his chaos I comprehended by the darkness of my own

When De Quincey turned twenty, he jotted down a memoranda for himself that listed the twelve constituents of happiness. Happiness was always a strong word for De Quincey – he had an almost cultic devotion to it that made him suspect to more robust natures like Wordsworth’s; it is certain that he truly meant it when, in the Confession, he calls opium happiness in pill form. Whenever, in his writing, we are in the neighborhood of the word “happiness”, the prose will be charged with a certain incantatory quality. The twelve constituents include such things as, education of a child, and a rather sad, ‘a personal appearance rather tolerable.” De Quincey was conscious of his small stature – and had been reproached for not being overly clean or kempt.

What is as interesting as the contents of the list is the enumeration of the constituents of happiness. For throughout De Quincey’s career as an opium eater – England’s premier drug geek – the number of drops was always of primary importance to him. He was not, at the age of twenty, acquainted with opium – except as anyone was in 1805, when opium was already a common ingredient in a number of medicinal cordials. According to Martin Booth, the years that pretty much span De Quincey’s writing career – between 1831 to 1859 – saw a massive increase in opium imports and use, from 91,000 pounds to 280,000 pounds, mostly from Turkey. As with sugar, so with opium – Britain was in the forefront of its use. But he was, at the age of twenty, already an enumerator. He was already trying to find some exterior, conceptual form to which he could attach his energies.

Enumeration – a drugged specificity – is on the other side of incantation. I understand the links – when I was a child, I would rock and count when I was in bed, in order to get to sleep. For I was never a good sleeper. With a more psychoanalytically sharpened eye, I suspect this rocking and enumeration had something to do with wanking – although I can’t really remember masturbating until the age of about 12, by which time my great struggle against wakefulness had ceased. I can feel that rocking motion in De Quincey’s writing. And of course, never far from the incantatory quality of happiness was its opposite, misery. The ‘portable ecstasies’, the commodified form of happiness that could be ‘carried in a pocket’, was, on De Quincey’s account, a vacation from life, his “Saturday’, for years. Oh vexed question of addiction, a word not in the dictionaries of either medicine or everyday life in De Quincey’s day! That we can create a thing that operates upon us as a parasite, forcing us to renew its life with our body – this idea was in the air of course by 1820, when the Confessions appeared. Frankenstein was on the horizon. De Quincey, willing to make his life work that of making his life transparent, was his own monster.

It was not obvious to De Quincey even in 1820, however, that his portable ecstasies could not be shuffled off, and that he would have to experience, as though he had no means to stop it, their slow, seemingly autonomous change to nightlong miseries. The thrill darkened.

In drug geekdom, every kick produces an equal and opposite kick. In De Quincey’s case, the kick was that opium was also the very basis of his career. The constituent of happiness that consisted in an independent income was undermined by De Quincey’s more expensive addiction to buying books. It was really this which caused all the miseries of his early twenties, because, of the amount of money left to him by his father that wasn’t frittered away in bad investments by his guardians, most of it went to paying off debts accrued to purchase rare volumes. Thus, his first great hit, The Confessions, was also necessary to sustain himself and his family. His writing life was then marked – he became a public character as an opium eater, which, in turn, gave him license to develop an antic prose long after the romantics gave way to the disapproving Victorians. And that style he was continually turning upon himself. He played his own miseries and memories for the crowd.

By 1844, a five thousand drop a day year, the basis was eating through the coherence. He wrote a friend about his newly published book on political economics:

“With respect to my book … which perhaps by this time you and Professor Nichol will have received through the publishers, I have a word to say. Upon some of the distinctions there contended for it would be false humility if I should doubt they are sound. The substance I am too well assured is liable to no dispute. But as to the method of presenting the distinctions as to the composition of the book and the whole evolution of a course of thinking, there it is that I too deeply recognise the mind affected by my morbid condition. Through that ruin and by help of that ruin I looked into and read the latter states of Coleridge. His chaos I comprehended by the darkness of my own, and both were the work of laudanum. It is as if ivory carvings and elaborate fretwork and fair enamelling should be found with worms and ashes amongst coffins and the wrecks of some forgotten life or some abolished nature. In parts and fractions, eternal creations are carried on, but the nexus is wanting and life and the central principle which should bind together all the parts at the centre with all its radiations to the circumference are wanting. Infinite incoherence, ropes of sand, gloomy incapacity of vital pervasion by some one plastic principle -- that is the hideous incubus upon my mind always. For there is no disorganised wreck so absolute so perfect as that which is wrought by misery.”

Truly a cry from the heart, and not just from De Quincey – for a big dream, be it a theory, a plot, a poem, or simply gathering together the elements of one’s days and ways, is always one in which the peculiar terror is just that the vital nexus will be wanting.