Thomas De Quincey: the Pope of Opium

BooksfeatHermione Eyre at The Spectator:

This biography of the craven Romantic and self-confessed ‘Pope of Opium’ concludes with the ominous words: ‘We are all De Quinceyan now.’ His life was shambolic but his legacy is strong. Many spores from his fevered mind have lodged in modern popular culture: his narcotic excursions inspired Baudelaire and Burroughs, his sensitivity to place influenced the psychogeographers Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair, his laconic, jaunty essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ was deemed ‘delightful’ by Alfred Hitchcock, and his Escher-like imaginative double consciousness prompted Jorge Luis Borges to ask: ‘I wonder if I would have existed without De Quincey?’

And yet behold the man himself. Broke, pompous and high as a kite, he dressed like a beggar and wrote surrounded by an ‘ocean’ of books, papers and candles so that, as Frances Wilson dryly notes, ‘It was habitual for his daughters to point out to De Quincey as he worked that his hair was alight’. By turns amused, appalled and empathetic, Wilson paints such a riveting multi-tonal portrait that one ends up with a strong regard for De Quincey’s rare vision but at the same time an absolute certainty one would not invite him to dinner.

Torpid until midnight, his conversation would take off just as the other guests were leaving, reaching a peak of ‘diseased acuteness’, according to Thomas Carlyle; he might then stay on as a guest for weeks on the smallest pretext, borrowing money, leaving behind the stacks of papers that always attended him, and probably ending up by revealing damning details about his stay a few years later. He was a great writer, but became, like so many junkies, a lousy friend.

more here.