Friday, February 26, 2010

Confessions of an English Opium Eater-Thomas De Quincey

Okay, it’s been a while and I have a dissertation to write. And I have a boyfriend now. I’m busy with stuff. I’m still reading as much as ever, but I have less time to sit and tell all 4 of you just what it is I think about it. I’m a bit rusty, but let’s see what I come up with shall we?

First, the blurb!

"Thou has the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!"
Confessions is a remarkable account of the pleasures and pains of 'worshipping at the 'Church of Opium'. Thomas De Quincey consumed daily large quantities of laudanum (at the time a legal painkiller), and this autobiography of addicition hauntingly describes his surreal visions and hallucinatory nocturnal wanderings thorough London, along with the nightmares, despair and paranoia to which he became prey. The result is a work in which the effects of drugs and the nature of dreams, memory and imagination are seamlessly interwoven. Confessions forged a link between artistic self expression and addiction, paving the way for later generations of literary drug-users from Baudelaire to Burroughs, and anticipating psychoanalysis with its insights into subconsciousness.

There is then a section going into exactly which version of his accounts are printed within the book, but that's dull and not really relevant to what I'm gunna say. This blurb has annoyingly done much of my job for me, and for that I pout and frown and consider tearing off the back cover and writing "IT'S ABOUT DRUGS!" so that my own thoughts and descriptions appear as beautifully written as De Quincey's thoughts are by comparison. This is not the case however and I will be revealed as an uncultured keyboard basher the moment I begin. Let's get on.

The first and biggest writing is Confessions and is mostly really fascinating and really sad. This is a protagonist who is writing about himself, a genius at languages he leaves grammar school because he's just too awesome (sound like anybody we know?) and wanders in Wales for a bit (I mean why wouldn't you?) and then goes to London where he lives in poverty. He then starts to take opium after eventually attending Oxford (like he was supposed to before he nicked off). He initially begins using it to medicate intense facial pain and takes it only weekly, but a year later begins to take a daily dosage. It was a perfectly legal and commonly used painkiller. He drank laudanum, I believe.

He explains what opium feels like and his motivations for taking it, it kind of becomes clear as he goes on that he's just really fucked up. This book is just plain heartbreaking in more than one place. I want to hug Thomas De Quincey on his face. He's enormously intelligent, speaks more dead languages than you can shake your cane at but he is just very very sad at the end of the day.

Things I like about this book:

The writing is gorgeous. I got about ten pages in and got out my pen to start underlining paragraphs and phrases and words that are just beautiful and make me want to rip out my nails and stab them in my eyes because I know I can never get anywhere close to that level of eloquence and gorgeousity. I have never taken a pen to a book before in my life, so you kind of see the levels we're at here.

It's 200 years old and sometimes it's hard to understand what the fuck he's talking about because he's purposely emulating styles even before his time and corresponding with Wordsworth and sometimes he speaks in dead lanaguages and it's all just so languagey delicious that I could slice it up and spread it on crackers. It's worth the toil to get goosebumps, let me tell you.

De Quincey's sexism. I mean, it isn't funny, but it is. Like...the shit this man comes up with. I'm paraphrasing, but it's like "I will explain this here for any female readers who find themselves reading my works, for it is a man's duty to explain these things to women, and if a woman does happen to know a certain fact, she must pretend she does not so that a man may tell her."
It is infuriating, but you know that that is just how stuff was then, so mostly it's absurd and laughable. I mean, I've encountered some pretty absurd sexism pretty regularly, but De Quincey sounds so earnest and well meaning that it just makes me laugh rather than ragey. Also, he shows a great deal of affection for several women he meets, and he is by no means a misogynist so it's mostly just quaint and well meaning "lol, women are receptacles for my epic knowledge! They must play along to boost my ego." rather than "Women are stupid and should listen to me so there!" It's problematic, but it made me laugh.

There's not very much I don't like about it in honesty. A lot of what I really really loved was really personal and inspirational to me just because it struck a chord and I scribbled beside it.

The absolute best thing about this book, and I swear to Bob I am not making this up, is the following sentence:

The Fannies of our island- though I say this with reluctance- are not improving...

Fannie is a girl with whom he has a bit of a...wah-hey, but I was in the bath reading that sentence and nearly drowned and, worse even than that, almost dropped my book.

I give this 5 Mell-Heads because I can: