Thomas de Quincey, after the publication of his book ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821 emerged as, it is said, as the first modern drug taker of our times, but was he really? In an era when opium was consumed for everything from the mildest cough to childbirth was De Quincey’s literary confession of opium more about historical timing and familiar titillation of the middle classes, rather than any expose of a new or intrepid drug enthusiast?
De Quincey loudly declared himself the ‘only member’ of ‘the true church on the subject of opium’ and, as if to embrace the challenge, insisted that The English Opium Eater, was not the same as any other opium pursuant, but rather was of a superior type: ‘I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had’.
Drug historian Mike Jay, in his excellent article on the subject called ‘The Pope of Opium‘ adds “Although De Quincey did eat his dose on occasions, sometimes carrying a snuff-box of small opium pills, he typically (like most English people) drank it; Interestingly Jay surmises “by identifying himself as an opium-eater, he was entwining something like our modern sense of ‘recreational user’ with the sneer of a cultural outlaw, appropriating a foreign habit and deliberately courting the reader’s disapproval, even disgust“.
A friend directed me to Mike Jays piece on De Quincey’s Confessions and I found it so interesting I had to relay it here -and just for an extra buzz I have added a few bits from the classic movie ‘ Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ with Vincent Price, sure to give you a smile.
Mike Jay tells us that De Quincey now survives as the first modern drug enthusiast, through “not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening. It was a Byronic double game: baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion while delighting the elite with the invention of a new vice”.
De Quincey knew he was “in the crowd but not of it”, and appealing mix of “both aristocrat and outcast” he engineered his following reflecting his own youthful and perhaps voyeuristic fascination with Coleridge and Wordsworth, falling in with the cult of the first celebrity, and perhaps defining our first ‘cool celebrity drug user’.
Jay continues in conclusion to point out that De Quincey’s entire identity was existing through his Confession’s creation, which allowed him to indulge his vice till he died at a ripe age, and to continue to play out romantic dramatisations of the confessional throughout his long and pained existence, ultimately however, to find himself losing the spark of literary vision from the weight of such soporific dependence.
Yet Jay reminds us we should not forget that Quincey’s “harrowing portrait of the labyrinth of addiction, far in advance of the medical understanding of the day, remains unsurpassed.”
“He was, in modern parlance, a high-functioning addict: the drug enabled him to cope with the self-inflicted stresses of debt, illness and overwork, to persist in a hand-to-mouth existence, to play the victim and indulge an endless drama of persecution. His identity as the Opium Eater served as both cause and excuse for his miserable state. On the rare occasions he had money, he stopped writing and lived the life of leisure he believed to be his birthright; it was his expenditure on opium that forced him back to work, along with his need for fame. The life of the Opium Eater was a living death, but it was also immortality.”
For the entire article, well worth reading, click here. But here is a sample in brief;
Mike Jay’s discussion on De Quincey as the first real drug enthusiast, begins with an introduction to the classic film, Confessions of an Opium-Eater…
There is a little-known film entitled Confessions of an Opium-Eater, shot on a shoestring by Albert Zugsmith in 1962 and starring Vincent Price, an attempt to cash in on and extend his successful series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. It 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…’) before clarifying that his character is in fact Gilbert De Quincey, a presumed descendent who wanders the seas as a captain-for-hire searching for ‘…well, what every man searches for’. In the Chinatown of late nineteenth-century San Francisco he is drawn into an intrigue between Tong factions that cues a breathless farrago of opium dens, secret passages, caged Oriental women, masked thugs, rooftop chases and hatchet fights: a two-fisted De Quincey against the Yellow Peril.
Beyond the passing observation that Thomas De Quincey would have applauded its racial politics, 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 drugtaker, recognisable enough even to hook teenage audiences in the drive-ins of the southern States (Poe might have been on their school syllabus, but De Quincey surely not). The second is that this recognition depends on no element of either his life or his work beyond his name and the title of his most celebrated book.
For the rest of Mike Jays excellent article on De Quincey, click here.
Here is a terrific trailer of the original film, which will lead you to the entire film as seen on You Tube grouped in about 10 parts. Brilliant stuff.
Oh Jeez, ok here is part 1 an’ all, which gives you a direct link at the end on You Tube to the other 9. Take a chill pill and watch good ol’ Vincent Price at his finest.