Notebook (starlight)

July 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Some of these rambles led me to great distances: for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time. And sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets with thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters, and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted, whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London. For all this, however, I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannized over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep, with the feeling of perplexities moral or intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience.”

– Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

One of the things that gets noticed less often about the Confessions – I came across this passage first in Lipstick Traces, at the age of 17, & it must be close to the heart of anyone who’s ever cracked open a book on urbanism – is the few sentences immediately preceding this, where de Quincey discusses the inadequacy of wages. He himself doesn’t have a steady job, so can’t appreciate receiving wages on a Saturday, but does have the ritual of taking opium on that night: he goes out to the markets “to which the poor resort… for laying out their wages”, taking pleasure in, “upon as large a scale as possible, a spectacle with which my sympathy was so entire”. In an opiated haze, he listens to working-men and their wives “consulting on their ways and means or the strength of their exchequer, or the price of their household articles.” It is opium that puts his feelings in accord with those receive his opinions or eavesdropping: “If wages were a little higher… or the quartern loaf a little lower, or it was reported that onions and butter were expected to fall, I was glad: yet, if the contrary were true, I drew from opium some means of consoling myself.” At this time de Quincey, the son of a prosperous Manchester merchant, had not yet moved to the Lake District, & was living as an economic fugitive in London after graduating from Cambridge; & here he is, mixing with a proletariat more likely lumpen than skilled. The luxurious, overwhelming feelings of opiate consumption are the obverse of & complement to the pinched realities of falling wages; the necessities of opium are indexed to the economic ‘reality’ that shapes the environment he drifts through. (Althea Hayter records in her introduction to the Confessions that use of opium, cheaply available from any druggist, became increasingly common among factory workers & child labourers as the 19th century wore on.) The vast, swollen tracts of time that the opium eater “is too happy to observe” are immanent to the strictly regulated time of the urban industrial worker, to the technological matrix of production of which he becomes a part; it lies beyond the northwest passage through time. In one sense this is a rehearsal of the coupling of the body-shocked factory worker & the crowd-jostled flaneur in Benjamin’s great essay on Baudelaire, but it’s worth making clear that we’re dealing here, in its prototypical form, with a species of dreaming, an oneiric texture, that belongs particularly to the modern, that’s reiterated in Debussy & the entire crypto-tradition tracked by David Toop in Ocean of Sound. The city, as Esther Leslie describes in her essay on Sean Bonney’s Baudelaire in English, gives itself to dream. Images & words float, as in Baudelaire’s descriptions of his visions on hashish, beyond graspability. Neighbourhoods whose streets have become muscle-memories are torn down in a matter of weeks, opened up to Hausmann’s boulevards. The impenetrable, labyrinthine city, its every surface obscurely declaring a hieroglyphic that need only be read, but for which the Rosetta stone has not been found, triangulates social alienation (the entire edifice of petrified social relations), the novelty of urban space (in this period most labourers would have arrived straight from their villages) and the dream-state buffer of opium. Each implies the other. To wander into an undiscovered part of London – like the darkened sections of the map then being uncovered by British explorers in West Africa –  It’s important to state that we are not dealing here with ‘experience’ & the other phantoms that advocates of official depressive hedonism appeal to; as Benjamin makes clear, Baudelaire (& de Quincey) stand at the beginning of a period in wh/ experience is increasingly alienated from the stable feudal subject. Rather these hallucinatory drifts through time, these images that tremble over the urban surface, are a species of thought. The Confessions are not, as Althea Hayter reminds us, a book about drug addiction, but “a meditation on the mechanism of the imagination”. Intriguingly, in a later passage describing his lassitude at the height of his addiction, whilst living in Grasmere, de Quincey relates his increasing interest in political economy, to which he turned “for amusement”. Even in the state of “imbelicity [sic]” to which addiction had reduced him, he discerned “the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists”, aside from “Mr Ricardo”. “I said, before I had finished the final chapter [of On The Principles Of Political Economy And Taxation (1817)], ‘Thou art the man!’… Had this profound work really been written in England in the nineteenth century? Was it possible? I supposed thinking had been extinct in England.” The phantasmatic world of political economy reappears as the dreamed complexity of the Piranesi dungeons that fill his dreams. The staggering rambler, lost in the city’s secret eddies of time, is, as Benjamin remarks of film actors, making “a beneficient use of human alienation”.


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