Two Centuries Ago: The Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Some foolhardy person attempted a quip on my social media page earlier today with reference to a hallucinatory movie from the 1930s, joking along the lines of “Who knew people were taking drugs as long ago as that?” But as any anthropologist or any college student who stays awake during class ought to be able to tell you, people have been taking hallucinogenic drugs for as long as there have been people — thousands of years anyway, maybe tens of thousands. I restrained myself from responding with a famous literary example much nearer to home (the Georgian Era), as being too mild a rebuke, but in doing so, I happened on a happy piece of information. The book has just turned 200 years old.

After having been originally published in sections in the London Magazine, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater came out in book form in December, 1822. I bet I’m not alone in finding the title of the book vaguely ridiculous; I’m sure it’s always struck people that way. It sounds both sensational and “morally improving”, like, perhaps, a temperance tract. Thankfully the book savors much more of the former than the latter, though it certainly did provide a kind of template for the million anti drug and alcohol pamphlets and self-help books that followed. Through no fault of de Quincey’s, I might add. He doesn’t pretend to have been cured of his opium addiction, and the majority of the book’s contents sing the praises of the drug’s effects in a manner so vivid and dream-like that you just know that he’s high even as he’s scribbling with his quill. His worship of the drug borders on the blasphemous. That above all is what commends the book — it’s less attractive for the autobiographical revelations (though those must have been pretty scandalous in his day) than the soaring passages of de Quincey’s fevered writing. To me, anyway. I wrote recently of Goethe’s influence on Poe; de Quincey made an even clearer imprint. Baudelaire was another admirer.

de Quincey (1785-1859) was a literary genius from the first, known for his facility in Greek even as a child. He was a major fan of Coleridge (no surprise there) and Wordsworth, and later got to know both men personally. The central calamity of his life was of his own making. Like some ancient prophet he ran away as a young man, and journeyed long distances on foot, essentially living the life of a homeless beggar, though he came from a well-off family and was educated at the best schools (including Oxford). He wore rags and starved for months on end, in the grip apparently of some Romantic vision. There were lasting long term effects on his health, such as stomach ailments and neuralgia. He tried opium (by his own account) to treat the pain, and was able to manage his use of the drug for a surprisingly long time. After several years, he went from taking it as treatment to taking it recreationally once a week, and finally daily. Naturally over time he came to experience the ill-effects of withdrawal. He articulates the heightened poles of pain and pleasure such that it ought to give anyone pause, but that’s never stopped many a foolish and impressionable youngster from following in his footsteps. And of course his need for the drug brought him into “low company”, accounts certain to raise the racist hackles of his age.

If you have any doubt about the extent of de Quincey’s madness, witness the irrational raptures he goes into over the writing of political economist David Ricardo! Ricardo’s was a respected intellect; de Quincey makes him sound like the Second Coming of Christ. de Quincey also wrote on economics himself, as well as history and biography, and worked as a journalist in addition to his more lurid confessions and poetry. Like the later William S. Borroughs (the Beats loved him too) de Quincey was the rare, functioning drug addict.

de Quincy’s second best loved work also bears investigation. It’s his satirical 1827 essay On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, and its sequels. Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and George Orwell were also fans.

As we write this we are also at the 60th anniversary of Albert Zugsmith’s low budget cinematic adaptation of the book, Confessions of an Open Eater (1962), starring Vincent Price!

The book is available to read for free here. Your education won’t be complete without it!