Fearful Spaces: Thomas De Quincey's Sino-Anginophobia

By Poetzsch, Markus | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2015 | Go to article overview

Fearful Spaces: Thomas De Quincey's Sino-Anginophobia


Poetzsch, Markus, English Studies in Canada


From his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to his later political essays on the "China Question" dating from the 1840s and 1850s to his revised and expanded Confessions of 1856, the orientalist rhetoric of Thomas De Quincey reveals a persistent vacillation between virulent John Bullism and an anxious, indeed fearful, entrancement with the Orient and its powers of possession and imaginative expansion. John Barrell has argued that De Quincey's writing seems "entirely divided" between these modes, which he glosses as "repudiation and identification" (155), yet I will suggest that the barrier of separation is rather more permeable. The Orient in its unfathomable otherness and intimate familiarity leaves De Quincey, in his own words, "loathing and fascinated" (Confessions 321, emphasis added). The apparent inseparability of these emotions is captured most vividly in his description of his oriental dreams, which, as he notes, "filled me always with such amazement at the monstrous scenery, that horror seemed absorbed for a while in sheer astonishment. Sooner or later came a reflux of feeling that swallowed up the astonishment, and left me, not so much in terror, as in hatred and abomination of what I saw" (Confessions 321). For De Quincey, the Orient, whether as inner or outer reality, is the ultimate complexio oppositorum; it elicits "astonishment" and "hatred" simultaneously, one emotion relying on the other to give it shape. The Orient as concept thus appears to take upon itself, as its nature, these same bifurcations and paradoxes. (1) It is surprising therefore that modern criticism has tended to focus almost exclusively on the extreme manifestations of De Quincey's emotional responses--the bipolarities--rather than the fluxes and refluxes, the inherent interweaving or hybridity, of his orientalist rhetoric. Like Barrell, for example, Charles Rzepka adroitly extracts "[t]he Tory jingoism, crude orientalism, and imperialist apologetics" from De Quincey's political writings and sets them at a distance not only from the narrative of opium addiction but also from "the portrait of the artist commonly derived from his confessional works"--the portrait, that is, of a "bullied and humiliated ... child, [who] declares his sympathy with the pariahs and scapegoats of all lands" (38). What emerges thus is the image of a "divided" body of writing and of divisions rooted specifically in childhood trauma. As Barrell maintains, for De Quincey "the worst of oriental horrors can be represented only by being connected with ... personal traumas" (149). More recent analyses of De Quincey's oriental horrors have tended to adopt Barrell's psychoanalytic rhetoric and methodology, with the "traumatic bewilderment" (Faflak 183) of childhood becoming the predominant and often exclusive lens through which adult fear is read. Dianne Simmons, for example, sets out in The Narcissism of Empire to establish a "link between [De Quincey's] childhood losses ... his opium use, and ... his project of demonstrating the sub-human nature of the Chinese" (29). Her conclusion, that De Quincey relives in his Opium War essays "the fury of a child at the cold, withholding omnipotence of the parent" (43), reiterates Rzepka's account of the author's "displaced Oedipal struggle" (40). Even where the analytical focus ostensibly transcends the Freudian narrative of psychic trauma, as in Joel Black's illuminating engagement with the geopolitics of nineteenth-century temperance movements, De Quincey's "anti-Chinese animus" (159) is read as "a classic instance of projection ... screening [his] own masochistic abuse" (158). Such a conclusion--what Daniel Sanjiv Roberts characterizes as a worrying tendency in De Quincey studies to "read broader cultural phenomena as psychological aberrations" (42)--in effect neutralizes the threat that the Orient, and specifically China, appears to pose for De Quincey by reinterpreting and displacing it elsewhere. Fear becomes a neurotic, even pathological, response to unresolved psychic trauma; it serves no other purpose than to insulate the self by projecting its energies, what Freud characterizes as its "repressed instinctual impulses" ("Pleasure Principle" 14), onto others. …

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