“I trust that it will prove, not merely an interesting record, but, in a considerable degree, useful and instructive. In that hope it is, that I have drawn it up: and that must be my apology for breaking through that delicate and honourable reserve, which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.”
In this passage, De Quincey explains his reason for publishing Confessions of an English Opium Eater – namely, he hopes that it will deter people from using opium. Readers can choose whether or not to take this claim at face value. On the one hand, the memoir's extensive description of 'the pains of opium' lends credence to De Quincey's assertion that the text is meant to be "instructive" and drive people away from opium use. But on the other hand, De Quincey also spends significant time describing the drug's 'pleasures,' and he acknowledges later in the preface that if these pleasures were more widely known, more people would use opium. This seems inconsistent with the memoir's stated purpose. Whether his unwitting defense of the drug in the face of a more consciously determined desire to condemn it reveals the difficulties of addiction (the later-published Appendix provides that De Quincey remained an opium user even as he wrote the memoir), a moral imperative from publishers, or the man's own contradictions remains up for debate.
“...if I could have foreseen the hurricane, the perfect hail-storm of affliction which soon fell upon me, well might I have been agitated. To this agitation the deep peace of the morning presented an affecting contrast, and in some degrees a medicine.”
This passage, which refers to the morning De Quincey plans to quit his secondary school, is one of the first glimpses of the "agitation," or anxiety, that will plague De Quincey for much of the memoir. In addition to his physical ailments, his anxious personality helps explain why he is so susceptible to opium dependency. His characterization of the beautiful morning as "a medicine" in this passage also introduces the idea that opium is just one of many possible remedies to life's afflictions, and people should turn to healthier outlets when dealing with physical or emotional pain. As a man who loves beauty, it makes sense that he will later defend opium's pleasures by painting the drug as capable of inspiring man to discover the beauty around him.
"...the stream of London charity flows in a channel which, though deep and mighty, is yet noiseless and underground; not obvious or readily accessible to poor houseless wanderers: and it cannot be denied that the outside air and framework of London society is harsh, cruel, and repulsive."
The "Preliminary Confessions" section of the memoir includes both elements of autobiography and aspects of social criticism. This passage is one instance in which De Quincey digresses from his life story to describe the horrible conditions that the London poor experienced when he lived there in 1803. He comments that the resources provided by charitable institutions need to be publicized more so that the poor can take full advantage of them. Further, he suggests that the "frameworks of London society" - which could be taken to mean the respectable, wealthier population - lack the charity of the "underground," poorer, London. So this quote suggests a level of kindness known only to the indigent. De Quincey's descriptions of economic inequality provide an example of how Confessions of an English Opium Eater differed from other nineteenth-century literary texts. While many writers only wrote about one socioeconomic milieu, De Quincey had firsthand experience with both poverty and the aristocratic lifestyle, and used this experience to comment with authority about the vast gap between the classes.
“Connected with this sleep was a little incident, which served ... to convince me how easily a man who has never been in any great distress, may pass through life without knowing, in his own person at least, anything of the possible goodness of the human heart—or, as I must add with a sigh, of its possible vileness.”
This passage is taken from the scene in which De Quincey rides to Eton and is shown kindness by a butler atop the carriage. Here, De Quincey strongly insinuates that poor and working people are more capable of generosity than those who have never experienced difficult circumstances. Indeed, the "Preliminary Confessions" section often seems to be hiding this sentiment, which would have been somewhat radical in the nineteenth century. For example, the Earl of Densart is much more hesitant to help De Quincey than are Ann or the butler on the mail-cart. Although De Quincey refrains from passing explicit judgment on the Earl, instead noting how the gentleman treated him very graciously, this contrast is nevertheless consistent with his assertion here that poverty brings out the extremes of human behavior. His addition that poverty can also bring out "possible vileness" comes across as a concession to more conservative points of view, since up to this point, we have not met any bad characters who are truly poor. The "vileness" could also be seen to refer to the lack of charity shown by more respectable sects, which would be felt most harshly by those most in need of that charity.
“Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down on this earth on a special mission to myself.”
This is the first instance of many in which De Quincey equates the pleasures of opium with religious experience. By expressing himself in this way, De Quincey puts the experience of taking drugs into terms that his audience can relate to, even if they have never had comparable experiences. (Virtually all English people, rich or poor, identified as Christian at this time and would have been familiar, at least in theory, with intense religious emotion.) It also implies that opium serves a similar function to religion, in that both relieve life's woes and in doing so, help people to improve themselves morally. The strength of his tone can provide one argument to those who believe De Quincey too strongly describes the pleasures of the drug, since he continues to consider that druggist as a religious figure despite the pains he would later pass as a result of the drug.
“Sometimes there might be heard murmurs of discontent: but far oftener expressions on the countenance, or uttered in words, of patience, hope, and tranquility. And taken generally, I must say, that, in this point at least, the poor are far more philosophic than the rich––that they show a more ready and cheerful submission to what they consider as irremediable evils, or irreparable losses.”
Here, De Quincey returns to the theme of social inequality that he has established early in the memoir. He suggests that despite the broad economic gap between himself and his poor friends, they have much to teach him about how to live a thoughtful life. It could be argued that this passage romanticizes poverty, and glosses over the difficult realities of life among the London poor. De Quincey's reference to "irremediable evils, or irreparable losses" is a subtle suggestion that opium could help the poor bear their burdens as well as it has helped him, a suggestion that he makes explicit at the end of the section. As he often does, he implicitly holds up here his awareness of both sides of life - the gentleman life and the impoverished life - as a singular aspect of his personality, and hence a defense of his work as one of literary, and not just exploitative, value.
“And here I find myself in a perplexing dilemma:––Either, on the one hand, I must exhaust the reader’s patience, by such a detail of my malady, and of my struggles with it, as might suffice to establish the fact of my inability to wrestle any longer with irritation or constant suffering: or, on the other hand, by passing lightly over this critical part of my story, I must forego the benefit of a stronger impression left on the mind of the reader, and must lay myself open to the misconstruction of having slipped by the easy and gradual steps of self-indulging persons, from the first to the final stage of opium-eating.”
De Quincey addresses the reader directly in this passage, bluntly explaining his rationale for not relating the details of his stomach problems. Because he chooses to gloss over these details for the reader's benefit, he implicates his audience in his authorial decisions, suggesting that he does not have as much agency in the writing of this memoir as is usually assumed. This passage also demonstrates De Quincey's defensiveness against criticisms of his opium use; he is adamant that his addiction to the drug was inevitable and not a result of personal weakness. This is consistent with his view of himself as someone who must suffer from opium so that others may know what the experience is like. Further, he acknowledges the contradiction between his authorial ambitions here - on one hand, he knows his work will be popular because of its exploitative value, and on the other hand, he wants it to be a respectable piece of literary work. In choosing to gloss over potentially offensive physical detail without depriving a curious audience of the opium effects, he is trying to indulge both sides of his desires.
“But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.”
At the beginning of "The Pains of Opium," De Quincey meditates once again upon the difficult decisions that a memoir-writer must face when choosing what to include. This is the first time that he openly acknowledges how shockingly personal and explicit Confessions of an English Opium-Eater would be to his nineteenth-century audience. By representing his indecision about whether to write the memoir within the text itself, De Quincey tries to mitigate how shocking the content will be to his audience.
“Of this, at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; 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...”
Here, when discussing how long-buried memories resurfaced while he was in the grips of opium, De Quincey ponders the fact that forgotten memories can appear when they are least expected. The relationship between the past and the subconscious is a major concern of nineteenth-century literature, and it would be addressed later in the century by literary giants like Marcel Proust and psychologists like William James and Sigmund Freud. However, this was still a relatively new concept in 1821, which explains why De Quincey felt the need to explain in detail his rationale for representing the past the way he does. This element of the work is one of many where De Quincey reveals his ambitions to write about ideas and experiences larger than simply the exploitative pains of opium. As a man interested in thought, he wishes to use his experience to craft literary passages worthy of discussion, and not merely to list the physical horrors of the drug.
“Not the opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale; and the legitimate centre on which the interest revolves.”
Here, De Quincey continues his habit of anthropomorphizing opium, privileging it so highly that it supersedes his own life as the true subject of the text. This hearkens back to his rapturous early experiences with opium, in which it played such an important role in his life that he described it in religious terms. This passage also explains De Quincey's choice to omit certain information about his personal life and to focus so closely on the experiential details of taking opium. Strangely, this assertion works in contradiction to earlier sections of the text, where he considered himself an equal focus in the narrative. Again, De Quincy is possessed of two authorial desires - to craft a popular, exploitative memoir, and also to craft a work of literary value. Here, he acquiesces to the first desire, writing a rather affecting phrase the likes of which will ensure the work's popularity.
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