Sublunary Druggist

February 7, 2009


On a crowded subway trip, I looked over the shoulder of the hefty gentlemen next to me who was reading the first page of the introduction to the letters of T. E. Lawrence.  A nice, older edition.  It began

“I say art for my sake…  When I feel like writing, I write, when I don’t, I don’t”

Oscar Wilde could hardly have put it better.  And what is the “purpose” of art, after all?  Art for art’s sake?  I don’t think so.  No, T. E. had it right:  art for our sake.

But not all of us are artists.  Well there’s this:

The artist is not a special sort of man:  Each man is a special sort of artist.  – Jean Gimpel

That is, we all create our worlds in various ways.  For many, religion is part of this.  For an atheist, that’s not a viable path.   Often, religion tries to take science’s role, and makes itself ridiculous, but there is one thing that religion can do that science cannot.  Science can explain to us our place in the universe, but religion reconciles us to it.

People we love die, and we never see them again.  Earthquakes kill thousands without warning, old, young, good, bad alike.  Brutal, vulgar people enjoy riches while good people live lives of hunger and want.  Evil exists…and often appears to stalk triumphant!  What does science have to offer to calm us, to show us a path through this so that we don’t go out of our minds?  Nothing.

But for those who just can’t stomach that God-thing, there’s art, philosophy, poetry, and myth.  And since we are all artists after a fashion, personal mythologies are perfectly on-point.  As an example of personal mythology, one of the earliest that I cherished, and one that is still a favorite, I cite Thomas De Quincey, telling of his first purchase of opium.

I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless:


and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop. The druggist — unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! — as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that when I next came up to London I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not; and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one), he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford Street than to have removed in any bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as possibly no more than a sublunary druggist; it may be so, but my faith is better — I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour, and place, and creature, that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.

from The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, chapter 3.

Speed, Opium, and The Man

April 29, 2005

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.