Thomas De Quincey, by Sir John Watson-Gordon

Thomas de Quincey, in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater of 1821, finds that he is able to consume controlled quantities of opium during his youth in London, where he has no money but lives in an abandoned house in which he can choose a different room to sleep in every night, and frequents both street life and the Opera theatre. It is only when he moves to a small cottage in the country to pursue a scholarly career, where he effectively occupies the same single indoor room every day for his work, and a mental discomforts with a different root set in that he is not able to control his opium intake and becomes progressively addicted, to the point in which he realises that the choice is either death or breaking the addiction, which proves to be an extremely difficult task at that stage, a task in which he ultimately succeeds at. During his state of progressive addiction, the situation is also precipitated as he becomes effectively unable to leave his study-drawing room, which doubles up as a library. In this library-drawing room-office he has a total of five thousand books, yet due to his substance abuse and its effects he becomes unable to read any book but the same book over and over again for the duration of two years, further intensifying the lack of variety in both spatial and intellectual daily routine, which in itself binds him further to his addiction. The question then becomes: what are the benefits of his addiction?

It is in fact in his experience of space, not physical space, but in his opium induced dream world that De Quincey becomes most explicit as to the rewards of his addiction. This may have some parallels with contemporary distractions like going to the cinema, watching TV or playing virtual reality games, and this parallel should not be lost to the professional psychologist. Before I get into De Quincey’s account of the rewards of his addiction, I would like to address how it also penalised his own experience of space and time, beyond the single fact mentioned above that he largely became confined to a single room and a single book, as the rewards can be considered as operating in the opposite direction of the effective penalties of the addiction, which he describes as such:

“The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fit to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience”[1]

The penalties of opium addiction do afflict him in his perception of space, where he is made to feel disproportionally small compared to his environment, but mainly in the experience of time, which becomes expanded as often happens when we lack change in our daily routine, be it in the form of change of space or change of activity, a situation in principle not too dissimilar from, for example, the daily experience of monotonous work. Correspondingly, for De Quincey the rewards are mainly present in the perception of the environment of his dreams, in a simulated experience of varying space from the one he actually inhabited in his waking hours. Whereas the effective space he inhabited in his daily life was largely static; a room in his cottage; the experience of space in his opium induced dreams is dynamic and self replicating almost to infinity. He begins the description of his dream spaces’ self-regenerative characteristics by likening them to the description he had heard from Samuel Taylor Coleridge of the imaginary ‘dream’ architectures of Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s never ending Carceri or Prisons, which were in fact vast interior spaces of Gargantuan proportions with seemingly no end to their spatial delimitation. Apart from this Piranesian analogy, De Quincey’s dream spaces seem to hold many more spatial rewards than Piranesi’s Prisons, which in fact De Quincey had never personally seen. He describes the opium induced dream rewards of his addiction in this way:

In the early stage of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds.”[2]

De Quincey then proceeds to use as an example of his urban dream visions a passage from his close friend William Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814):

“The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a boundless depth
Far sinking into splendour—without end!
Fabric it seemed of diamond and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace,
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright,
In avenues disposed; there, towers”

Thomas De Quincey, who moved to the country out of his own free will in order to pursue a scholarly career in peace and quiet, becomes confined to his study due to his addiction, which as a reward allows him to dream of a mighty city with alabaster domes and silver spires. Following the cityscape dreams, he begins to dream of expanses of water: translucent lakes, then seas and oceans. These architectural and watery expanses are described as the principal rewards of this stage of his addiction. However, the penalties for his addiction confine him even further to a static existence devoid of any variety bar his satisfying dream life, requiring ever greater concentrations of opium to maintain the rewards in place. It is an unbalanced economic equation in which the penalties outbalance the rewards until it becomes clear that either the cycle is stopped or the ultimate penalty of death will be paid.

At this stage of the book, when free will rears its head against the reward mechanism of addiction, De Quincey starts to delve further into the psychological roots for his descent from a regular weekly consumption of opium into a daily addiction, and begins to gradually let the reader into his pain originating from bereavement in his early life. De Quincey had lost two sisters in his youth, and his father when he was only eight years old. The cottage he took up as his home after leaving London was the former home of William Wordsworth and his family, to which he became very close. Just a couple of years later, in 1812, Wordsworth’s three-year-old daughter died, De Quincey becomes emotionally affected by this death, as he was very close to the child, and shortly after this his regular consumption of opium turns into a largely wilful addiction. In the midst of his struggle against the addiction, he describes a dream in which he is visiting the grave of a child who he had loved, presumably Wordsworth’s daughter. In the dream, he sees an oriental cityscape scene:

And at a vast distance were visible, as a stain upon the horizon, the domes and cupolas of a great city-an image of faint abstraction, caught perhaps in childhood from some picture of Jerusalem.[4]

In his dream Jerusalem he then finds the lost love of his London street life’s youth, and he finds himself walking under lamp light in a nineteenth century Oxford Street. This dream may have some parallels with his emotional life, as he meets his future wife in 1813, the same year that his addiction began, his son is born in 1816, and he gets married to the son’s mother in 1817.

One of the first lessons that a child learns either at home or in a Montessori nursery is that the daily variation of space and activity reduces discomfort, or enables them to achieve a situation of comfort in their environment. Unfortunately, this often becomes the first lesson we are taught to forget as soon as we accept a place in paid employment; in the majority of cases in which we are not lucky enough to have chosen both our activity and a variety of environments which accompany our daily work, we are bound to begin accumulating discomforts. An awareness of the effect of space over comfort, and activity over the perception of time can become tools that can be used to begin shifting the balance from a state of addiction in which free will has become powerless, to a state of addiction in which it can begin to regain its power over everyday life. What De Quincey’s story highlights though, is that without a clear motive to overcome the addiction free will may never even get to a position of challenging a condition of ever increasing discomfort, which may have originally began with by a simple unsatisfactory relationship to the organisation of space and time in the everyday life.

Read Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical tales:
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings (Oxford World’s Classics)

[1] Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pg. 68. First published in 1821
[2] Ibid, pg. 70
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, pg. 75
[5] ibid, pg. 77
[6] ibid, pg. 78


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