Piranesi's Prison: Thomas De Quincey and the Failure of Autobiography

Article excerpt

Thomas De Quincey, in his autobiographical writing, constantly locates seemingly disparate details from his life in evidently patterned sequences. Perhaps the most striking example of this practice is the series of losses which punctuate his texts. In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, De Quincey's departure from school is figured as a separation from a woman in a portrait (he kisses her once and walks away never to return);(1) then he loses track of the small girl with whom he has shared his lowest moments in London (Garnett, pp. 39-40). Finally, he inexplicably loses his beloved Ann amidst the mazy London streets (Garnett, pp. 53-54; pp. 64-66). In his "Autobiography from 1785 to 1803," De Quincey describes his sister's death in terms that invite us to see this loss as part of the same pattern (Masson, 1:17-416, 37-43).

Even as the text invites the reader to see all of these events as parts of a larger structure, the status of that structure is made problematic. For example, we learn in "The Pleasures Of Opium" that the drug itself allows De Quincey to order temporal events within a larger, harmonious framework. If this synchronic, ordering vision is a symptom of the author's drug-addled mind, are we not asked to wonder about the overarching structures that order De Quincey's narrations of his own life? What do we make of narrative structure in a text which consistently undermines the validity of interpretative ordering? The reader of De Quincey's autobiographical writings is always faced with some version of this question.

The problem is one of agency. If the narrator's mind is possessed by some extraconscious agent (opium or an unconscious), then one can never trust the constructions of his voice: it is always possible that they are merely the projections of an agency beyond their author's conscious control.(2) De Quincey is aware of the problem. While his autobiographical texts rely on ordering patterns, they also consistently manifest their author's need to question the validity of his own imaginative ordering. Thus, De Quincey's autobiographical texts are scattered with metaphors, images, and tableaux that model the relationship between the consciousness and the projections of an extraconscious agency in a variety of ways.

Throughout this paper I discuss these models, leaving the nature of the extraconscious agency purposefully vague. Indeed, it remains vague in De Quincey's own formulations: at times it seems like what we might call the unconscious, while at times it is discussed as opium. Lately I have been wondering if this vagueness of reference is not precisely what makes De Quincey interesting, moving, and perhaps useful. It is just possible that there may be a gap between the institutionalized psychological constructs with which we now understand the formation of the self and the emotional experience of subjectivity: the notion of extraconscious agency has become at once so central and so self-evident that the crisis of consciousness it implies has been distanced and controlled by the easy availability of a cliched psychological vocabulary. Because De Quincey does not have available the post-Freudian concepts with which we now tend to understand ourselves, his autobiographical writings display the emotional stakes of psychological theorization without the clinical distance which has followed the establishment of psychology as a science. That is why, for all of his outmoded hyperbole, De Quincey has always struck me as being somehow fresh.

I see in De Quincey's autobiographical project an attempt to establish ex nihilo a conscious vocabulary of images with which to model and make sense of the problem of projection. Competing with the desire to make sense of himself is a nagging interest in the limitations of rational self-investigation, and the formulations of these limitations become more and more pessimistic over the course of his career. In other words, the images, metaphors, and tableaux with which De Quincey theorizes the problematics of projection within his autobiographical writings form a coherent career trajectory. …