Accident or Murder? Intentionality, the Picturesque, and the Body of Thomas De Quincey

By Byerly, Alison | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Accident or Murder? Intentionality, the Picturesque, and the Body of Thomas De Quincey


Byerly, Alison, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Although many critics of Thomas De Quincey's writing have associated his highly visual descriptions with the aesthetics of the sublime, this essay explores the characteristics of the picturesque that led De Quincey to exploit that genre in many of his works, including Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Suspiria De Profundis, The English Mail-Coach, and "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." De Quincey found the picturesque a useful construct because its self-conscious detachment of aesthetic vision from material reality, its atemporality, and its blurring of questions of agency and control allowed him to use the picturesque perspective to distance himself from his own body: not only from frequent physical pain, but from the psychological distress caused by his own sense of physical inadequacy. The immateriality of the picturesque perspective is dramatized in De Quincey's obsession with the complementary tropes of accident and murder, which he uses throughout his writings to define a spectrum of differing degrees of intentionality and agency along which his own actions are measured. His association of aesthetic enjoyment with an escape from the physical is reflected in his representation of the body's destruction as the supreme artistic experience.

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Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) is known primarily for its dreams, hallucinations, and flights of fancy. Yet it also purports to be firmly grounded in bodily experience. Throughout the Confessions, De Quincey reiterates his claim that his addiction to opium began with his effort to dull the intense physical pain caused by a chronic stomach ailment, and his narrative is shaped by a strange oscillation between obsession with his own body and imaginative escape from it. As Elaine Scarry has shown, the experience of pain is closely linked to the imagination. Pain is a psychic state that has no object in the external world, and requires the imagination to create a release for itself (161-63). De Quincey's drug-induced dreams and hallucinations seem to represent an effort to substitute imaginative experience for the physical existence he found unbearable. His autobiography is thus an interrogation of his own mind rather than a record of his actions. Although the Confessions returns obsessively to the effect of De Quincey's bodily discomfort on his imagination, his body itself, as an actor, usually remains offstage.

Even when De Quincey is forced to immerse himself in the real world, he attempts to detach himself psychologically, viewing other people as aesthetic objects and substituting their physical experience for his own. Critics who have noted the highly visual quality of all of De Quincey's prose, and the self-consciously aesthetic stance he often assumes, frequently associate his writing with the aesthetic category of the sublime. His obsession with vast spaces, terrifying experiences, and the power of the individual mind encourage critics to focus on the "'dark sublime' of his dreams" (Snyder 708) in their attempts to situate him within a specific aesthetic tradition. J. Hillis Miller's description of the "Piranesi effect" in De Quincey's writing, named after the famous passage in the Confessions that is based on Piranesi's "Carceri," and his suggestion that a characteristic motif of De Quincey's is "the power which the mind has to sink into its own abyss," also reflect this understanding of De Quincey as an exemplar of the sublime (67).

In this essay, however, I will suggest that in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Suspiria De Profundis, "The Vision of Sudden Death," and "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," De Quincey uses a different aesthetic construct, the picturesque, as a way of distancing himself from both his actions and his own body. The picturesque mode is characterized by an emphasis on the spectator's imaginative construction of the scene, rather than material properties of the scene itself. …

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