'Not the opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale'. How do you interpret De Quincey's (in)famous pronouncement on his Confessions of an English Opium Eater? (~2500 words)

I do not think it enough to say either that the opium is read through the opium-eater or that the author is read through the drug, since a hierarchy of the two may exclude much of each. Certainly, De Quincey adopts the form of autobiography for more reasons than to simply introduce the deeds of a personified commodity to his audience. He expresses the hope that his prose may claim to be "useful and instructive"[1] and shall "present the reader with the moral of my narrative"[2] and so in the 1822 introduction an autobiographical pact is made that the following narrative will present an introspective analysis with some content of critical re-appraisal. This form of instruction extols the traditional qualities of autobiography, being both by example and by caveat. The claim to analysis is interesting, though, since it implies a subjectively truthful and reasonably complete narrative to appraise, and the word 'tale', in addition to its meaning in the sense of an reasonably factual account of events, also contains the further potentially opposed connotation of "a trivial lie".[3]

The Confessions may readily be seen as a text of contradictions and paradoxes, not all of which need necessarily be problematical. Also, whilst De Quincey's statement that the opium be the 'true hero of the tale' may stand at least partially in opposition to his statement that in the portrait of the opium narrative ("I admit that, naturally, I ought to occupy the foreground of the picture [...] being the hero of the piece, or (if you choose) the criminal at the bar"[4]), what also seems to be at issue is a mock-authorial reticence de rigueur for the period. When he writes: "I have for many months hesitated about the propriety"[5], he does not wish to be seen as too forward in his 'obtrusion' and therefore a perpetual displacement of the true centre of meaning of his text is essential: As a literary theorist, De Quincey's feeling was that literature whose purpose was instruction could be superseded, whilst a text whose purpose is to 'move' will "survive as finished and unalterable amongst men".[6] What 'power' could be obtained by word therefore, lay in the interpretable, and a personal biographical narrative that admitted only the limitation of primarily a singular reading would have been anathema to him.

Hence, I shall endeavour to examine De Quincey as a literary critic and guardian of social values, the role of opium as a product of the demonised East and its presence in drug-visions, the character of the Turk and the author's other writings, and conclude with a possible summary of the current interpretative value of De Quincey's own interpretations. This interrogation will take the form of examining the text upon the author's own terms (as described above), on those of other dialogues past and contemporary, and their possible and probable interrelations.

It seems overtly simple to state, but by naming opium as the 'hero' of the narrative, De Quincey seeks to legitimise his own use of the drug. Traditional devices such as the rhetorical question are bent to his purpose: "how do I do? Why, pretty well, I thank you, reader"[7], calculated to convey the impression that opium need not leave any lasting psychological or physiological scars. The revised 1856 preface operates as an apology for opium on many levels:[8] relief from toothache (which ought obviously be recognised a greater affliction than Coleridge's rheumatism) and a positive aid to imagination, an indulgence of lesser evils than Madeira. De Quincey would have us believe in an immutable nature, which the drug is without power to effect:

The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities, or aspirations: he wishes and longs, as earnestly as ever, to realize what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt.[9]

There follows a contrasting of wine as 'disguising' the characters of men and opium expressing them, a contrast which may be noted by a cursorily diligent reader as elsewhere reversed: His opinion that "wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony"[10] reads at variance to his complaint (noted in the appendix) that prolonged use of opium had "frozen up"[11] his thoughts.

The parallels affected between intoxicants are not entirely unreasonable, since crude opium was cheaper than alcohol,[12] and "[in] the 1800s, opium was the main ingredient in many of the most widely used elixirs and patent medicines".[13] De Quincey quotes Awsiter, an apothecary at a large hospital in saying that "there are many properties in it, if universally known, that would habituate the use, and make it more in request with us than the Turks themselves".[14] The opium-eater was not put on trial by his social peers for his consumption of opium, rather for the reasons he gave for his persistent use: Hence the importance of the self-admonishing title of 'confessions'. De Quincey's infamous feud with Coleridge serves as an excellent example of this justification both to the self and to the rest of society.

Regarding the title (which cannot be dismissed as editorial whimsy, since De Quincey almost always uses the term "opium-eater" in his narrative): Opium being more commonly diluted and drunk than eaten, it is not beyond supposition to propose that he drew a subliminal parallel between himself and the Turk who did so in excess and subsequently haunted his dreams; it is to that escape from reality I now wish to turn.

De Quincey's understanding of dream revelation had implications for later psychoanalytic discourses: His neo-Enlightenment view that "the dread book of account, which the Scriptures speak of, is, in fact, the mind itself of each individual"[15] manifested in a recognition of the importance of early childhood and other formative events, and their play in his later opium-fuelled dreamscapes. He wrote of these as an interpretive "key"[16], citing this as the reason for the wealth of personal anecdote present in his 'instructional' text. It set a distinct precedent for the observance of close parallels between the fantasies of the conscious and the subconscious, parallels located in the trope of the text: The seeming expansion of time as it occurs is as present in De Quincey's impatient absconding from education as in the debilitating dreams of later life. Here we notice that the unspoken parts of his narrative are explicitly privileged; much of the timbre of his dreams "cannot be approached by words",[17] is "wholly incommunicable"[18]; what he offers us is a "slight abstraction" [19] which nonetheless remains deeply affective ("lips, Ann, that to me were not polluted".[20]) This all fully serves his aim of

creating some previous interest of a personal sort in the confessing subject, apart from the matter of the confessions, which cannot fail to render the confessions themselves more interesting[21]

Internal or inspirational narrative is not the only possible way of interpreting De Quincey's writing, however. He describes opium as a prison of the imagination, but more specifically that he has "untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me".[22] This metaphorical shackling has its parallel in the conditions of the culture referenced by both the drug and the manner of yoking; the Confessions are not necessarily simply a dialogue inspired by opium, but function as a dialogue of opium, representing the prevailing political and social climate and its treatment of the sub-continent primarily supplying that commodity. The opium-eater's notions of "self-conquest"[23] appear not entirely separate from the language of mastery and colonial discourse that constructs itself in like terms in superiority to the East from whence the opium came. Re-examined under these terms, De Quincey's likewise infamous pronouncement that "thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!"[24], 'Paradise' is Edenic yet ridden with the ambiguity of non-Christian source. Paradise is also a term explicitly used in connection with the Orient:

I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure that I had. But, indeed, I honour the Barbarians too much by supposing them capable of any pleasures approaching to the intellectual ones of an Englishman.[25]

Here 'paradise' does not seem to merit a capital letter, being the heathen equivalent of after-life or bliss; such distinctions are note-worthy because in his other writings, De Quincey was explicitly concerned with contemporary political debate on the nature of the relationship of Britain with its Empire, writing at length about China, Africa and other colonies. Unfortunately for the sensibilities of subsequent generations, his obvious interest and preoccupation with challenging British boundaries of class did not extend to speculating beyond prevalent racial stereotypes:

[A] key to the Chinese character and Chinese policy. To begin by making the most arrogant resistance to the simplest demands of justice, to end by cringing on the lowliest fashion before the guns of a little war-brig, there we have, in a representative abstract, the Chinese system of law and gospel.[26]

He was, rather, quite content to place trust in common opinion, as evinced by his prose footnote: "See the common accounts in any Eastern traveller or voyager of the frantic excesses committed by Malays who have taken opium"[27]; mainstream enough in this respect that one of De Quincey's journal editors writing in the late 1850s classed him "a pretty fair exponent of the growing wrath of the English people"[28] His discussion of recalcitrant China hinged upon the still popularly acceptable humanist premise that "medicinal relief [...] might depend entirely upon the right to force a commercial intercourse"[29], whilst doing nothing to question the view of the heathen as "ignorant and unteachable".[30] Serving to historicize that already naturalized discourse, De Quincey then goes on to 'prove' in a similar manner to Southern slave-owners in the American civil war that, having being 'legitimately' and 'justifiably' initiated, it must needs continue, for "if we do not interfere, some morning we shall probably all be convulsed with unavailing wrath".[31]

A modern reader is more likely to conclude of the East in the nineteenth century, as Montaigne did of the native Americans in the sixteenth, that "there is nothing [...] that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarism which is not common to them"[32] De Quincey, on the other hand, could escape even less than we the promulgation of prevailing attitudes contemporary to his writing. His is a Western voice ridden with assumption, judging of the single Turk he encounters: "To him, as an Orientalist, I concluded that opium must be familiar".[33]

Important to subsequent discourse, the character of the Other is recognised by De Quincey as possessing virtues in his statement and appreciation that "the less you understand of a language, the more sensible you are to the melody or harshness of its sounds"[34] Whilst opera is an 'acceptable' and to some degree assimilated form of cultural Other, its differing method of communication is deemed by De Quincey to possess intrinsic value, a rendered judgement which contains a germ of change seized upon by modern critics interested in the challenge of a post-colonialist discourse.

For, as the critic Homi Bhabha[35] notes, pejorative labels contain their own antithesis; therefore even as the Turk is inscribed as "slavish" [36] in his "gestures and adorations"[37] and presumed devoted to opium, so his culture becomes the dominant as it is recognised as the source of this controlling substance. Likewise, De Quincey's superiority of learning is never under threat since "the Malay had no way of betraying the secret"[38], but a threat to his status is nevertheless observed as eminently possible. Though concealed in his amusingly ironic supposition that his servant credits him for "knowledge of all the languages of the earth besides perhaps a few of the lunar ones"[39], an important self-revelation to the effect that his sphere of understanding is not without limit is formed.

Irony may also be the case in the choice of cover art found in the modern Penguin paperback printing of the Confessions, but it may not escape implication in De Quincey's Westernist assumptions: The Chinese dragon, smoke billowing highly suggestively from its nostrils, was a common indicator of opium parlours in settings as diverse as the colonized East and the public houses frequented by the low-paid working masses of developing America. Today, we may be able to knowingly reference cultures geographically distant from out our own, yet the need for an Other to demonise has not been erased by the cautionary tale of narratives such as De Quincey's. As more modern media adopting a tone of cultural criticism such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting remind us... even if they are aware the perils of drug use, people would not make use of them were they devoid of all positive effect or sensation. Or, as others have written of their habit in the liberal[40] papers: "perhaps I do not wish to get shed of it".[41] Otherwise productively contributing members of society fulfil this role in the relative absence of other groups to stigmatise: "Junkies and drug users are a new kind of other. Putting someone down by calling them a junky doesn't earn you a skeptical look"[42]

Who- and whatever De Quincey was as a person, dismissing him as a junkie would be to ignore the incredible charm of his literary achievements. A man with readily expressed faith in the operation and results of the alternative pseudo-science of rhabdomancy[43], possessed of an ability to smile knowingly at himself ("the compositors shudder at the sight of my handwriting, though not objectionable on the score of legibility"[44]), De Quincey's wry observations are what keep me reading and re-reading, therefore it is his deft manipulation of language I should choose to credit with 'heroic' status, were such an abstract required to be identified.

Thus, in conclusion, I concur with Fowlers assessment of finding De Quincey to be a pleasantly aesthetic author whom "at his very worst can never write so many pages in succession without striking out a phrase that it is a joy to discover."[45] I also readily subscribe to an enjoyment of polymorphic interpretations; in its open contradictions, the text invites inspection by way of multifarious critical lenses.


De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, searchable e-text provided by www.Gutenberg.net, (opium10.txt)

J.H. Fowler, De Quincey as Literary Critic, The English Association: Pamphlet 52, July 1922

T. De Quincey (ed. Georg Olms), Anglista & Americana: The Uncollected Writings, New York, 1974 [all quotes taken from the 2nd of the two books within this volume]

De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, London, date unmarked (1856 revision of text, Aberystwyth Hugh Owen Library classmark PR4532.C7)

De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Penguin, 1986

William Shakespeare (ed. Graff & Phelan), The Tempest, Bedford, 2000

Rivkin & Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998

WordWeb v1.63 (available from http://www.wordweb.co.uk)

Database maintained by Princeton University.

Steven T. Jones, "The Poppy Paradox"


Elizabeth Hille, "On The Front Lines In The War On Drugs"


Anonymous, "Confessions of an English Ecstacy Eater"


[all web-pages cached 21st November 2001]

[1] Penguin, P29

[2] Penguin, p32 (his italics)

[3] WordWeb

[4] Penguin, P96

[5] Gutenberg e-text

[6] Fowler, p5

[7] Penguin, P85

[8] 1858 edition, p2

[9] Penguin, 102

[10] Penguin, p73

[11] Penguin, p123

[12] Penguin, p32

[13] http://www.poppies.org/news/97724056752105.shtml

[14] Penguin, p32

[15] Gutenberg e-text

[16] Penguin, P33

[17] Penguin, p103

[18] Penguin, p103

[19] Gutenberg e-text

[20] Gutenberg e-text

[21] Gutenberg e-text

[22] Gutenberg e-text

[23] Penguin, P30

[24] Penguin, P83

[25] Penguin, P78

[26] Americana, p6

[27] Gutenberg e-text

[28] Americana, P10

[29] Americana, P30

[30] Americana, P34

[31] Americana, P35

[32] Tempest essays, Of the cannibals, p119

[33] Penguin, P91

[34] Penguin, p79

[35] Rivkin & Ryan, The Location of Culture, p937

[36] Gutenberg e-text

[37] Gutenberg e-text

[38] Gutenberg e-text

[39] Gutenberg e-text

[40] Or at least The Guardian...

[41] http://www.poppies.org/news/99524598413204.shtml

[42] http://www.poppies.org/news/100082437294106.shtml

[43] 1858 edition, p79

[44] 1858 edition, xiv (subtext: "Aren't I an endearing old geezer?")

[45] Fowler, p4