De Quincey (1785-1859)

World O’ Words: ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’

Not long ago, I was trying to read Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” while beset by a terrible toothache. Pain the severest, as De Quincey said.

I find reading De Quincey (1785-1859) difficult at the best of times; practically impossible when your own tooth [driver’s side molar, second from the back] is trying to kill you.

Those Romantics wrote poetry that wastes no words, that cuts to your soul, but when they wrote prose, or even worse, a memoir, they go on and on and on with run-on sentences, with endless subordinate clauses, classical allusions and the like, and anachronistic usage like “pain the severest.” I get distracted easily. “Confessions” is still a good read, though.

De Quincey’s memoir is one of the most famous accounts of drug addiction ever — opium was easily accessible in early 19th century England. An opioid crisis in its own right. He opens his account with the reason he started eating opium in the first place — “the terrific curse” of toothache! As he puts it:

“No stronger expression of its scorching fierceness can be imagined than this fact — that within my private knowledge two persons who had suffered alike under toothache and cancer, have pronounced the former on the scale of torture to be many degrees the worse.”

I am in complete sympathy with De Quincey. In the middle of the night, sleepless, tooth a-ragin’, I was desperate for Big Pharma. Advil didn’t cut it. Opium would have been great!

“Confessions” is in response to a public attack on De Quincey by his “friend” and rival, the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another opium addict, who after they fell out wrote to the newspapers that he, Coleridge, a “licensed” user, ate opium as a medical anodyne, while De Quincey was the sink of depravity.

De Quincey has Coleridge saying this:

“Know all men by these presents, that I, S.T.C., a noticeable man with large grey eyes, am a licensed opium eater, whereas this other man is a buccaneer, a pirate, a flibustier, and can have none but a forged license in his disreputable pocket.”

And so, we come at last to the word of the day: “Flibustier,” which is an appropriate word for our summer of hung parliaments, Obamacare repeal drama, and Brexit.

It’s a word of peculiar evolution. “Flibustier” is a French or Spanish corruption of the English word “Freebooter” — meaning a lawless adventurer, or pirate. And flibustier has made its way back into English as “filibuster,” which, in a modern sense, is a government trying to pass some legislation that you, as a member of the weaker opposition, do not want, and so when it’s your turn to talk about the legislation in parliament, or congress, you talk seamlessly, for hours, for days, then for more hours, then more days, so the government, sitting there drumming its fingers, doesn’t get a chance to ever call for a vote — and note that this is entirely different than some “conversations” which we are often subjected to in bars and elsewhere, but we will find a good word for that particular situation some other time.

I think that, more so than “freebooter,” a filibuster in the legislature is more like a hunger strike, in the old Irish sense, where you sat on your enemy’s doorstep and starved yourself, to shame him. That seems more like parliamentary procedure than simple, violent piracy. But that too is a topic for another day.

In case you were wondering, I went to S— Dental in Cranbrook, and the good doctor J— T— pulled that tooth out. I’m still feeling the relief.

As for De Quincey, he suffered with tooth pain for years and years, and only got strung out on opium, as they say — in and out of debtors’ prison, all sorts of tragedy, and only a middling literary legacy, except for his great memoir. Requiescat in pace.