Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 17, 2014

De Quincey's pharmakon

The one book for which Thomas de Quincey is known today is his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which he details, in a style owing much to writers of the seventeenth-century Baroque, “the pleasures and pains of Opium” — though with, it seems to many readers, more emphasis on the pleasures. He says at the outset that he admits no guilt, and seems to want more than anything else to give a plausible and self-exculpating explanation of how an English “scholar” and “philosopher” could have fallen under the sway of the drug so closely associated with undisciplined and weak-willed “Orientals.”

Perhaps feeling that he had not done enough to explain himself, De Quincey later wrote a sequel, Suspiria de Profundis, which he begins with an interesting reflection that connects, oddly enough, with the themes of this blog. NB: De Quincey writes few short sentences.

Habitually to dream magnificently, a man must have a constitutional determination to reverie. This in the first place, and even this, where it exists strongly, is too much liable to disturbance from the gathering agitation of our present English life. Already, in this year 1845, what by the procession through fifty years of mighty revolutions amongst the kingdoms of the earth, what by the continual development of vast physical agencies, steam in all its applications, light getting under harness as a slave for man , powers from heaven descending upon education and accelerations of the press, powers from hell (as it might seem, but these also celestial) coming round upon artillery and the forces of destruction, the eye of the calmest observer is troubled; the brain is haunted as if by some jealousy of ghostly beings moving amongst us; and it becomes too evident that, unless this colossal pace of advance can be retarded (a thing not to be expected), or, which is happily more probable, can be met by counter forces of corresponding magnitude, forces in the direction of religion or profound philosophy, that shall radiate centrifugally against this storm of life so perilously centripetal towards the vortex of the merely human, left to itself, the natural tendency of so chaotic a tumult must be to evil; for some minds to lunacy, for others to a regency of fleshly torpor. How much this fierce condition of eternal hurry upon an arena too exclusively human in its interests is likely to defeat the grandeur which is latent in all men, may be seen in the ordinary effect from living too constantly in varied company. The word dissipation, in one of its uses, expresses that effect; the action of thought and feeling is too much dissipated and squandered. To reconcentrate them into meditative habits, a necessity is felt by all observing persons for sometimes retiring from crowds. No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude. How much solitude, so much power.

In short, the pace of technological acceleration (including technologies of text) has the effect of making people too occupied, too social, “living too constantly in varied company.” Varied company may be good, but sometimes people need their own internal company. But they are incessantly drawn out of themselves and “dissipate” their mental powers by being deprived, or depriving themselves, of the restorative and concentrating effects of solitude.

De Quincey argues that this constant sociality limits one particular kind of human power to a great and (to him) deeply troubling degree:

Among the powers in man which suffer, by this too intense life of the social instincts, none suffers more than the power of dreaming. Let no man think this a trifle. The machinery for dreaming planted in the human brain was not planted for nothing. That faculty, in alliance with the mystery of darkness, is the one great tube through which man communicates with the shadowy. And the dreaming organ, in connection with the heart, the eye and the ear, compose the magnificent apparatus which forces the infinite into the chambers of a human brain, and throws dark reflections from eternities below all life upon the mirrors of the sleeping mind.

But just as there are technologies that dissipate human power, so too there may be technologies that concentrate it in dreams:

But if this faculty suffers from the decay of solitude, which is becoming a visionary idea in England, on the other hand, it is certain that some merely physical agencies can and do assist the faculty of dreaming almost preternaturally. Amongst these is intense exercise; to some extent at least, and for some persons; but beyond all others is opium, which indeed seems to possess a specifc power in that direction; not merely for exalting the colors of dream−scenery, but for deepening its shadows; and, above all, for strengthening the sense of its fearful realities.

De Quincey goes on to say that, yes, exercise is better for you than opium, and that he could only throw off the yoke of opium by intense exercise — but he also makes it clear in this passage that exercise does not intensify and deepen the dreams of the solitary person the way opium does.

In De Quincey's ideal world, then, the sociability of textual technologies would be countered by equally powerful but also safe solitude- and dream-conducive pharmaceutical technologies. Alas that the world is not ideal.

In the most famous passage of his Confessions, de Quincey writes this great apostrophe:

O just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest and assuaging balm; – eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath, and, to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood; and, to the proud man, a brief oblivion for “Wrongs unredressed, and insults unavenged;” that summonest to the chancery of dreams, for the triumphs of suffering innocence, false witnesses, and confoundest perjury, and dost reverse the sentences of unrighteous judges; thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles, – beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos; and, “from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,” callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the “dishonours of the grave.” Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!

But, in the deepest and bitterest of ironies, de Quincey knows, and expects us to know, that he is patterning his praise on another famous apostrophe, this one written by Sir Walter Raleigh: “O eloquent, just, and mighty death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised: thou hast drawn together all the farstretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet.”

Opium kills. The perfect pharmakon with the power to cure our technologically-induced alienation from our selves, and the power to release our full mental powers, without poisoning us or in any way harming us, had not yet been developed. How does the situation look in 2014?