Addiction in “The English Opium Eater”

I finished The English Opium Eater by Robert Morrison and am ready to discuss–though not satisfactorily answer–the question I posed here. First, a little background. The book is a biography of Thomas De Quincey, the 19th century English author best known for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I learned quite a bit about him (such as the fact that he was a friend and admirer of my favorite poet, William Wordsworth, or that De Quincey was actually a laudanum drinker rather than an opium eater) but if you’re interested in De Quincy, Morrison’s biography is not the book I would recommend for further exploration. My expectations were probably unrealistic (I was hoping Morrison would do for opium addiction what Joshua Shenk did for depression in Lincoln’s Melancholy, another recent favorite*) but even so I dislike Morrison’s style: it’s a one-thing-after-another chronology with very little narrative arc, cluttered with far too many minor quotations from primary and secondary sources and very little effort at synthesis.

That being said, there were a handful of passages in its 400-odd pages that can shed some light on the nature of addiction. De Quincey himself asked the question thusly, “How came any reasonable being to subject himself to such a yoke of misery, voluntarily to incur a captivity so service, and knowingly fetter himself with such a seven-fold-chain?” (p. 207, emphasis added) Even De Quincey recognized that his habit was the result of a conscious choice he made, not once, but again and again. If that doesn’t convince you that there’s a behavioral element to addiction, consider the fact that De Quincey’s occasional use of laudanum went on for eight years before he exhibited signs of anything we would recognize as addiction “because he continued to allow ‘sufficient intervals between every indulgence.'” (usually about a week between doses; p. 155)

In a rare example of a passage where Morrison actually gives us some useful information rather than stringing together quotes of other sources, he says:

Opiates are now understood very differently than they were two hundred years ago. In the terminology of De Quincey’s day, he had an opium ‘habit’, not an opium ‘addiction’, for medical professionals did not begin to develop modern ideas of drug addiction until the second half of the nineteenth century. Then, it was a moral issue, a question of character. Today, the moral argument persists, but it is vigorously challenged by those who see addiction as a medical concern, a ‘disease of the brain’ rather than a ‘disease of the will’…. Indeed, so little was known about opiates that De Quincey was regarded as an ‘expert’ on the subject down the nineteenth century and beyond…. (p.162-3)

The lack of medical knowledge allowed De Quincey’s sensational account to take hold as the definitive account of the drug’s effect. Now, his works (he cultivated his public persona as an opium eater and used it to publish additional accounts of his opiate use later in life) are widely recognized as exaggerations but their indirect influence persists as drugs of all sorts are romanticized in popular culture. Many years later, De Quincey seemed to admit the sensationalized nature of his writing when he told a friend, “If… you ever look into my Autobiographical Sketches… bear in mind that I disown them.” (quoted in Morrison, p. 305) It’s just disappointing that Morrison didn’t take De Quincey’s own advice and use his opportunity as a biographer to dig a little deeper.

What does this mean for drug policy in our day? To answer that, we must contrast De Quincey’s time with our own.

“Opium is perhaps the oldest drug known to humankind…. In Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was an unremarkable part of daily life. Highly prized by doctors as an analgesic, it was also used ubiquitously by people of every class and age for self-medication in much the same way as aspirin is used today. It was cheap: people who could not afford ale or spirits could afford the drug. It was legal: there was no effort to restrict its sale until the Pharmacy Act of 1868.” (p. 105-6)

I’m not suggesting that we go back to a time when powerful narcotics were cheap and available on every streetcorner (although I would argue that in some neighborhoods today, they are expensive and available on every streetcorner thanks to the war on drugs, which causes people to turn to cheaper and more dangerous substances like methamphetamines). But I do think it would be helpful if we could de-romanticize drug use so that people can see both its useful pain-alleviating properties when used properly and its dangerous side effects when abused. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001 and it seems that usage has actually gone down since then. Overall, my current position on this matter is that we should influence people’s attitudes and behavior with regard to drugs by educating them on the effects of various substances, that punishing actions taken while on drugs rather than use of the substance itself, and that the War on Drugs is a prescription with more harmful side effects than many would care to recognize.


For being the only song I know to mention laudanum, here’s The Decemberists, “The Legionnaire’s Lament”:

*Having gone back and reread Laura Marsh’s review, she says that Morrison’s book is not to be confused with “a work on opium.” My bad. Maybe what I’ll take up next on this question is Theodore Dalrymple’s book Romancing Opiates, a review of which got me interested in the addiction question in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Addiction in “The English Opium Eater”

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