The Haunting of Thomas De Quincey

The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism

by John Barrell
Yale University Press, 235 pp., $30.00

Since the beginning of the Gulf War many Westerners must have asked themselves how much their attitudes toward Arab nations were based on actual events, how much on personal experience that we mistakenly treat as generic, how much on those institutionalized feelings about the alien and exotic that make up racism. The problem is not a new one, for the inability of West and East to distinguish between personal and social prejudices about each other has a long history: one wonders whether modern attitudes are all that different from what at least a few Europeans must have felt during the Crusades.

It is certainly a problem that arose a century and a half ago in the belligerently imperialist writings of Thomas De Quincey, whose horror of the Orient he put bluntly: “I have often thought, that if I were compelled to forgo England and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad.” Yet he had never been out of the British Isles.

De Quincey (1785–1859) was a very curious man, one of those oddly unsatisfactory writers who lived on the periphery of the literary great of his day, in whose shadow his image fades into insubstantiality. Although he spent long periods with Coleridge and Wordsworth (whose friendship he exaggerated and Wordsworth discounted), literary immortality has bypassed him. He wrote wonderful autobiographical essays, worked as a journalist contributing articles on political and economic subjects to a variety of publications, and tried an unsuccessful hand at being translator, novelist, and literary critic. His collected works, published at the end of the last century, when his reputation was at its height, run to fourteen volumes, but today there is little chance of most readers knowing any of them except Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” and perhaps “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.”

He was clever enough to know that he could never rival the Lake Poets, so instead he set about reviving the tradition of the great prose writers of the seventeenth century in a baroque style of his own that he called “bar-baresque,” a flamboyant compound of disparate images drawn from his reading about the Far East and intensity of vision and dream either induced or abetted by the vast quantities of opium he took. The result was what he named “the department of impassioned prose.” Carlyle, with his usual dyspepsia, christened it the “Bog School” of writing, in emulation of the Lake Poets.

Nor was De Quincey’s nonliterary life more successful. It was a tired and aimless journey that reads like a Dickensian sketch—a forced marriage, too many children, too little money, moonlight flits from one bedraggled house to another, arrests for debt, frequent occasions on which he absent-mindedly set himself and his papers afire, illness that drove him to opium, which in turn brought on truly formidable constipation that had him contemplating any remedy short of high explosives.…

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