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Confessions of an English opium eater (1821)

by Thomas De Quincey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,261176,273 (3.5)24
  1. 40
    On Wine and Hashish (Hesperus Classics) by Charles Baudelaire (lemontwist)
    lemontwist: I like On Wine and Hashish better but Baudelaire was clearly influenced by the work of De Quincey, and I think the two essays are well paired.
  2. 00
    Baudelaire in Chains: A Portrait of the Artist as a Drug Addict by Frank Hilton (bertilak)
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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Six-word review: Opium dreams are heaven, addiction hell.

Extended review:

Somewhere on one of my bookcases, probably bearing 40-plus years' accumulation of dust and shelf wear, is a paper copy of De Quincey's autobiographical work, a remnant of one of my college courses in British literature of the Romantic Period. It remains unbroached; the copy I just read was a free download on my Kindle. But that's how long the intent has been in place.

What finally overcame the pull of inertia was reading Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction (2012), by Steven Martin (reviewed here). De Quincey's work, although far from the only one on the subject, was a sort of spiritual ancestor of Martin's soul-baring memoir.

De Quincey's narrative, originally published in two installments in a London periodical, consists of two parts, each with an introduction: "The Pleasures of Opium" and "The Pains of Opium." De Quincey came to the use of laudanum (a preparation of opium mixed with alcohol) as a pain reliever when he was young and alone, estranged from his family. In it he found relief and release from emotional and spiritual as well as physical pain, and his ecstatic visions began to consume his life.

The old story, old even then in the early 19th century and a good deal older and more commonplace now, is simply that the drug of choice begins by seeming to solve a problem and ends by being itself a far, far greater problem. The user must overcome the addiction or die, and if he succeeds in withdrawal, his life is now encumbered not only by the problems he sought to escape in the first place but also by all the wreckage he has created since then as a result.

That is De Quincey's tale, recounted in 1822, different in language and particulars from addicts' stories told today but one with them in substance.

The age and style of this 200-year-old account pose no obstacle for me; but for readability, relevance, vividness, and comprehensiveness I recommend Martin's work to anyone who has no need to delve into the older literature. ( )
2 vote Meredy | Aug 12, 2014 |
3.5 stars. One can see why Confessions was such a favorite among the drug-addled youngsters of the 60s and 70s. The title is catchy but--surprise!--its not primarily a book about drug experiences, only the last 20 or so pages plumb that. It's about suffering, homelessness, and penury. There were passages that reminded me of 1993's Travels With Lizbeth by Lars Eighner, a wonderfully written book about homelessness.

The class system of Britain, thank God it's dying, systemically prevented true eleemosynary activity. Anyone deemed to be a victim of their own excess was not considered worthy of care. As de Quincey states: The stream of London charity flows in a channel which, though deep and mighty, is yet noiseless and underground; not obvious or readily accessible to poor houseless wanderers; and it cannot be denied that the outside air and framework of London society is harsh, cruel, and repulsive. It took me ten pages to acclimate to the slightly archaic diction, but once I did the reading was enjoyable. There's a guardedness about certain episodes in the author's life which evoked wonder and curiosity in this reader. He focuses on opium addiction almost to the utter exclusion of everything else. The focus is laser-like. Recommended. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
I was not enough moved by this book to record my thoughts about it, but I did think it weird and worth reading. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jun 2, 2013 |
Facinating read actually. I was amazed at the lengths to which the author was willing to go in the name of authenticity! ( )
  Ameliapei | Apr 18, 2013 |
I read this in a Halcyon House edition that I can't find listed.

Read this not for its literary merits, but as an attempt at an empirical approach to the use of opium, even though de Quincey does not admit the legitimacy of experiences other than his own. From a contemporary psychopharmacological perspective, I note that de Quincey took opium (laudanum) for pain, which may account for his assertion that opium is not intoxicating--opiates don't tend to cause euphoria when they are actually relieving pain. The narration is so discreet at times as to be tediously impenetrable. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
First published in 1821, Confessions of an English Opium Eater was the book that kick-started Thomas De Quincey's literary career and the one that would ultimately lead to his canonisation as the patron saint of the erudite addict and the bookish dipsomaniac. Until then, he had been living in Wordsworth's cottage at Grasmere, scratching a living from his translations of German writers and feeding a laudanum habit acquired at the age of 19. This new edition displays the range of the author's learning, not only in classical and English literature, but in the Enlightenment philosophy that had been sweeping across Europe since his youth.

Certain moments of the narrative stand out with the kind of vividness De Quincey ascribes to an opium dream. The friendship with a young prostitute who saved his life and whom he lost among the thronging London crowds. The disquisition on music, which, in an 11-word parenthesis, gives as succinct a summary of Kantian aesthetics as can be imagined. Above all, the extraordinary prose hymn to the joys of winter, a warm cottage, a good library and a pot of hot tea.

"Nothing," writes De Quincey in his preface, "is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars." Confessions confounded that theory by the sheer force of its style and launched the memoir of intoxication on to the literary scene. With Mill's Autobiography and Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, it is one of the classics of 19th-century life writing and its influence is still felt: to it we owe the mescaline experiments of Huxley and Michaux and the bleak satisfactions of Burroughs's Junky
 

» Add other authors (56 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas De Quinceyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bolitho, WilliamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Donini, FilippoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gay, ZhenyaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jordan, John E.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the Reader.--I here present you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period in my life: according to my application of it, I trust that it will prove, not merely an interesting record, but, in a considerable degree, useful and instructive.
Quotations
I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some abstraction of my oriental dreams, which always filled me with such amazement at the monstrous scenery, that horror seemed absorbed, for a while, in sheer astonishment.
(From 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater')
" I say: for there is one celebrated man of the present day, who if all be true which is reported of him, has greatly exceeded me in quantity."
Death we can face: but knowing, as some of us do, what is human life, which of us is it that without shuddering could (if consciously we were summoned) face the hour of birth?
(last line of 'Suspiria de Profundis')
No dignity is perfect which does not at some point ally itself with the indeterminate and mysterious.

(from 'The English Mail-Coach')
Ah, reader! when I look back upon those days, it seems to me that all things change or perish. Even thunder and lightning, it pains me to say, are not the thunder and lightning which I seem to remember from the time of Waterloo. Roses, I fear, are degenerating, and, without a Red revolution, must come to the dust.

(from 'The English Mail-Coach')
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This is a short to medium length book, containing between less than 100 pages (in the first edition) and 275 pages (in the edition of 1856). Do not combine with editions that include "Other Writings" by the same author.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 014043061X, Paperback)

Describing the surreal hallucinations, insomnia and nightmarish visions, he experienced while consuming daily large amounts of laudanum, Thomas De Quincey's legendary account of the pleasures and pains of opium forged a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, and paved the way for later generations of literary drug-takers from Baudelaire to Burroughs. Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:29 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

An account of De Quincey's early life and opium addiction, describing in detail his childhood, schooling, flight from grammar school and wanderings in Wales and London at age 16, and his experiences with opium which developed into a lifelong dependency.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

Three editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140439013, 014104389X, 0141194944

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