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Community is not a gathering of individuals, posterior to the elaboration of individuality, for individuality as such can be given only within such a gathering.

Jean-Luc Nancy, “Finite History” 153

The suddenly undecidable moment when one is both inside and outside oneself is De Quincey's recurring predicament, for whether he is on paper or on opium, there is a fundamental disappropriation which opens the intimate experience of opium onto the extimate experience of community. This paper examines the main contours of this disappropriation through an analysis of De Quincey’s deployment of musical figures and specifically the opera singer Grassini in his theorization of being-on-opium in Confessions of an English Opium-eater. Grassini’s public persona is as important as her inimitable voice to De Quincey’s explication of the effects of opium because she was quite famously Napolean’s lover. This amorous affiliation is a vital component in De Quincey’s account of opium experience because the erotic dynamics of Grassini’s performance allow us to specify the conflation of sexual and patriotic desire in De Quincey’s text. What I hope to demonstrate is that the apocalyptic form of British nationalism which is so vital to the coherence of the opium subject is inflected by a series of violent erotic fantasies crystallized around Grassini’s performances in the King’s Theatre. It is my contention that the nationalist gestures embedded in the invocation of Grassini can be elucidated by engaging with De Quincey's understanding of the relationship between tragedy, opera and community. The Opium-eater's first sustained attempt to theorize being-on-opium emerges from a consideration of the combined pleasures of opium and opera. The text is extremely specific about this combined pleasure: first, it is exemplified through a particular performance in the King’s Theatre and second, it is analyzed in a fashion that owes much to Thomas Browne's theorization of musical pleasure in Religio Medici. What I wish to demonstrate is that this particular conjunction of theory and practice establishes a way of articulating the relationship between political and aesthetic experience that stays with De Quincey throughout his career. For example, his essay “Theory of Greek Tragedy”, which was published almost twenty years after the Confessions, underlines not only the analogy between tragedy and opera that animates his descriptions of the operatic scenes in the Confessions, but also the responsibility of both forms of theatre to the consolidation of the state. The ontological disturbance effected by opium is put in abeyance by an investment in sexualized phantasms of national identity that involve both a consolidation that is constantly on the verge of incoherence and a ruthless practice of othering. The main features of this othering have been addressed recently by John Barrell, Robert Maniquis, Nigel Leask, Charles Rzepka and Josephine McDonagh. It is the task of this essay to make the violent erotic fantasies which attend the consolidation of national community in and around the opium subject more palpable.

Andromache’s Lament

In the “Introduction to the Pleasures of Opium,” The Opium-eater indicates that early in his opium career it was difficult to dissociate the pleasures of opium from those of the opera:

as I have said, I seldom drank laudanum, at that time, more than once in three weeks: this was usually on a Tuesday or a Saturday night; my reason for which was this. In those days Grassini sang at the Opera: and her voice was delightful to me beyond all that I had ever heard....The choruses were divine to hear: and when Grassini appeared in some interlude, as she often did, and poured forth her passionate soul as Andromache, at the tomb of Hector, &c. I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had.


The ethnocentric gestures which close this passage are by now familiar to readers of the Confessions, but what is less obvious is the way that questions of nationalist desire and martial masculinity are encoded into the scene of performance described here. Giusseppina (Josephina) Grassini was a much admired Italian contralto who, for a brief period from 1804 and 1806, challenged the incomparable Elizabeth Billington as the undisputed star of the London opera. Prior to her London debut, she was a star at La Scala and famously sang for Napoleon in honour of his victory at Marengo in 1800. Napoleon took her to Paris as his lover and she was the toast of opera audiences in Paris both prior to her sojourn in London and following her return to Paris in 1806. After the fall of Paris in 1814, she had a fairly public affair with Wellington and he supposedly carried a portrait of her with him from that point onwards.[1]

What this means is that there is an ineluctable erotic subtext to the Opium-eater’s invocation of Grassini which, in 1822, is tied to narratives of British ascendancy over France during the Napoleonic wars. And the ideological significance of Grassini is evident from as early as her London debut in the role of Cora in Andreozzi’s La Vergine del Sole at the King’s Theatre on 14 January 1804. The Daily Advertiser discloses the Napoleonic connection in a symptomatic fashion; after celebrating her musicality, the reviewer shifts the register of his praise:

GRASSINI does not wholly depend upon claims to approbation in her musical excellence; she being, perhaps, the most finished Singing Actress of the day. In parts of turbulence and rage, she has the piercing look, the lofty demeanour, and strong expression of Mrs. SIDDONS, occasionally relieved by the dimpled smile, arch simplicity, and fascinating naiveté of Mrs. JORDAN. The Connaisseurs in beauty surveyed her personal attractions with transport and admiration:–Her features, though regular, are pleasingly animated with characteristic vivacity of her country; and her eyes, dark and eloquent, seemed formed to convey the tender correspondence of Love.–The Signora is not more than twenty-six; her height rather exceeds the middle size; and her limbs, round and proportionate, are moulded with most exquisite symmetry. Although by no means a French Republican in sentiment, yet report states her to have been a considerable time the favourite of BONAPARTE.[2]

The excessive catalogue of her physical attributes borders on the scandalous, but it is counterbalanced by a careful discussion of her liaison with Napoleon which not only emphasizes their intimacy, but also severs her from any political ties with France. This effectively establishes the “Connaisseurs” in the audience as the erotic successors to Napoleon and guarantees that such an erotic investment with Grassini is devoid of potential contamination by “Republican sentiments”. Incorporated by the reviewer in a phantasmatic game of homosocial rivalry, the desire elicited by Grassini in these performances carries with it the ancillary pleasure of “conquering” Napoleon and possessing what he formerly possessed. Bonaparte is displaced, but by having his identity incorporated by that of the spectator. That is, Bonaparte becomes the prototype of the British imperialist in ways that the violence of the scene's erotic desire makes palpable, at the same time that this violence is a way of masking that the identification has been successful–i.e., a scene that reflects the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of the male spectator for his own image in Bonaparte.[3]

This erotic and political sub-text is even more forcefully present in De Quincey’s specific discussion of Grassini’s passionate performance of Andromache weeping over the tomb of Hector. Again the specificity of the Opium-eater’s remarks are significant because he refers us to a particular moment of performance. On 13 June 1805 Grassini played Andromache in an interlude referred to by all the papers as “The Grand Scene...composed expressly for her by Zingarelli”.[4] Zingarelli’s scene is a setting of Andromache’s lament from Book XXIV of the Iliad in which Hector’s wife not only mourns the death of a great warrior, but also mourns the fall and enslavement of Troy. Andromache’s lament offers a harrowing account of what will become of her and her child when they are enslaved and dislocated by the victorious Greek forces. How is one to read this performance in light of Grassini’s public reputation as a “favourite of Bonaparte”? Any identification between Grassini and Andromache sets up an allegorical connection between Napoleon and Hector that not only figures forth Napoleon’s death, but also figures British victory over France as comparable to the Greek humiliation of Troy. In other words, there is a kind of proleptic patriotic pleasure lurking in the conjunction of this specific scenario with this particular singer at this specific moment on the London stage. And yet it is a pleasure whose fulfilment was close to ten years in the future, but whose phantasmatic allure had been in place since Grassini’s debut in 1804. The desire to erotically possess what Napoleon had already possessed is not at all distant from the sentiments of Andromache’s lament, for she recognizes that she will become the possession of those who killed her husband. The “Grand Scene” literalizes the conjunction of erotic and patriotic desire to replace Napoleon, but the pleasure takes on a fearsome quality by virtue of the Homeric narrative of national and sexual enslavement. In short, the audience has been placed in a situation to enjoy both the tragedy of the fallen martial hero and the more perverse pleasure afforded by the future ravishment of Grassini.

This pleasure afforded audiences through the spectacle either of Grassini’s rape or of her lamentation for the death of her martial lover is not an aberration. If one looks across her brief career in London, what one discovers is that she is consistently cast either as the victim of rape, as in the much lauded Il ratto di Proserpina in which she played Proserpina to Billington’s Ceres, or as the lover of a doomed military hero as in Andreozzi’s La vergine del sole and Cimarosa’s Gli Orazzi E Curiazi.[5] Now one could argue that this is not an uncommon predicament for women singers in eighteenth-century opera, or in theatre for that matter, but in this case the easy slippage between operatic character and historical personage allows for the condensation of erotic cathexes in the theatre with the nationalist desires of a nation at war.[6] This is significant because the papers consistently compared Grassini with Sarah Siddons whose performances of ravished femininity also consolidated national identity during this period. But the sympathetic emotion elicited by Siddons is almost always for the wronged mother, whereas Grassini comes to figure for either the ravished lover or the wife of the dead warrior. The desexualization of Siddons is crucial for the sympathetic interpretation of her defilement, whereas the hyper-eroticization of Grassini opens onto phallic fantasies of supremacy over homosocial rivals.

Ravishing the Mind

However, a full appreciation of the erotics of De Quincey’s deployment of Grassini in his text requires that we attend to her place in the overall theorization not only of his opium experience, but also of opera itself. The question of the transference of property, in this case understood as the sexualized commodity of Grassini herself, is also fundamental to De Quincey’s understanding of being-on-opium. And this implies that the pleasures afforded by Grassini’s voice and by laudanum are mutually re-affirming. The scene of “Andromache weeping over the tomb of Hector” is of sufficient import for De Quincey’s account of opium experience for the Opium-eater to specify a salient theoretical intertext. The relevant passage in Religio Medici, in which Thomas Browne offers a theory of musical pleasure, is worth quoting for it anticipates much of the argument of this essay:

[music] is an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and the Creatures of God, such a melody to the eare, as the whole world well understood, would afford the understanding. In briefe, it is a sensible fit of that Harmony, which intellectually sounds in the eares of God. It unties the ligaments of my frame, takes mee to peeces, dilates mee out of my selfe, and by degrees, mee thinkes, resolves mee into heaven.


The final sentence of this passage regarding the dismantling of the subject and its subsequent re-assemblage in heaven is crucial. As we will see in the following paragraphs, the dismantling described here effectively separates the subject from its body, and by the two-fold action of "dilation" and "resolution", the disembodied subject is granted access to infinitude.

But this access is achieved at a cost which is specified when the Opium-eater's "true theory of musical effects" posits an integral relation between the cognition of music and the "agency" of opium: "Now opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind generally, increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we are able to construct out of the raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure" (45). The "elaborate intellectual pleasure" produced by the concurrence of music and opium is not a matter of ideas, but rather "a language of representative feelings" beyond the realm of the concept (45). With the emergence of this language the text turns away from its, perhaps impossible, explication, and instead offers a visualization of this auditory effect:

it is sufficient to say, that a chorus, &c. of elaborate harmony, displayed before me, as in a piece of arras work, the whole of my past life--not, as if recalled by an act of memory, but as if present and incarnated in the music: no longer painful to dwell upon: but the detail of its incidents removed, or blended in some hazy abstraction; and its passions exalted, spiritualized, sublimed.


In this passage, the raw audible material of "elaborate harmony" is "displayed before" the Opium-eater. The sudden introduction of this passive construction marks a fundamental disappropriation in the opium experience: the self has already, at this point, lost its self-mastery to some unknown agent who displays the Opium-eater's life for him to see.[7] Furthermore, it is displayed as an "arras-work". In other words, the presentation of the audible "language of feelings" is replaced by a visual figure in order to make the "whole life" present.

Significantly, the plenitudinous presence of the Opium-eater is the effect of a sublime disclosure. The incarnation of the whole is preceded by the pain of attempting to comprehend all the events of his life, and this pain is mitigated by the removal of detail and the production of "some hazy abstraction" (45). However, this sublime trajectory amounts to little more than a rehearsal of the process of dismantling, dilation and resolution that Thomas Browne ascribes to music.[8] Correspondent to the loss of the body in Browne, the Opium-eater's presentation also involves an inexorable loss due to the disjunctive visuality of the arras-work simile. And the passage is quite explicit about the nature of this loss. The arras-work simile substitutes a figure of the "incarnation of the whole life" for "the detail of [multiple] incidents" from the past (45). In short, the wholeness of the theoretical abstraction is achieved at the expense not only of pain and detail, but also of the acoustic figure itself.

What is remarkable about this figuration or incarnation of the "whole life" is that it posits a non-recollective technique for gathering and retaining information by insisting that the life displayed before him was "not, as if recalled by an act of memory" (45). It is in this sense that opium can be approached as an information technology that exceeds the capabilities of memory. This non-recollective gathering of time is addressed at various moments in the Confessions, but nowhere as directly as in the following passage from "The Pains of Opium":

The minutest scenes of childhood, or forgotten scenes of later years were often revived: I could not be said to recollect them; for if I had been told of them when waking, I should not have been able to acknowledge them as part of my past experience. But placed as they were before me, in dreams like intuitions, and clothed in all their evanescent circumstances and accompanying feelings. I recognized them instantaneously.


Like the arras passage, the presentation of past events is achieved via a passive construction--i.e. the events are "placed before" the Opium-eater "in dreams like intuitions." As in the arras passage, the visual figure of the "whole life" is an as-if presentation that stands in for, or is analogous to, the multitude of childhood events. However, this passage elaborates on the disclosure of past events by emphasizing that it is not an act of recollection because many of the scenes have not been consciously collected in the first place. The Opium-eater is suggesting that some of these revived events were not experienced or cognized at an earlier date.[9]

The Opium-eater elaborates on this non-recollective gathering of past events by turning to a similar example:

I was once told by a near relative of mine, that having in her childhood fallen into a river, and being on the very verge of death but for the critical assistance which reached her, she saw in a moment her whole life, in its minutest incidents, arrayed before her simultaneously as in a mirror; and she had a faculty developed as suddenly for comprehending the whole and every part.


On the verge of death, the relative--his mother-- suddenly has simultaneous access to "her whole life, in its minutest incidents." In spite of the fact that the verb "arrayed" seems to echo the "arras-work" of the earlier passage, this arrangement of simultaneous incidents seems to involve none of the loss encountered in the earlier passage. It would appear that whatever has contained or hidden these latent events has withdrawn and enabled their full disclosure. De Quincey figures the containment of these hidden materials as a veiling: "a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever" (69). The rending of this veil does not facilitate the insertion of materials from the outside, but rather enables that which was hidden to emerge. She not only sees a visualization of her whole life, but also develops the "faculty" required for "comprehending the whole and every part." Despite the postulation of this faculty, the question remains: why does this description of the non-recollective gathering of the past exhibit none of the signs of loss that riddle the arras passage. It is as though the arras-work simile, once invoked, has effectively written over the acoustic complications of the "Opera pleasures". The drowning narrative carefully avoids any questions of loss by simply asserting the visual presence of the whole.

The crucial gesture in De Quincey's theory of being-on-opium lies in the extension of the phenomena of the imperishability and simultaneity of the past beyond the particular experience of the Opium-eater. He offers a universal theory to explain not the specific dynamics of being-on-opium, but rather the nature of human memory itself. In short, the Opium-eater extrapolates from a number of observations to posit a theory of the mind. What he offers pushes this feat of generalization to its limit, because he introduces the very figure of universality into the problematic:

This, from some opium experiences of mine, I can believe; I have indeed seen the same thing asserted twice in modern books, and accompanied by a remark which I am convinced is true; viz. that the dread book of account, which the Scriptures speak of, is, in fact, the mind itself of each individual. Of this at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind.


By invoking "the dread book of account", the Opium-eater inserts God's mnemonic directly into the human mind in a fashion that essentially replicates the "dilation" and "resolution" of the subject encountered in Browne's remarks on music except that here "heaven" is enclosed within the subject itself.[10] As mentioned earlier with regard to the passage from Browne the expansion of the human monad to the divine status of the absolute monad not only transgresses the limits of the human, but also leaves behind a bodily residue.

Significantly, the placement of the divine nonhuman within the human or the infinite within the finite pushes the problematic away from the question of human memory. As the Opium-eater states, "there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind," because God's "dread book of account" by definition cannot forget (69). The book stores information perfectly, without loss of detail. Furthermore, in this book all events happen simultaneously. As Lyotard succinctly states of the absolute monad: "In the mind of God, the universe is instantaneous" (65). Opium considered as an information technology involves a similar paradox. As presented in the Confessions, it increases the mind's capacity for synthesizing moments, and this enhanced comprehension tends towards the gathering of a totality of events, or what Lyotard refers to as God's "cosmological memory" (64). However, this cosmological memory separates memory from a particular subject and therefore effects a massive disappropriation of that subject from itself. As Lyotard states: "The paradox implied by this [cosmological or absolute] memory resides in the fact that in the last analysis it is nobody's memory. But "nobody" here means that the body supporting that memory is no longer an earth bound body" (64). The loss of the "earth bound body" does not fail to exact a price. The key question posed by this disappropriation can be succinctly stated as who owns what? If we could say that a subject belongs to a body, does his or her dilation and resolution, to use Browne's phrase, amount to a reversion of that property to God?

If the answer to this question is yes, then the question of pleasure re-enters the argument in a fashion that illuminates the invocation of Grassini at the outset of this discussion. As I have argued above, the model of musical pleasure put forward in Browne operates as a heuristic for understanding the pleasure felt in the disappropriation of the Opium-subject. Whether one is at the opera or on opium, the subject is broken into pieces, dilated out of the self and resolved into a transcendent entity. The violence perpetrated against the subject that is implied by the initial disintegration is compensated for by the sudden disclosure of God’s cosmological memory. If one thinks through the pleasure afforded by Grassini during her London performances one can discern a similar trajectory. The audience of “Connaisseurs” referred to in the reviews, participates in a form of phantasmatic disappropriation in which Grassini is taken from Napoleon and re-possessed as the object of a newly consolidated national desire. In terms of the cathexes of individual audience members, the initial desire for Grassini carries with it the implication that they start from a position of humiliation or lack because they do not possess her until they shed the limitations of their individuality and accede to the status of the community. In the process, the particular audience member, in this case the Opium-eater, is dilated out of his self and resolved into a transcendent national entity. What links the ontic and the erotic pleasure associated with the combined effects of opium and opera is the phallic appropriation of the object of desire. The desires of the subject of philosophy and of the erotic/national subject converge in one overwhelming fantasy of subjective, national and erotic power which exceeds the regular limits of the subject, the nation and the erotic. The pleasure of the Opium-eater therefore is one which allows him to revel in the ravishment not only of Napoleon’s former lover, but also of his mind.

This helps to explain one of the most complex aspects of De Quincey theorization of opium-experience because the erotic charge associated with phantasmatically possessing Napoleon’s former lover carries with it certain dangers. Most importantly, the phantasmatic ravishment dissolves with the performance, and thus the maintenance of this phallicism requires compulsive returns to the Opera. The Opium-eater indicates that his opera pleasures are serial in nature: he goes to every performance he can, but the fact that performances occur only on Tuesdays and Saturdays means that his fantasmatic ravishment of Grassini is always interrupted. (44) Precisely because it is phantasmatic, erotic/political supremacy is constantly on the verge of disintegrating and thus requires re-iteration to maintain its purchase. This fact alone allows the entire phantasmatic assemblage to operate as the opposite of phallic consolidation, for the subject is recurrently made aware that he does not have constant access to the supreme purview of cosmological memory or to the supreme fulfillment of erotic/national desire. This gives us a clue as to why the imperishability and simultaneity of past events, which the Opium-eater emphasizes are the primary elements of the pleasures of opium, are so important to his opera pleasures. By allowing the phantasmatic ravishment of Grassini to unfold fully, opium allows the Opium-eater to erotically supercede Napoleon in his consumption of Grassini and thus accede to a level of erotic and national supremacy beyond the merely human and quotidian. And thus the pleasures of opium–and of this particular form of perverse operatic pleasure–are ineluctably followed by the pains of opium. And these pains inevitably arise from the very bodily residue of individuality which the act of dilation and resolution leaves behind. Again the example of Grassini helps to elucidate this problematic, for her lamentation before the tomb of Hector makes the audience aware that whatever pleasure they take in Hector’s death carries with it the recognition of Andromache’s future status as a sexual and national slave. The pleasure of the victorious is matched by the pain of the subjugated. And thus the very impossibility of the stable national subject is what makes national fantasy operate in the first place.

It is here that the passive constructions which characterize the Opium-eater’s attempt to render the pleasures of opium suddenly resonate with the sexual fantasies which traverse the reception of Grassini’s performances. As argued earlier, the rhetoric of the sublime which structures the Opium-eater’s presentation of the pleasures of opium are predicated on the pain of dis-appropriation. That pain is carefully elided in each successive presentation of opium’s effects, but it haunts the dilation of the self as surely as Andromache’s pain haunts the ascendancy of the Greeks. In terms of the ideological fantasies articulated above, this doesn’t pose a problem as long as the subject looking at itself in the arras passage, or the subject viewing Grassini in the King’s Theatre, does not identify with the cognitive objectification of the self or with the sexual objectification of the singer. But the recurrent cessation of opium’s effects and of the singer’s performance mean that the viewing subject is always returned to a state where it has more in common with the limited monad and with the ravished or grieving Grassini. Phantasmatic victory over the limitations of the mind, like the proleptic erotic and military victory over Napoleon revert to the experience of cognitive, erotic and national humiliation or abasement.

To state this in a way that conjoins the pleasures of opium with those of opera, one could simply state that the viewing subject, through the spectacle of its own or Grassini’s ravishment, accedes momentarily to the condition of the ravisher only to be consigned to the condition of the ravished time and time again. Coded into all of the Opium-eater’s projected access to cognitive, erotic and national power is the promise of enslavement within the confines of the subject which in this case carries with it the promise of compromised masculinity, addiction, and inauthentic national identity. The only way for this subject to prevent its reversion from ravisher to ravished is to forestall the unfolding of time itself, and thus the fantasy of cosmological memory, like the fantasy of absolute sexual and national supremacy, requires an impossible exit not only from temporality, but from history. And thus the Opium-eater frantically attempts to accede to the status of ravisher through the “agency of opium”, but paradoxically becomes, like Andromache herself, enslaved by the ravishment of his own mind.[11]

Statuesque Attitudes

As John Barrell has demonstrated, the erotic and nationalist imperatives lurking behind the Opium-eater’s self-representations do not abate as De Quincey’s career unfolds. Because so much of his oeuvre loops back to the problematics first articulated in the Confessions it is possible to use later texts to help work through key issues in his earliest writings. The temporal problematics articulated at the end of the previous section are specified by De Quincey's essay "Theory of Greek Tragedy" which appeared in Blackwood's for February 1840--approximately five years prior to the publication of Suspiria de Profundis.[12] Perhaps the most significant passage for this discussion is the following remark regarding the nature of the chorus in Greek tragedy: "the mysterious solemnity conferred by the chorus presupposes, and is in perfect harmony with, our theory of a life within a life: a life sequestrated into some far-off slumbering state, having the severe tranquillity of Hades; a life symbolized by the marble life of sculpture; but utterly out of all symmetry and proportion to the realities of that human life which we moderns take up as the basis of our Tragic Drama" (10:359). It is a useful preliminary step to note how appropriate "the theory of a life...sequestrated into some far off slumbering state" is to the mental topography presented in the Confessions and the Suspiria, for this "sequestration" is a spatial metaphorization of a temporal problematic--the "sequestrated life" is marked by its pastness. The notion of "sequestrated life" is constitutive of what De Quincey has labelled "our theory of a life within a life" (10:359).

De Quincey's primary thesis regarding Greek tragedy is that it is fundamentally non-narrative especially in comparison to the English tragic tradition. As he states, it does not "allow for the systole and diastole, the contraction and expansion, the knot and denouement of a tragic interest according to our modern meaning" (10:348). In contrast to the temporal unfolding of the English drama, Greek tragedy crystallizes a moment. Throughout the essay, this crystallization or solidification is figured in terms or sculpture. For example, De Quincey points to the immobility of the tragic mask and states: "The mask, with its monotonous expression, is not out of harmony with the scene; for the passion is essentially fixed throughout, not mantling and undulating with the breath of change, but frozen into marble life" (10:349). This metaphorical freezing is articulated in more detail in the following passage:

The truth is now becoming palpable: certain great situations--not passion in states of growth, of movement, of self-conflict--but fixed, unmoving situations, were selected; these held on through the entire course of one or more acts. A lyric movement of the chorus, which closed the act, and gave notice that it was closed, sometimes changed the situation; but throughout the act it continued unchanged, like a statuesque attitude.[13]


After postulating the "statuesque attitude" of Greek tragedy, De Quincey specifically indicates the temporal location of these "unmoving situations" (10:349). This indication, however, is always carried out in relation to the normative example of modern tragedy. His question, therefore, is what enables the Greeks to put the desire for narrative, which defines the English tradition, into abeyance. He suggests that this capacity is partially connected to the religious roots of tragedy:

[The Greeks,] being, by the early religious character of Tragedy, and by the colossal proportions of their theatres, imperiously driven to a life more awful and still--upon life as it existed in elder days, amongst men so far removed that they had become invested with a patriarchal, or even an antediluvian, mistiness of antiquity, and often into the ranks of demigods--they felt it possible to present this mode of being in states of suffering, for suffering is enduring and indefinite, but never in states of conflict, for conflict is by its nature fugitive and evanescent. The Tragedy of Greece is always held up as a thing long past--the Tragedy of England as a thing now passing.[14]


The contrast between the two tragic traditions yields a series of dualisms which resonate with our previous reading of Grassini’s “Grand Scene”. Where the Greek tragedy presents a "thing long past", the tragedy of England presents "a thing now passing." This temporal contrast distinguishes between a state of "suffering [that] is enduring and indefinite" and "a state of conflict [that] is by its nature fugitive and evanescent" (10:349-50). These contrasting states of endurance and evanescence are reminiscent of the distinction between the "afflictions" which endure in "the dread book of account" of cosmological memory and the Opium-eater's fleeting existence in the present. Access to the former carries with it a momentary loss of being in the present, or one's sense of existing as a "thing now passing" (10:350).

At this point, De Quincey's emphasis on the early religious character of tragedy becomes more significant. The contrast between Greek and English tragedy is summarized as the difference between ideality and reality. For De Quincey, the tragedy of Greece is "determined, by the sort of idealized life--life in a state of remotion, unrealized, and translated into a neutral world of high cloudy antiquity...."(349) English tragedy, on the other hand, "postulates the intense life of flesh and blood, of animal sensibility, of man and woman--breathing, waking, stirring, palpitating with the pulses of hope and fear" (348). These two statements exhibit, in their syntax, the temporal distinction between the endurance of the mythic past and the evanescence of "things now passing." The passive verbs of the first sentence place the idealized life before the viewer; but the verbs "breathing", "waking", and "palpitating" of the second sentence insist on the fact that these actions are currently ongoing.

This distinction has important implications for the notion of "a life within a life" discussed earlier, for De Quincey essentially ties "reality" to the present. Before turning to this issue, however, it is useful to point out not only that the idealization that De Quincey attributes to the Greek tragic life is analogous to the interpolation of the absolute within the limited monad, but also that the internalization of "cosmological memory" discussed earlier are in keeping with this tragic allegory. This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the simultaneous disappropriation of the subject by its idealization and the acquisition of the capacity to "prophecy, or look back", "to decipher the mystery", or "justify Providence" experienced by the tragic audience and the Opium-eater alike (10:357).

In this light, it is possible to be more specific about De Quincey's theory of a life within a life. This theory emerges early in the essay as part of a sudden, and at first inexplicable, consideration of the play within the play in Hamlet in which he argues that a presentation's status as "real" or "simulacral" depends on its position in an alternating series of originals and copies. In this series the same presentation can stand both as the original from which something is copied and as the copy of some previous original. De Quincey's strict regulation of the alternating series "at every step of the introvolution" suggests that the line between reality and simulation is more than slightly volatile (344). As the text states, "something must be done to differentiate the gradations and to express the subordinations of life; because each term in the descending series, being first of all a mode of non-reality to the spectator, is next to assume the functions of a real life in its relations to the next lower or interior term in the series" (10:344). However, the postulation of this series of real and non-real presentations brings up the vexing question of how this differentiation of levels is recognized. De Quincey situates the differential determination of reality and simulation in various material qualities of language. Most notable among these are certain acoustic inflections:

It was so to differentiate a drama that it might stand within a drama precisely as a painter places a picture within a picture, and therefore that the secondary or inner drama should be non-realized upon a scale that would throw, by comparison, a reflex colouring of reality upon the principal drama....the secret, the law, of the process by which [Shakespeare] accomplishes this is to swell, tumefy, stiffen, not the diction only but the tenor of the thought,--in fact, to stilt it, and to give it a prominence and an ambition beyond the scale which he adopted for his ordinary life. It is, of course, therefore, in rhyme--an artifice which Shakespere[sic] employs with great effect on other similar occasions (that is, occasions when he wished to solemnize or in any way differentiate the life); it is condensed and massed as respects the flowing of the thoughts; it is rough and horrent with figures in strong relief, like the embossed gold of an ancient vase; and the movement of the scene is contracted into short gyrations--so unlike the free sweep and expansion of his general developments.


The text states that the secret of the differentiation of various levels of reality or presentation "is to swell, tumefy, stiffen, not the diction only, but the tenor of the thought." The introduction of this phallicism marks the shift from an analogy between writing and painting to one between writing and the penis that resonates not only with the phallicism occasioned by the deployment of Grassini, but also with De Quincey’s famous interaction with the Malay traveller in the Confessions.[15] Regardless of the bewildering implications of a series in which each term becomes that much harder than the previous erection, one is struck by the duality of this metaphor for it refers to a tumescence of both diction and thought. In this scenario, both rhyme and the condensation or massing "as respects the flowing of thoughts" indicate the erection of a simulation (10:345). And this hardening achieves its full manifestation in a figure of sculptural relief: "it is rough and horrent with figures in strong relief, like the embossed gold of an ancient vase" (10:345). As we will see, sculpture becomes the chief figure not only for the experience of tragedy, but also for the Opium-eater's "sequestrated" thoughts. Careful attention to the ensuing examples of this tumescence reveals that each figure "condenses", "masses", "solidifies" or "contracts" the flow of thoughts. This entire assemblage exhibits a predilection for impeding flow, and that it is this tendency which grounds the similarity of these otherwise disparate examples. And I would suggest that the limit case of this assemblage leads to a stoppage of the unfolding of time similar to that implied by the Opium-eater’s phantasmatic investment in Grassini’s ravishment and Napoleon’s humiliation.

This temporal problematic becomes crucial when De Quincey goes on to distinguish between Geek and English tragedy on political grounds. In addition to the religious roots of Greek tragedy, De Quincey attributes a great deal of significance to the ways in which the democratic nature of Athenian society impinges on the drama. Because "every citizen was entitled to a place at the public scenical representations," De Quincey argues that

we are not surprised to hear that the Athenian Theatre was adapted to an audience of thirty thousand persons. It is not enough to say that naturally--we have a right to say that inevitably--out of this prodigious compass...arose certain immediate results that moulded the Greek Tragedy in all its functions, purposes, and phenomena. The person must be aggrandized, the countenance must be idealized.


As proof of this aggrandizement, De Quincey points out that the cothurnus, the voluminous robes, the mask and "the mechanism made to swell the intonations of the voice" amount to related strategies for making the tragic figure suitably large for "the colossal dimensions of such a house" (346).[16] The enlargement of this figure is extremely important, and its effect is summarized as follows: "from political causes falling in with that early religious cause, you have a Tragedy forced into a more absolute and unalterable departure from the human standard....we begin to perceive a life removed by a great gulf from the ordinary human life even of kings and heroes: we descry a life within a life" (10:346-7). This passage postulates the existence of a life beyond the "human standard": in other words, a non-human life "elevated above the ordinary human scale" (10:347). However, this non-human life is not only "removed by a great gulf from the ordinary human life" of the traditional focal points of Greek tragedy--i.e. kings and heroes--but also recognizable as a life within a life. This leads to De Quincey's conclusion regarding "the determinate nature and circumspection of Greek Tragedy": he simply states that the Greek tragedy "was not in any sense a development--1, of human character, or, 2, of human passion. Either of these objects, attributed to tragedy, at once inoculates it with a life essentially on the common human standard" (10:347). As John Barrell argues, inoculation for De Quincey primarily signifies infection,[17] therefore, the introduction of human standards into a theory of Greek tragedy amounts to the insertion of foreign terms with likely infelicitous results. This strong statement emphasizes that for De Quincey the distinction between the English and the Greek tragic figures is essentially that between the human and the non-human.

De Quincey's sense of "a being elevated above the ordinary human scale" in Greek tragedy is the conceptual vantage point around which the tragedy essay revolves.[18] I will be referring to this elevated being as the "non-human" in order to explicate the essay's return to the question of the life within a life via the play within the play in Hamlet. De Quincey calls the non-human life within a life "the first great landing place, the first station, from which we can contemplate the Greek Tragedy with advantage. It is, by comparison with the life of Shakespere [sic], what the inner life of the mimetic play in Hamlet is to the outer life of the Hamlet itself. It is a life below a life" (10:347). This comparison is complicated by the uncertain reference of the pronoun "it" which opens the second sentence. At first glance it appears that "it" refers to "Greek Tragedy"; but in fact, "it" refers to "the first great landing place" which in turn refers to the "life removed by a great gulf from the ordinary human" in the preceding sentence. In other words, the non-human life within a life is by comparison with the life of Shakespeare, what the inner life of "The Mousetrap" is to the life of the surrounding play of Hamlet itself. This complex analogy attempts to distinguish the non-human life from a particular human life--i.e. that of Shakespeare--via an analogous contrast between the "reality" of Hamlet and the play embedded in its third act. The analogy is based on the notion of embedding: just as "The Mousetrap" is embedded in Hamlet, so too is the non-human embedded in the human. As De Quincey concludes, "it is a life below a life" (10:347).

This analogy suggests not only that the non-human is the focal point of Greek Tragedy, but also that the non-human is embedded within the human. As the text continues, De Quincey re-formulates the notion of embedding to emphasize the ideality of this non-human life below a life: "it is a life treated upon a scale so sensibly different from the proper life of the spectator as to impress him profoundly with the feeling of its idealization. Shakespere's [sic] tragic life is our own life exalted and selected: the Greek tragic life presupposed another life, the spectator's thrown into relief before it" (10:347). This passage offers the clearest distinction between English and Greek tragedy in De Quincey's essay. The statement that Shakespeare's tragic life--i.e. the life presented in his tragedies--is "our own life exalted and selected" stresses the continuity between the lives of the spectators and the lives presented on stage: one is merely the exalted version of the other. However, this continuity is not shared by Greek tragedy. According to De Quincey, Greek tragedy presents the life of the non-human. The lives of the spectators are marked by their difference from this ideal presentation. Another way of saying this is to state that the Greek audience recognizes its specific "humanity" in the face of a non-human other. In the English case, the audience sees itself on stage whereas the Greek audience is made witness to an ideal non-human other. The paradox of course lies in the fact that this alterity is embedded within the human life or the self.

The spatial arrangement of De Quincey's description of embedding illuminates, and perhaps even informs, his theory of the subject. The following passage is the continuation of the passage quoted above: "The [Greek] tragedy was projected upon the eye from a vast profundity in the rear; and between this life and the spectator, however near its phantasmagoria might advance to him, was still an immeasurable gulf of shadows" (10:347). The fact that this sublime profundity "projects" onto the spectator's eye through this shadowy region replicates the passive construction discussed earlier in this essay in which the whole of the Opium-eater’s life is displayed before him as an arras-work. The analogy to the tragic chorus confirms the paradoxical internalization of the vast non-human profundity of the absolute monad below or within the limited monad otherwise known as the Opium-eater. And it is within the simulacral state of dreams or being-on-opium that this recurrent alterity is disclosed.

However, it is important not to overlook the fact that this disclosure has explicitly political ramifications. For De Quincey, the Athenian audience of tragedy was witness to "a life symbolized [by] the marble life of sculpture" (358). This sculptural figure is very important because it indicates that De Quincey conceptualizes the viewing of tragedy as the interaction between a social body and a thing. In related metaphors, De Quincey figures the action of Greek tragedy as petrifaction, hardening, and solidification such that the audience is confronted not with a series of events in time, but rather with a static mass. This mass not only ruptures the temporal continuum, but also provides a mooring for the consolidation of the audience. In other words, the audience is witness to the petrifaction of a historical moment, and the "thingness" of that moment is disclosed in a fashion that bonds, purifies, and orients the viewers. The "thing" disclosed in the Athenian theatre exhibits a very specific form of otherness. Gayatri Spivak's division of alterity into the "self-consolidating other" and the "absolute other" is helpful in this regard (131). For Spivak, the absolute other is wholly other to the self. Unlike the self-consolidating other, it does not play the foil necessary for the formation or consolidation of identity. In the terms of our discussion, the non-human has played this role: in its pure disclosure, it has been seen to rupture self-identity. But, as noted earlier, De Quincey's discussion of Greek tragedy links the disclosure of the non-human, of the "thingness" of a historical moment, with the consolidation not of the self but of the polis. The dis-identification effected by the disclosure of the non-human is put into abeyance by the consolidation of the political entity. In other words, an ontological adjustment has occurred in which the absolute alterity of the "thing" has been erased and re-constituted as a self-consolidating other in the realm of the political.[19] De Quincey's dis-identification reaches its destination in the fantasy of a British nation whose members are so deeply fused that they constitute one plenitudinous being whose phallicism is entirely consonant with De Quincey rhetoric of tumescence. The sheer volatility of this phantasmatic consolidation is reason enough for the frantic acts of othering which so thoroughly inflect De Quincey's oeuvre.

Hector’s Tomb

I want to conclude this essay by taking De Quincey’s theorization of community consolidation in “Theory of Greek Tragedy” and retroactively applying it to the operatic scenes of the Confessions. If we return to Grassini’s “Grand Scene” there is one aspect of the scenario which we have not discussed and that is Hector’s tomb. It is difficult to ascertain from the newspaper record whether Andromache’s lamentation was staged beside or before a replica of Hector’s tomb. However, the very existence of a tomb is a significant modification of the scene in the Iliad, for, in Pope’s translation for instance, Hector is placed on a “Bed of State” and Andromache throws her arms around the neck of the corpse.[20] Enclosing Hector’s body in a tomb cancels the very intimacy implied by this action, and thus quickly severs Andromache/Grassini from Hector/Napoleon. The cancellation of the body of the warrior not only disposes of him, but also curtails any lingering cathexis with the dead. Both actions are important for the unrestrained fantasy of ravishing Grassini from Napoleon to unfold. But more to the point, the fact of the tomb introduces an element of statuary into the scene that not only proleptically figures forth the death of Napoleon the exalted warrior hero, but also provides a physical prop before which the audience can consolidate itself into a national entity.

Read in this way, certain aspects of “The Theory of Greek Tragedy” appear to be less applicable to Greek drama than to contemporary productions in the King’s Theatre. For example, De Quincey’s description of the spatial dynamics of tragic performance don’t seem especially applicable to outdoor amphitheatres, but are exceedingly accurate descriptions of the large houses of the Theatres Royal. For example, what are we to make of the following passage: "The [Greek] tragedy was projected upon the eye from a vast profundity in the rear; and between this life and the spectator , however near its phantasmagoria might advance to him, was still an immeasurable gulf of shadows" (10:347). Both Rzepka and Leask have recently argued that the scenography presented here is primarily psychic, and I would largely concur.[21] But it also conforms to descriptions of the late Georgian patent houses. My sense is that De Quincey is using an example from the material theatre to figure forth a kind of mental theatre whose structure is often presented in operatic terms. This conflation of opera and Greek tragedy is explicitly established in the Confessions during the interlude with the Malay traveller. The Opium-eater is called by one of his servants to converse with a travelling Malay who has introduced himself at the Opium-eater’s cottage. When the Opium-eater comes upon the scene, the confrontation between the Malay, who is reduced to an example of "Asiatic dress", and the young working class woman, is compared to a specific moment of operatic performance: "the group which presented itself, arranged as it was by accident, though not very elaborate, took hold of my fancy and my eye in a way that none of the statuesque attitudes exhibited in the ballets at the Opera House, though so ostentatiously complex, had ever done" (56). “Statuesque attitudes” is the precise phrase De Quincey uses to describe the way in which Greek tragedy ruptures the temporal continuum and figures forth the Athenian audience as one plenitudinous being, and here it is being applied to the staging of operatic performance. In the opera, as in Greek tragedy, the audience is witness to the petrifaction of a historical moment, and the "thingness" of that moment is disclosed in a fashion that bonds, purifies, and orients the viewers.[22] But the scene in the Opium-eater’s cottage unfolds differently in that the Opium-eater decides to address the Malay “in some lines from the Iliad; considering that, of such languages as I possessed, Greek in point of longitude, came geographically nearest to an Oriental one” (56-7). The invocation of the Iliad and the Opera House at this point can’t help but send the reader back to the scene of Adromache weeping over the tomb of Hector. The narration of the Malay encounter allows an entirely different fantasy to unfold: one which partially de-eroticizes the scene, but which retains the violent assertion of supremacy encoded into the combined pleasures of opera and opium.

What strikes me as important about this connection between the Confessions and “Theory of Greek Tragedy”, aside from the resilience of these issues in De Quincey’s writings, is the degree to which the statuesque attitudes of opera both occasion a moment of phallic self-aggrandisement and national election, and yet constitute that which must be left behind to escape the figural and literal enslavement implied not only by Grassini’s performance, but also by the agency of opium itself. The Opium-eater is careful to emphasize that the scene with the Malay fully exceeds the aesthetic and political effects of the statuesque attitudes he consumed while on opium at the King’s Theatre. In other words, the scene he enacts with the Malay offers a way out of the phantasmatic impasse discussed earlier in which the fulfilment of the philosophical, erotic and political desires instantiated by Grassini’s performance required the impossible exit from time and history. In the terms laid out in “The Theory of Greek Tragedy” the new scenario obviates the idealizations of Greek tragedy, and, like English tragedy "postulates the intense life of flesh and blood, of animal sensibility, of man and woman--breathing, waking, stirring, palpitating with the pulses of hope and fear" (348).

This is why the Opium-eater addresses the scene and the reader less as the subject of philosophy attempting to elucidate opium experience than as the subject of narration in the Malay passage. There is a fundamental shift from the passivity associated with the combined pleasures of opera and opium to a far more active intervention in which he doesn’t take opium, but rather gives enough of it to the Malay to either kill or enslave him. It is now narrative, or more precisely narrative enigma, that will kill the Malay and allow the Opium-eater to accede to ethnocentric supremacy.[23] Significantly, this shift involves a cancellation of the sexual violence of the operatic fantasies in favour of murderous acts whose force are tied to the temporal unfolding of narrative itself.[24] This is marked by the text’s treatment of chronology. The erotic supremacy encoded into the Grassini figure retroactively establishes a moment where the subject proleptically figures forth the humiliation of Napoleon. But with the Malay, the murder is encoded such that the reader must complete the crime and thus accede to a position of complicity with the Opium-eater. The first opera pleasure retroactively posits an audience conjoined by their shared desire for erotic and national triumph in the fleeting moment of performance. The Malay scene, through its on-going narrative performance, constructs a community of imperial subjects from the audience of the Confessions itself. Narrative here instantiates the repetition compulsion of the supremacist fantasies of the phantasy of nation and empire in far more insidious ways than performance, for it not only realizes the desire for repetition that comes with performance, but also realizes a desire that remained unfulfilled in performance. This new form of supremacist fantasy, which replaces sexual crime with genocidal imperatives and which replaces theoretical and erotic sublation with the power of narrative to bring things to pass, prevents the reversion from victimizer to victim which plagued the phantasmatic ravishment of Grassini. And in doing so, this replacement secures the Opium-eater’s sexual and imperial identity in a fashion that requires not the repetition the mutual pleasures of opera and opium, but rather demands the repetition of the narration of the Malay’s enigmatic demise from the text. Hence it is that the Opium-eater is haunted by the Malay ever after, and hence it is that De Quincey’s writings must repeat the genocidal narrative first broached in the Malay scene in ever more grandiose ways.