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Confessions of an English Opium Eater
by Thomas De Quincey
Publisher:
Wordsworth Classic 
Year:
1994 
ISBN:
1853260967 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by JF, 6/24/2001

Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater was first published in 1821 in London Magazine, and was later revised and expanded by the author in 1856, although I have not read this later edition, generally considered inferior. The Confessions sparked the imagination and interest of readers at the time and earned for its author some notoriety. Today, the situation is not much different: de Quincy’s work is viewed as a minor classic by the world at large (enough of one, anyway, to merit a Penguin edition with a nice introduction, if that is any indication), and he is something of a father figure among the literati of the drug underground, although I suspect relatively few have bothered to read the Confessions. Nevertheless, it is arguably the pioneering account in the literary genre that consists of taking drugs and writing about one’s experiences and their significance.

de Quincy might be said to have paved the way for the writings of William James on nitrous oxide, Aldous Huxley on mescaline and even the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. But de Quincy has nowhere near the stature of Huxley, either as a writer or as a thinker—for good reason. Compared to the Doors of Perception, in which Huxley confidently and brilliantly establishes what still reigns supreme as the best and most mature paradigm for entheogenic drug use, the Confessions is no more than a minor work, the timid speculations of a meek man who never reached his full intellectual potential. de Quincy has surprisingly little of interest to say on the subject of opium-induced visionary experiences, and in order to get at the good bits, the reader is obliged to wade through a morass of maudlin personal reminiscences and overly allusive and indulgent purple prose.

By this I do not mean to dismiss the Confessions as an utter waste of time. It is intriguing to read some early evidence of the decline of western materialism—a fraying at the edges, if you will. Consider, for example, de Quincy’s views on the subject of aesthetics and, more importantly, the construction of reality:


The mistake of most people is to suppose that is by the ear, they communicate with music, and, therefore, that they are purely passive to its effects. But this is not so: it is by the reaction of the mind upon the notices of the ear, (the matter coming by the senses, the form from the mind) that the pleasure is constructed: and therefore it is possible that people of equally good ear differ so much in this point from one another. [Punctuation sic]

Ultimately, however, de Quincy’s Confessions is not a great deal more than a historical curiosity. Most interesting to this reviewer is the contrast between the fate of the opium addict in the nineteenth century and today. de Quincy’s addiction to opium clearly hurt—in the final analysis—the quality of his life. Yet today his lot as an addict to the very same drug would be incomparably worse. This is called “sending the right message to kids.”

5 Comments »

  1. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is, though written at a level far above most writers today, a bit of a bore. I’ll be honest, I never finished the whole book. After two chapters I decided some other piece of literature on the subject would be more worth my time (Huxley or Thompson are both enjoyable). Like the reviewer states, de Quincy has very little to say.

    Comment by TJ — 7/11/2005 @ 10:00 am

  2. De Quincey understood considerable about dependency and its dynamics. THAT is what makes him worthwhile…not the bullshit aesthetics you craven critics hanker for…stop bing so effete and come down in the trenches.

    Comment by opie ate — 12/4/2007 @ 3:55 pm

  3. Why are you so cranky? Take a pill, or a bottle or two of pills. Goodbye.

    Comment by barfknow — 9/16/2008 @ 10:32 am

  4. I couldn’t disagree more with JF’s review. I became fascinated by De Quincey’s book around age 20 and wrote my dissertation on the effect of opium on the writing of De Quincey and Coleridge. Not only is De Quincey a great stylist(though as pointed out by TJ, it’s written for a much more highly educated reader than the average American) I believe any suggestion that Huxley was a greater thinker is based on the old hippie paradigm (Hallucinogens-Good/Opiates-Bad) that make so many 1960’s drug books tiresome. I’d suggest a neophyte start with “The English Mail Coach” rather than the “Confessions”. Also readers should be aware that many publishers use a different,longer revision that De Quincey re-wrote years later with no notation as to which version is being used. In my opinion, the longer one is better, but probably harder going for most readers.

    Comment by Steve Hancock — 5/10/2009 @ 10:50 pm

  5. I think your review is quite harsh. I wonder how you could even compare de Quincey’s writing with Huxley’s. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but de Quincey was born in 1785 whereas Huxley was in 1894. There is more than 100 years between. What I consider to be unfair, in your review, is to forget about these 100 years. Instead of comparing de Quincey to Huxley, which is historically impossible and methodically irresponsible, perhaps you should have compared de Quincey with his own contemporaries, to ground him into his own era so to speak. That’s when you realize how much of a pionner he truly was. Also, I have some difficulties following you, when you write about his “overly allusive and indulgent purple prose.” This tells a lot more about you as a reader than about de Quincey about a writer. For me, de Quincey’s book was and is still a classick of underground, English experimental literature, which was published when its author was only 36 years old. His writing level and unique style in English literature was never paralleled, and that’s why we still remember Thomas de Quincey.

    Comment by Oliver Side — 7/19/2010 @ 12:52 pm

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