Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

- By Thomas De Quincey
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Thomas Penson De Quincey (/də ˈkwɪnsi/;[1] 15 August 1785 – 8 December 1859) was an English writer, essayist, and literary critic, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).[2][3] Many scholars suggest that in publishing this work De Quincey inaugurated the tradition of addiction literature in the West.[4] Thomas Penson De Quincey was born at 86 Cross Street, Manchester, Lancashire.[5] His father, a successful merchant with an interest in literature, died when De Quincey was quite young. Soon after his birth the family went to The Farm and then later to Greenheys, a larger country house in Chorlton-on-Medlock near Manchester. In 1796, three years after the death of his father, Thomas Quincey, his mother – the erstwhile Elizabeth Penson – took the name "De Quincey."[6] That same year, De Quincey's mother moved to Bath and enrolled him at King Edward's School. He was a weak and sickly child. His youth was spent in solitude, and when his elder brother, William, came home, he wrought havoc in the quiet surroundings. De Quincey's mother was a woman of strong character and intelligence, but seems to have inspired more awe than affection in her children. She brought them up strictly, taking De Quincey out of school after three years because she was afraid he would become big-headed, and sending him to an inferior school at Wingfield, Wiltshire.[7]
From the "London Magazine" for December 1822.
The interest excited by the two papers bearing this title, in our numbers for September and October 1821, will have kept our promise of a Third Part fresh in the remembrance of our readers. That we are still unable to fulfil our engagement in its original meaning will, we, are sure, be matter of regret to them as to ourselves, especially when they have perused the following affecting narrative. It was composed for the purpose of being appended to an edition of the Confessions in a separate volume, which is already before the public, and we have reprinted it entire, that our subscribers may be in possession of the whole of this extraordinary history.
The proprietors of this little work having determined on reprinting it, some explanation seems called for, to account for the non-appearance of a third part promised in the London Magazine of December last; and the more so because the proprietors, under whose guarantee that promise was issued, might otherwise be implicated in the blame-little or much-attached to its non-fulfilment. This blame, in mere justice, the author takes wholly upon himself. What may be the exact amount of the guilt which he thus appropriates is a very dark question to his own judgment, and not much illuminated by any of the masters in casuistry whom he has consulted on the occasion. On the one hand it seems generally agreed that a promise is binding in the inverse ratio of the numbers to whom it is made; for which reason it is that we see many persons break promises without scruple that are made to a whole nation, who keep their faith religiously in all private engagements, breaches of promise towards the stronger party being committed at a man's own peril; on the other hand, the only parties interested in the promises of an author are his readers, and these it is a point of modesty in any author to believe as few as possible-or perhaps only one, in which case any promise imposes a sanctity of moral obligation which it is shocking to think of. Casuistry dismissed, however, the author throws himself on the indulgent consideration of all who may conceive themselves aggrieved by his delay, in the following account of his own condition from the end of last year, when the engagement was made, up nearly to the present time. For any purpose of self-excuse it might be sufficient to say that intolerable bodily suffering had totally disabled him for almost any exertion of mind, more especially for such as demands and presupposes a pleasurable and genial state of feeling; but, as a case that may by possibility contribute a trifle to the medical history of opium, in a further stage of its action than can often have been brought under the notice of professional men, he has judged that it might be acceptable to some readers to have it described more at length. Fiat experimentum in corpore vili is a just rule where there is any reasonable presumption of benefit to arise on a large scale. What the benefit may be will admit of a doubt, but there can be none as to the value of the body; for a more worthless body than his own the author is free to confess cannot be. It is his pride to believe that it is the very ideal of a base, crazy, despicable human system, that hardly ever could have been meant to be seaworthy for two days under the ordinary storms and wear and tear of life; and indeed, if that were the creditable way of disposing of human bodies, he must own that he should almost be ashamed to bequeath his wretched structure to any respectable dog. But now to the case, which, for the sake of avoiding the constant recurrence of a cumbersome periphrasis, the author will take the liberty of giving in the first person.
Those who have read the Confessions will have closed them with the impression that I had wholly renounced the use of opium. This impression I meant to convey, and that for two reasons: first, because the very act of deliberately recording such a state of suffering necessarily presumes in the recorder a power of surveying his own case as a cool spectator, and a degree of spirits for adequately describing it which it would be inconsistent to suppose in any person speaking from the station of an actual sufferer; secondly, because I, who had descended from so large a quantity as 8,000 drops to so small a one (comparatively speaking) as a quantity ranging between 300 and 160 drops, might well suppose that the victory was in effect achieved. In suffering my readers, therefore, to think of me as of a reformed opium-eater, I left no impression but what I shared myself; and, as may be seen, even this impression was left to be collected from the general tone of the conclusion, and not from any specific words, which are in no instance at variance with the literal truth. In no long time after that paper was written I became sensible that the effort which remained would cost me far more energy than I had anticipated, and the necessity for making it was more apparent every month. In particular I became aware of an increasing callousness or defect of sensibility in the stomach, and this I imagined might imply a scirrhous state of that organ, either formed or forming. An eminent physician, to whose kindness I was at that time deeply indebted, informed me that such a termination of my case was not impossible, though likely to be forestalled by a different termination in the event of my continuing the use of opium. Opium therefore I resolved wholly to abjure as soon as I should find myself at liberty to bend my undivided attention and energy to this purpose. It was not, however, until the 24th of June last that any tolerable concurrence of facilities for such an attempt arrived. On that day I began my experiment, having previously settled in my own mind that I would not flinch, but would "stand up to the scratch" under any possible "punishment." I must premise that about 170 or 180 drops had been my ordinary allowance for many months; occasionally I had run up as high as 500, and once nearly to 700; in repeated preludes to my final experiment I had also gone as low as 100 drops; but had found it impossible to stand it beyond the fourth day-which, by the way, I have always found more difficult to get over than any of the preceding three. I went off under easy sail-130 drops a day for three days; on the fourth I plunged at once to 80. The misery which I now suffered "took the conceit" out of me at once, and for about a month I continued off and on about this mark; then I sunk to 60, and the next day to-none at all. This was the first day for nearly ten years that I had existed without opium. I persevered in my abstinence for ninety hours; i.e., upwards of half a week. Then I took-ask me not how much; say, ye severest, what would ye have done? Then I abstained again-then took about 25 drops then abstained; and so on.
Meantime the symptoms which attended my case for the first six weeks of my experiment were these: enormous irritability and excitement of the whole system; the stomach in particular restored to a full feeling of vitality and sensibility, but often in great pain; unceasing restlessness night and day; sleep-I scarcely knew what it was; three hours out of the twenty-four was the utmost I had, and that so agitated and shallow that I heard every sound that was near me. Lower jaw constantly swelling, mouth ulcerated, and many other distressing symptoms that would be tedious to repeat; amongst which, however, I must mention one, because it had never failed to accompany any attempt to renounce opium-viz., violent sternutation. This now became exceedingly troublesome, sometimes lasting for two hours at once, and recurring at least twice or three times a day. I was not much surprised at this on recollecting what I had somewhere heard or read, that the membrane which lines the nostrils is a prolongation of that which lines the stomach; whence, I believe, are explained the inflammatory appearances about the nostrils of dram drinkers. The sudden restoration of its original sensibility to the stomach expressed itself, I suppose, in this way. It is remarkable also that during the whole period of years through which I had taken opium I had never once caught cold (as the phrase is), nor even the slightest cough. But now a violent cold attacked me, and a cough soon after. In an unfinished fragment of a letter begun about this time to-I find these words: "You ask me to write the-Do you know Beaumont and Fletcher's play of "Thierry and Theodore"? There you will see my case as to sleep; nor is it much of an exaggeration in other features. I protest to you that I have a greater influx of thoughts in one hour at present than in a whole year under the reign of opium. It seems as though all the thoughts which had been frozen up for a decade of years by opium had now, according to the old fable, been thawed at once-such a multitude stream in upon me from all quarters. Yet such is my impatience and hideous irritability that for one which I detain and write down fifty escape me: in spite of my weariness from suffering and want of sleep, I cannot stand still or sit for two minutes together. 'I nunc, et versus tecum meditare canoros.'"
At this stage of my experiment I sent to a neighbouring surgeon, requesting that he would come over to see me. In the evening he came; and after briefly stating the case to him, I asked this question; Whether he did not think that the opium might have acted as a stimulus to the digestive organs, and that the present state of suffering in the stomach, which manifestly was the cause of the inability to sleep, might arise from indigestion? His answer was; No; on the contrary, he thought that the suffering was caused by digestion itself, which should naturally go on below the consciousness, but which from the unnatural state of the stomach, vitiated by so long a use of opium, was become distinctly perceptible. This opinion was plausible; and the unintermitting nature of the suffering disposes me to think that it was true, for if it had been any mere irregular affection of the stomach, it should naturally have intermitted occasionally, and constantly fluctuated as to degree. The intention of nature, as manifested in the healthy state, obviously is to withdraw from our notice all the vital motions, such as the circulation of the blood, the expansion and contraction of the lungs, the peristaltic action of the stomach, &c., and opium, it seems, is able in this, as in other instances, to counteract her purposes. By the advice of the surgeon I tried bitters. For a short time these greatly mitigated the feelings under which I laboured, but about the forty-second day of the experiment the symptoms already noticed began to retire, and new ones to arise of a different and far more tormenting class; under these, but with a few intervals of remission, I have since continued to suffer. But I dismiss them undescribed for two reasons: first, because the mind revolts from retracing circumstantially any sufferings from which it is removed by too short or by no interval. To do this with minuteness enough to make the review of any use would be indeed infandum renovare dolorem, and possibly without a sufficient motive; for secondly, I doubt whether this latter state be anyway referable to opium-positively considered, or even negatively; that is, whether it is to be numbered amongst the last evils from the direct action of opium, or even amongst the earliest evils consequent upon a want of opium in a system long deranged by its use. Certainly one part of the symptoms might be accounted for from the time of year (August), for though the summer was not a hot one, yet in any case the sum of all the heat funded (if one may say so) during the previous months, added to the existing heat of that month, naturally renders August in its better half the hottest part of the year; and it so happened that-the excessive perspiration which even at Christmas attends any great reduction in the daily quantum of opium-and which in July was so violent as to oblige me to use a bath five or six times a day-had about the setting-in of the hottest season wholly retired, on which account any bad effect of the heat might be the more unmitigated. Another symptom-viz., what in my ignorance I call internal rheumatism (sometimes affecting the shoulders, &c., but more often appearing to be seated in the stomach)-seemed again less probably attributable to the opium, or the want of opium, than to the dampness of the house {21} which I inhabit, which had about this time attained its maximum, July having been, as usual, a month of incessant rain in our most rainy part of England.
Under these reasons for doubting whether opium had any connexion with the latter stage of my bodily wretchedness-except, indeed, as an occasional cause, as having left the body weaker and more crazy, and thus predisposed to any mal-influence whatever-I willingly spare my reader all description of it; let it perish to him, and would that I could as easily say let it perish to my own remembrances, that any future hours of tranquillity may not be disturbed by too vivid an ideal of possible human misery!
So much for the sequel of my experiment. As to the former stage, in which probably lies the experiment and its application to other cases, I must request my reader not to forget the reasons for which I have recorded it. These were two: First, a belief that I might add some trifle to the history of opium as a medical agent. In this I am aware that I have not at all fulfilled my own intentions, in consequence of the torpor of mind, pain of body, and extreme disgust to the subject which besieged me whilst writing that part of my paper; which part being immediately sent off to the press (distant about five degrees of latitude), cannot be corrected or improved. But from this account, rambling as it may be, it is evident that thus much of benefit may arise to the persons most interested in such a history of opium, viz., to opium-eaters in general, that it establishes, for their consolation and encouragement, the fact that opium may be renounced, and without greater sufferings than an ordinary resolution may support, and by a pretty rapid course {22} of descent.
To communicate this result of my experiment was my foremost purpose. Secondly, as a purpose collateral to this, I wished to explain how it had become impossible for me to compose a Third Part in time to accompany this republication; for during the time of this experiment the proof-sheets of this reprint were sent to me from London, and such was my inability to expand or to improve them, that I could not even bear to read them over with attention enough to notice the press errors or to correct any verbal inaccuracies. These were my reasons for troubling my reader with any record, long or short, of experiments relating to so truly base a subject as my own body; and I am earnest with the reader that he will not forget them, or so far misapprehend me as to believe it possible that I would condescend to so rascally a subject for its own sake, or indeed for any less object than that of general benefit to others. Such an animal as the self-observing valetudinarian I know there is; I have met him myself occasionally, and I know that he is the worst imaginable heautontimoroumenos; aggravating and sustaining, by calling into distinct consciousness, every symptom that would else perhaps, under a different direction given to the thoughts, become evanescent. But as to myself, so profound is my contempt for this undignified and selfish habit, that I could as little condescend to it as I could to spend my time in watching a poor servant girl, to whom at this moment I hear some lad or other making love at the back of my house. Is it for a Transcendental Philosopher to feel any curiosity on such an occasion? Or can I, whose life is worth only eight and a half years' purchase, be supposed to have leisure for such trivial employments? However, to put this out of question, I shall say one thing, which will perhaps shock some readers, but I am sure it ought not to do so, considering the motives on which I say it. No man, I suppose, employs much of his time on the phenomena of his own body without some regard for it; whereas the reader sees that, so far from looking upon mine with any complacency or regard, I hate it, and make it the object of my bitter ridicule and contempt; and I should not be displeased to know that the last indignities which the law inflicts upon the bodies of the worst malefactors might hereafter fall upon it. And, in testification of my sincerity in saying this, I shall make the following offer. Like other men, I have particular fancies about the place of my burial; having lived chiefly in a mountainous region, I rather cleave to the conceit, that a grave in a green churchyard amongst the ancient and solitary hills will be a sublimer and more tranquil place of repose for a philosopher than any in the hideous Golgothas of London. Yet if the gentlemen of Surgeons' Hall think that any benefit can redound to their science from inspecting the appearances in the body of an opium-eater, let them speak but a word, and I will take care that mine shall be legally secured to them-i.e., as soon as I have done with it myself. Let them not hesitate to express their wishes upon any scruples of false delicacy and consideration for my feelings; I assure them they will do me too much honour by "demonstrating" on such a crazy body as mine, and it will give me pleasure to anticipate this posthumous revenge and insult inflicted upon that which has caused me so much suffering in this life. Such bequests are not common; reversionary benefits contingent upon the death of the testator are indeed dangerous to announce in many cases: of this we have a remarkable instance in the habits of a Roman prince, who used, upon any notification made to him by rich persons that they had left him a handsome estate in their wills, to express his entire satisfaction at such arrangements and his gracious acceptance of those loyal legacies; but then, if the testators neglected to give him immediate possession of the property, if they traitorously "persisted in living" (si vivere perseverarent, as Suetonius expresses it), he was highly provoked, and took his measures accordingly. In those times, and from one of the worst of the Cæsars, we might expect such conduct; but I am sure that from English surgeons at this day I need look for no expressions of impatience, or of any other feelings but such as are answerable to that pure love of science and all its interests which induces me to make such an offer.

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Word Lists:

Testator : a person who has made a will or given a legacy.

Casuistry : the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions; sophistry.

Callousness : insensitive and cruel disregard for others

Predisposed :

Redound : contribute greatly to (a person's credit or honor)

Traitorous : relating to or characteristic of a traitor; treacherous

Unmitigated : absolute; unqualified

Cumbersome : large or heavy and therefore difficult to carry or use; unwieldy

Deranged : crazy; insane

Evanescent : soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence; quickly fading or disappearing


Additional Information:

Words: 3345

Unique Words : 1,070

Sentences : 84

Reading Time : 14:52

Noun : 779

Conjunction : 365

Adverb : 202

Interjection : 3

Adjective : 233

Pronoun : 289

Verb : 536

Preposition : 481

Letter Count : 14,962

Sentiment : Positive

Tone : Neutral (Slightly Formal)

Difficult Words : 711

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