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Charles Rzepka, Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995. ISBN 0-87023-961-9 (hardback); 0-87023-962-7 (paperback). Price: US$55 (£49.95); US$19.95 (£17.95).

  • Daniel Sanjiv Roberts

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  • Daniel Sanjiv Roberts
    Queen's University Belfast

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De Quincey often admitted that his long and arduous writing career was driven by the pressing need for money. But for "dire necessity," he once declared, "I should never have written a line for the press" (quoted by Rzepka, 3). Yet his lengthy and involuted autobiographical narratives usually leave us with the sense of a Romantic visionary whose opulent writings contrast starkly with his impecunious circumstances as a hack writer for the reviews and newspapers of the day. Biographical traditions, following the ideological directives of De Quincey's self representation, have focused on the transcendental De Quincey who miraculously overcame his circumstances to produce the huge corpus of writing that is currently being collected in the twenty-one volumes of his Works emerging from Pickering and Chatto. Yet De Quincey himself was often subversive of the transcendentalist claims and philosophies of contemporaries such as Kant and Coleridge and his autobiographical writings are also deeply materialistic documents with plenty of detail about his economic life, his inheritance and expectations, his debts and gifts, his addictions and deprivations, his lending and borrowing habits and the like in terms of financial detail. Drawing largely upon new historicist and ideological critiques of Romanticism as well as gift-economy theory, Rzepka's book sets out to invert the traditional perspective on De Quincey and to show how his apparently other-worldly existence was in fact predicated on the complex dynamics of economic exchange which constituted the world of nineteenth-century literary production.

In his Suspiria de Profundis De Quincey famously compared the human brain to a palimpsest, and his own writings, richly layered with recurrent motifs and tropes, have been similarly constructed in the critical tradition as being inherently and profoundly unified. Rzepka follows this familiar route of reading De Quincey's oeuvre as interlinked and largely coherent, positing the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as the textual nexus for the opium-eater's lifelong cogitation on "the connections between literary power and the Sublime, between the Sublime and sublimation, between sublimation and gift-giving, between gift-giving and sacrament, between sacrament and sacrifice" (x). This list of topics and associations provides some indication of the sweeping scope of Rzepka's book, ranging through De Quincey's multi-layered texts in the pursuit of his argument. At the heart of Rzepka's argument is his working out of the relationship between De Quincey's theoretical notion of literary "power" and his desire to achieve freedom from material dependency. Opium and literature are both interconnected as means to this end: both act as agents towards the subjugation of historical and material consciousness. The Marxist equation between religion and opium is thus extended to include literature as another means of ideological control: a familiar enough concept in recent literary theory but one that finds particular resonance in the opium-infused life and writings of De Quincey.

Thus baldly stated, Rzepka's argument may seem unsurprising: yet another version of new historicism's engagement with Romanticism given a particularly economic emphasis. It is the textual detail with which Rzepka works this out, and his ability to re-read the well-known texts as well as recover some lesser-known ones that makes his work so rewarding. De Quincey's political economy, literary theory, Roman history, literary reminiscences and autobiography all come together?though the result is not some transcendent literary achievement as before but a much more qualified one, underwritten by material interests and anxieties. A vital thread holding the argument together is the language of Christological sacrifice and gift employed metaphorically by De Quincey which Rzepka returns to time and again. The Confessions itself, it has often been noticed, secularizes a generic tradition initiated by St. Augustine. Rzepka follows through the implications of this engagement with tradition.

Rzepka's book may be read as a kind of poststructuralist biography of De Quincey. Rzepka acknowledges his obligations to earlier biographers such as Alexander Japp, Horace Eaton, Sackville-West and Grevel Lindop, but his own work purports to take a different tack. While De Quincey's indigent existence, his lavish spending on books and gifts, and his frequent monetary demands on publishers and friends such as John Wilson and William Blackwood have often been noticed by earlier biographers, this pattern of financial behaviour has not been seen to enter into the rarefied concerns of his literary works. Rzepka's approach is to deconstruct these gestures to suggest a grand narrative of sacrifice, betrayal, punishment and apotheosis heretically parallel to the Christian narrative of the Bible. Given De Quincey's strongly evangelical upbringing at the hands of his mother (who was a member of the Clapham sect) it is surprising that few critics have commented in any depth so far on the extensive religious imagery and language that pervades De Quincey's texts. Rzepka's work is a welcome step in this direction, indicating a leading narrative around which future scholarship may resolve itself.

Perhaps because of the involuted and potentially subversive nature of his texts, De Quincey has been the focus of a good deal of recent criticism following on the insights of poststructuralist hermeneutics. The extensive editorial labours in progress on the new edition of De Quincey's Works (initiated over two decades back) have been turning up more information, new manuscripts, new texts, new contexts and new perspectives. Rzepka's achievement in this context?and it is a very notable one?is largely exegetical. Rzepka's reading of De Quincey's 1803 Diary is particularly significant as it decodes details of De Quincey's early sexual life undeciphered by earlier editors and critics, providing genuinely new evidence relating to De Quincey's boyhood?a period which is often rendered in sentimental and revisionist terms in his later autobiographical accounts of the period. One disappointment I have with Rzepka's work however is its failure to engage with some of the more recently-attributed material which now we know to be De Quincey's?such as his writings for Westmorland Gazette, his political writings for Blackwood's, and the articles for Edinburgh Saturday Post and Edinburgh Evening Post all of which have been added to his corpus from the 1960's onwards by scholars such as Samuel Janzow and Stuart Tave. These writings have been steadily increasing De Quincey's oeuvre as we know it, and should also be reflected in the critical scholarship, particularly of a work that sets out to undermine the ideological foundations on which the earlier collected editions rest. Another fundamental criticism would be that Rzepka like many other critics of De Quincey?Hillis Miller perhaps most famously?sets out to reconstruct a basically integrated and consistent portrait of the opium-eater; a critical legacy no doubt deriving from De Quincey's own vision of a unified human consciousness underwriting his autobiographical endeavour. Placing De Quincey's writings in the context of the often diametrically opposed and competing journals that he wrote for, one becomes aware however of a contradictory and vacillating voice modulated by the exigencies of his momentary situation. As Rzepka acknowledges, his focus on The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as the initiatory and defining moment of De Quincey's literary career and his reliance on the biographies of Eaton and Lindop mark his work as reliant in many ways on earlier traditions and scholarship. Yet, in the final analysis, the difference in perspective afforded by Rzepka is quite remarkable, offering us a convincing and insightful picture of the opium-eater's material world and the extraordinary fantasies which were its literary products.