runaway, in Wales and then London, gave him a life story in the raw: one that placed him beyond familiar class divides just as ‘opium-eating’ set him outside the frame of Englishness. On his Saturday night debauches in Covent Garden, listening to the opera from a five-shilling gallery perch and eavesdropping on the poor in backstreet taverns, he was in the crowd but not of it, both aristocrat and outcast. Both his vagrancy and his opium addiction were games that he had played to the limit: they guaranteed to his readers that he was prepared to offer them their pound of flesh in ways that other authors were not. In the sense that his fame and his addiction were interchangeable, he prefigured the modern celebrity as much as the modern drugtaker.
de quinceyIt was a role that he maintained to the end, though its rationale became increasingly confused. De Quincey could hardly be accused of soft-pedalling the pains of opium: his harrowing portrait of the labyrinth of addiction, far in advance of the medical understanding of the day, remains unsurpassed. It was integral to his narrative that they were inseparable from the pleasures, and bound in time to outweigh them; yet for eight years, from 1804 to 1812, his use was ‘temperate’ and occasional, by his own account all pleasure and no pain. He attributes its escalation to dependence in 1813 to medical necessity, with the Coleridgean plea that ‘I could not have done otherwise’, while admitting within the same paragraph that ‘I hanker too much after a state of happiness’ to face the miseries of life without it. The more he revised and recycled his writings on opium, the more the contradictions piled up; by the 1840s and 1850s, although he could still achive sublime peaks, such as the mythic terrors of Suspiria de Profundis, the drug was having the diminishing effects on his vision that it had on Coleridge’s. Opium was his inescapable subject, and his great summation shimmered before his eyes, but its threads became ever harder to gather.

His failure to break his addiction may have lain to some extent in the alcohol content of his laudanum: during his periods of heavy dependency, it must have amounted to a bottle or two of strong spirits a day, and accounted for many of the pains he suffered when he attempted withdrawal. (In this regard, the opium-eater had rather better prospects than the opium-drinker). But, despite its undoubted pains, De Quincey’s addiction can be seen as functional, even deliberate. For nearly half a century, his opium habit and his writing maintained him in his stubborn and solipsistic relations with the world. He was, in modern parlance, a high-functioning addict: the drug enabled him to cope with the self-inflicted stresses of debt, illness and overwork, to persist in a hand-to-mouth existence, to play the victim and indulge an endless drama of persecution. His identity as the Opium Eater served as both cause and excuse for his miserable state. On the rare occasions he had money, he stopped writing and lived the life of leisure he believed to be his birthright; it was his expenditure on opium that forced him back to work, along with his need for fame. The life of the Opium Eater was a living death, but it was also immortality.


A version of this article first appeared in the London Review of Books (Vol.32 No.9, May 2010)

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