Recently, I decided it was time to review my “want to read” bookshelf on Goodreads and see how I did. As always, I was disappointed with the long list of books I still hadn’t read … especially after adding 20 extra must-reads. One book, however, was way past due: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. ‘Why this one?’ you might ask. Well, allow me to elaborate. Being a literature history fanatic, I can’t ignore the influence of the culture of opium consumption – especially laudanum – had on a large part of British history. Its exotic origins was interwoven with the rising popularity of literary Orientalism. Lord Byron, William Beckford, and later on many of the Pre-Raphaelites expressed in their works that keen interest in the culture, dress and folklore introduced from the East, leading to a conglomeration of Oriental images in literature and arts.
But first, a few notes on opium:
Opium was first introduced into Britain when it was transported from India in the 17th century, by order of Queen Elisabeth I. Over the centuries it began to gain ground. Opium was used both medicinally and recreationally in a number of forms ranging in levels of purity. It was primarily sold in pills as an over-the-counter painkiller relieving you from all ailments. Most impressively, you could even get it at the local grocers or tailor before the passing of the Pharmacy Act in 1868.
Although the elicit ‘opium dens’ were indeed popular among the fans of oriental opium usage, the most literary form of opium was laudanum: a tincture consisting of opium and water, wine or even spirits. Again, the purity of the opium in laudanum was often questionable.
One very important text that became pivotal in the debate around the benefits and harms of using opium was Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The text itself relates Thomas De Quincey’s experiences with opium as a lifelong addict. It was originally published anonymously in the London Magazine and 40 years later published as a book in an exhaustingly extended version. The version I read was the edition containing Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and its sequels Suspiria and An English Mail Coach. For those who are absolutely captivated by my writing and just have to read this book, let me give you a heads up. Only the first part is truly about his opium usage. Towards the end De Quincey begins to use opium metaphors to explain philosophical queries. Noteworthy is the description of his opium-induced dreams, which were part of the attraction to opium for many author geniuses of the day. Their ‘visions’ were considered a great source of creative inspiration.
The funny thing about this book is that, although it was accompanied by quite a scandal when published, it soon became part of recommended medical reading material. De Quincey, who was then still the anonymous Opium-eater, became an authority on opium usage and specifically a reference tool in the debate around the recommended (or perhaps warned-against?) maximum dosage.
Now, I could go on and on about this book. (Seriously, don’t dare me ’cause I’ll do it!) Confessions is not only packed with information on the customs of the time, but also provides a great source for investigating the cult of the artist-genius. What I personally find noteworthy is opium’s transcendence of social strata (as opposed to the ever popular gin, which was known as the poor man’s route to excessive drunkenness). One could even discuss the text as an interesting subject for Clifford Geertz’ method of thick description. (Possible follow-up post?) However, I will leave you to read it for yourself and discover what the text has to offer you. Note: Insomniacs will definitely appreciate De Quincey’s description of the effect that opium has on not only dreams but also your sleeping patterns in general.
Since the book is labelled “Confessions”, I will finish with a few of De Quincey’s best:
- During a certain time in his life he took up to 40 grains of opium a day. Since opium wasn’t a very pure product at the time and its strength could vary, we don’t know exactly what an insane amount that is. Let’s assume more than enough.
- He had begun taking opium for an acute pain in his face, calling it ‘an arthritis of the face’.
- He was very, very short.
- His best friend in the world was a 15-year old prostitute.
- He mentioned as the main negative side effect of his extreme opium usage being haunted by the hallucination of a crocodile.
… Sweet dreams!