Tuesday, December 16, 2008

That Thomas DeQuincey Feeling

While housesitting for my pal Carla this past weekend and perusing her library, I happened upon a shelf of dusty and brittle old hardcovers presenting a series of classics in British literature. One title caught my eye - "Confessions of an English Opium Eater".

It was authored by Thomas DeQuincey in 1822, and written in a truly over-the-top addled-intellectual drug-damaged style, and almost completely bereft of paragraph indentation. Open the book anywhere and start reading in your most pompous John Cleese voice, and you won't be able to stop until your girlfriend beseeches you to please shut the fuck up.

My favorite example of the book's fevered style is on page 189 (Home Library edition, A.L. Burt Co.), where 2/3 of the page is taken by a bizarre footnote that goes off on a tangent about the evolution of teaspoons:

"According to the modern slang phrase, I had in the meridian stage of my opium career used "fabulous" quantities. Stating the quantities - not in solid opium, but in the tincture (known to everybody as Laudanum) - my daily ration was eight thousand drops. If you write down that amount in the ordinary way as 8,000, you see at a glance that you may read it into eight quantities of a thousand, or into eight hundred quantities of ten, or lastly, into eighty quantities of one hundred. Now, a single quantity of one hundred will about fill a very old fashioned obsolete tea-spoon, of that order which you find still lingering among the respectable poor. Eighty such quantities, therefore, would have filled eighty of such antediluvian spoons - that is it would have been the common hospital dose for three hundred and twenty adult patients. But the ordinary tea-spoon of this present nineteenth century is nearly as capacious as the dessert-spoon of our ancestors. Which I have heard accounted for thus: Throughout the eighteenth century, which first tea became known to the working population, the tea-drinkers were almost exclusively women; men, even in educated classes, very often persisting (down to the French Revolution) in treating such a beverage as an idle and effeminate indulgence. This obstinate twist in masculine habits it was that secretly controlled the manufacture of tea-spoons. Up to Waterloo, tea-spoons were adjusted chiefly to the caliber of female mouths. Since then, greatly to the benefit of the national health, the grosser and browner sex have universally fallen into the effeminate habit of tea-drinking; and the capacity of tea-spoons has naturally conformed to the new order of cormorant mouths that have alighted by myriads upon the tea-trays of these later generations."

Christ, Tom.

Not surprisingly, DeQuincey got a lot of flak back in the day about how his book seemed to actually glorify being a hophead instead of providing a warning. According to Wikipedia, "The fear of reckless imitation was not groundless: several English writers — Francis Thompson, James Thomson, William Blair, and perhaps Branwell Brontë — were led to opium use and addiction by De Quincey's literary example. Charles Baudelaire's 1860 translation and adaptation, "Les Paradis Artificiels", spread the work's influence further."

For much of the book, DeQuincey's mind wanders on stream-of-consciousness tangents about everything under the sun. Much of it enters into rather murky metaphysical waters, and having read this deranged leviathan of a tome in its entirely multiple times, I am convinced that it was a formative influence on the likes of Nietzsche, Crowley, Hubbard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, LaVey, and even Dali. (Crowley in particular, I believe, surely patterned his own "Diary of a Drug Fiend" after DeQuincey's book.)

As a bonus, this edition comes with an additional essay called "On Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts", which is a Swiftian defense of murder whose level of irony is so subtle that some who have read it thought he was serious. (And who knows, maybe he was.)

What I really want to know now is: has Nick Tosches read the book? Could it be that, having been nurtured on his loftily sarcastic prose in my own formative years, I've come full circle and stumbled upon the - dare I say it, antediluvian - template for Tosches' own gift of gab?

- - JSH

1 comment:

J.T. Dockery said...

Without checking my copy, I believe Tosches opines on the subject in his "Last Opium Den," book/article. I'll dig the book out and confirm or deny my memory in a follow up comment.