The Self as Influenced by the Uncanny in De Quincey’s Opium-Eater

Even before Thomas De Quincey fully expounds upon the mental and physical effects of frequent substance abuse in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he states that “…if no definite boundary can be assigned to one’s power, the spirit of hope and pleasure makes it virtually infinite” (8). Far from delivering a simplistic commentary on opium through his confessions, De Quincey uses his narrative largely to display its impact upon the mental aspect of self definition. In Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s article “The Uncanny,” the authors suggest that “…the real is not something that is simply a given…but is constructed through human perception, language, beliefs and assumptions, and consequently it is something that can be changed” (Bennett 37). Though this quotation does not specifically incorporate human perception as it relates to environmental factors in its definition of the uncanny, the opium use present in De Quincey’s confessions becomes an integral component of the author’s ever-evolving self perception. The Romantic interest in the uncanny as is seen in De Quincey’s work centers both upon interactions with one’s surroundings as well as how a shifting perception of these same surroundings catalyzes and influences the development of the true, internal self. The author’s ability to successfully create and embody a more natural self, however artificial, is undeniably dependent upon the increasing prevalence of opium use throughout his confessions and, consequently, the production of his ability to contemplate what may be considered commonplace events from a novel perspective.De Quincey first addresses his opium use as it is connected to the development of an idealized self when he dictates his first experience taking the substance. The author suddenly exclaims of the surprisingly powerful effects, stating …oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes:—this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed (De Quincey 39). Although this quotation does not yet seem to present a specific situation in which the author is able to regard relatively common stimuli from a different perspective, it is evident that De Quincey acknowledges that this first experience with opium has in some way restructured his view of his “inner spirit”. The fact that the author is beginning to accept this disturbance of his negative mental perception of self in favor of embracing what he considers to be a more positive inner existence proves to be suggestive of the manner in which the uncanny causes an abrupt shift in human self perception. At this location in the narrative, De Quincey not only seems incapable of managing his pain on his own, but he now also claims to not even remember the previous pains he had experienced. The author even goes on to assert that “Here was a panacea—a [medicine to banish grief]—for all human woes” (De Quincey 39). The definition of self that begins to emerge as a result of his beginning to take opium is one that realizes the profundity of the mental alterations that have occurred and the author begins to adopt a more carefree existence. His use of the expression “abyss of divine enjoyment” and reference to an “apocalypse” of the self belie a subconscious recognition of the permanent modification in mental perception that may ultimately result from his opium abuse. The uncanny ultimately influences his self development in that he is able to perceive the negative stimuli that previously troubled him in a completely different and more positive light. At this point in the text, a tension has begun to develop between De Quincey’s imagined natural self and the one that is outwardly presented without the aid of substance abuse.As a result of his beginning to develop this conception that a more romantic, natural existence will result from his substance abuse, De Quincey narrates a more specific instance at the opera in which the solace he discovers is further implemented in this process of self-definition. Through his narrating his experience at the theatre, the author further exemplifies the manner in which the uncanny causes him to perceive a stimulus within his environment in a novel and, as seen from his perspective, instructive manner. While overhearing a conversation during the opera, De Quincey recounts that I had all around me…the music of the Italian language talked by Italian women…and I listened with pleasure such as that with which Weld the traveler lay and listened, in Canada, to the sweet laughter of Indian women; for the less you understood of a language, the more sensible you are to the melody or harshness of its sounds: for such a purpose, therefore, it was an advantage to me that I was a poor Italian scholar… (46)Although it seems at first that this quotation predominantly pertains to the beauty possessed by language even in its unfamiliarity, the passage also directly addresses the increasing effect of De Quincey’s opium use upon his both his self-definition as well as how he perceives his surroundings. Much like the previous paragraph in which the author embraces the absence of certain aspects of his personality, namely his negative past, due to his opium use, De Quincey easily accepts his lack of knowledge about a subject in which he had formerly experimented simply due to his altered state of mind. In addition to his considering his personal abilities and interests from an unusual perspective, he also is able to interact with his environment, though passively, in a different light. Though he has come to the theatre expressly to enjoy the performance, he is also able to appreciate the simplistic and beautiful combination of unfamiliar sounds. Despite the fact that Italian is relatively familiar to him, De Quincey is able to experience the language beyond the reality that immediately confronts him and understand the stimuli on a fundamental level. This unique perception of his surroundings as well as his realization that beauty may be found in relative ignorance (or what can, in other terms, be considered his recognition of the uncanny) is caused by a substance that removes his old consciousness and replaces it with an ability to accept the circumstances of his livelihood as they currently exist.In addition to De Quincey’s experience with unfamiliar language at the theatre, he also conveys this newly formed acceptance of himself and his surroundings as they naturally occur through his analysis of the understanding of music. The author asserts that his ability to readily appreciate this situation is due to the fact that “…opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind generally, increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we are able to construct out of raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure” (De Quincey 45). In the preceding statement, it is evident that the author admits that opium is responsible for the majority of the mental stimulation he receives from these outings to the theatre and, without the different perspective with which the substance provides him, he would be afforded a largely dissimilar experience. He even challenges a person who laments his inability to understand music, exclaiming “Ideas! my good sir? there is no occasion for them: all that class of ideas, which can be available in such a case, has a language of representative feelings” (De Quincey 45). Much like the quotation concerning the author’s inability to comprehend Italian, De Quincey again rejects the assumption that full mental consciousness is necessary to appreciate an art form; it is only through a return to a more natural mental state, one that has obtained independence from the overpowering need for absolute understanding, that the author may grasp his surroundings at a more simplistic, and ultimately more enjoyable, level. In addition to this sense of profound pleasure that opium use affords De Quincey at this stage in the novel, the author also argues against certain societal conceptions about its negative effects. In providing the reader with his examples of his excursions to the theatre, De Quincey asserts that “Thus I have shown that opium does not, of necessity, produce inactivity or torpor; but that, on the contrary, it often led me into markets and theatres” (48). In mentioning these clearly cultural locations, it is evident that De Quincey hopes to impart that he not only was he present in these locations, but also could be considered a fully functioning societal figure that, in fact, is able to approach in these locations from a novel human perception. Though opium use may be considered debilitative, De Quincey here asserts that, contrary to hindering his self awareness, opium actually enhances it. He also avers that “the remedies I sought were to force myself into society, and to keep my understanding in continual activity in matters of science” (48). Ultimately, these two quotations, when considered in tandem, represent the fact that De Quincey is able to engage in multiple forms of discourse: both the natural observation of London as it subconsciously operates as well as an active engagement in scholarly discourse. Without his opium use, it is possible that De Quincey may not have been as easily able to make use of the uncanny to appreciate the city for its most intriguing intricacies, those intricacies that may have gone unnoticed at first glance. Although De Quincey seems to argue largely in favor of this mental departure from what may be considered normal reality, the dreams he experiences as a result of his opium abuse provide him with an avenue toward that which is humanly incomprehensible and sublime. In his detailing the effects of opium-induced nightmares, he details that “…a theatre seemed suddenly opened and lighted up within my brain, which presented nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour…the state of gloom which attended these gorgeous spectacles, amounting at last to utter darkness, as of some suicidal despondency, cannot by approached by words” (De Quincey 68). Though it may seem at first as if De Quincey wholly rejects and abhors the sublime images he describes in the above quotation, it is rather that these visions have produced so natural a perspective on human perception that they are beyond his comprehension. He even later states that, “…the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically, nor with any special power of tormenting” (De Quincey 72). It is evidenced through the above quotations that even though the images presented are foreign and, in some cases, terrifying, these dreams suggest an even greater return to nature in that he frequently experiences the sublime. As a result of the opium’s producing an uncanny repetition of the same images of faces and natural phenomena, De Quincey is able to operate from and appreciate the Romantic perspective more fully. Despite the fact that the author remains human and, no matter what the circumstances, will still be unable to fully comprehend the sublime, the presence of opium allows him at least to be allowed exposure to these phenomena through their repetition. Though the author has witnessed many faces or sublime natural structures throughout his existence, the presence of opium allows him to gain a new perspective on these objects that he may not have otherwise obtained. As the opium use increases throughout De Quincey’s confessions, the uncanny plays a more significant role in the progression toward a natural, more romantic self. Through the uncanny causing his being able to perceive both his surroundings and himself from a novel perspective, the author is able to produce a confession that consists not only of daily events as he experiences them, but also in a manner that simultaneously considers the Romantic literary perspective. As a result of a later emphasis upon the sublime through his narration of dreams, De Quincey is able to address the effect of natural influences upon man, as well as their necessity to human development. Opium, as it represents a physical embodiment of the uncanny, catalyzes this more Romantic version of the self which is able to contemplate surrounding people or situations simply as they exist, rather than complicating them with the biases of human perception. On a fundamental level, the uncanny creates the ability to subconsciously experience the sublime through dreams and to contemplate the subtleties of language and art while unrestrained by normal human mental perception. De Quincey ultimately argues that the uncanny is central to a successful confession in that it allows for a more intense and unprecedented appreciation for environmental stimuli as well as the tendency toward unrestrained thought.

Emerging from Darkness and Dreams in De Quincey

De Quincey’s dreams and visions as described in his work function as a different world, which exists in places of temporary darkness, and his attempts to capture them must function outside of that world, in a well-lit space of recollection and translation onto paper. This hindsight is comparable to the manner in which he acted as his own editor, revising sections as he later considered fit, and is met in the text by a dwelling on the moment of ‘waking’ and shifting from one state into the other. Tambling describes his 1856 revisions as ‘not only trying to fix the text, as Wordsworth had tried to do, but also attempting to demonstrate a unity within its digressions’: quoting De Quincey’s idea of a ‘veil’ between current consciousness and complete memories, Tambling interprets this attempt to demonstrate unity as inherently flawed, as finding meaning or knowing yourself in half-remembered dreams is futile. As Virginia Woolf noted, however, hindsight is the only way to make sense of the past or your dreams: ‘it is only by gathering up and putting together these echoes and fragments that we arrive at the true nature of our experience.’

The English Mail-coach describes the twin effects of opium and nostalgia as De Quincey travels through the darkness on a mail coach, contrasting the temporal nature of his past experiences with the unchanging nature of the crocodile:

‘If, therefore, the crocodile does not change, all things else undeniably do: even the shadow of the pyramids grows less. And often the restoration in vision of Fanny and the Bath road makes me too pathetically sensible of that truth. Out of the darkness, if I happen to call back the image of Fanny, up rises suddenly from a gulf of forty years a rose in June; or, if I think for an instant of the rose in June, up rises the heavenly face of Fanny. One after the other, like the antiphonies in the choral service, rise Fanny and the rose in June, then back again the rose in June and Fanny. Then come both together, as in a chorus—roses and Fannies, Fannies and roses, without end, thick as blossoms in paradise. Then comes a venerable crocodile, in a royal livery of scarlet and gold, with sixteen capes; and the crocodile is driving four-in-hand from the box of the Bath mail. And suddenly we upon the mail are pulled up by a mighty dial, sculptured with the hours, that mingle with the heavens and the heavenly host. Then all at once we are arrived at Marlborough forest.’

The darkness of the night-time drive allows him to hallucinate visions of the past, offering him company and comfort. The restoration of these images, however, remind him even more sharply of the truth once he emerges from this ride in the darkness: he is ‘too pathetically sensible of that truth.’ The hallucinated re-introduction of time is signaled by him seeing a literal ‘mighty dial’ that invokes ‘the heavens and the heavenly host’, as though his moment of awakening reminds him of heavenly repercussions. In the opium-influenced dreaming, he forgets that the substance enabling him to see figures from his past is destructive, but once he awakes he cannot escape moral consequences. The darkness also exists as a peripheral area where his senses are confused: the visions become ‘antiphonies in the choral service’ and a ‘chorus’, whereas when he wakes he will recall and record the visions in this text, and therefore have them captured only visually in the form of words on a page.

Another temporary form of darkness that De Quincey appears to crave is seasonal, and he again craves that ‘antagonism’ to better understand or appreciate the light and warmth that summer will bring. In Confessions, he wants a winter that is fully characteristic of winter, as an extreme darkness to better contradict the summer months:

‘I can put up even with rain, provided it rains cats and dogs; but something of the sort I must have, and if I have it not, I think myself in a manner ill-used; for why am I called on to pay so heavily for winter, in coals and candles, and various privations that will occur even to gentlemen, if I am not to have the article good of its kind? No, a Canadian winter for my money, or a Russian one, where every man is but a co-proprietor with the north wind in the fee-simple of his own ears. Indeed, so great an epicure am I in this matter that I cannot relish a winter night fully if it be much past St. Thomas’s day, and have degenerated into disgusting tendencies to vernal appearances. No, it must be divided by a thick wall of dark nights from all return of light and sunshine.’

He appears to have a sense of shame if not punished appropriately by the weather, as seen in the very emotive description of ‘disgusting’ early spring. The clear separation of dark nights and the return of light must be upheld as a ‘thick wall’, so that there is a clear shift from winter to summer rather than prolonged ‘vernal appearances’. The moment of waking must be total in De Quincey’s view.

It certainly is in ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, as guilt or sin creates a completely separate ‘world’: ‘Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart, and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is “unsexed;” Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed.’ This supernatural world of devils is aligned with loss of strict gendered roles in society, but also the loss of connection to family and personal identity: the impact of the murder is total in its shifting from one world of morality to the other, but the characters and audience only fully realize this when they are broken from this nightmarish darkness by a knock on the door from an outside party:

‘Hence it is, that, when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.’

Similar to Hillis Miller’s interpretation of De Quincey as arguing that we can only know true rapture through knowledge of misery, and therefore knowledge arising from ‘antitheses’, this passage portrays the ‘knocking at the gate’ as an awakening to the ‘awful parenthesis’ they had entered, in which the stage was solely occupied by murderers. He perhaps believes an audience can only realize the strangeness of a post-murder world through the intrusion of an uninvolved party, as they need to be woken from this ‘world of darkness’ for it to have any meaning. The language he uses to describe this moment of transition, ‘the pulses of life are beginning to beat again’, makes it a specifically bodily reawakening that could parallel his awakening from dreams in other texts.

De Quincey aligns darkness with a potential for imagined visions and dreams in Confessions, and explains it as a return to a childhood state and therefore an escape from current bodily reality: ‘I know not whether my reader is aware that many children, perhaps most, have a power of painting, as it were upon the darkness, all sorts of phantoms.’ The reference to ‘painting’ phantoms onto the darkness implies that the hallucinations themselves are a form of art, and portrays the person having the visions as being in control of them to some degree. The same image of painting is invoked again later: ‘Both these parts of my lighter reading, having furnished me often with matter of reflection, now furnished me with matter for my dreams. Often I used to see, after painting upon the blank darkness a sort of rehearsal whilst waking, a crowd of ladies, and perhaps a festival and dances.’ His imagined visions on the darkness provide him with subjects for dreams as a ‘rehearsal’, again implying control over what he sees and dreams. By describing these imagined visions as paintings, however, he also draws attention to the limitations of that comparison. These ‘paintings’ will not last as works of art, so the only method for recording them is always going to be retrospective description; the word ‘perhaps’ even admits that there are limitations to such a remembrance. The invocation of art within the text reminds the reader of the fact that these ‘Confessions’ themselves have been captured in hindsight, and of the process. The scene of painting onto darkness or ascribing meaning onto nothing also echoes some of the criticism his actual art received from his contemporaries: his style of prose was criticised as ‘word painting’ that represented multiple failed attempts ‘to render artistic and set forth in “passionate prose” what is essentially matter of fact.’ His style could be seen to project art and beauty onto flat darkness, much like the opium did through the visions. In drawing attention to itself, it also reminds the reader that he has emerged and is recording his experiences. These moments of dreaming and darkness exhibit his search for meaning in his own past, enabled by the drug and the darkness, and his emergence allows him to employ hindsight, similar to his editing process, in translating these visions to paper.

Throughout his works, De Quincey seems interested in that moment of transition, where he can gain knowledge of his previous state through contrast with the present. Emerging from darkness into the light means the loss of ‘visions’ that De Quincey may have craved, as his past can exist within them, but allows for him to try and frame them or make sense of them. Still, the waking self can lose clarity of what was seen or dreamt in the darkness, as De Quincey notes in Experiences: ‘The minutest incidents of childhood, or forgotten scenes of later years, were often revived: I could not be said to recollect them, for if I had been told of them when waking, I should not have been able to acknowledge them as parts of my past experience.’ The hindsight that he records his experiences in may provide him with an insight into their meaning, but it also degenerates the experience itself by narrowing it down into words. In Suspiria his last image of his sister appears to be ruined by a moment of waking from a trance, too, as he rushes away hastily when a sound brings him back to reality: the transition to waking can be destructive as well as transformative. Woolf, however, praised the ‘impassioned prose’ of these moments for its own merit, rather than its efficiency in capturing the total detail of a dream sequence. She described these moments of irrationality or escape as ‘descriptions of states of mind’ that are ‘his most perfect passages’: ‘his confession is not that he has sinned but that he has dreamed.’ Whether the hindsight these moments are recorded in is detrimental to the memory or dream or vision originally captured, it aids a prose style beautiful enough to give those moments meaning that is not dependent on the original resonance in De Quincey’s own life.