- You like structure, right? Says the woman in the line ahead of me at the grocery store, laying down a fistful of coupons.
I, like her, like structure. But I like it not only for what it does, but for presenting itself to be undone. The first stage could be called realistic – the second stage is definitely gothic, in the broadest sense. There’s living structure, and there’s the undead. There’s Johnson, and there’s De Quincey.
De Quincey, in English literature, introduced the gothic moment into essay and autobiography. He reinvented the most gothic thing of all, the murder story: where the usual Newgate version was sensationalist and moralizing, De Quincey parodied the moralizing and introduced an element of suspense that we now consider to be natural to the genre. Suspense is inherently anti-mythic – myth, with all its dramas, follows a program its audience already knows.
However, unlike the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula, DeQuincey’s place in the Gothic tradition has not gained him the kind of recognitionhe deserves. It is always nice to seehim get a little publicity, as he did inthe last issue of the London Review of Bs, in a review of a new biography byNicholas Spicer. – Warning: invidious comparison ahead – The NYRB featured a review of a biography of another “gothic” writer, Wilkie Collins, by Robert Gottlieb that was sort of astonishing, in that Gottlieb apparently thinks Dorothy Sayers is the last person who wrote about detective novels. It is like Gottlieb wandered out of the club, noticed it was later than 1940, and wandered back into the club to write a gentlemanly review. Sometimes the NYRB is so old that it is actually older than its founding, in the 1960s, when it was young. I distinctly heard some snoring in the back row of some of the sentences in the Gottlieb review.
But to return to our onions: Spicer is good about what a horrific family life the De Quincey’s endured. It wasn’t just opium – it was the poverty. As in the life of Karl Marx, money, in De Quincey’s life, or the lack of it, was an ever present menace.
“As the debts piled up behind them, the family lurched close to utter destitution. De Quincey was repeatedly ‘put to the horn’, a practice native to Edinburgh, whereby a debtor was publicly denounced and made eligible for arrest. In October 1832, he was briefly imprisoned and only avoided further arrests by taking refuge in the Sanctuary of Holyrood, out of the reach of his creditors. Margaret was often ill and De Quincey suffered continually from the effects of his addiction and his attempts to break it – typically, periods of constipation alternating with debilitating bouts of diarrhoea. He sold or pawned everything he could, including most of his books. Two days before the birth of his eighth child, he filed for , a kind of bankruptcy proceedings. In September 1833, his three-year-old son, Julius, died: he had to flee the child’s wake to give the slip to a creditor who’d discovered his whereabouts, "
Like the sound of this? It’s the ardent dream of Trumpians everwhere to make this kind of thing more common. But I digress…
Spicer has some great comments about De Quincey’s rhetoric, his bizarrie, which was what captured Baudelaire’s admiration (Baudelaire translated De Quincey) as well as, evidently, Poe’s – Poe uses a similarly mix of essayistic seriousness an parody. Spicer is right here:
“Making fun of others, he idealises himself, but, whether consciously or not, his writing always presses at the limits of seriousness, where solemnity cracks up in a snort of poorly supressed hilarity. His style tips his grander effects into self-parody.”
Spicer doesn’t like De Quincey’s sentimentality, or his romantic flights; and it is true that De Quincey tends to weep at his own misfortunes, and endow himself with an irritated sensibility that is easy to read as mere rationalization. But we can’t take De Quincey in pieces to really appreciate him. It is that pressing towards the non-serious, the blind spot in our hierarchized sense of occassions, in which all these things find their necessity. Spicer quotes a lovely bit from De Quincey’s essay on astronomy.
"Lindop recounts an exchange between De Quincey and Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, in which De Quincey confessed himself baffled by the professor’s attachment to the consequences of observable fact. De Quincey’s imagination had taken flight in an essay inspired by a particular theory of the nebula, which the professor pointed out had been disproved by subsequent astronomical findings: ‘Nichol apparently misunderstood the case as though it required a phenomenon for its basis,’ he wrote."
The essayist’s contract is with truth – but truth as essai, truth as partial – and even more than that, truth as always partial, never, in the end, forming a whole. Truth as something ultimately more fundamental than the law of non-contradiction. Truth as non-serious.