On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Great review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post of new biography of De Quincey

(For)  most of his adult existence, De Quincey was an opium addict, an alcoholic in all but name, and a man who spent years dodging creditors, constantly moving from one rented room to another. What money he didn’t spend on laudanum – his preferred opium-alcohol mixture – he spent on buying thousands of books, many of them pricey and rare. For years he rented Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s old home in the Lake District, and essentially used it to store his library and papers. Though from an upper-middle-class family and exceptionally well educated in Latin and Greek, De Quincey nonetheless dropped out of Oxford, eventually married his housekeeper (who bore him eight children) and was regularly shamed by public announcements of his nonpayment of bills. He contributed to multiple magazines, Blackwood’s being the best known, and sooner or later quarreled with nearly all his editors. In person, he was diminutive (under five feet tall) and exceptionally courtly in his manner and speech.

Today De Quincey is remembered, and by some revered, for his evocative (at times purple) prose and for two or three of the most influential works of the 19th century, the most famous being the autobiographical “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” No less an authority than William Burroughs has called “Confessions” “the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction. . . . No other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky from the first use to the effects of withdrawal.”

In this lucid, deeply researched biography, Robert Morrison makes plain that De Quincey wasn’t just a recreational user, but truly a slave to his habit. He would regularly pop pills – laudanum capsules that he kept in a snuffbox – even in the presence of company. Although De Quincey tried repeatedly to break the drug’s hold over him, the consequent shakes, fevers and depressions would eventually destroy his resolve. And yet two sections of “Confessions” are honestly titled: “The Pleasures of Opium” and “The Pains of Opium,” for the drug lifted some of life’s burdens, even as it imposed others. It also allowed for vivid, hallucinatory dreams and memories, often of the dead: the beloved sister whom De Quincey lost when young, the prostitute Ann who shared his early miseries, the 3-year-old Wordsworth daughter he played with and adored, his own deceased children. In opium visions they might all, for a moment, live again.

…. …. ….

Murder, in fact, always deeply fascinated De Quincey and comes to the fore in his wittiest essay, the savagely deadpan “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Conceived as a lecture to a society of connoisseurs, it remains the foundational text for the grisly black humor of films such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” or Patricia Highsmith‘s novels about the talented Mr. Ripley. As our lecturer observes: “Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”

Alas, the wholly aesthetic murder can be elusive: “Awkward disturbances will arise; people will not submit to have their throats cut quietly; they will run, they will kick, they will bite; and, whilst the portrait-painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist in our line is generally embarrassed by too much animation.”

THE ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER

A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

By Robert Morrison.

Pegasus. 462 pp.

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