Monday, January 21, 2013

Thomas De Quincey Writes While High As A Kite

by Stephen J. Gertz

"I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking: and, what I took, I took under every disadvantage. But I took it: -- and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: -- this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me -- in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea - a [pharmakon nepenthez] for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach" (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).

At an unknown date post-1804, the year that he first tried opium at age nineteen, Thomas De Quincey, famed author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (anonymously published in London magazine in 1821 and in book form in 1822), was working on a draft of an as yet unidentified or unpublished essay.

In 250 words over eighteen lines with numerous cancellations and insertions, De Quincey, apparently after chug-a-lugging laudanum (tincture of opium), to which he was addicted, took flight and soared to Xanadu as a  phoenix ecstatically lost in the ozone and content to be above it all, a mummified skeleton lying in a blissful state. That one-page, drug-addled manuscript has now come to auction.

It reads, in part:

"In a clock-case housed in a warm chamber of a spacious English mansion (inevitably as being English, so beautifully clean, so admirably preserved, [noise there is none, dust there is none, neither moth nor worm doth corrupt] how sweet it is to lie! – If thieves break through and steal, they will not steal a mummy; or not, unless they mistake the mummy for an eight-day clock. And if fire should arise, or even if it should descend from heaven is there not a Phoenix Office, able to look either sort of fire (earthly or heavenly) in the face ... Mummy or anti-Mummy, Skeleton or Anti-Skeleton, the Phoenix soars higher above both, and flaps her victorious wings in utter defiance of all that the element of fire can accomplish—making it her boast to ride in the upper air high above all malice from earthly enemies...."

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, Write high, edit sober. It appears, however, that De Quincey, never completely free of opium's grip, remained stoned through the editorial process. This is is an opium-soaked apparition, a fantastic proto-Surrealist Gothic phantasmagory. It must have seemed to De Quincey that he had broken the boundaries of prose and ascended to that enchanted place where reveries take flight onto paper without volition or physical exertion, highly automatic writing while under the spell of the Oneiroi, the dream-spirits who emerge like bats from their deep cavern in Erebos, the land of eternal darkness beyond the rising sun, the infinite night that day cannot break. Don't mess with the Muse, feed Her. Judging by his penmanship there was laudanum in his inkwell.

This De Quincey manuscript, an early example of high-lit. during the Romantic period demonstrating the effect of opium on literary creation, is being offered at Bonham's Fine Books & Manuscripts sale, February 17, 2013, in San Francisco where it is estimated to sell for $800-$1200.

Manuscript image courtesy of Bonham's, with our thanks.

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