Opium’s Invasion

October 2015

“Who is the man who can take his leave of the realms of opium?” demanded the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire in Les Paradis artificiels (1860). Not Thomas De Quincey. Opium was the central fact of his existence, and his many attempts to rid himself of it all ended in failure. De Quincey wrote often of his addiction, and the terrors it meted out. “Horrible! that a man’s own chamber – the place of his refuge and retreat – should betray him!” he cried. “Not fear or terror, but inexpressible misery, is the last portion of the opium-eater”.

Yet De Quincey’s forthright admissions of opium despair are perhaps not his most unnerving representations of addiction. Several critics have pointed out that narratives of invasion – by doctors, vampires, parents, murderers – are even more disturbing ways of emblematizing the horrors of drug dependence. De Quincey was fascinated by infiltration and infestation, and in his best-known autobiographical works he details how figures from his daily life have made fierce incursions into his dreaming mind. Their movement from outside to inside the body parallels opium’s passage from without to within, and highlights the ways in which both dreams and drugs similarly possess and transform De Quincey’s internal landscapes.

In “The English Mail-Coach” (1849), De Quincey introduces an old coach driver who bears a striking physical resemblance to a crocodile. The two meet when De Quincey is a regular passenger aboard the Bath mail-coach, but before long the old man also invades De Quincey’s sleep at the head of “a dreadful host of wild semi-legendary animals”. Prior to these nightmares, De Quincey had thought of his self as unified and coherent. Following them, he paints a terrifying picture of how easily “some horrid alien nature” – opiated or crocodilian – can infiltrate the body and fracture personal identity almost beyond recognition. What is more, these nightmares do not pass away or slacken in intensity. They haunt De Quincey with an implacability that resembles addiction. And “how, again, if not one alien nature, but two, but three, but four, but five, are introduced within what once he thought the inviolable sanctuary of himself? These…are horrors from the kingdoms of anarchy and darkness”.

Similarly, in both versions of the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821 and 1856), a Malay unexpectedly visits De Quincey at his home in Dove Cottage. De Quincey offers him the chance to rest, gives him a gift of opium, and then sees him on his way. Physically, the Malay does not return, but shortly thereafter he becomes a terrorizing and almost unlocatable figure who infects De Quincey’s dreaming mind, revealing to him the disturbingly permeable boundary between self and other, and invoking too the manner in which opium storms personal identity with a persecutory violence that can be neither stopped nor reversed. “The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months”, De Quincey writes. “I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes….I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos”.

The Dark Interpreter from Suspiria de Profundis – De Quincey’s 1845 sequel to his Confessions – is yet another figure of invasion. “He is originally a mere reflex of my inner nature”, reports De Quincey, yet as Suspiria progresses, and the line between the conscious and the unconscious begins to collapse, De Quincey warns that the Dark Interpreter “will not always be found sitting inside my dreams”. At times the internal becomes the external, and the Dark Interpreter lives “outside, and in open daylight”. More alarmingly, De Quincey seems powerless to stop his trafficking between the two realms, for – like opium – the Dark Interpreter passes effortlessly from without to within. It is for this reason that, in one of the most revealing manuscripts related to Suspiria, De Quincey links the Dark Interpreter to Thomas Simmons, a young man from Hertfordshire who in 1807 gained entry to a house where he used to work and stabbed four of its inhabitants, in the same way that opium gains access to the body and then destroys it from within. Addiction is like murder – or, more precisely – addiction is self-murder. De Quincey often examined the bottomless lows of his own addiction, but his narratives of invasion most forcefully convey the repulsive sense of desecration and betrayal that he found at the core of his drug experience. As he expressed it in yet another context, addiction is like bolting the house shut only to find “the very walls are gone”.