Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey


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Page 1

Humbly to express
A penitential loneliness.

It is well, upon the whole, and for the interest of us all, that it
should be so: nor would I willingly in my own person manifest a disregard
of such salutary feelings, nor in act or word do anything to weaken them;
but, on the one hand, as my self-accusation does not amount to a
confession of guilt, so, on the other, it is possible that, if it _did_,
the benefit resulting to others from the record of an experience
purchased at so heavy a price might compensate, by a vast overbalance,
for any violence done to the feelings I have noticed, and justify a
breach of the general rule. Infirmity and misery do not of necessity
imply guilt. They approach or recede from shades of that dark alliance,
in proportion to the probable motives and prospects of the offender, and
the palliations, known or secret, of the offence; in proportion as the
temptations to it were potent from the first, and the resistance to it,
in act or in effort, was earnest to the last. For my own part, without
breach of truth or modesty, I may affirm that my life has been, on the
whole, the life of a philosopher: from my birth I was made an
intellectual creature, and intellectual in the highest sense my pursuits
and pleasures have been, even from my schoolboy days. If opium-eating be
a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in
it to an excess not yet _recorded_ {1} of any other man, it is no less
true that I have struggled against this fascinating enthralment with a
religious zeal, and have at length accomplished what I never yet heard
attributed to any other man--have untwisted, almost to its final links,
the accursed chain which fettered me. Such a self-conquest may
reasonably be set off in counterbalance to any kind or degree of self-
indulgence. Not to insist that in my case the self-conquest was
unquestionable, the self-indulgence open to doubts of casuistry,
according as that name shall be extended to acts aiming at the bare
relief of pain, or shall be restricted to such as aim at the excitement
of positive pleasure.

Guilt, therefore, I do not acknowledge; and if I did, it is possible that
I might still resolve on the present act of confession in consideration
of the service which I may thereby render to the whole class of opium-
eaters. But who are they? Reader, I am sorry to say a very numerous
class indeed. Of this I became convinced some years ago by computing at
that time the number of those in one small class of English society (the
class of men distinguished for talents, or of eminent station) who were
known to me, directly or indirectly, as opium-eaters; such, for instance,
as the eloquent and benevolent ---, the late Dean of ---, Lord ---, Mr.
--- the philosopher, a late Under-Secretary of State (who described to me
the sensation which first drove him to the use of opium in the very same
words as the Dean of ---, viz., "that he felt as though rats were gnawing
and abrading the coats of his stomach"), Mr. ---, and many others hardly
less known, whom it would be tedious to mention. Now, if one class,
comparatively so limited, could furnish so many scores of cases (and
_that_ within the knowledge of one single inquirer), it was a natural
inference that the entire population of England would furnish a
proportionable number. The soundness of this inference, however, I
doubted, until some facts became known to me which satisfied me that it
was not incorrect. I will mention two. (1) Three respectable London
druggists, in widely remote quarters of London, from whom I happened
lately to be purchasing small quantities of opium, assured me that the
number of _amateur_ opium-eaters (as I may term them) was at this time
immense; and that the difficulty of distinguishing those persons to whom
habit had rendered opium necessary from such as were purchasing it with a
view to suicide, occasioned them daily trouble and disputes. This
evidence respected London only. But (2)--which will possibly surprise
the reader more--some years ago, on passing through Manchester, I was
informed by several cotton manufacturers that their workpeople were
rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating; so much so, that on a
Saturday afternoon the counters of the druggists were strewed with pills
of one, two, or three grains, in preparation for the known demand of the
evening. The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of
wages, which at that time would not allow them to indulge in ale or
spirits, and wages rising, it may be thought that this practice would
cease; but as I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted
the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend to the gross and
mortal enjoyments of alcohol, I take it for granted

That those eat now who never ate before;
And those who always ate, now eat the more.

Indeed, the fascinating powers of opium are admitted even by medical
writers, who are its greatest enemies. Thus, for instance, Awsiter,
apothecary to Greenwich Hospital, in his "Essay on the Effects of Opium"
(published in the year 1763), when attempting to explain why Mead had not
been sufficiently explicit on the properties, counteragents, &c., of this
drug, expresses himself in the following mysterious terms ([Greek text]):
"Perhaps he thought the subject of too delicate a nature to be made
common; and as many people might then indiscriminately use it, it would
take from that necessary fear and caution which should prevent their
experiencing the extensive power of this drug, _for there are many
properties in it, if universally known, that would habituate the use, and
make it more in request with us than with Turks themselves_; the result
of which knowledge," he adds, "must prove a general misfortune." In the
necessity of this conclusion I do not altogether concur; but upon that
point I shall have occasion to speak at the close of my Confessions,
where I shall present the reader with the _moral_ of my narrative.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Thu 27th Jun 2019, 8:21