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. But simmering, occasionally boiling, beneath the dismal surface was the psyche of an unexpected sort of man, full of prejudice, passion, and fear.

With such an existence to bear, he is hardly to be blamed for turning to drugs. By 1816 he claimed that his daily intake was approximately two grams of morphine daily, just tolerable to an addict but for others enough “to kill some half-dozen dragoons, together with their horses.” He believed, as he wrote in his “confessions,” that it was not taking the drug but withdrawal from it that brought on the intricate, crawling, writhing, terrifying dreams and reveries that followed. If it was compensation for his unsatisfactory life that he sought, he got more than he bargained for. Not the least of his self-begotten terrors was that of everything Oriental.

Other writers have echoed De Quincey in speculating about the reasons for his savage contempt for everything east of Europe and, like De Quincey himself, wondered whether it sprang from unacknowledged personal traumas, possibly suffered in childhood. He invites such guesswork by his surprisingly modern preoccupation with the symbolic content of dreams and the unintentional revelations of language. The origin of the book under review was apparently John Barrell’s attempt to distinguish between what was peculiar to De Quincey’s imagination and what were the accepted prejudices of the society of his time, and how the two affected each other. The book became a history of De Quincey’s unconscious, interior self. Alethea Hayter was very much to the point in her brilliant study Opium and the Romantic Imagination: “Any writer’s stock of imagery is a mixed bag of wild game which he has shot for himself and tame, even tinned, fowls which are obtainable in shops.”

A few years ago in his film of Forster’s A Passage to India, David Lean sent Adela Quested into the alien countryside on her bicycle in search of the “real” India, where she gets more than she expects when she comes upon an ancient temple, long fallen into disarray. As she stands there, torn between curiosity and lack of comprehension, the very stones of the ruin explode with hundreds of monkeys, chattering, hissing, inexplicably in relentless pursuit of the poor English spinster, who has no choice except to escape on her Western machine.


The temple scene is a parallel to the moment in the Marabar caves when she flees in unhinged terror from what may be an emanation from the Indians around her or only the touch of a baby’s hand, perhaps a primitive sound or even the incomprehensible presence of the country that she has so earnestly sought. Lean deliberately leaves us to sense that part of Miss Quested’s reactions at the temple come from being brought to see in a mirror the unspeakable truth, that her gibbering pursuers represent the reality of mankind, in which neither English nor Indian has the slightest meaning. Her experiences force her to confront in herself the revulsion from the East that she deplores in others.

What divides her preconceptions from what confronts her in the physical world? Which view is the cause of the other? John Barrell, a professor of English at the University of Sussex, asks a nearly identical question in The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: Which had an earlier place in De Quincey’s contemptuous and fearful attitude to the East, the normal public prejudice of his day or the largely unverbalized terrors of his childhood. Somewhat disappointingly, he insist that neither precedes the other, since it “is the co-operation of internal and external horrors, each disguised as the other, that makes De Quincey’s world such a terrifying place.”

The simple truth for a reader is that the very structure of Barrell’s book denies the probability of his cultural pressures and his inner terrors becoming important to De Quincey at the same time; one must precede the other. Priority is indicated both by their temporal order in Barrell’s account and by the space allotted respectively to investigation of the public and the private. When the first three quarters of the book is taken up with the childhood traumas of De Quincey, the reader will inevitably believe in them as the more important source of his adult phobias.

Adela’s sickening sight of her own features in her simian pursuers is reminiscent of a passage in De Quincey’s translation of Niels Klim’s Subterranean Journey, a utopian novel by the Danish writer Ludvig Holberg, in which the central character, an “Extraordinary Ape,” complains of the platoons of his wild relatives “who mistake me for one of their species.” Like Gulliver with the Yahoos, he drives off the wild apes with a boathook for having dared to affront “the whole species…which I had the honour to represent”:

With the perseverance of flies or gnats however, as often as they were brushed off, back they swarmed again; so that I was obliged to keep in continual readiness for action; and the whole latter part of my progress was a running fight, in which I had the satisfaction of bestowing innumerable raps and fractures on some thousands of empty skulls, and strewing the road with heaps of chattering baboons whom I had smashed in vindication of my own insulted honour and that of my species.

Elsewhere De Quincey recorded dreams of pursuit in which he took refuge in pagodas, only to be “stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys.” To him the unnerving likeness of human beings to animals, and the sheer fecundity of both became reasons for terror, to which De Quincey gave a local habitation by considering the masses of the Jacobin working classes in London, which seemed to him like the ever-proliferating nations of the Orient, that “part of the earth most swarming with human life, the great officina gentium. Man is a weed in those regions.” For him to think of one of those localities was enough to summon up all the prejudices associated with the other.

Even in the decorous houses he frequented when waking or in the Oriental palaces haunting his sleep, the carved “feet of the tables, sofas, &c., soon became instinct with life: the abominable head of the crocodile” or the other denizens of warm, damp climates that ran in hideous riot through his dreams and invaded London. According to Barrell, for such a mind as De Quincey’s the imagery of an imperialist culture could be used to bring home the unimaginable horrors of the East while at the same time the realities of those forms were avoided by their conversion to symbols. It doesn’t take a shrink to see that De Quincey was a man frightened by the physical realities of life, which he attempted to displace in part by imaginatively transporting them thousands of miles from his own doorstep.


If, however, as he thought, the East represented a form of infection (so accounting for the title of Barrell’s book), consideration of one’s own likeness in it was a process of inoculation, frightening, perhaps also deflating, but ultimately conducive to health. In this De Quincey seems remarkably approachable in our own day.

“Involute” was De Quincey’s word for a bundle of images, responses, and remembered experience that cannot be evoked separately because they are lashed together by past association. Recall one and the whole lot comes tumbling out, not infrequently taking on a new shape in each successive evocation. Barrell plots his way through the confusions of De Quincey’s writing to an interpretation of his obsessions with the Orient, by following the course of three involutes, of which the most significant derived from the scene in the bedroom of his favorite sister when he visited her body after her death. Barrell calls it the most important psychic event of his life, the equivalent of Freud’s primal scene, in which the son witnesses the sexual act and discovers the carnality of his mother.

Elizabeth De Quincey was ten, two years older than Thomas, when she died of hydrocephalus, or water on the brain; for reasons no longer clear he regarded himself as somehow responsible for not preventing her death. Its actual physical cause seems even murkier. According to Barrell, she

died (or so De Quincey would have us believe) as a result of drinking tea in a labourer’s cottage, and then walking home through damp meadows on a Sunday evening; “the sun had set” but its “fervent” heat had caused the meadows to reek with dewy exhalations which, together with the tea, condensed (I presume) inside Elizabeth’s head, and formed water on the brain. But more troubling, I suggest, the notion that the “sun” killed Elizabeth became, or stands for, the notion that Elizabeth was killed by the “son” [De Quincey]….

The day after her death he went surreptitiously to take farewell of her, fully aware that young boys were not expected to visit dead bodies, least of all when they were alone. She lay in an “upper chamber” (Barrell relies heavily on underlinings, parentheses, inverted commas, and exclamation marks to make his point when logical coherence is thin), and when De Quincey entered, he saw to his horror that the sun shone splendidly through the window. “Thereafter the midday, and sometimes specifically the tropical, sun became attached…to the idea of the death of young girls.”

At the sound of a footstep on the stair he “kissed the lips that [he] should kiss no more, and slunk, like a guilty thing, with stealthy steps from the room.” Drawing in part on the phrase “like a guilty thing” from Hamlet, Barrell concludes that De Quincey thereafter connected his last sight of his sister with “some appalling sexual sin and pollution,” although, as we might expect, there is no specific mention in De Quincey’s account of any sexual misdemeanor on his part. The kiss may have had for him an association with the Moorish (half-Oriental) Othello and his murder of Desdemona; Barrell feels that “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee” precisely states De Quincey’s confused sense of guilt for the symbolic death and violation of his sister.

Since many “small houses in Cairo have no apartment on the ground-floor for the reception of male visitors,” he suggests that Elizabeth’s death chamber on an upper floor had Oriental connotations, although he does not make much of the far stronger Christian association with a Near Eastern upper room in which Judas planted his own kiss of death. Nor does he look nearer to home to consider the patent fact that most English bedrooms were on an upper floor. A cigar, as they say, is sometimes only a cigar.

The day after Thomas’s visit to her body, Elizabeth’s skull was trepanned, and though apparently he did not see her, De Quincey carried thereafter a terrible image of her poor head enlarged by water, then crushed. According to one theory cited here (although there seems to be no direct evidence that De Quincey knew of it) hydrophobia was a possible cause of hydrocephalus, and since the general belief was that dogs were the primary carriers of that disease, De Quincey’s dislike of anything canine became acute. Asia, he believed, was scattered with huge dogs, presumably dripping with hydrophobic infection, “big as an English cow, active as a leopard, fierce as a hyena”; thereafter they became a horrifying Oriental part of the loose and ungainly cluster of images summoned up by reference to any part of the involute surrounding his sister’s death. Since these canine monsters could be subdued only by stoning, their treatment became De Quincey’s model for what the inhabitants of the Orient deserved. The verbal way, as Professor Barrell indicates, was clear for him to make a heady mixture of childhood, Elizabeth, and world affairs in deploring the atrocities of Delhi and Cawnpore perpetrated on white women, whose sexual degradation he describes tellingly as happening to “our dear martyred sisters.”

The manifold uses of the involute that Barrell ferrets out become apparent in considering De Quincey’s hatred of his brother William, who he says was already associated with dogs in Thomas’s mind: by the simple expedient of making a linkage between hydrophobia and the canine William, De Quincey was able to displace his own guilt over the death of Elizabeth onto the brother he already so disliked.

It is difficult to indicate in a short space the complex web of De Quincey’s associations that Barrell traces, since they are finally all connected, like some great underground plant that can never be eradicated because its gigantic root system is always ready to put forth new shoots when others are pulled out. No doubt associations within a single human brain are ultimately all connected if one digs deep enough, but a struggling reader may feel that to try to indicate the whole lot is finally to reproduce in a welter of words the confusion that De Quincey himself felt. Although he begins with three major involutes, Barrell has to confess at last that it is impossible to keep them separate: “The fantasies that select or produce the narratives of his myth of childhood are so intertwined, superimposed, mutually reparative, mutually repetitive, that they must be thought of either as a single involute or not at all.” Associative thought is endlessly fascinating, but with no actual proof of its connections possible beyond assertion, and without a strict organization of clues to single them out and help us through the maze, it is in constant danger of seeming a game. Free association can be fun, and so it is here, but this is the wrong book to approach for certitudes.

The whole problem is complicated because Barrell has to rely on De Quincey’s accounts of his own childhood recorded years after the fact; he had never been particularly interested in literal truth, and in the intervening years he had ample opportunity to rearrange his memory to fit the mature view of himself that he wanted to make public.

Professor Barrell’s vocabulary is scant help in presenting De Quincey clearly. “The Oriental is for De Quincey,” he writes,

a name for that very power, that process of endless multiplication whereby the strategy of self-consolidation, of the recuperation or domestication of the other, always involves the simultaneous constitution of a new threat, or a new version of the old, in the space evacuated by the first.

Or, if I understand him, new threats always spring up when old ones wither. It is difficult not to wish that Barrell had had a hard-nosed editor to help him make his potentially fascinating material more available by curbing the modish language and insisting upon a clearer track through De Quincey’s mind. As it stands, the book frequently seems a guide to the author’s powers of association rather than to De Quincey’s.

Professor Barrell suggests that if we were to look as carefully at other Victorian writers as he has done at De Quincey, “we might well find ourselves regarding the story this book has told as a typical, rather than an unusual, one.” This is indeed true of such manifestations of Orientalism as Tennyson’s “Assyrian Bull” in Maud, Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre, “Kubla Khan,” or the attitudes to the natives of travelers like Kinglake or Thackeray; but the idiosyncratic cast of De Quincey’s neurotic worries about the subject that the author has brought to light in the first nine chapters of this book surely indicates that he was a long way from typical of any group of writers.

If, as Professor Barrell appears to believe, literature is as much the product of a society as of a single man, I suspect that to understand it, the Western interest in Oriental matters must be hunted down not only in psychoanalytic and literary theory but in British colonial history, archaeology, and the other arts. A willow-ware plate, embroidered panels of chinoiserie, the Brighton Pavilion, the carved room of tea drinkers at Claydon, Turkish marches in Mozart, the splat of a Chippendale chair: all these were approximately contemporary with De Quincey but none of them carries with it his frightening psychic baggage. What had the threatening and the decorative aspects of Orientalism in common that was so endlessly exciting to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? It would probably be unfair to expect amplification of a specialized study of a single writer, but the argument presented here would be more enlightening if De Quincey were seen firmly rooted in his own milieu.

At the close of the book comes a provocative suggestion that during his lifetime “there may have been something in the coincidence of family history and imperial history which emerges as the characteristic racism—as the common characteristic of the different racisms—of a whole generation of authors.” What the cause was of that coincidence of public and private remains one of the most interesting questions in the history of attitudes toward Orientalism, but it is only fleetingly treated here.

This Issue

February 13, 1992