Elizabeth’s Chamber

Frank Kermode

  • The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism by John Barrell
    Yale, 235 pp, £18.95, May 1991, ISBN 0 300 04932 3

De Quincey, who declared in his Suspiria that remembered dreams were ‘dark reflections from eternities below all life’, would not have been surprised that modern critical analysts try to discover master patterns, configurations of images or narrative elements, underlying all his writing, asking of what eternities below these compulsive patterns are the reflection. It would have seemed plausible that there should be connections, posthumously revealed, between his private fantasies and his public performances. For, as Bonamy Dobrée remarked with old-fashioned simplicity, he was good at understanding ‘how one thing has a bearing on another’. No doubt even the Prolegomena to all Future Systems of Political Economy, had he got round to writing it, would have unwittingly offered later analysts evidence of his covert, irresistible concerns.

Hitherto, the most serious modern attempt to understand how, in the considerable mass of De Quincey’s extant writings, one thing has a bearing on another was that of J. Hillis Miller, in his book, The Disappearance of God, which was published in 1963, before Miller took his deconstructionist turn. The critical avant-garde was at that moment phenomenological, in the manner of Gaston Poulet; the critical project was to map the configurations and repetitions of an entire oeuvre, including marginal materials, journal entries and the like, rather than to analyse individual works. As Professor Barrel acknowledges, Miller’s essay is very good, and his book owes something to the earlier superseded methodology, though it prefers to the phenomenological ground-plan a sometimes surprisingly unreconstructed Freudianism. However, Barrell’s book is also very good, well and boldly written, sometimes indeed with a gratifying coarseness.

The last quality, accompanied by a tendency to make rather broad (and sometimes rather good) jokes, distances Barrell’s prose from that of his subject, for whom he occasionally evinces a touch of humorous contempt. Indeed one general complaint about the book might be that Barrell hardly bothers to persuade the reader that his spending so much time and labour on De Quincey has anything much to do with taking him to be an important writer. Barrell may well think him that, but is almost entirely preoccupied with establishing that even though De Quincey was quite good at doing so, he understands rather better the way one thing bears on another.

De Quincey used the noun ‘involute’, borrowed from conchology, to mean a recurring complex of ideas, or as Barrell puts it, ‘an intricately coiled or interwoven manifold’. ‘Far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings,’ said De Quincey, ‘pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes ... in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly, and in their own abstract shapes.’ Barrell is interested not only in the involutes that De Quincey himself recognised, but in other less palpable involutes somehow encapsulating these known ones. Eventually he can produce, with admirable ingenuity, a sort of arch-involute, a master key, of complicated design, to the way De Quincey’s mind worked.

Miller had a key, too, but of course it was different, being ultimately theological and meant to open up the question as to how De Quincey, among others, was affected by God’s 19th-century disappearance. Barrell has nothing to say on such matters, for he is not a theologian but a pathologist, as his title suggests. For all its boisterous manner, his is a clinical approach, and he sometimes makes one think of the doctor who (probably) dissected the head of De Quincey’s three-year-old sister Elizabeth, dead of hydrocephalus – a dissection or desecration which disturbed the author profoundly, and in ways that are in turn subjected to Barrell’s imperturbable analysis.

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