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Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater : Popular Penguins : Popular Penguins - Thomas De Quincey

Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater : Popular Penguins

Popular Penguins

Paperback Published: 28th June 2010
ISBN: 9780141194943
Number Of Pages: 296

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Describing the surreal hallucinations, insomnia and nightmarish visions he experienced while consuming daily large amounts of laudanum, Thomas De Quincey's legendary account of the pleasures and pains of opium forged a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, and paved the way for later generations of literary drug-takers from Baudelaire to Burroughs.

Author Biography

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) studied at Oxford and failed to take his degree but discovered opium. He later met Coleridge, Southey, and the Wordsworths and worked as a journalist in Edinburgh.

The addict has long been a familiar figure. The outlines may have shifted a bit over the years, but the core has remained much the same for at least a couple of centuries. Although there might at first seem to be little in common between an eighteenth-century English poem, the autobiography of a jazz musician and a glossy advertisement picturing a glowering, skinny youth, it is the deep similarities between these artifacts that reveal the advertisement as an example of 1990s 'junky chic' rather than a mere voyeuristic view of some undernourished teenager in designer jeans. And the guest on the daytime talk-show who says she was once unable to stop doing something – overeating, gambling, having dangerous sex – makes us pause for a moment before switching to another channel partly because she appeals to our notions of what an addict is, does and knows. But just what are those notions? What are addicts, and why are we convinced they have something compelling to say? What do supermodels have in common with Billie Holiday and Samuel Taylor Coleridge? And where did these associations come from in the first place?

Thomas De Quincey did not write about fashion models, jazz or daytime talk-shows, so it would be straining credulity to insist he has the answers to these questions. He did, however, establish many of the terms that make it possible to ask them in the first place. By cementing the connection between drug use and proto-psychedelic Oriental visions, he almost singlehandedly changed opium's popular status from the respectability of a useful medicine to the exoticism of a mind-altering drug. He forged the link between self-revelation and addiction that is a staple of today's booming self-help industry. He established the romantic figure of the drug addict as starving genius. He paved the way for the hippie rock concert experience by using drugs to enhance his enjoyment of live music. He was even a down-and-out junky in Edinburgh long before there was an Irvine Welsh. So even if his writings were not as engaging as they are, they would occupy a prominent position in the development of modern culture.

It is at least ironic, then, that this prominent position is an almost hidden one: his magnum opus, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is one of those books almost everyone has heard of but very few have read. This obscurity cannot be due to the quality of the writing, however. De Quincey's prose offers a quirky wit to rival Charles Dickens's and sensations equal to anything in a Wilkie Collins novel. If De Quincey has not enjoyed the enduring popularity of these contemporaries, it has more to do with the fact that he did not write novels (with the exception of a gothic potboiler even he regarded as a failure and a 'translation' of a hack German imitation of Walter Scott). His me´tier was the essay. Modern readers do not tend to ask one another whether they have read any good essays lately, nor do titles like 'Studies in the Essay' often appear in university course listings. But De Quincey's essays were widely read during his lifetime and exerted a powerful influence on such significant and diverse cultural developments as professional medicine, British imperial politics, French Symbolism, European concert music and Edgar Allan Poe's tales of terror, not to mention their more obviously formative role in so-called drug culture.

To trade one set of questions for another, then, who was this man, what were these essays and how did they come to be?

ISBN: 9780141194943
ISBN-10: 0141194944
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 296
Published: 28th June 2010
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 18.0 x 11.2  x 2.0
Weight (kg): 0.2
Edition Number: 1