Thursday, February 25, 2010

From Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821)

The following excerpt comes from Thomas de Quincey's harrowing account of opium addiction and the "sublime" nightmares he suffered from.  These nightmares tap into typically Romantic visions of innocence and experience, sublimity, terror, and the Orient.  This excerpt discusses the peculiar nature of his "Chinese" dreams, and his singularly racist horror of this ancient civilization (fueled more by his reading than any actual contact with the culture, I imagine).  If you want to read the entire work, you can find it in our library as well as on line at:

The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes. I know not whether other share in my feelings on this point; but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forgo England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad. The causes of my horror lie deep; and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and reverential feeling connected with it. But there are other reasons. No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate religions of Indostan, etc. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, etc., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian man renewed.

Even Englishmen, though not bred in any knowledge to such institutions, cannot but shudder at the mystic sublimity of castes that have flowed apart, and refused to mix, through such immemorial tracts of time; nor can any man fail to be awed by the names of the Ganges, or the Euphrates. It contributes much to these feelings,that southern Asia is, and has been for thousands of years, the part of the earth most swarming with human life…Man is a weed in those regions. The vast empires also, into which the enormous population of Asia has always been cast, give a further sublimity to feelings associated with oriental names or images. In China, over and above what it has in common with the rest of Southeast Asia, I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barriers of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy, placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyze. I could sooner live with lunatics, or brute animals.

All this, and much more than I can say, or have time to say, the reader must enter into before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of oriental imagery, and mythological tortures, impressed upon me. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sun-lights, 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 feelings 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 sacrified. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me; Seeva laid in wait for me…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, by cancerous kisses, by crocodiles, and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, among reed and Niolitic mud.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the best passages from De Quincey.

    You got right to the best lines!

    Your site looks interesting.

    here's mine: