The English Opium-eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

Mike Jay writes:

De Quincey’s failure to break the addiction, Robert Morrison suggests, lay to some extent in the alcohol content of his laudanum: in his periods of heavy dependency, it must have amounted to a bottle or two of strong spirits a day, and accounted for many of the pains he suffered when he tried to give up (in this regard, the opium-eater had better prospects than the opium-drinker). But Morrison also argues convincingly that De Quincey’s addiction can be seen to serve a purpose. He was, in modern terms, a high-functioning addict: the drug enabled him to cope with the self-inflicted stresses of debt, illness and overwork; to persist in a chaotic hand-to-mouth existence and ignore his paternal responsibilities; to play the perpetual victim and indulge an endless drama of persecution.

Many of the tendencies that came to characterise his addiction were present long before opium entered the equation. From the age of seven he had hopelessly overspent his book allowance, the first instance that Morrison notes of ‘the perverse logic of addiction … which demanded that he negotiate an insatiable consumption that he both craved and loathed’. Cramming every available inch of his living space with books he couldn’t afford was a habit he never renounced; by the same token, the defiant, self-sabotaging brinkmanship that had characterised his teenage adventures became his mature way of life. It drove him to Scotland, where the law protected him from imprisonment for debt, though he still spent decades dodging creditors with assumed names and false addresses, and rarely ventured far from the debtors’ sanctuary of Holyrood that offered a final recourse before jail or the street. On the rare occasions he had money, he stopped writing and lived the life of leisure he believed to be his birthright; it was his expenditure on opium that forced him back to work, along with his need for fame. The life of the Opium-Eater ensured his immortality.

(LRB 13 May 2010)

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