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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 40, novembre 2005

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/012465ar

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“Re-Collecting De Quincey” – A Review-essay of The Works of Thomas De Quincey. Gen. ed. Grevel Lindop. 21 Volumes. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2000-2003. ISBN 1-85196-054-6 (for the complete set). Price: £1650/US$2775.

Joel Faflak

University of Western Ontario


1

Like that of many students until fairly recently, my undergraduate exposure to Romanticism came almost exclusively via the poetry of The Big Six. Well, The Big Five, because Byron seemed too ironic about the autonomy of the Romantic imagination, that time’s prevalent critical myth. University course curricula for the study of Romantic literature enshrined this approach, insisted upon it, although the professor for my Romantics course took a profoundly (and thankfully) darker view of the imagination’s metaphysical longings. We were allowed, as Persuasion’s Anne Elliot says to Captain Benwick, whose grief is exacerbated by his obsession for reading Byron, an adequate dose of prose. Whereas Austen’s heroine urges reading prose as a healthy antidote to poetic excess and idolatry, however, we needed prose in order to appreciate generic hierarchies, that is, to distinguish it from Romantic poetry’s higher calling. We studied non-fiction prose such as Shelley’s Defence or Wordsworth’s Preface, because it helped us to discern the best that had been known and thought in Romantic verse. But fiction itself seemed a necessary evil that, indulged too much, might deter us from this task. We read Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, and Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, all as anomalous of the Romantic imagination’s metaphysical qualities. That two of these were by “women writers” preempted their importance in advance, one for too obviously domesticating the imagination, the other for demonizing it as a monstrosity of human nature. The third’s accomplishment was no better because it confessed a “feminizing” constitutional weakness and decline in the face of imaginative power. Even more than Byron’s, even more than the pale achievements of “women’s work,” De Quincey’s writing was marginal. Since at that time we rarely addressed poetry historically or culturally, never challenged its canonical eminence, or the canon itself, I had no way of understanding this marginality’s critical resonance.

2

Apart from certain cases (Vincent De Luca’s The Prose of Vision, for one), an earlier organicist criticism had no place for De Quincey, except insofar as Confessions was the synecdoche of a larger unfinished Wordsworthian accomplishment or could be exoticized as the Coleridgean afflatus of a (sometimes dangerous) Romantic inspiration (as suggested by the work of Alethea Hayter or M. H. Abrams). Because his most notable work was the public confession of an addiction never successfully overcome, De Quincey exemplified a kind of unusuable negativity within the greater economy of Romantic thought. No matter that Wordsworth classified his writings using the metaphor of a gothic church in ruins, with “sepulchral recesses” whose darkness threatens entirely to undermine even what remains of the edifice; or that Coleridge’s addiction aborted the occult and dejected body of his poetry for the more transcendental philosophicalness of his prose, the terminable hegemony of which is so easily threatened by the interminable counterforces of his notebooks and marginalia. Wordsworth and Coleridge evoked the desire for reparation, and they were accordingly useful to a later (post-)Victorian context because their work was culturally therapeutic.

3

De Quincey’s was not, and it did not help that in the 1830s, a crucial time in the reevaluation of Romanticism’s legacy for a Victorian audience, he embarked upon a sardonic psychoanalysis of the Lake School, particularly of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in a series of papers for Tait’s Magazine. These did little to memorialize the spirit of the age. But perhaps the author had by 1821 already sealed his own posthumous fate by asking us in Confessions to imagine himself poised, undecidedly, indeterminately, between a bottle of laudanum and a book of German metaphysics, both foreign intrusions into the safe space of an Anglophone critical and cultural mind that subsequently and for so long dictated how British literature was taught and analyzed. De Quincey rather too openly admitted that his mind and life—transient, debt-ridden, addictive—were like a Spanish aqueduct in ruins, their energies diverted, frustrated, aborted, if not at every turn, certainly with compulsive repetitiveness. His writing was too informed by irretrievable loss and unabundant recompense, by a return back to the future of traumatically lost origins that frequently waged the present as a kind of passing existential drift. The almost ridiculously jingoist cast of his most fervent political writings, located amid the completely heterogeneous array of subjects to which he turned his attention—none of these adding up to any coherent sum of their parts but rather forming a series of recurrent patterns of critical sensibility—only heightens one’s sense that De Quincey’s convictions about his time and place were those of a subject distinctly aware of his time’s out-of-jointness, even when he seemed committed to setting that time right, often far to the right.

4

Which makes the rise in De Quincey’s critical fortunes since the 1980s especially telling. Upon Romantic Studies’ redrawn map of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century culture, De Quincey’s marginality, his canonical minority (as Margaret Russett has so convincingly explored it), become powerful tools for understanding Romantic culture’s ambivalent achievement. Past a hermeneutics of suspicion about texts, authors, and their identities, we are now compelled by the critical romance of how ideologies transform and are transformed within the period’s sphere of public negotiation. It is within these latter forms of cultural criticism (thought not always forms of critique) that De Quincey’s work—almost all of it within the venue of periodicals that expressed how the public sphere defined itself and was defined—becomes, perhaps, most relevant. The de-periodization and de-canonization of literary studies, its attunement to all facets of cultural transmission, has been particularly kind to De Quincey, as witnessed by at least ten book-length studies of his writings since the 1980s (John Barrell, Edmund Baxter, Frederick Burwick, Alina Clej, Josephine McDonagh, Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, Margaret Russett, Charles Rzepka, Matthew Schneider, John Whale). Such symptoms of De Quincey’s “centrality” to the period seem to have necessitated the cure of the publication of the first major editing of De Quincey’s works since David Masson’s, late Victorian 1889-90 14-volume effort, long considered the standard edition. Long in the works, but more than worth the wait, Pickering and Chatto’s splendid 21-volume Works of Thomas De Quincey, under the excellent general editorship of Grevel Lindop, De Quincey scholar and definitive biographer (The Opium Eater), assembles for the first time all known published and a host of previously unpublished De Quincey writings.[1] That the majority of studies listed above appeared in advance of the publication of the first seven volumes of Works (in 2000) suggests that De Quincey’s reevaluation has barely begun. Such is the full set’s scope that, far from consolidating his critical identity, it confronts us with that identity’s profoundly indeterminate nature.

5

For those of us who believe (or in my own case, happily fetishize the fact) that De Quincey’s works, glimpsed as a kind of serialized, interdisciplinary pandemonium of thought, comprise one of the forgotten masterworks of Romanticism–the externalization of the period as a multiple personality in search of itself —Works is little short of revelatory. Here for once is the opportunity to read through the palimpsest of De Quincey’s work as though to recover from its own political unconscious glimpses of a culture at once found and lost to itself. The paradox is that the collection of De Quincey’s writings in such authoritative and monumental form demonstrates how prodigiously and promiscuously his thought scatters itself and is scattered across the cultural landscape of the entire first half of the nineteenth century. With Works we can now begin to wager this influence’s impact well past that point. The miscellaneous nature of De Quincey’s corpus exploits the specter of its own marginality as shadows of a future our postmodernism now casts upon his present. He is the Man of Letters-as-journalist, a hybrid figure for the burgeoning public sphere, one who negotiates this sphere as both a vital matrix and harbinger of atavistic public energies. Discontinuously periodical, De Quincey’s writings, whatever the author’s intentions, comprise a shifting and serial commentary upon, as much as an aesthetic abstraction of, Romantic culture. As a pathology “unfit” within the organic whole of Romanticism, he is one of its most presciently ambivalent figures. He both monumentalizes and demolishes Romantic shibboleths, confessing addiction as a symptom of nineteenth-century culture’s larger traumas. This is what makes him such a compelling figure for us now, and makes this Pickering and Chatto edition, and Lindop and crew’s editorial efforts, so praiseworthy. That the accumulation and organization of such an unwieldy body of work only exacerbates that body’s exceedingly uncollectable nature is for the current reviewer a sign of Works’s ultimate achievement.

6

And Works’ achievement is impressive. Its editorial hagiography is in all cases helpful, never intrusive. Works presents the author’s work chronologically, as published in its original context, with a laudably thorough apparatus, including annotations, manuscript variants or related manuscript writings, or variant passages added later by De Quincey, such as those found in the 1853-9 Selections Grave and Gay, the only collection of his works supervised by De Quincey. Volume 21 rounds off the set with transcripts of unlocated manuscripts and an exhaustive index. The restoration of lost or alternative passages (for instance, Volume 2’s inclusion of a manuscript transcript of Part I of the 1821 Confessions and discarded fragments from Part II) is often illuminating, especially about De Quincey's frequently chaotic writing process. Because we have had to rely for so long on a De Quincey whose (re-)appearance in published form has been for so long so sporadic, catching glimpses of the writer in process is one of the many thrills this edition offers. Prodigious references to De Quincey’s known correspondence (for this, many thanks to Barry Symonds’s pioneering work) are one of Works’s great enlistments in this cause, and makes one long for an edition of De Quincey’s letters. (This reviewer understands that such an edition has been in the works, and hopes that Pickering and Chatto supplements this splendid 21 volumes with this effort. Its value to De Quincey critics and nineteenth-century scholars in general would be immeasurable.)

7

Much of the material in Works has never re-appeared in print since its first publication in periodical or newspaper form; or has remained in unpublished manuscripts; or has appeared in haphazard, incidental, or expurgated editions relatively unavailable to general scholars, or even to De Quincey scholars. Thus one often feels in working through Works that one is encountering the author’s uncanny double. You know that you knew that De Quincey wrote on such a wide range of topics, and across such a wide array of genres and forums, but you forget that you knew that he did, and so prolifically. Between the nearly 50 articles for London Magazine (1821-5), nearly 75 for Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1833- 51), and nearly 100 for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1821-45), as well as his late contributions to Hogg’s Instructor (1850-8), there is his journalism for The Westmoreland Gazette (1818-20), Edinburgh Saturday Post (1827-8), and Edinburgh Evening Post (1828-9), and for a host of other venues. We also find his novel Klosterheim; or, The Masque (1832); Walladmor (London Magazine 1825), De Quincey’s translation of a “translated” (i.e., forged) Scott 1824 novel first published in Germany; his shorter narratives “The Household Wreck” and “The Avenger” (both for Blackwood’s 1838); his most substantial historical study, “The Caesars” (Blackwood’s 1832-4); as well as numerous translations of German texts, from the popular (Friedrich August Schulze’s “Zwei Herren für einem Hund,” translated as “Mr Schnackenberger; or, Two Masters for One Dog,” in London Magazine 1823) to the philosophical (to name only two: translations of Kant’s “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Ansicht” [1784] as “Idea of a Universal History of Cosmo-political Plan” for London Magazine [1824] and his “Die Frage, ob die Erde veralte, physicalisch erwogen” [1754] as “Age of the Earth,” De Quincey’s first article for Tait’s [1833]).

8

Works now gives us the full picture of De Quincey’s earliest writings. Beginning with his known juvenilia, Volume 1 presents the 1803 Diary, unpublished in De Quincey’s lifetime and available until now only in Horace Eaton’s 1927 edition. Works restores previously unpublished or intentionally expurgated passages from De Quincey’s original holograph diary in the Liverpool Record Office. The Volume continues with De Quincey’s first pamphlet, “Comments Upon a Straggling Speech, 1818,” his response to the local Westmoreland election, in which the Scots reformer, Henry Brougham, future Lord Chancellor, attempted to upset the Tory stranglehold on two local seats. The pamphlet launched De Quincey into the already acrimonious war of words generated by the election, and soon into his first real job as editor of the Westmoreland Gazette, where he became embroiled in a heated exchange with the Whig Kendal Chronicle. Volume 1 ends with all of De Quincey’s journalism during that time (1818-20), the tone of which, as the editors note, was “defensive, slightly hysterical,” partly because of De Quincey’s own ultra-Toryism, partly out of his desire to “impress his Westmoreland peers” (96).

9

De Quincey’s politics have been a key concern in recent De Quincey criticism, and on this count, now that one is able to assess the full range of his political writings, he is perhaps most difficult to pin down. Two of De Quincey’s most significant later political statements, “The Opium and the China Question” (1840) and “Canton Expedition and Convention” (1841), both in Blackwood’s, never reappeared in De Quincey’s lifetime. Commentaries on the first phase of the Opium War (1840-2), these articles are firmly, even hysterically committed to the British colonialist project. They are crucial socio-historical and political supplements to understanding how since the eighteenth century opium and its addictive repercussions had haunted a British cultural imaginary that De Quincey’s own Confessions so powerfully shaped. Like the often passionate psychological intensity of so many passages in his confessional writings, the rabid imperialism of De Quincey’s cultural imagination (explored so powerfully by John Barrell) evokes a sublimity bordering on the facetious (thought never the fatuous). It appears as though De Quincey’s political stripes never change, a common criticism of his writings, and we often glimpse—are very often hammered by the Burkean rhetoric of—a consistently, deeply conservative nature. De Quincey was, after all, born to the time’s upwardly mobile middle class (the later addition of the aristocratic “De” to the Quincey family name being a telling sign of a devotion to the status quo). Such biographical facts make sense of a tension in De Quincey’s writings between the journalist who ties himself to the demands of time and place (the necessity of his first job as editor at The Westmoreland Gazette being only the beginning of De Quincey’s financial hardships) and one of the literati who could transcend the quotidian. Economic reality caused him to set aside his early cultivation of the amateur writer and gentleman scholar, and thus his readiness for aesthetic greatness, and addiction tied him unavoidably to the personal. His devotion to the conservative cause of Empire, then, becomes a synecdoche for some latent desire to feed that Empire’s cultural consciousness via the idea of a great Literature that he could champion, if never quite supply himself, or rather supply in a way that the Empire never quite expected.

10

Yet different venues brought out different voices. When writing for a committed conservative magazine such as Blackwood’s (in which “Question” appeared) he appears stridently, inflexibly imperialist. His writings for more liberal venues such as Tait’s, however, are balanced, even critical. As Robert Morrison, editor of Volume 9 of Works, writes, the liberal Tait’s

allowed [De Quincey] to explore the rebellious sides of his temperament, and to espouse the liberal features of his political ideology... . In Blackwood’s he adhered closely to the magazine’s firm Tory line, but in its rival he praised feminists, prophets, and radicals, acknowledged the need for reform, championed the working class and the newspaper press, and welcomed the legacy of the French Revolution, ... though De Quincey styled himself an ‘uncompromising Tory.’

304-5

In this regard, De Quincey is the perfect symptom of his time’s often radically divided political temper, deeply committed to, often swept away by the lure of progress, deeply suspicious of its promises. Or as Morrison writes in Volume 8, De Quincey’s “fascination with power is complicated by a profound sympathy with the underdog” (224). De Quincey was no Reformist; but he was mindful of reform’s humanity. But we can surmise further that De Quincey’s often painfully tenuous existence could just have easily made him an opportunist and therefore a waffler, perhaps even a complete pretender where politics was concerned. Where money could be made, De Quincey, when he was able, needed to be there, and was. While on one hand glimpsing a man whose conservatism is the product of an inbred patriotism leavened by critical tolerance, on the other we find a presciently postmodern figure whose various stripes are the rhetorical simulation of a political consciousness radically ungrounded by historical and cultural circumstance.

11

Works’ re-assembling of De Quincey’s writings on political economy, particularly his fascination with David Ricardo, are telling in this regard. Volume 14 positions De Quincey’s book-length The Logic of Political Economy (Blackwood’s 1844) against other political writings for Blackwood’s: the full “Ricardo Made Easy” (1842; Masson used only a portion of this original), “The Aristocracy of England” (1843), several pieces reflecting on anti-Corn Law agitation and the aftermaths of the Charter, and “Ceylon” (1843). This particular compilation speaks to what the volume’s editor John Whale calls De Quincey’s “surprising championing of the newly scientific and Whig-dominated discourse of political economy and its arch exponent David Ricardo” (vii). De Quincey’s fascination with “deterioration and chaos; his aestheticising of an alien system as a sublime structure riddle with ruination” are, Whale offers, counterpoints to De Quincey’s Tory reaction to shoring the Empire against such the threat of radical economics and politics. The title of “Ricardo Made Easy” suggests both the seriousness with which De Quincey regarded the wider dissemination of Ricardo’s abstract principles and the irony with which he treated the idea that economic principles could in any way govern material realities (itself an irony in De Quincey’s case). Elaborating on his earlier comments in Volume 14 in his brief headnote to The Logic of Political Economy, Whale notes that De Quincey was “clearly intellectually excited by the ‘system’ and the abstraction of the new economics, by the idea of a secret process and set of principles at work in the historical process.” Ricardo’s theories are thus for De Quincey like the sublime itself, in which he takes “aesthetic pleasure” that in turn generates in him an “ambivalent response.” Surely, Whale concludes, De Quincey, in antithesis to Ricardo and Adam Smith before him, was a “proponent of the consumer whose human desire has the power to transform value” (187).

12

But De Quincey’s fascination in Ricardo’s work with loss, debt, and deterioration (themes treated with recurrent fascination themselves in recent De Quincey criticism) goes back to his earliest concern that the human subject, far from being able to transcend or transform autonomous, external processes, is in many ways the internalization of those processes through a desire that makes individual action inevitable, but not always desirable itself. One senses in De Quincey’s writings, even (or especially) when he asserts the zealous right of the individual (or individual state) to control external circumstances, a kind of Schopenhauerian death drive at work behind his compulsively repetitive enthrallment by existence as a series of aesthetic phenomena and propositions (his “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” in London Magazine [1823] and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” in Blackwood’s [1827] remain powerful cultural psychoanalyses in this mode). Such fascination never quite reaches Nietzschean proportions because there is not enough of the Übermensch at work in De Quincey’s accomplishment; or rather, that Übermensch is repeatedly prone to, and submitted to a psychoanalysis of, the root of his drives, to the pains of an individually opiated existence that becomes the symptom of the larger addictions and traumas of the culture in which he exists. I will note in passing that my review does not begin to take into account the range beyond De Quincey’s political or economic prose, such as his considerable historical writings; his essays on rhetoric, style, and communication; or any of his other literary or psycho-cultural analyses. Rather, I want to close by turning to the most substantial and perhaps still most well-known body of his confessional and autobiographical writings, from Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (London Magazine 1821), to Suspiria de Profundis (Blackwood’s 1845), to The English Mail Coach (Blackwood’s 1849) and the writings eventually collected by De Quincey as Autobiographic Sketches (Selections Grave and Gay 1853). For it is here, the evidence of Works convinces us, that De Quincey still leaves the most lasting impression.

13

One of many historical gaps to which the full Works addresses itself is the fact that, by comparison with, say, Wordsworth’s or Scott’s attempts to (re)collect themselves, we have in De Quincey’s published writings relatively little sense of how the author imagined a similar refashioning for his own corpus. Only at the end of his life, in Selections Grave and Gay, did he undertake the collection of his works with any concerted effort. De Quincey was prompted by James Hogg Senior (the publisher of Hogg’s Instructor) and Junior to undertake the project shortly after the appearance of an American edition of his works, De Quincey’s Writings, from 1851, by the Boston publisher Ticknor and Fields. The American, British, and subsequent editions, significantly Masson’s 1889-90 edition, either omitted or overlooked (or were simply unaware of) much of the writer’s oeuvre, or were highly selective in refashioning what did exist. If absence or repression makes difficult the reconstitution of De Quincey’s corpus as an organic body of thought, that body’s unruly nature often turns its classification into the diagnosis of a pathology that resists the cure of taxonomy, the nomenclature itself replicating rather than suppressing the contagion of thought. When in Confessions De Quincey divides his opium experience into “pleasures” and “pains,” the former never quite subduing the latter, his addiction remaining “almost” overcome, the division materializes a recurrent symptom in the body of De Quincey’s writings.

14

The inability to (re)collect his various “crazy bodies”—physiological, psychological, editorial, political, philosophical—returns each time De Quincey himself returns to his confessional project as a way of “thinking” his approach to writing and experience. The picture of himself in Confessions poised between a bottle of laudanum and a book of German metaphysics indicates how the rationality of distinctions are at the same time mesmerizing. As much as Confessions evokes De Quincey’s desire to rise above experience to the authority of the philosopher (his repeated translations of and commentary upon German philosophy throughout his writings is one symptom of De Quincey’s near fetishization of philosophy, particularly of Kant),[2] he remains deeply ambivalent about this role. This desire for a profitable return from the kinds of ‘distinction’ philosophical analysis might bring returns itself a final time in the 1853 Preface to Selections Grave and Gay (Volume 20 of Works reprints all of De Quincey’s prefatory material for that edition), where De Quincey divides his writings into three classes. The first, which includes Autobiographic Sketches, “proposes primarily to amuse the reader,” although this amusement often “passes into an impassioned interest” (12). The second class includes his Essays, “which address themselves primarily to the understanding as an insulated faculty” (13). The third, and highest, class includes Confessions and especially Suspiria de Profundis, “as modes of impassioned prose ranging under no precedents that I am aware of in any literature” (16). Ironically, although Suspiria appeared in the American collection that De Quincey takes as his model for his British edition, he never got around to including it in Selections. Instead he pirated much of its autobiographical content (especially Part One, “The Affliction of Childhood”) for use in the first of two volumes beginning Selections, which De Quincey entitled Autobiographic Sketches. Volume 19 of Works recovers Sketches as refashioned and “recollected” by De Quincey from their original appearance as “Sketches of Life and Manners; from the Autobiography of an English Opium Eater” in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1834 and 1839; printed in Volumes 10 and 11 of Works); in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1845; the portions of Suspiria mentioned above, printed in Volume 15); and in “A Sketch from Childhood” for Instructor (1851-52; printed in Volume 17). One great reward of this presentation is that it allows us to assess fully the extent of Masson’s bowdlerization of Selections for the first two volumes of his Collected Writings, which he re-titled “Autobiography from 1785-1803” and “Autobiography from 1803-1808,” and thus offers only one of the most salient instances of how badly a modern improvement over Masson was needed.

15

But the bowdlerization starts with De Quincey himself. Despite the incidental “amusement” designated for Sketches, more was at stake here for the author, for De Quincey was himself highly selective (hence the first British edition’s title) when arranging his works. Contingencies related to how his writings had been published, or how or if they still survived, made him, of necessity, selective about what he could reproduce. But there were more strategic reasons. As if to consolidate his (by then) High Victorian status in the mold of Wordsworth and Scott, or of the Coleridgean or Carlylean Great Man of Letters, De Quincey begins Selections by re-casting his life in terms of his Autobiography. Its larger symbolic structure, one imagines, was meant to contain, justify, and thus recuperate the often more notorious and radical nature of his confessional writings. (His second class of Essays are crucial here, for they negotiate between the merely amusing and the sublimely impassioned through the common ground of “understanding as an insulated faculty.”) Like Confessions or especially Suspiria, that is, the Autobiography, in a far less impassioned but thus in some ways more subtle sense, evokes De Quincey’s authority to re-imagine his life. The point of all three classes outlined in the 1853 Preface, after all, seems to dis-engage De Quincey’s writings from the public sphere in which they were originally produced in order to re-vision them as variations on the theme of Great Literature, as stages within a hierarchy that moves De Quincey’s writing toward that Literature’s highest calling. Such a gesture would make his writing very useful indeed for the Victorian public sphere.

16

Delineating his works according to two modes of intellectual being, “gravity” and “pleasure,” itself a gesture of Victorian scholarly propriety, is thus just the start of how De Quincey manages to manage an otherwise unruly body of writings distressed by its own conflicting states of being. But the 1853 Preface, as much as it attempts to classify his texts within a distinct hierarchy, by which we are meant to read retrospectively backward as a way of shaping his otherwise heterogenous writings, instead ends up identifying compulsively repeating energies of thought within this ungainly body. For this writer, one of the most compelling reasons for Works’ existence is that we get to see the full range of these energies, to see that body try and fail, gloriously, to get itself into shape. Still the most telling instance of this failure is Confessions. The one exception to Works’s chronological approach is Volume 2, which publishes the 1821 version of Confessions in tandem with De Quincey’s 1856 major revision of that earlier text. Confessions is De Quincey’s first important and still most famous and frequently read work. It was a succès de scandale when published in 1821 in two installments of London Magazine. The work’s notoriety led to its 1822 re-publication in book form by Taylor and Hessey. For this edition De Quincey added a brief Appendix which answered moral charges against the book. It also explained why the third installment he promised in a December 1821 letter to the magazine had not yet appeared (it never did). Confessions launched De Quincey’s writing career with spectacular aplomb. Whatever his financial, psychological, and physical states of being, the symbolic capital from Confessions sustained De Quincey in other ways for the rest of his life and beyond, for better or worse. It “branded” him with a cultural identity, as well as a set of structural and principles, that forever lodged him in the reading public’s consciousness, however tenuously at times. Confessions was De Quincey’s In Cold Blood: impossible to ignore because of its special brilliance; difficult to get beyond in later years.

17

It makes perfect editorial sense to position the 1821 and 1856 Confessions in a single volume. (For the current reviewer, working on a separate edition of Confessions and its related writings for Broadview Press, the result is a godsend.) Thus excepting the collection’s otherwise exclusively chronological approach, however, reconfirms Confessions as Works’s unavoidable center of gravity, and De Quincey’s confessional nature as its still most compelling asset. Having started with Autobiographic Sketches when editing Selections Grave and Gay, De Quincey turned his hand to revisiting his most famous text in Volume 5 of Selections. Rather than reprint the original text, however, he expanded its opening “Preliminary Confessions” to almost three times its original length, and streamlined “The Pleasures of Opium,” “Introduction to the Pains of Opium,” and “The Pains of Opium” as simply Parts Two and Three. The added anecdotes of the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral or the tidal Bore on the River Dee provide crucial metaphors for the autonomous power of the mind’s powers and thus compound the kinds of acute psychological insight that De Quincey was able to draw so brilliantly from his confrontation with addiction. Much of the expanded 1856 text’s autobiography, however, is tedious in a way that evokes its own fascination. It seems as though the dilatory space of Autobiography is meant to provide a more secure experiential framework to justify and thus recuperate De Quincey’s not so stable opium experience. Instead the expansion creates the opposite effect of an author caught in a kind of interminable analysis of the past, searching in vain for some clue that will unlock the secrets of a loss responsible for his future strife, and thus cure the profound melancholy that attends an almost insurmountable sense of grief. An 1856 passage added to the end of “The Pains of Opium” qualifies, with the gift of painful hindsight, De Quincey’s earlier 1821 promise to overcome addiction, now noting that he has tried not twice but several times to quit, each time without success. In an 1855 letter to his daughter Emily, De Quincey himself, having almost finished rewriting Confessions, expressed dissatisfaction with the new text’s more “finished” state, and wondered if readers might not still prefer the fugitive and fragmentary afflatus of the earlier text.

18

De Quincey expands upon his autobiographical persona, then, because his confessional persona has always taken on a life of its own impossible to control. One allows for a public self-fashioning because the other is irrevocably determined by a self whose private demons and autonomous psychosomatic impulses fashion De Quincey frequently and with compulsive repetitiveness against his own desire. This schism between autobiography and confession is played out across De Quincey’s corpus as a kind of unavoidable suture between what the mind and body want and what they end up getting. There is in De Quincey’s writings a recurrent inability to make things cohere except in a type of pathological organicism whose parts breed against that body’s intellectual effort to contain them, a writing that is never what it seems to be. Toward the end of the 1821 Confessions De Quincey acknowledges that all creative efforts toward a supposedly greater purpose have been stalled, especially work on a magnum opus, titled after Spinoza’s De emendatione humani intellectus. Instead, De Quincey turns to Ricardo and political economy because they offer, at the level of sheer abstraction, an organic coherence that nothing else in De Quincey’s life and work possesses. That such abstraction is, as we’ve noted above, grounded in deterioration, ruin, and loss as the most primal urges mobilizing the existence of things suggests exactly what De Quincey learned from such exercises. But these were lessons already profoundly ingrained in his own life’s writing. Some of the most affecting passages to be found in any literature—the loss of Ann the prostitute in Confessions, the death of De Quincey’s sister Elizabeth in Suspiria, the brush with sudden death in The English Mail Coach—touch upon an irrevocable sense of loss and grief as founding principles of one’s being, whether personal or social. The utter stalling of his work (its ruination) at its very beginning is precisely how it moves forward. To have wrestled with the demons of such ruination—whether talking politics, political economy, history, aesthetics, or philosophy—makes De Quincey for later readers the kind of success he may not quite possibly have imagined for himself ... or perhaps precisely the kind of success he imagined. That both facts are likely makes his posthumous fate in this Works that much more commanding of our attention.


 

Notes

[1]

Individual editors include Lindop, Edmund Baxter, Frederick Burwick, Alina Clej, David Groves, Robert Morrison, Julian North, Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, Laura Roman, Barry Symonds, and John Whale.

[2]

On the relationship between De Quincey’s crazy body and philosophy, see Youngquist. See especially Clark on philosophy’s addictive properties.

 

Works Cited

 

Clark, David. “We ‘Other Prussians’: Bodies and Pleasures in De Quincey and Late Kant.” European Romantic Review 14 (2003): 261-87. DOI:10.1080/10509580303683

 

Younquist, Paul. “De Quincey’s Crazy Body.” PMLA 114 (1999): 346-58. DOI:10.2307/463375

Auteur : Joel Faflak
Titre : “Re-Collecting De Quincey” – A Review-essay of The Works of Thomas De Quincey. Gen. ed. Grevel Lindop. 21 Volumes. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2000-2003. ISBN 1-85196-054-6 (for the complete set). Price: £1650/US$2775.
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 40, novembre 2005
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/012465ar
DOI : 10.7202/012465ar

Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2005 — All rights reserved

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