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 As Professor Barrel acknowledges, Miller’s essay is very good, and his book owes something to the earlier superseded methodology, though it prefers to the phenomenological ground-plan a sometimes surprisingly unreconstructed Freudianism.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.

The general idea is this: the obvious core of De Quincey’s principal involute is the moment, variously described in several of the autobiographical writings, when the author, aged nearly seven, goes into the room containing the corpse of his sister. The notion that he had somehow allowed her to die leaves its mark, not only on De Quincey’s repeated though not always consistent accounts of this moment, but on his writings more generally – for example, those that recount dreams of failing some task that calls for courage – like standing up to a lion. Sometimes the associations are fairly simple to spot, as in his response to the death of the child Kate Wordsworth, or, more notoriously, to Ann of Oxford Street, and other young outcast girls and ‘pariahs’.

Having stolen into the room where his dead sister lay, De Quincey reports that he fancied he heard a footstep on the stair, whereupon he kissed the girl and ‘slunk’ away. The guilt that lingered arose, according to the author, from the haste of this departure, but to Barrell it is a clear sign of sexual guilt. The psychic situation is further complicated by the horror of the dissection of the girl’s head, which, it seems, was customary in cases of death by hydrocephalus, a disease De Quincey sometimes fancied he had himself. The implications of all this and its effect on the author’s attitude to his brother (to whom he transferred his own guilt in the death of the little girl) are ingeniously explored but far too complex to explain here. Barrell is sure not only that the whole involuted pattern expands into the rest of the oeuvre, even into the most public geopolitical speculations, but also that hidden deeper in the shell, underneath the fantasies of Elizabeth’s chamber, there is yet another and more universal fantasy: that all De Quincey’s dreaming and musing on the theme are really a displacement of the Primal Scene, identified as the main source of the guilty ‘infections’ from which the author continually suffered.

He was obsessed with the idea of the chamber as a secret place of guilt and source of ‘taint’. Meditating on leprosy, he asks: ‘Did you ever read of that tremendous visitation in the early days of Judaism, when if the poor patient would have hushed up his misery in silence, the walls of his house whispered of his whereabouts. Horrible! that a man’s own chamber – the place of his refuge and retreat – should betray him!’ The main bearing of this is obvious, though interpretations of the detail will vary. Barrell, commenting on the passage, offers evidence for De Quincey’s involuted attitude to whispering, including the experience in the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s which he recalled in the Opium Eater. The context there is complicated, for the St Paul’s story occurs as part of the account of his clandestine departure from Manchester Grammar School, his fear of detection, his daydream recalling that earlier moment when, at the age of 15, he had heard a whisper return as a series of ‘volleying thunders’: ‘Once leave this house, and a Rubicon is placed between thee and all possibility of return.’ At which point ‘a sudden step upon the stair broke my dream ... ’

Barrell is obviously right to connect this step on the stair with the one that interrupted the boy’s furtive visit to Elizabeth’s ‘chamber’, and there is a lot more in this remarkable passage that could have been adduced. De Quincey is ostensibly recalling ‘that great Roman warning, Nescit vox missa reverti (that a word once uttered is irrevocable)’, and applying it not only to past words but to past actions, the reverberations of which will confront him ‘at the other end’ of his ‘long life gallery’. One notes the precision with which he specifies the place where he was standing in the cathedral: ‘on the very spot where rather more than five years subsequently Lord Nelson was buried – a spot from which we saw, pompously floating to and fro in the upper spaces of the great aisle running westward from ourselves, many flags captured from France, Spain and Holland ... these solemn trophies of chance and change amongst mighty nations ... ’ This parenthesis is typical. De Quincey is describing the emotions of a boy about to run away from school by giving him a daydream in which he recalls another daydream, that other occurring in a church, and related not only to his guilt and his fear of ultimate discovery, but also to the apparently irrelevant display of imperial trophies and, in these years before Trafalgar, the still unconsummated triumph of British sea power. ‘Pompous’ is a word that throughout its history has trembled between description, solemn approval and derisive censure; De Quincey was an imperialist, sometimes blatantly so, but one of the things Barrell makes very clear is that he also had a strong sense of the ways in which empire enlarged the possibilities of imaginative terror, strengthening the power of the Other – of the hordes of the East and their imagery – to threaten and infect.

The journal passage about leprosy concerns the certainty of guilt, betrayal and discovery. ‘The walls of his house whispered his whereabouts’ is a deliberate and characteristic distortion of a line in Macbeth, a play which had special significance for De Quincey: ‘The very stones prate of my whereabout.’ He couldn’t say ‘prate’ with its irrelevant note of contempt, and chose instead ‘whisper’ because it suggested something said quietly, as in St Paul’s, but with horribly loud and public consequences. He was thinking also of Leviticus 14, which is all about leprosy as early Jewish law understood it – not the modern disease but skin diseases generally, and also various kinds of rot and decay that affected buildings. To enter a house certified by the priest as leprous was to become unclean oneself (v.46). In this sense the ‘leper’s’ own chamber betrays him: it not only echoes his uncleanness but can even be the cause of it. Instead of offering refuge and retreat, it tainted and proclaimed the taint, though in a treacherous whisper, almost silent yet intelligible to all. The chamber (a word sometimes applied by De Quincey to the head, always susceptible to hydrocephalic infection) is part of a very involuted involute indeed.

The involutions just described, though not identical with Barrell’s, may be taken as an imitative tribute. Everything, including Manchester Grammar School and the Whispering Gallery, returns in the end to Elizabeth’s chamber, or to that other forbidden chamber it displaced in the memory, the site of the discovery of sexual difference. And from this centre the constituents of the involute are whirled into spirals of figuration more or less occultly present throughout the works. De Quincey’s ambivalent attitude to the lower classes – he liked to observe them, but feared them, as he feared yet sought out his ‘pariahs’ – expands into a greater dread of the shapeless masses further east, and then further east again, rather as if he saw the inhabitants of the Orient as the monstrous horde against which the Alexander of legend built his iron gates; the gates had now been breached, but from the western side, in the imperial expansion. Faced by these eastern millions De Quincey, desperate, would even make common cause with the masses closer home, Britons all – as earlier he had made common cause with his unloved brother William against the Manchester street boys. Or he might deal with the threat of the eastern Other by ‘inoculating’ himself, for example by taking opium, an oriental substance, and with its aid protect himself against dreams of oriental barbarity, though it substituted terrors of its own. Oriental imagery, shown by Barrell to be deeply associated with the fate of the dead Elizabeth, gave shapes to his terrors, and also accounted for his chauvinistic ferocity against the Hindus and, worst of all, the Chinese. Presumably it also played some part in the curious incident described in the Opium Eater of the Malay (a surrogate, Barrell suggests, for brother William) whose turban, always a mark of alarming oriental difference, scared the servant girl, and to whom in his unoriental Lakeland cottage De Quincey fed a lethal dose of opium and watched him consume it without demur.

Barrell, ever as subtle as boisterous, argues that no matter whether De Quincey is writing on colossal Egyptian statues or on the nebula as drawn by Herschel, or on British imperial adventures, the shape of his narrative is always secretly secured in his ‘childhood myth’. What he writes of empire, anxious, intemperate and chauvinist as it is, still goes back to that chamber. He is always the boy in St Paul’s, reflecting on his unappeasable guilt while standing under the pompous imperial trophies. Barrell is nowhere more lively than when enlarging upon the relation between empire and rape (‘Ceylon’s resistance to the arms of the British was a sure sign of her desire to be embraced’) or on the customary British punishment of blowing ‘natives’ away by tying the malefactor over the mouth of a cannon and firing it – a practice, as one of the soldiers testified, that at first sight or hearing may seem pretty gruesome, but you soon get used to it.

He promises and delivers ‘prurience’, makes his jokes, and in general carries one along by high spirits and by perceptions both surprising and convincing. Occasionally there may be a little sleight of hand: ‘The image of tigerish ferocity is used on numerous occasions ... without any apparent appeal to this imperialist discourse,’ he concedes at one point, ‘but by the middle decades of the 19th century the image must always have evoked an obscure and imaginary oriental ferocity.’ It must, because if it didn’t those ‘numerous instances’ would tell awkwardly against the thesis. A certain amount of this kind of thing may be excused when the argument necessarily deals with extremes. Whether the same concession can properly be made to the argument by which De Quincey’s response to the autopsy on Elizabeth is said to be a way of punishing the woman ‘for a horror of which she appears to be the victim but is believed to be the source’ is perhaps more doubtful. ‘This story which appears to lament the death of a sister would instead – or in addition – serve the purpose of punishing her or women in general for the fact of their sex.’ Well, up to a point, perhaps. No wonder Barrell needs to be particularly eloquent on the reasons why De Quincey enjoyed moderate domestic contentment.

Another criticism, already adumbrated, is that Barrell conducts his exuberant psychic autopsy without much show of regard for the person dissected, almost allowing one to think he could do the same job on anybody. In doing so, he risks making his man seem less interesting than he is, and as Barrell must have thought before embarking on his researches.

Having, like Miller, presented his evidence from a synchronic survey of the corpus (here a particularly appropriate word), his main problem, as he sees it, is methodological: how to answer the question whether the decisive experience in the chamber was the cause or the effect of De Quincey’s imaginative vagaries, especially about politics and the Orient. ‘It seems best,’ he decides, ‘to think of the relation between childhood and the oriental in De Quincey’s writings as a relation between two forms of guilt, personal and political, in which each can be a displaced version of the other, and in which each aggravates the other in an ascending spiral of violence.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘each may be both what it is and a representation of the other: a fear of the Orient, for example, may be a fear of the Orient and the site of a different, a displaced fear.’ Clearly this is for his purposes the best possible answer, much as some commentators, though not all, would say that events occurring in the past of an analysand are events that occurred in the analysand’s past and also events that occurred in the transference. I suppose the question whether the involutions examined by Barrell are in De Quincey or in Barrell or in their transference/counter-transference might be answered in a similarly oracular way. None of this alters the fact that this is a remarkably confident, intelligent and vigorous piece of criticism.