Drink it, don’t eat it or smoke it

Mike Jay

  • The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison
    Weidenfeld, 462 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 297 85279 7

The film Confessions of an Opium Eater, shot on a shoestring by Albert Zugsmith in 1962 and starring Vincent Price, opens with Vaseline-fogged images of a Chinese junk and a delirious Price voice-over (‘I am De Quincey … I dream … and I create dreams … out of my opium pipe’). This is Gilbert De Quincey, a presumed descendant, who wanders the seas as a captain for hire, searching for ‘well, what every man searches for’. The film demonstrates two points very clearly. The first is the remarkable persistence of De Quincey the Opium-Eater as the archetype of the modern drug-taker. The second is that this archetype doesn’t depend on any element of either De Quincey’s life or his work beyond his name and the title of his most celebrated book.

De Quincey’s status as the first modern drug-taker isn’t simply a matter of hindsight. It formed almost immediately on the publication of his Confessions in the London Magazine in 1821, where he pronounced himself ‘the only member’ of ‘the true church on the subject of opium’ (by the time of the revised edition of 1856 he had promoted himself to its pope). He published it anonymously, but within weeks his flimsy cover had been blown, and ‘The Opium-Eater’ became a transparent and self-advertising pseudonym that he cultivated for the rest of his improbably long life. By 1840 the Opium-Eater had taken on a cosmopolitan life of his own. Gogol adapted his London dream-wanderings to St Petersburg in Nevsky Prospekt; in America the Confessions were praised by Emerson and pilfered by Poe; in France, Musset’s eccentrically elaborated translation inspired Gautier and Balzac to create their own versions of the drug-taking hero, and Berlioz to transpose its nightmare fugues to his Symphonie Fantastique.

But this eager congregation makes it all the more puzzling that De Quincey should see himself as opium’s first and only celebrant. There was, after all, no mystery about the drug itself, perhaps the best-known medicine of its day and available in any high-street pharmacy. It was a recourse for pain of all kinds, a sedative, a specific against diarrhoea, coughs and fevers; laudanum, its tincture in alcohol, had been a standard preparation since at least the 17th century and the time of the London doctor Thomas Sydenham, after whom its most familiar recipe was named. It was not taboo to use it habitually, or even to celebrate its mind-altering effects: had it been, De Quincey could hardly have parlayed his fame into a column for the vigorously Tory Blackwood’s Magazine, a platform from which he would defend ultra-establishment causes for many years. He wasn’t staking a precious reputation on his confession either: after a decade of false starts, it was among the first pieces he published. Robert Morrison observes that another of his trademark habits, riding on the top of carriages rather than inside, became a vogue among the dashing ‘Oxford sparks’ of his day; but opium-eating didn’t apparently hold similar thrills for the dandy culture. What was it precisely, then, that De Quincey was the first to do – and, given the instant popularity of the Confessions, why had somebody else not already done it?

The familiar answer – that his new church was that of the ‘recreational’ drug-user – will not entirely do. The label would not have been understood at the time; De Quincey himself would be instrumental in sharpening the distinction between drugs taken for medical use and those taken for pleasure, but he would also resist any such neat demarcation of his own motives. Furthermore, the notion that opium had the power to confer pleasant states of dream and reverie was already familiar. As far back as 1701, the doctor and opium enthusiast John Jones said of the intoxicated (and intoxicating) state it brought about that ‘people do commonly call it a heavenly condition, as if no worldly Pleasure was to be compared with it’; and indeed Jones went further than De Quincey ever would in describing its effects as ‘a permanent gentle Degree of that Pleasure, which Modesty forbids the naming of’. Nor was De Quincey the first to push its use to extremes: by the time he was born, it had been championed for all manner of conditions, notably by the Edinburgh doctor John Brown, whose controversial medical theory elevated it into an elixir that directly stimulated the life-force; Brown himself was observed to down 50 drops of laudanum in a glass of whisky four or five times in the course of a lecture.

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