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Even before Thomas De Quincey fully expounds upon the mental and physical effects of frequent substance abuse in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he states that “…if no definite boundary can be assigned to one’s power, the spirit of hope and pleasure makes it virtually infinite” (8). Far from delivering a simplistic commentary on opium through his confessions, De Quincey uses his narrative largely to display its impact upon the mental aspect of self definition. In Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s article “The Uncanny,” the authors suggest that “…the real is not something that is simply a given…but is constructed through human perception, language, beliefs and assumptions, and consequently it is something that can be changed” (Bennett 37). Though this quotation does not specifically incorporate human perception as it relates to environmental factors in its definition of the uncanny, the opium use present in De Quincey’s confessions becomes an integral component of the author’s ever-evolving self perception. The Romantic interest in the uncanny as is seen in De Quincey’s work centers both upon interactions with one’s surroundings as well as how a shifting perception of these same surroundings catalyzes and influences the development of the true, internal self. The author’s ability to successfully create and embody a more natural self, however artificial, is undeniably dependent upon the increasing prevalence of opium use throughout his confessions and, consequently, the production of his ability to contemplate what may be considered commonplace events from a novel perspective.
De Quincey first addresses his opium use as it is connected to the development of an idealized self when he dictates his first experience taking the substance. The author suddenly exclaims of the surprisingly powerful effects, stating…oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes:—this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed (De Quincey 39).
Although this quotation does not yet seem to present a specific situation in which the author is able to regard relatively common stimuli from a different perspective, it is evident that De Quincey acknowledges that this first experience with opium has in some way restructured his view of his “inner spirit”. The fact that the author is beginning to accept this disturbance of his negative mental perception of self in favor of embracing what he considers to be a more positive inner existence proves to be suggestive of the manner in which the uncanny causes an abrupt shift in human self perception. At this location in the narrative, De Quincey not only seems incapable of managing his pain on his own, but he now also claims to not even remember the previous pains he had experienced. The author even goes on to assert that “Here was a panacea—a [medicine to banish grief]—for all human woes” (De Quincey 39).
The definition of self that begins to emerge as a result of his beginning to take opium is one that realizes the profundity of the mental alterations that have occurred and the author begins to adopt a more carefree existence. His use of the expression “abyss of divine enjoyment” and reference to an “apocalypse” of the self belie a subconscious recognition of the permanent modification in mental perception that may ultimately result from his opium abuse. The uncanny ultimately influences his self development in that he is able to perceive the negative stimuli that previously troubled him in a completely different and more positive light. At this point in the text, a tension has begun to develop between De Quincey’s imagined natural self and the one that is outwardly presented without the aid of substance abuse.
As a result of his beginning to develop this conception that a more romantic, natural existence will result from his substance abuse, De Quincey narrates a more specific instance at the opera in which the solace he discovers is further implemented in this process of self-definition. Through his narrating his experience at the theatre, the author further exemplifies the manner in which the uncanny causes him to perceive a stimulus within his environment in a novel and, as seen from his perspective, instructive manner. While overhearing a conversation during the opera, De Quincey recounts that I had all around me…the music of the Italian language talked by Italian women…and I listened with pleasure such as that with which Weld the traveler lay and listened, in Canada, to the sweet laughter of Indian women; for the less you understood of a language, the more sensible you are to the melody or harshness of its sounds: for such a purpose, therefore, it was an advantage to me that I was a poor Italian scholar… (46)
Although it seems at first that this quotation predominantly pertains to the beauty possessed by language even in its unfamiliarity, the passage also directly addresses the increasing effect of De Quincey’s opium use upon his both his self-definition as well as how he perceives his surroundings. Much like the previous paragraph in which the author embraces the absence of certain aspects of his personality, namely his negative past, due to his opium use, De Quincey easily accepts his lack of knowledge about a subject in which he had formerly experimented simply due to his altered state of mind. In addition to his considering his personal abilities and interests from an unusual perspective, he also is able to interact with his environment, though passively, in a different light. Though he has come to the theatre expressly to enjoy the performance, he is also able to appreciate the simplistic and beautiful combination of unfamiliar sounds. Despite the fact that Italian is relatively familiar to him, De Quincey is able to experience the language beyond the reality that immediately confronts him and understand the stimuli on a fundamental level. This unique perception of his surroundings as well as his realization that beauty may be found in relative ignorance (or what can, in other terms, be considered his recognition of the uncanny) is caused by a substance that removes his old consciousness and replaces it with an ability to accept the circumstances of his livelihood as they currently exist.
In addition to De Quincey’s experience with unfamiliar language at the theatre, he also conveys this newly formed acceptance of himself and his surroundings as they naturally occur through his analysis of the understanding of music. The author asserts that his ability to readily appreciate this situation is due to the fact that “…opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind generally, increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we are able to construct out of raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure” (De Quincey 45). In the preceding statement, it is evident that the author admits that opium is responsible for the majority of the mental stimulation he receives from these outings to the theatre and, without the different perspective with which the substance provides him, he would be afforded a largely dissimilar experience. He even challenges a person who laments his inability to understand music, exclaiming “Ideas! my good sir? there is no occasion for them: all that class of ideas, which can be available in such a case, has a language of representative feelings” (De Quincey 45). Much like the quotation concerning the author’s inability to comprehend Italian, De Quincey again rejects the assumption that full mental consciousness is necessary to appreciate an art form; it is only through a return to a more natural mental state, one that has obtained independence from the overpowering need for absolute understanding, that the author may grasp his surroundings at a more simplistic, and ultimately more enjoyable, level.
In addition to this sense of profound pleasure that opium use affords De Quincey at this stage in the novel, the author also argues against certain societal conceptions about its negative effects. In providing the reader with his examples of his excursions to the theatre, De Quincey asserts that “Thus I have shown that opium does not, of necessity, produce inactivity or torpor; but that, on the contrary, it often led me into markets and theatres” (48). In mentioning these clearly cultural locations, it is evident that De Quincey hopes to impart that he not only was he present in these locations, but also could be considered a fully functioning societal figure that, in fact, is able to approach in these locations from a novel human perception. Though opium use may be considered debilitative, De Quincey here asserts that, contrary to hindering his self awareness, opium actually enhances it. He also avers that “the remedies I sought were to force myself into society, and to keep my understanding in continual activity in matters of science” (48). Ultimately, these two quotations, when considered in tandem, represent the fact that De Quincey is able to engage in multiple forms of discourse: both the natural observation of London as it subconsciously operates as well as an active engagement in scholarly discourse. Without his opium use, it is possible that De Quincey may not have been as easily able to make use of the uncanny to appreciate the city for its most intriguing intricacies, those intricacies that may have gone unnoticed at first glance.
Although De Quincey seems to argue largely in favor of this mental departure from what may be considered normal reality, the dreams he experiences as a result of his opium abuse provide him with an avenue toward that which is humanly incomprehensible and sublime. In his detailing the effects of opium-induced nightmares, he details that “…a theatre seemed suddenly opened and lighted up within my brain, which presented nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour…the state of gloom which attended these gorgeous spectacles, amounting at last to utter darkness, as of some suicidal despondency, cannot by approached by words” (De Quincey 68). Though it may seem at first as if De Quincey wholly rejects and abhors the sublime images he describes in the above quotation, it is rather that these visions have produced so natural a perspective on human perception that they are beyond his comprehension. He even later states that, “…the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically, nor with any special power of tormenting” (De Quincey 72).
It is evidenced through the above quotations that even though the images presented are foreign and, in some cases, terrifying, these dreams suggest an even greater return to nature in that he frequently experiences the sublime. As a result of the opium’s producing an uncanny repetition of the same images of faces and natural phenomena, De Quincey is able to operate from and appreciate the Romantic perspective more fully. Despite the fact that the author remains human and, no matter what the circumstances, will still be unable to fully comprehend the sublime, the presence of opium allows him at least to be allowed exposure to these phenomena through their repetition. Though the author has witnessed many faces or sublime natural structures throughout his existence, the presence of opium allows him to gain a new perspective on these objects that he may not have otherwise obtained.
As the opium use increases throughout De Quincey’s confessions, the uncanny plays a more significant role in the progression toward a natural, more romantic self. Through the uncanny causing his being able to perceive both his surroundings and himself from a novel perspective, the author is able to produce a confession that consists not only of daily events as he experiences them, but also in a manner that simultaneously considers the Romantic literary perspective. As a result of a later emphasis upon the sublime through his narration of dreams, De Quincey is able to address the effect of natural influences upon man, as well as their necessity to human development. Opium, as it represents a physical embodiment of the uncanny, catalyzes this more Romantic version of the self which is able to contemplate surrounding people or situations simply as they exist, rather than complicating them with the biases of human perception. On a fundamental level, the uncanny creates the ability to subconsciously experience the sublime through dreams and to contemplate the subtleties of language and art while unrestrained by normal human mental perception. De Quincey ultimately argues that the uncanny is central to a successful confession in that it allows for a more intense and unprecedented appreciation for environmental stimuli as well as the tendency toward unrestrained thought.
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