Saturday, 31 December 2011

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey (1.5/5)

The back says: In this remarkable autobiography, Thomas De Quincey hauntingly describes the surreal visions and hallucinatory nocturnal wanderings he took through London-and the nightmares, despair, and paranoia to which he became prey-under the influence of the then-legal painkiller laudanum. Forging a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, Confessions seamlessly weaves the effects of drugs and the nature of dreams, memory, and imagination. First published in 1821, it paved the way for later generations of literary drug users, from Baudelaire to Burroughs, and anticipated psychoanalysis with its insights into the subconscious.

I say: Ugh. Another slow and painful read courtesy of that 100 Classics Challenge. Although not entirely; I’ve actually wanted to read this for a few years but never gotten around to it.

And now I wish I never had.

The prose in this was brutal (for lack of a better word); just chockfull of hyperbole, literary/historical references (which I usually don’t mind in moderation), rambling sentences and Greek and Latin words/phrases thrown in there for good measure. De Quincey kept changing topics so many times I forgot what it was I was reading about – and why I was even bothering.

And his life was so tiresome.

“This is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member--the alpha and the omega [...].” – p 24

I think this sentence very accurately sums up the entire reading experience; De Quincey thought very highly of himself (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and obviously felt like everything he wrote down was of great interest to the reader; and some of it was, it just felt very contrived. He first made excuses for his drug use (he had a bad stomach and the pharmacist that sold him his first dose was planted there just to lure him in) and then he contradicts that by saying that there was no one to blame but himself.  

Here was a panacea, a [greek word which google tells me translates into: pharmakon nepenthes] for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. – p 22/23
This was, I believe, after his first taste.

I knew nothing of De Quincey before reading this and now I feel I know far too much. I found the parts where he talked about the consequences of opium use interesting, but everything else: not so much. Oh and I almost forgot what really got on my nerves; the overfamiliarity with the reader.


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