Confessions of an English Opium Eater - Thomas de Quincey, Barry Milligan

A masterpiece of autobiography, and perhaps the first literary memoir of an addict, the Penguin Classics edition of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is edited with an introduction by Barry Milligan. 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 addiction hauntingly describes his surreal visions and hallucinatory nocturnal wanderings through 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, describing in intimate detail the mind-altering pleasures and pains unique to opium. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater forged a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, paving the way for later generations of literary addicts from Baudelaire to James Frey, and anticipating psychoanalysis with its insights into the subconscious.





** Again, originally wrote this review in May 2013, on my old Blogger book blog:


Another book on addiction here, dating back to 1821 -- Confessions Of An English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey. Now published as a full book, this manuscript originated as serial submissions to London Magazine in September and October of 1821, published again in the magazine, in its entirety, in December of 1822. De Quincey describes himself as coming from a pretty average, happy family. Both of his parents were intelligent, bookish people and his father was a respected if modestly successful (in the financial sense) English merchant. Remember in the last post how Denizet-Lewis was saying how not every addict comes from a screwed up childhood? This guy is a perfect example. Pretty decent childhood, doesn't start using until his college years in 1804 -- he had a habit of dunking his head in freezing cold water right before going to sleep, waking up one morning to "rheumatic pains of the head and face" which didn't abate for over a month. A college buddy suggests, in a posh Victorian sort of way, what I imagine amounted to "Dude, I hear opium is awesome for earaches and migraines!" And so De Quincey is off to the opium races from there. Doctors later speculated that De Quincey may have suffered from neuralgia, eyesight defiencies, and stomach troubles that may have spurred De Quincey to continue long-term use of opium as a source of pain management. 


Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon.
Reading his memoir, De Quincey struck me as being the sort of guy
who had a good deal of book learning but wasn't all that srong in
the common sense / life skills department. 




Much of what he describes in his downfall seems like the result of petty, childish behavior on De Quincey's part. It starts with De Quincey staying at a friend's place on a visit, where he ends up walking out vowing not to return over what he took as a personal affront, but what sounded more to me just like a misunderstanding. Either way, he allowed no opportunity for apology and just went off to a hotel until he couldn't pay rent there and was then made homeless. As he finds the money to, De Quincey occasionally pops into brothels, mostly in or around Oxford Street (now a major shopping district) in London, England until one day he befriends a 16 yr old prostitute by the name of Ann. He raises her on high as his lifesaver, someone who came to his aid when he was sick, homeless and friendless (again, this is where my tough love side was thinking - yeah but you got yourself in that completely avoidable fix...). He later loses contact with Ann, this earthbound angel as he sees her, because he never bothered to get her last name. These two hung out for weeks on end, last names never came up. I can relate for a minute because I didn't bother to get my husband's last name til our 3rd date. I was just having so much fun around the guy it took me a bit to realize I didn't have this information. But that's 3 dates. De Quincey says he spent nearly all day, every day for weeks on end with this girl and then never gets to see her again over this gaffe because he has no way to track her down after what was suppose to be a temporary parting of ways. C'mon man! 


Poppies! Fragile, beautiful flowers, enjoyed by preying mantises (or mantes), 
as I found out in my garden here in NC, state flower of my home state (Cali-forn-i-a), 
and some (not all) varieties are the source of the narcotic opium.
 De Quincey describes the side effects of opium use as being: 
swelling of the lower jaw, insomnia, mouth ulcers, persistent joint pain,
and "violent sternuation", or simply put, gawdawful sneezing fits.
Now doesn't that sound like a big ol bag of Skittles! :-P
By the year 1812, De Quincey finds enough money to get himself to Germany where, from 1812-1819, he takes up residence in a quaint mountain cottage where he battles stomach troubles and indulges in wine, opium and voracious reading of German metaphysics. After 1819, he decides he seriously wants to get off the opium train and is prescribed Valerian to fight the detox shakes. I found that interesting since I've taken Valerian in the past for my sleep issues and I've been hearing all my life that the best way for the body to heal  itself is through sleep. De Quincey eventually does break his habit and goes on to publish the book I'm discussing here today. And I don't know if it was the dichotomy in this book or what, I mean with De Quincey starting out talking about how great the early days of his opium use were to him fighting to come off of it, but I could not get this song out of my head during the reading of his book. {Sidenote: If you want an extra laugh, check out this version done with Muppets! X-D}
The tone of the memoir strikes me as that of a very self-indulgent and overly pampered soul and I didn't get the impression that de Quincey was all THAT repentant about how badly he screwed up his life, or that he had really taken any real life lesson away from the experience.