The Opium-Eater on Bourbon Street

by Mara Naselli

Opium eater illustration

One evening in early March, my husband and I ventured into the French Quarter in New Orleans. We were merely tourists, exploring that old settlement at the elbow of the Mississippi River, its strange contradictions of high and low, youth and age, Old World and New World—shop windows of silver sets and sequined masks alongside alligator heads and beads. We had walked through Jackson Square in the hush of a thick fog in the early morning. We had seen a subdued bronze plaque noting a slave market, though there is nothing to remind passers by of the men and women dressed in blue suits and calico and made to dance. That evening after nightfall, we turned onto Bourbon Street. Bar after bar, live bands blared classic rock covers. Young men strolled with their oversized hurricane drinks. A wispy silhouette of a woman danced in a window. On one balcony, young women danced topless and slung themselves over the ironwork while a gaggle of men ogled. A certain currency of bodies persists. Bourbon Street assaults the senses, alcohol numbs the effects. After a block of this abuse we turned the corner. Diminutive creole cottages leaned into the street with wooden shutters and prim geraniums. Down the way we noticed a bookshop. The light was on.

The tiny shop smelled of old paper and dust. It was crammed with books stacked on the floor, on the counter, sideways on shelves. After some time, my husband emerged with a 1950 special edition of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The boards were decorated with a green marble haze and the interior was printed in two-color ink. It had lithographs and an ex libris plate from a certain Bertha Ernestine Bloodworth (who, I later discovered, finished a dissertation on Florida place-names in 1959). I had read the Confessions before and dismissed them. Virginia Woolf’s mother admired De Quincey, but I could not muster any affection for him. He was too damn full of himself, I thought, and reading him felt like tolerating someone who takes too much pleasure in the sound of his own voice. But now this green volume and its mysterious provenance, fine printing, strange angular illustrations—it was too interesting to pass up. To find it after wandering through the kaleidoscopic delirium a couple blocks away seemed providential. The bookseller mistook my enthusiasm. He handed me How to Grow Your Own Opium and offered a deal for the two. I declined the how-to and handed him $12.50. We returned to our foul-smelling hotel, made tea to preoccupy our senses, and I gave Mr. De Quincey a second chance.

My initial reading of De Quincey’s inflated narrative persona was not entirely off the mark. Even Wordsworth said of him, “He is quite mad with pride.” The reader learns quickly how skilled he was in Greek, how he refused his mother’s authority, how he stormed off when offended. The characters we encounter in De Quincey’s story are set pieces. Ann, the prostitute who shows him kindness, is beatific and silent. The sickly Hall sisters, the nameless orphan, and the Malay are afflicted and silent. The working poor of Oxford Street with whom he opines the price of potatoes and onions, also silent. In De Quincey’s world, others are without speech, moving in and out of his circumscribed awareness like ghosts. Even Ann, who reappears in a dream, turns her fair face in his direction, and says nothing. The waif scrambles to polish the boots of the unscrupulous lawyer who, in return, lets them sleep on the floor with the rats. De Quincey does not see the pain of others outside the prison of his predicament. And to be fair—how could he? His opium habit began as a treatment for unbearable pain. A toothache, hunger, depression. His bodily ailments only worsened over the years. He was constantly evading creditors and living itinerantly, falling out of contact with his wife and family, struggling against deadlines. He ends the confessions with a straining optimism that he can reduce his intake of the drug. Yet his opium addiction and alcoholism were inextricably intertwined. According to his biographer Robert Morrison, he tried repeatedly to stop. He never did.

Virginia Woolf noted De Quincey's limited regard others and his own reserve. “As we read his descriptions of these men, women, and children,” she writes, “we are led to think that he talked to them so easily because to him they differed so little. The same manner served equally for them all. . . . His portraits have the flowing contours, the statuesque poses, the undifferentiated features of Scott’s heroes and heroines. Nor is his own face exempted from the general ambiguity. When it came to telling the truth about himself he shrank from the task with all the horror of a well-bred English gentleman.” Morrison also warns readers of De Quincey’s deception: “for De Quincey, self-representation was often the subtlest form of self-concealment.”

Self-concealment requires some self-awareness of what is being concealed. As I read and reread, I began to wonder to what degree DeQuincey conceals and to what degree he just doesn't know. We can’t conceal our own blindness, exactly—we can only express it unawares. The overconfidence I found so off-putting on my first reading transformed in my second and third and fourth. As De Quincey’s story unwinds, the bravura deteriorates. The voice turns uncertain and diaphanous. Chimerical dreams take hold. The writing loses form and the author’s narrative presence begins to erode.

“Paint me,” he instructs the reader, “a room seventeen feet by twelve, and not more than seven and a half feet high.” These painterly instructions are De Quincey’s attempt at self-portraiture: The setting is a modest cottage library. He is seated amidst plain furniture. A pot of tea served by young woman. A work of German metaphysics is placed on its side on the table. A glass receptacle is filled with a quart of ruby-colored laudanum. When it comes time to describe his own visage he shrinks back. “No: paint me, if at all, according to your own fancy: . . . I cannot fail, in that way, to be a gainer.”

Is this self-concealment or is it self-erasure? Surely the reader can conjure a better image: “If the public (into whose private ear I am confidentially whispering my confessions, and not into any painter’s) should chance to have framed some agreeable picture for itself, of the Opium-eater’s exterior,—should have ascribed to him, romantically, an elegant person, or a handsome face, why should I barbarously rear from it so pleasing a delusion—pleasing to both the public and to me?” The halting rhythm and awkward cadence, the thin vanity—it reads as a raw draft, shunted together in a rush of impulse. The book of German metaphysics is closed. The portrait is without movement, without action, and without agency. The hero is faceless.

The reader of De Quincey’s Confessions enters an afflicted consciousness. I sensed not so much a self-concealment in the manner of a reserved English gentleman as much as warring forces within the body of one man: the intellectual emancipation of the drug's effect and will that aspired to resist the drug's power.

Opium gives De Quincey special access to a distinctive dream world. De Quincey sees himself first and foremost as a scholar. An opium-eater who talks of oxen will dream of oxen, he writes. A philosopher, however, will dream of the phantasmagoria of humanity. Nothing that is human is foreign to him, he quotes. Under opium’s influence, the subtly of De Quincey’s thinking and the force of his intellect express their full strength. De Quincey inclinations are in concert with the Romantic idea of life as an organic, ungovernable power, a force that defies form and telos. The pleasures of opium chimed with what De Quincey would have been encountering with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the poets’ reading of the German idealists. This is what elevated his experience of opium above the experience of “amateurs.”

Opium intensified his aesthetic experience. It also evacuated the power of his will. De Quincey's dream world illuminated as much as it deformed. He is aware alongside the diminishing pleasures, opium delivers an accumulation of pains. De Quincey is addicted, but he does not know he is addicted. The notion does not yet exist. To assert his own agency against the effects of the drug he deploys his assiduous intellect and records. It is true—he does not tell us that he lives an itinerant life in debt, that he is burdened with social and literary aspirations, that he occasionally engages prostitutes, or is unable to attend his most basic needs. He does, however, tell us he lives in torment—a powerlessness that mercilessly divides body and mind:

—I shall not afterwards allude to this part of the case: it is one, however, which the opium-eater will find, in the end, as oppressive and tormenting as any other, from the sense of incapacity and feebleness, from the direct embarrassments incident to the neglect or procrastination of each day’s appropriate duties, and from the remorse which must often exasperate the stings of these evils to a reflective and conscientious mind. The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities, or aspirations: he wishes and longs, as earnestly as ever, to realize what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt. He lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare: he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing disease, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love: —he curses the spells which chain him down from motion:—he would lay down his life if he might but get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and he cannot even attempt to rise.

De Quincey's world closes in on him. His dream world turns nightmarish. Faces, “innumerable faces upturned to the heavens: faces imploring, wrathful, despairing” overtake his dreams. The humanity he sought turns against him. Whatever aloneness De Quincey experiences as an addict, he meets it again and again with language. He may be faceless, but he is not without words. Language has the power to preserve a self, however weak, however blind. The act of writing itself—and the many subsequent attempts he makes in later works to cohere the dreams and life that afflict him—became his best defense, perhaps his only defense, to resist opium’s irrepressible power. Opium governed his body. De Quincey governed his language. Now we understand that opium always had the upper hand. “Opium is the true hero of the tale,” he writes. “The object was to display the marvellous agency of opium, whether for pleasure or for pain: if that is done, the action of the piece has closed.” Perhaps he did too.