Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

De Quincey, Coleridge, and the Literary Model of Habit

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

De Quincey, Coleridge, and the Literary Model of Habit

Article excerpt

This essay argues that Thomas De Quincey defines 'authentic' opium habituation as the effective management of one's own personal slavery, and he uses Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a straw man to illustrate the perils of unmanaged, 'illegitimate' opium use. In essays from the 1820s, '30s and '40s and in the enlarged 1856 edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey re-imagines Coleridge (and his habits) as alternate versions of Marley's Ghost from A Christmas Carol, as Caliban "fretting his very heart--strings against the rivets of his chain," and as a squabbling "Transcendental Philosopher" engaged in farcical debate with boys at a druggist's shop. De Quincey constructs what I term a literary model of habit one that redeploys the supernatural, the exotic, and the comically absurd in texts from Shakespeare to Dickens to textualize readymade images of cultural anxieties about habit. The literary model of habit constitutes a philological pre-history for addiction, one that underwrites Louise Foxcroft's recent "Making" of addiction and Susan Zieger's "Invention" of the addict during the nineteenth century.

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If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true, that I have struggled against this fascinating enthrallment with a religious zeal, and have, at length, accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man--have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me. Such a self-conquest may reasonably be set off in counterbalance to any kind of degree of self-indulgence. Not to insist, that in my case, the self-conquest was unquestionable, the self-indulgence open to doubts of casuistry, according as that name shall be extended to acts aiming at the bare relief of pain, or shall be restricted to such as aim at the excitement of positive pleasure. (Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater [1822: 4-5] [original emphasis]) (1)

De Quincey's "confession" in the above quotation is remarkable in that he confesses to astoundingly little. Allowing that the origins of his "self-conquest" and "self-indulgent" opium consumption may appear suspicious, De Quincey nevertheless presents his opium-eating as perfectly in balance with itself: the "sensuality," "fascinating enthrallment," and "positive pleasure" of opium are offset by the "religious zeal" and the heroism of "untwist[ing], almost to its final links, the accursed chain" of habituation. De Quincey fashions himself as an opium-eater capable of managing habit, and the absence of rival opium-eaters with substantive "records" of their own certainly makes his the loudest voice about opium consumption in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. (2) Victorian and fin de siecle temperance movements will look back and blame De Quincey for championing opium use for the general public, but it is worth remembering that he actually frames his sundry opium experiences in terms of a functional, balanced, and manageable habit he "confesses" to in name only. (3)

In a footnote elaborating upon his use of the above phrase "not yet recorded," De Quincey makes dubious reference to another, more famous opium-eater. He chides, "'Not yet recorded,' I say: for there is one celebrated man of the present day, who, if all be true which is reported of him, has greatly exceeded me in quantity" (4n) [original emphasis]. (4) Major textual editors of De Quincey's 1822 Confessions easily identify this "celebrated man of the present day" as a thinly-veiled reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge--whose life experiences Charles Lloyd borrowed heavily from in his 1798 epistolary novel, Edmund Oliver, and whose lounging melancholic indolence Wordsworth made famous when he described the "noticeable Man with large grey eyes,/ And a pale face that seemed undoubtedly/ As if a blooming face it ought to be" in "Stanzas Written in my Pocket-Copy of Thomson's 'Castle of Indolence'" (39-41). …

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