18th November 2015

Quincey, drugs, and excess

Benjamin Mortimer takes a look at the 19th Century essayist Thomas de Quincey’s view of drug culture, highlighting parallels with the present day
Quincey, drugs, and excess

One of the fathers of ‘drug literature’, alongside Byron, is Thomas de Quincey. This might surprise some, to find out that the drug culture we know has firmer footing in 18th century coffee houses than Woodstock tents. Born in Manchester, Quincey’s understanding of ‘intoxication’ can be made just as relevant today.

“I stood checked for a moment—awe, not fear, fell upon me—and whist I stood, a solemn wind began to blow, the most mournful that ever ear heard. Mournful! That is saying nothing. It was a wind that had swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries.”

Standing in the stark cold and huffing plumes of air we found ourselves stood on a cobbled street gazing up at the lidless night’s sky. Such was the weight one felt stumbling home from Manchester’s yearly Oktoberfest. We paused at half seen features of this landscape, “Everlasting farewells! and again, and yet again reverberated—everlasting farewells!” The “burden of the incommunicable” was shared between us in our collective intoxication. We had lost our bounds, and that was the thing in common, dissolution of selfhood, ‘will to nothingness’.

The sense in which De Quincey ‘enjoyed’ drugs is at once similar and alien to the drug culture we ‘enjoy’ today. Easy parallels are made between his indulgence in “a glass of laudanum negus, warm, and without sugar,” before an opera, and the drug charged atmosphere of a concert. However, there is a distinction to be made between the individual and the communal drug experience than might parallel the Nietzschean idea of the apollonian and the Dionysian. I will permit myself an aside to describe the latter state for you. This is in the true Quinceyan spirit, for “digression… constitutes the very core of the human unconscious.” Thus, in unlocking its secrets, we are obliged to take this route.

“All the rigid, hostile walls… between men are shattered. Now that the gospel of universal harmony is sounded, each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him… Man now expresses himself through song and dance as the member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk, how to speak, and is on the brink of taking wing as he dances.”

It is in this very act of digression that we understand De Quincey’s spirit. The superfluous nature of his prose gives it potency and joy. In the ‘excess’ of his prose and imagery we are shown glimpses of sublimity. Just as how love is glimpsed in the excesses of the gift of a rose. “Flowers… that are so pathetic in their beauty,” show more through their lack than their lustre. Such things are accessed precisely through their non-utilitarian aspect. So to ask of Quincey, “what is the point of all this dreaming?” is to miss it.

“Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!”, but one must point out that De Quincey doesn’t recommend such experiences for everyone. Such experiences are characterised by the destruction of the ego, the dissipation of it. The suspension of self to orgiastic Bachic rites, that are, “no friend of any man who’s hostile to the gods.”

We recognise a latent danger in these substances. We can explore this through the observation that these states of intoxication inspire art through the firing of our passions; the very word ‘passion’ inferring suffering. Popular musicians again and again pay tribute to the character of the ‘addict’. Perhaps an artist’s struggle with drugs can be read as an attempt to gain this passion; the authenticity of the opium eater. The sage whose insights are more legitimate, as they have suffered an ‘inward passion’ in the Kierkegaardian sense. Artists, like Christ, gain legitimacy for their willingness to suffer for mankind.

Does not this mindset similarly apply today to those we view as oppressed? We attribute to them mystic insight into the flaws of our society and culture. Videos where the virtues of the poor are displayed to us seem a twisted development of the concept of the noble savage. What truths can these people whom have suffered such hardships offer to us? We assume that one who has suffered and who is outside the societal remit has something of value to say to us. The poet who suffers for his art; the socialist who suffers for his cause. It is the suffering that lends them credibility. From here derives the power of the insult, ‘Champagne Socialist’.

The struggle of the pampered to struggle. Is this not why we look down upon rappers who are not ‘from the streets’, sound ‘posh’, or are ‘too white’? They lack authenticity: where is the realism in their art? To enjoy something we must infer some pain in it. This allows a disturbing insight into our relationship with art.

Perhaps, we feel guilty to enjoy something that is not engendered by suffering; someone must suffer for our pleasure.

The irony that Men who have decried ‘bull fighting’ take no greater pleasure than in the observance of self destruction expressed through their favourite ‘troubled artist’. Quincey remarks that, “The pleasures and pains of opium were inextricable from one another.” Therefore, this is another mode of ‘drug culture’, one that is purely spectatorial.

Perhaps we can extend this to say that ‘consumerism’ is a drugged state. We watch the fulfilment of the promise: “That those eat now who never ate before; And those who always ate, now eat the more.” We glorify a consumption that, like Bronte, will be the death of all of us. Thus drug addict embodies an archetype that we can all relate to. “The pleasures and pains of opium”, needless and excessive, symbolise our own ‘sickness unto death’.

“A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams,” so liveth the ‘last men’ of Nietzsche’s imagining. This is how the modern man views the visions of drug taking. Lacking the passion and inspiration in our own lives, we seek to gain it through the drug experience. The promise of individuation, seeking self-affirmation in the orient; clashing with our personal sensibilities.

We search for the limit experience, where pleasure and pain are synonymous, where language dare not tread. One need only read the ‘story of the eye’, to conceive of the dangers of this world of Bataillean excess. This image of the transgressive addict, who might have experienced something beyond the common remit, has been much damaged by the advent of the ‘permissive society’. Limited experiences harder and harder to find, one can not readily access the infinite satisfaction promised by the exceeding of conceivable bounds.

As more is conceivable, permissible and understandable, potential for such experience diminishes. If genuine freedom lies in the inexpressible, beyond “that line of foam showing just how far speech may advance upon the sands of silence,” then we are at high tide. One almost feels that in a society where everything is permitted, the only limit one can find is to inflict one upon oneself; the sadistic pleasure of the ascetic.

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