A romantic opium addict and dreamer
Thomas DeQuincey he was the most productive of procrastinators, which is the word for people who tend to put off until tomorrow what they can do today. The first edition of his complete works exceeded twenty volumes, but after his death dozens of lost newspaper articles continued to appear, as if he had continued to write from beyond the grave. It all had its beginning, however, in 1821, when he anonymously published some memoirs about his addiction to laudanum and the following year –days more, days less two centuries ago, in 1822– he signed them, already as a book. In times of extreme romanticism, Confessions of an English Opium Eater made him a rare celebrity.
De Quincey (1785-1859) wore his somewhat cursed aura without fanfare. There may be a dose of melancholy in it, but none of the gloom of a title like Of murder considered as one of the fine arts (which is grim, but mostly ironic). He can be considered the first of the bohemians prone to narcotic experimentalism, from Baudelaire (who plagiarized him in The artificial paradis) to the beatniks, but De Quincey is above all an artist of digression and autobiographical gesture. The first example of this personal drift is in the same Confessions of an English Opium Eater: To recount the origins of his addiction, he devotes the opening half of the book to his early years, his exceptional command of Greek, his escape from Oxford, wanderings in Wales, and subsequent wandering life in London. How did he get to “the pleasures of opium”, which would later become “the torments of opium”?: by hunger, facial neuralgia and stomach discomfort. De Quincey was not an opium smoker. He consumed it in thousands of daily drops of laudanum, where he appears diluted. He is interested in describing above all its spatial effects and its ability “to increase the dimensions of time”. He does not wallow in physical discomfort: in fact, he denies that these are the main problems derived from the consumption of the compound. The really chilling thing, he argues, is in the dreams and nightmares it produces.
In his curious way in De Quincey Freud is already rattling
He had already “tasted happiness in both solid and liquid form, both boiled and unboiled” when one day a Malay knocked on his door, in the heart of Britain. What could take an Asiatic to the English mountains, de Quincey wonders? According to his calculations, he had to go to some sea port at a good distance. The individual only asked to rest on the floor for a while. An hour later, before he left, knowing that he would meet him, the Englishman gave him some opium, which the visitor cut into three and ate in one bite. To the horror of his host, who waited for days for news of a dead Asian nearby.
True or fabled, that Malay would sneak into the hallucinated nights of the English, accompanied by brothers who launched themselves against him like furious madmen. The attention to the oneiric instance and what it communicates –the dreams he narrates are varied– is actually De Quincey’s best discovery. The theme is further developed in the later deep sigh (1845), where opium accentuates once again “the greatness that the dreams of man enclose in potential”. The combination of childhood, objects, ideas, images and feelings that crowd “in the palimpsest of the brain” make sense. Seeing the intolerable sorrows of his early years reappearing in the opium dream, causing him pain, the writer wonders about “the tunnel” that connects past and present, the one we went to with the one we are. The “phenomena that occurred in the theater of my dreams”, he writes, do nothing more than repeat childhood experiences and it is probable that others “were the plants and the fruits of the seeds sown then”. In the curious manner of him in De Quincey Freud is already rattling.