Opium Literature In The Reflex View

This chapter is not really a review of Opium literature but, rather, a bit of a diatribe against Thomas De Quincey, whose “Confessions Of An English Opium Eater” has entertained generations as one of the few books that many readers believe is a true confessional, detailing both the virtues and the dangers of excessive indulgence in Opium. However, according to Calkins, De Quincey was a actually a literary fraud, and his arguments to that effect are what make this chapter interesting.

Also, toward the end, he mentions a US Congressman (John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia) who was apparently, in his day, rather well-known as an Opium addict and a brilliant orator – when he was not asleep in the House Chamber. A bit of research into the life of this politician, who was evidently rather entertaining and talented, might reveal a more interesting character than the drunks, child molesters, religious fanatics, embezzlers, and Satanic monsters that the American public, in its questionable wisdom, seems to continue to elect.

(From) “Opium And The Opium Appetite

by Alonzo Calkins, MD (1970)

Chapter IX: Opium Literature In The Reflex View

“Tibi cum fauces urit sitis, aurea quseris Pocula? Num esuriens fastidis omnia prater Pavonem rhombumque?” — Horace.

“True I talk of dreams,

Which are the children of an idle brain,

Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” – Romeo and Juliet.

The intellectual atmosphere engendered by the fumes of opium is but a confused commixture of sunshine and cloud, which, when intervening between the eye that surveys and the object contemplated, presents a picture as exaggerated or distorted in its proportions as it is confused and grotesque in its colorings. The transformation is as great as we observe in Abou Hassan, son of the Bagdad merchant, in his metamorphosis as Caliph, now giving audience from the throne to arrogant emirs and obsequious viziers, or again feasting in palatial gardens, with Sunshine, and Coral-Lips, and Heart’s-Delight, the caterers to his pleasures and his banquet companions.

Transport the man to a newly created visionary sphere, as author he must, in the nature of things, reappear in his novel thought creations and musings, a veritable evolution of his proper self. The contrary view would involve that Persian paradox, soul dualism; the idea of the soul alternately swayed between Ormuzd the good principle, and Ahriman the bad.

Prof. N. Porter has enunciated the true doctrine in this compact sentence: “For the individual to undertake to hide himself behind the mask, is simply impossible; the features of the original will certainly shine through, and invariably.”

Even of dramatic representation, in which actor and the character personated are for the occasion blended, the same parallelism holds. No more could Kemble or Macready have exhibited the same Hamlet, than they could have reproduced the Garrick in his proper identity.

So of the life, which is but the outgrowth proper of the spiritus intus, thought and resolve energized into action. We reverence the “Great Teacher,” our ideal exemplar “in all manner of conversation and godliness,” for the “sufficient reason” (as Leibnitz would have had it), that in Him the exemplifications of spiritual culture and growth were so harmoniously congruent with his didactic utterances.

When the Great Captain made appeal to his army, as it was deploying within the shadows of the Pyramids, in the memorable words “ Du haut de ces pyramides quarante siecles vous contemplent” (“From the summits of yonder pinnacles there are looking down this day upon your exploits the generations of forty centuries,” was there a soldier in those ranks but for the moment imagined himself as marshalled into the very presence of those generations? All disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding, is there a superficial reader only, who, following the “childe” in his wanderings, continues all the while uncognizant of the fact, that he has in company the veritable original, the aberrant youth while a dweller in Albion’s Isle, “Who neer in Virtue’s ways did take delight?

Goldsmith in the “Traveller” is Goldsmith persona propria; on every page of the “Table Talk” the conversational poet has unwittingly made some etching of the melancholic enthusiast: “ ‘Tis Nature pictured too severely true.”

Let the man deliberately yield himself up to the mastery of a depraved appetite, the soul must perforce become contaminated from the festering virus, the moral sense will be perverted, the finer sensibilities and nobler aspirations will decline and die out, and life’s aim become erratic and purposeless, until existence itself seems shrunken to the diminutive proportions of a troglodyte semi-creation. Here and there indeed fancy may kindle into an ephemeral glow and genius sparkle once more in some fitful resuscitation; but in the stead of the joyous sunbeam gloriously shining around in its serene effulgence, there will have succeeded a vapory ignis-fatuus with its blinky flashiness, a phosphorescent fire glimmering athwart the murky horizon “That leads to bewilder and dazzles to blind.”

Out of deference to that impersonal juridicist and literary arbiter elegantiarum, “Common Fame,” which in its exultant admiration would so persistently hold up and keep before the public view as model-casts of intellectual acumen and aesthetic taste the Aristarchus and the Trismegistus of their tribe, De Quincey and Coleridge, they are here reintroduced in their proper presentable characters. So long as a jejune subtility of thought shall command distinction by force of style-ornamentation, or tenuity of fabric shall offer in compensation an “endless thread of verbosity,” so long shall these magnates in transcendental criticism continue to be recognized as star-actors on the lists of the dramatis personce. The true key to their speculations must be searched for in their biographies.

De Quincey at Oxford

De Quincey made his first essay upon opium during his student life at Oxford. Some gastric derangement, sheltered under that broad-shouldered patronymic, dyspepsia, offered a plausible excuse; but back of this a more cogent incitement was at work, the longing felt for some sort of artificial excitement for occasions, and particularly in anticipation of the Saturday-evening opera.

His maximum for the day, 8000 drops, was attained by the eighth year – a nominal and putative rather than a precisely definite measure, as appears in a declaration recently made by his quondam friend Sinclair, who had accompanied De Quincey time and again to the apothecary’s in Edinburgh where stands Scott’s monument, to see him toss off a wine glass of laudanum and with a sang-froid as if the draught had been mere water.

The autobiographer and essayist, author of “Suspiria de Profundis” (ex Profundis is meant), as also of the rest, was wont to herald every fresh volume of his “farrago libellorum” with the pretentious announcement, “By Thomas De Quincey, Author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” On every successive title page, along with the conscious confession to an overshadowing infirmity, is thus paraded a palpable yearning after a notoriety that should preoccupy the public curiosity, rather than a precatory appeal, in arrest of judgment, to a lenient public sympathy. “Is this a guide to them that sit in darkness, an instructor of the foolish?” He that “ gropeth at noonday as in the night” renders but a dubious protection against the moral titubations of inexperienced youth, who, if walking blindly, appear peradventure less blind than their leader. Quousque tandem?

“Shall gentle Coleridge pass unnoticed here,

To turgid ode and humid stanza dear?”

Coleridge, a Cambridge student in 1796, having been confined for some weeks (bed-ridden as his own account was), for oedema of the knees, with rigidity of the same, found his solace in laudanum. The suggestion had been made by a fellow Cantab. The first dose, 20 drops (a bold and ominous setting out truly), produced an effect so satisfactory as to encourage the repeated use. There appears, however, to have been a letting up not long after, for in 1800 he thus writes to a friend: “I have my health now, restored perfectly.” Only four years from this he is well-nigh broken down, having succumbed to his habit beyond retracing, for now he had reached his high-water line, going at the rate of a pint for 30 days. On some of these days he used up, as was known, a whole pint. Like the elixir-vitae man, Paracelsus, his prototype in this matter, whichever way he went or wherever he tarried, the laudanum vial was his regular compagnon de poche.

To have an appreciative view of this dreamy sentimentalist in his alternations of indulgence and penitential regrets, we have simply to refer to the gleanings and garnerings as served up by his “next friend” and most estimable confidant, Joseph Cottle, Esq. “Oh, Joseph Cottle! – (Phoebus, what a name to fill the speaking-trump of future fame!”) – and we have our subject presented in his pure undress, to be microscopically anatomized with a pertinacity truly Boswellian. Here emerges into view the transcendentalist ex integro, Sinon-like, “Fidens animi et in utrumque paratus,” ready with palliatory excuses for stealthily indulging an unbridled appetite while affecting the merit of a severe self-abnegation; one day discoursing from the pulpit upon celestial themes, the next, by an easy transition, junketing upon a biscuit and a bottle of brandy, or hobnobbing with a chum over a brace of port.

One time, after the big doses had become established, under the consciousness of a spirit disquieted within, he delivers himself in a jeremiad after this sort; “I have learned what sin is; sin, that is to say, against an infinitely great and imperishable object, the soul of man!” Lo. This soi-disant ethicist and quixotic epicurean, pseudo-penitent and rampant voluptuary combined, who could talk of opium as “an accursed thing entailing evils worse than death,” yet, as if resolved on straining physical endurance to its extreme tension, seemed bent on making a ubiquitous acquaintance with narcotics and stimuli of every name.

Taking no warnings from his experiences with “a single poison, baleful to him as that was, he must needs have a trial of bhang, hyoscyamus, and nitrous-oxide withal. That a man thus “everything by turns and nothing long,” who in his everyday life was as “unstable as water,” that one who, when unable so much as to rule his own spirit, should arrogate the office of spiritual director to youth in “Essays towards the Formation of Fixed Principles in Politics, Morals, and Religion,” themes than which none more profound can engage the contemplative mind, and all under the pretentious title of “Friend”, verily all this conveys to the chance reader the apprehended suspicion, that philosophy may by possibility be travestied in sonorous periods of the mock-burlesque.

As representative exponents of contrarieties in the realm of poesy, Byron and Coleridge may be set in advantageous juxtaposition. “Genevan ichor, or some such other spiritual liquor,” (so saith Leigh Hunt) fired the muse of the one, opium befogged the intellect of the other. Byron’s pictures glisten like Alcyone and her sister Pleiads in the starry realms; Coleridge shades off into a chiaroscuro nebulosity. For verisimilitude of description, picturesque limning and glowing pathos of sentiment, where may we find a recreated scene that shall bear comparison with the “Trinidada and the Shipwreck?” The fond admirers of the Bristol bard need not be chary of their proffered homage – latreia or douleia, whichever it be – to their quondam idol, from apprehension of incurring penance for any supposed violation of the Decalogue, seeing that the “Mariner,” as imaged in the “Rime,” knoweth not its analogue in the “likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.”

As the Edinburgh hath it, “The shadow of something is resolved into the substance of nothing.”

Any attempt to follow along the devious track by which the outre fancies of Coleridge would conduct us, were as bewildering as a chase after the giant shadows that loom up from out the mists of the Hartz. Not in the gaslight illuminations of the camera shall we see symmetrical combinations of form and harmonious blendings of tints as produced in the kaleidoscope. Strip Coleridge and De Quincey together of their tinselly word drapery, enucleate the seed from its pericarp, and apply your magnifier to the residue. Suppose the Suspiria, the Essays, the Confessions, with all their ostentatious train, were dislodged from the alcoves of our libraries, wherein would metaphysics or ethics, political science or ceconomics, be shorn of any real strength?

The autobiographer, Mr. B., observes that for a term of three years after he had come under the habitual use of morphine, he was as comfortable in his general health and as vigorous for brain-work as he had ever been. He, for all, while claiming for opium eaters a certain “method in their madness,” makes the significant admission that their speculations are as vagarious as their eccentricities are peculiar. This martyr-votary (for such he had become through a third and final relapse into a bondage dating thirty years back), so versatile in mental adaptiveness, “grammaticus, rhetor, geometres” preacher, lawyer, and editor, by a sort of e-pluribus-unum combination, seemed to present a tangible realization of the poet’s conception, “Sometimes he, like Cerberus, would seem Three gentlemen at once.”

As appertaining to the history of this species of literature three names renowned in oratory, and representative of three nationalities respectively, claim distinctive notice here.

Lamartine, a Cato redivivus in his curule chair before the presence of the Assemblee Nationale, having survived his proper self, sunk in a dotage into which gourmanderie with opium finally conspiring had hopelessly cast him, has at last passed from our sight forever. Painfully verified in him was a remark of De Touqueville – “The opium eater has ceased to live ere he has ceased to exist.”

Robert Hall, driven to opium as a resource against nervous derangement and general physical prostration, should, in view of his reluctant surrendry to one evil as against a greater, be accounted an exceptional case rather. Inherited constitutional susceptibilities had as early as his sixth year determined in an intense spinal pain; a symptom aggravated undoubtedly by a habit in his boyhood of sitting with his book and perhaps for hours together in the shade of some tree. In 1826 or by twenty years from the first, he was taking 1000 drops of laudanum daily; but this quantity he appears not to have exceeded. His sufferings, at no time less than severe, were some days excruciating. During all this trying period he had not passed so much as a single night in bed, and sometimes he went sleepless the night through. Upon him opium appears to have operated less as a physical excitant than as a neutralizer of pain. The moral sense does not seem to have swayed out of its proper equilibrium here through any disturbing attractions generated by a temulent imagination. The soul within, still self-poised and serene, could say to itself, “Retire; the world shut out, thy thoughts call home; Imagination’s airy wing repress that incarnation of irony and lord of ridicule – that “Fiery soul, which working out its way, Fretted the pigmy body to decay,” was from early youth an invalid with a severe spinal malady of some sort, out of which grew an irritability that cleaved to him his lifetime (Garland). It were no extravagance of charity to assume that the capricious exacerbations of temper and the habitual waywardness of demeanor that so obtrusively marked the man, were in large measure ascribable to the all-controlling habit as much as to the inherited physique.

In intellectual fire, sarcastic invective, and withering repartee, Randolph loomed up before his peers of the American Congress,

“Like to some meteor streaming to the wind,

With gems and golden lustre rich emblazed.”

The halos that in fancy played around those tremulous lips, as words seraphic in tones mellifluous swelled upon enraptured ears, “The applause of listening senates to command,” faded with the occasions that had evoked them, fleeting away like “the troubled sea that cannot rest”

Fit inscription for the tombstone of the poet-orator were the line:

“Here in the dust the wreck of genius lies.”

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