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Prose: Thomas de Quincy

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We shall turn to some prose texts in today’s session, specifically the work of Thomas De Quincey. There were several varieties of texts that appeared during this period that thematized the empire and the East. Allow me to repeat my caution: the East is not just India. China, Japan, other parts of the Eastern region, the Arab world, were also part of the Romantic Orientalist texts and the textual canon. Our focus is here is limited though. For those of you who would like to explore this further there is a reading list given at the end which you can refer to. A good place to begin would be Nigel Leask’s famous work, British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire (1990). It is still one of the finest introductions to the period and its interest in India. Let us move on to looking at some varieties of the prose texts that dealt with the empire, the East and the Other. A wide variety of prose texts dealing with the Empire, the East and the Other appear in this period, among them are Oriental tales, Gothic tales, historical romances and historical novels. Walter Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter would be a prime example of the historical romance. There are also non-fictional works: memoirs, war accounts, travel writing, political tracts and histories of India and the colonies. James Mills’ The History of British India appears in the first decades of the 19th century. The three volume work went on to become a standard reference for anybody who wanted to study India. James Mills, by the way, never traveled to India. He wrote about it from other sources. Whether it is memoirs, war accounts, travel writing or political tracts, all have at some point intersections with Romantic Orientalist discourse. The prose, as critics have noted, is caught in the dilemma of being fascinated by the Other and repulsed by it. De Quincey, for example, speaks of his ‘loathing and fascinated’ for the East in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821, expanded in the 1856 edition). De Quincey would later write another essay ‘The Opium and China Question’ (1840). John Barrell, a very distinguished critic of the Romantic period has argued that ‘the worst of oriental horrors [in De Quincey] can be represented only by being connected with ... personal traumas’ That is one part of it but we need also to note that for many writers of the period, the East is also a place of exploration. It gives one the chance to fashion oneself in certain ways. R. M. Ballantyne’s work, for example, depicted the adventures of young schoolboys. This is the period in which English masculinity is being forged via the famous public school system. You may have heard of anecdotal, apocryphal accounts like the one that says that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playfields of Eton. A certain ethos of masculinity was constructed around schoolboys as in Ballantyne’s works. But there is other kind of self-exploration which we can see in the following excerpt from De Quincy’s The Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Hindostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sun-lights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me, Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud. De Quincey here describes the heterogeneous collection of objects he gathers in his vision under the influence of the narcotic opium. The vision shows the European’s illusory control of knowledge being eroded, eroded by ‘objects’ (animals and birds) that he thought he controlled by putting them in a museum. Markus Poetzsch writes about this incident: From occidental spectacle and sacrificial victim, he becomes, in a moment, the oriental “priest,” in effect the undoer of himself. The rapid vacillation between subject positions suggests that for De Quincey opium-as-Orient is profoundly disorienting; it readily shifts perspectives and power balances. We have spoken of how the encounter with the East leads to a kind of self-fashioning but as we see here, there is also an undoing of the self. Sanjay Krishnan argues: The European’s epistemological and even ontological certainty breaks down when faced with the non-European, non- human Other. In his trafficking with global creatures, the Englishman loses a sense of self. The Englishman attributes the loss of self, of identity and attachments, domesticity and family, to his links with foreign products, places and actions, whether it is an involvement in foreign trade in the case of Egeon or the consumption of opium in the case of de Quincey. What Poetzsch and Krishnan argue is that all forms of knowledge-making break down in the East. The East is a place where their frames of knowledge not only not make sense, they also break down. For those of you who know E. M. Foster’s A Passage to India, you will recognize this problem. In the novel, what happens in the cave is that the English forms of making sense of the world break down. India defeats them. You will also recall that in the last session we spoke about Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone where everything that goes wrong in the English domestic space is attributed to the stone which comes from Seringapatam, Mysore. As soon as the stone arrives, something goes wrong. The evil spirits begin to invade and so and so forth. Now what Sanjay Krishnan is arguing is that there is a porous boundary through which the East enters and leads to the collapse of the English self. We will now move on to a couple of other instances with the Thomas De Quincey text. Thomas de Quincey’s Malay sequence as an instance of the unnameable anxiety represented by the East. The Malay turns up at de Quincey’s door – of Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, incidentally. In his 1840 essay, he saw China as a threat to England, and thereby extends the meditations in the Confessions. Let us look at an excerpt from the Malay sequence: The sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enamelled or veneered with mahogany by marine air, his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations As we can see, the description de-humanizes and animalizes the Malay. But like I said De Quincey also had other interests in opium as a national policy, as a political and mercantile project. Let us look at an excerpt from ‘The Opium and China Question’ (1840). Of all the nations that ever have been heard of, we are the most scattered and exposed. We are to be reached by a thousand wounds in thousands of outlying extremities; the very outposts of civilization are held by Englishmen, everywhere maintaining a reserve of reliance upon the mighty mother in Europe.... Such are we English people—such is the English condition. Now, what we are in the supreme degree, that is China in the lowest. We are the least defended by massy concentration; she the most so. We have the colonial instinct in the strongest degree; China in the lowest. With us the impulses of expatriation are almost morbid in their activity; in China they are undoubtedly morbid in their torpor. What he is saying is the opium question is not only about China, it is about England itself. And this is the point I have been repeatedly making that all the products out there, the people out there, the land out there, are not actually “out there”, they have come home. In short, that is, the difference and distinction between the imperial capital and the periphery has broken down because the periphery has begun to come in and infiltrate English identity itself. In the same sequence, the Malay is received by an English girl, and De Quincey writes that the Malay ‘placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish’ (56), and thus he gestures at a sexual anxiety about the girl’s safety as well. In the last session, you will remember that we spoke about the threat to both English femininity and masculinity from Eastern sexuality. The Malay brings with him uneasiness and nightmares as we see in this excerpt. This Malay (partly from the picturesque exhibition he assisted to frame, partly from the anxiety I connected with his image for some days) fastened afterwards upon my dreams, and brought other Malays with him, worse than himself, that ran ‘a-muck’ at me, and led me into a world of troubles. The Malay, like opium, also serves as a pathogen that infects de Quincey. Unnameable, unidentified, uncategorizable as a person or thing, the ‘Malay’ is a foreign ‘body’ infecting/infesting Dove Cottage and de Quincey’s mind (the nightmares I cited from de Quincey at the opening of this chapter). The uncanny nature of the visit and the aftermath – a ghostly remains, a revenant – is the foreign at the heart of England itself in de Quincey’s near-Gothic account. John Barrell’s famous work is called The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism because he understands that the Malay and opium have infiltrated like a foreign body infecting Dove cottage, infecting Thomas De Quincey and others. This absolves the English of any blame as the foreign intrusion is to blame for all their troubles. Barrell writes: [De Quincey] was terrorised by the fear of an unending and interlinked chain of infections from the East, which threatened to enter his system and to overthrow it, leaving him visibly and permanently “compromised” and “orientalised”. As Julian North argues: The Confessions subvert Wordsworth's privileging of the natural over the artificial by taking as its setting the city, and, as its theme, the artificial paradise of opium. What do we understand by this then? Across the Romantic period, the foreign object and the foreign person (this could be the opium or the Malay) are both threats to Englishness and to the English idea of themselves. The consumption of opium on one side, and the arrival of the Malay on the other, are all instances whereby the epistemological and ontological security breaks down but it is also important because at some point, you will have to account for your own actions. The blame for everything cannot be laid at the door of the Other and the Other-object. Romantic Orientalism then is a rather problematic engagement with the East. As the center-periphery distinction breaks down, questions of English identity become more complicated because these questions are also now questions of multiculturalization.