Speed, Opium, and The Man

That’s speed, as in velocity, not the drug. That’s opium, as in the drug, not the perfume. That’s The Man, as in Thomas De Quincey, not Yves St. Laurent or Keanu Reeves. Does anyone read De Quincey anymore, or is he persona non grata in the “Just Say No” era? Well, times were different then, circa 1812.  I wonder if there is a literary influence at work between De Quincey’s piece, “The English Mailcoach” and the the screenplay of the movie, “Speed.”

Let’s see, the story of the Mailcoach is of a young man hitching a ride on the roof of a mail delivery stage, stoned on laudanum, i.e. opium, who sees in the distance a cart approaching down the endless tree covered lane. Its driver and passenger are in the midst of amorous billing and cooing and don’t see that they are in the way of the hurtling stage, rocketing along at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour. Nor can they know what the opiated author knows, that the mailcoach driver has fallen asleep, the reins grasped tightly in his hand. For thirty pages or so, the author spins a tale of hyperactive imagination, tracing his efforts, moment by moment, to rouse himself out of his narcoleptic state and to shout, like Stentor, a warning that would alert the young couple to their certain doom if they do not act. I detect some general similarities here…

De Quincey was my muse for many years. His wild prose, his total immersion in the realm of the fantastic and the imaginary, his long, convoluted sentences were music to my ears. He declared himself the true pope of the Church of Opium, and penned lines such as these:

Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm;

He created a personal mythology, based on his torrid hallucinations and his will to create, of whole cloth, a world of imagery. He describes his first ecounter with the drug, brought on by terrific facial pains that struck him as an undergraduate. He found his way to a pharmacy and was dispensed the narcotic by a man who appeared to be an ordinary man like any other “sublunary” citizen. Later, he revisted the spot where the shop had been, but could not find it, convincing him that it had been, indeed, a heavenly messanger who had sold him the magical dose.

He wrote of eating opium and going to the opera, where he sat fixed to his chair, in ecstasies of enchantment as the soprano sang. And he wrote of the Pains of Opium, which became dominant as his addiction deepened:

I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feeling, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hates me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams…

De Quincey wrote on many topics, supporting himself through journalism, but it is by his Confessions of an English Opium Eater that he is remembered. These quotations were taken from later additions to that work that were entitled “The Pleasures of Opium,” and “The Pains of Opium.” Althea Hayter wrote a book called The Milk of Paradise that discusses the importance of opium in romantic literary history – Coleridge, De Quincey, Crabbe, and others.

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