Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Hallucinogesis: Thomas De Quincey's Mind Trips

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Hallucinogesis: Thomas De Quincey's Mind Trips

Article excerpt

THOMAS DE QUINCEY'S ENTIRE OEUVRE IS PREMISED ON A CONCEPTION OF the lost thing, that which had been held close--a person, a feeling, a vision--as medically and culturally implicated. From his first mature work Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) to his late essays on China and India in 1857, he is haunted by the ephemeral. His dreams, hallucinations, and reflections all participate in a kind of nostalgia-laden anxiety disorder that the instabilities of his time fostered, even encouraged, in those who were, or believed themselves to be, sensitive. Losing things, even oneself, becomes a condition of De Quincey's life, a life lived as remediation in the face of loss.

De Quincey's sensitivity makes him vulnerable to otherly knowledges despite the vigorous ratiocination of which he believes himself capable, while the remedial work of his autobiographical writing is framed by and understood through a pharmacologically induced dreamworld. Epistemological and visionary knowledges self-contradict in this uncertain landscape resulting in fleeting--sometimes layered--moments of insight I am calling "hallucinogesis." These are the moments of intense almost-knowing resulting from particularly powerful opium dreams. Such dreams, as solitary and isolating as prophetic vision, operate in De Quincey's world like a palimpsest, layered in an intertextuality that does not depend on either the reader's or the authoring dreamer's prior knowledge of subtextual matters. The "sighs from the depths" that constitute his closest look at the potentiality of palimpsest, the "Suspiria de Profundis" (1845), reflect a larger affinity for layered emotions and pre-verbal states, both of which dispose him toward what the rational mind contests but the dreaming mind yearns for. This is the lost thing as a priority, a prior, centering claire on him. It is the knowledge of this unnameable thing that constitutes De Quincey's grappling with nostalgia as a symptom of the disorder, the hallucinogesis that is both pathological and enlightening. If opium facilitates De Quincey's disorder, his sense of loss had already predisposed him toward it.

In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey looks back over the landscape of his life and chooses to begin his Rousseauvian analysis with a brief survey of the current medical literature on opium use and its addictive effects. "Suspiria de Profundis" continues the analysis of "affliction" but develops more thoroughly the connection between medical and cultural contaminants that have transformed his youthful self from a philosopher-in-training to a man enslaved to his "faculty of dreaming" rather than its scientific witness. In "The English Mail-Coach" (1849; revised 1854) the nostalgia for a better past is deeply entwined with the fear of a native British culture irrevocably contaminated by Eastern influences as rural folk are transformed into mythically complex horrors encountered on the road. What begins as a confident Kantian grasp of medical knowledge in The Confessions descends into distressed perception. The transcendental idealism by which empirical evidence yoked to theory yields meaning fails in the face of a seductive drug, and even the analytic eye is disturbingly transformed: "The first notice I had of any important change going on in this part of my physical economy, was from the re-awakening of a state of eye generally incident to childhood, or exalted states of irritability." (1) By the "Suspiria" the perturbed, hallucinating eye can prove a viable tool for sourcing knowledge, and in "The English Mail-Coach" for understanding repopulated landscapes. It is the diseased vision that functions nostalgically, transforming surface into unutterable depth, but then reverse-translating, rendering the dream code into decipherability. In analyzing De Quincey's narratives of mental travel, and his portrayal of a self endlessly mobile in its transcendent capacity to dream the world into an altered state (rather than, with Kant, to think the world as it is), I will examine more closely the form of knowledge, "hallucinogesis," to which De Quincey devotes himself through both analytic and imaginative methods. …

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