Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey

 Confessions of an English Opium Eater
By Thomas De Quincey

Published: 1821

Synopsis (via Goodreads):
Describing the surreal hallucinations, insomnia and nightmarish visions, he experienced while consuming daily large amounts of laudanum, Thomas De Quincey's legendary account of the pleasures and pains of opium forged a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, and paved the way for later generations of literary drug-takers from Baudelaire to Burroughs.

I picked up this book one day while I was passing time in a bookstore because it was cheap and I was intrigued by the title. It's taken me a good year and a half to pull it down off my book and even then it was only the "Books I should have read by now" challenge that finally rekindled my interest in the short 100+ paged "confession".

I'd like to say I really enjoyed this one but unfortunately I really didn't. Theoretically it has everything I need, a non-fiction account of some deeply personal experience, insight into the life of someone caught in an addiction, an intelligent author and it's short. Unfortunately these aspects were only here in the vaguest forms and the writing style far out-weighed any positive glimmers there may have been hidden away under there.

I suppose there were two things that really bugged me about this book. First was the writing style. I'm always a bit iffy about reading texts from the 19th century because while some of my favourite books hail from that era all to often authors fall into that awkward and awful situation where they over-intellectualise and use 20 words where 5 would have done. De Quincey unfortunately fell into that category. His voice is beautiful and every now and then a quote of such perfection would dance across the page, but far too often it'd be clouded by buzz words (well as close to a buzz word as they had in in the 1800s) and intellectual self-promotion.

Not only did he use more words than necessary but he rambled on and off the path incessantly and it often became difficult to recognise why a particular anecdote was included in a text about a man and his drug addiction. The entire first fifty pages perfectly represent this issue. He states that he needs to establish a situation from his youth in order to best educate the reader as to how he became an addict. So for fifty-odd pages he tells of a troubled time in his youth when he ran away from school and lived (sort of) on the streets suffering from crippling hunger and the pains and illnesses that go with such a situation. When he moves on this past seems almost forgotten until he mentions that his dosage of opium increased when he began to suffer from stomach pains similar to those he felt when he was hungry as a teenager. That was it, that was as much of a link as there was between his troubled youth and his drug addiction at least that I could recognise within the convoluted writing.

This leads into criticism point two. I don't know the history of De Quincey and the nature of his drug addiction in the public sphere but the book read to me as though he was trying to clear his name after it'd been smeared by a link with drugs. Perhaps that is me reading too far into it but rather than really detail his drug taking experiences and the effects of the drug on him, which is what he stated the book was about in his introduction, he focused on the fact that he had taken far more than anyone else he'd ever known yet all the medical opinions of the side effects to mental and physical capacity had never troubled him, for the most part.

The beauty of books like Junkie by William S. Burroughs is that they provide insight into the life of a drug addict that you'd never come across in medical texts or psychology reports. It's dark, desperate and real. This was what I was expecting from this book but I received nothing of the sort. Towards the end De Quincey mentioned that after 18 or so years as an addict he had been clean for a few months so perhaps he didn't have the distance to objectively look at his position or perhaps he was too far away to provide those insights that Burroughs, Thompson and others provided when writing mid-addiction.

So I suppose to sum up my main critique is that while the focus of the story should have been fairly straight forward "I was a drug addict, this is what happened" it was far more convoluted, confusing and obtuse than that. And unfortunately the confusing language and lack of focus meant that the obvious brilliance that this man has is overshadowed and it becomes a chore to wade through in the hopes of a few well-tarnished gems. But they were there. From astute observations on the effects of drugs or alcohol on men (It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety), to witty rebukes against men of Oxford (intelligent but coarse, clumsy and inelegant) and downright beautiful prose on the mazes that he meandered through under the haze of opium, they are all there under the the mess and confusion of De Quincey's story. I'll end this review with one of my favourite quotes from the books. It came towards the end where he spoke of the dreams that haunted him during the thickest part of his addiction and it's simplicity and evocative imagery is everything I had hoped for in this book but failed, for the most part, to receive.

I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from thr wrath of Brama through the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, when the ibis and crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

My Rating: 2.5/5

1 comment:

  1. Despite your lukewarm reaction to the novell, I'm still oddly curious to read it considering the historical context and Quincey's influence on literature dealing with this subject matter. There is also something about narratives that deal with drug addiction that fascinate me: "Requiem for a Dream" and Fear and Loathing are personal favorites. It seems that I should also read "Junkie" as well. I really do enjoy your reviews, informative and well-written. Keep up the great work!



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