Orient Opium Drug
Why do you think any two or more of De Quincey, Coleridge and Doyle were so interested in the Orient in their drug writing?
Throughout the nineteenth century, persisting through much of the twentieth and even so far as today, the use of intoxicating substances, namely opium, is inextricably linked with visions of the Orient. Although there has been no significant proof of a universal chemical change in its users, opium undeniably evokes an obsession with the ‘other’. If one cannot attribute this to biological factors, then it is crucial to ascertain the historical, cultural or psychological implications that relate to its conception.
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Much of the association between opium and the Orient in nineteenth-century Britain was a consequence of British imperialism and the colonisation of the East. In expanding the Empire, Britain dominated the Eastern world, coming with the promise of providing a benevolent civilisation. Instead, they exploited states for many of their most valuable commodities, including opium, and destroyed an already established pride of individuality and national-identity whilst asserting their own sense of a hegemonic British nationality upon inhabitants.
The works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge make a substantial contribution in our understanding of the relationship between opium use and Orientalism. Coleridge followed the German Higher Criticism that viewed the Bible as an extension of Oriental mythology, supplying what he believed as evidence of single God in the Eastern world. Coleridge’s writing at the turn of the nineteenth-century encapsulates not only the anxieties of Oriental differentiation, but more poignantly, the conspicuous differences from its impressions on the English opium user.
His literary works aside, Coleridge presented perhaps his most vehement condemnation of British involvement in the Orient during a public lecture in 1795. He contrived that such ‘commercial intercourse’ was resulting in the death of millions of East Indians, saddling Britain with an inevitable sense of overwhelming guilt. Furthermore, he details the potentially catastrophic long term effects on Britons, that being, a dilution of national identity through the pollution of imports from the Eastern world.
Through his damning of British colonisation, Coleridge provides a macrocosm of himself; his own opium intake was destabilising not only to his own body, but the world around him. He believed the mind state brought about through the ingestion of opium masked many of the distinctions to be made between not only English and Oriental, but between male and female, and even self and other. Much of the singularity of Coleridge’s work, in particular the visionary ‘Kubla Khan’, emanates from his ability to encompass polar opposite sensations towards opium in a single moment, often oscillating between both attraction and repulsion, or pleasure and pain.
The phantasmagoric quality of ‘Kubla Khan’ was composed out of what Coleridge attributed to a ‘sleep of the eternal senses’. When describing his opium reveries, Coleridge explained:
‘Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep: but you, I believe, know how divine that repose is – what a spot of inchantment, a green spot of fountains, and flowers and trees, in the very heart of a waste sands’.
It comes as no surprise then that Coleridge had the potential to produce such a work as ‘Kubla Khan’ whilst submerged in the alternative realm of consciousness that opium gave him.
In the opening stanza of the poem there radiates an awe of harmony within paradise. The Oriental landscape, with ‘caverns measureless to man’ and ‘forests ancient as the hills’, suggest an unworldly, ineffable quality. Although the components of Xanadu may potentially appear threatening, they are harboured within the confines of ‘walls and towers… girdled round’. Thus, Xanadu is rendered passive and benevolent, under the control of the poet.
Throughout the next stanza, the Oriental landscape of Xanadu is feminised, with particular reference made to the ‘deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down a green hill athwart a cedarn cover’, a subtle indication of the presence of female genitalia. The ensuing description is one that is far removed from the serenity of an English landscape, detailing ‘A savage place… a waning moon was haunted / By woman wailing for her demon-lover’. The wailing woman suggests a deep pain, perhaps even insanity. This ascends into a threatening, sexually explicit orgasmic crescendo:
‘From this chasm… As if the earth in fast thick pants were breathing, / A mighty fountain momently was forced: / Amid whose swift, half-intermitted burst / Huge fragments… beneath the thresher’s flail.’
The ‘swift, half-intermitted burst’ mentioned evokes notions of seminal emission. The nature of this portrayal belies the expected Romantic interpretations of lakes and seas which poets leisurely sip from for inspiration, instead presenting ‘a mighty fountain’, potentially a phallic symbol, which threatens to engulf all.
The overriding image is one of the Oriental landscape breaking through the boundaries attempting to suppress it; occurring metaphorically through the phallic fountain, the fluids from the chasm, and the entrance into the caverns. However, what may initially seem as a jubilant liberation of sexual energy from the constraints of rigid gender roles eventually conspires to be anything but, paving way for a state of almost ‘Armageddon’ proportions; ‘And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean… Ancestral voices prophesying war!’ Thus, provided is an ironic sense of warning against those who dare try and tame these powerful forces. The overall effect is that where the danger of the second stanza undercuts the perceived harmony of the first, suggesting an ambiguity within Xanadu; indicating perhaps the presence of a dark side to the heavenly paradise foretold.
One of Coleridge’s primary concerns with regards to Orientalism lay in its power to usurp the author’s authority of and consciousness of writing, a threat to his own artistic control. When referring back to Coleridge’s own comments on British ‘commercial intercourse’ in the East, a definite causal link can be inferred between the Orient infiltrating Britain, by means of opium intake, and introducing a ‘conscious-usurping Orient into the British body and mind to convert them from British to Oriental’.
Despite this, through the ingestion of opium, he actively seeks the empowerment this ‘other’ provides him. Analysis of the conclusion of ‘Kubla Khan’ perhaps gives some indication of a shift towards a positive outlook on the conjuring of the Orient; hoping that through the ‘milk of Paradise’ the speaker may be able to transcend to a state in which he may ‘build that dome in the air’. However, his ascension to God-like status, he believes, may make others treat him as unholy, perhaps with ‘holy dread’:
‘And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair! / Weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your eyes with holy dread’.
The use of the oxymoronic phrase ‘holy dread’ reiterates Coleridge’s own pleasure against pain contradiction with opium ingestion and Orientalism. Furthermore, it perhaps subtly indicates the approach he believes the imperialistic order of Britain should adopt when attempting to contain those with ‘flashing eyes’.
The ‘plot’ that unravels throughout ‘Kubla Khan’ is one where a powerful Eastern, feminine force penetrates and destroys the flimsy Western, male barriers that enclose it. The implication presented by Coleridge is that these same forces can not only impose themselves on a nation, but on an individual. D. A. Miller identifies the male terror at the prospect of being occupied by the female, arguing that it resembles and inverts a classic rape scenario.
Thus, it strikes a common chord in Coleridge’s own Oriental possession, which is often feminised, invading his body but exerting its own control over it, by nature evoking paradoxical destruction and pleasure within him. Moreover, this ‘inverted rape scenario’ is itself a partial reversal of what Coleridge deemed Britain’s exploitation of the East, and an ironic act of retribution.
It was Coleridge’s foremost concern that this invasion and alteration process went some way into eroding sense of national identity and British culture, a process that he deduced would ultimately blur any distinctions to be made between Britain and the Eastern world, until they eventually merged into one.
Thomas De Quincey’s analyses of the relationship between opium and Orientalism yield conflicting opinions to those formulated by Coleridge. It was De Quincey’s underlying theory that opium acted as a means of excavating the Orient within the British self. He concludes, contrary to Coleridge, that divisions between the East and West never actually existed; the Oriental ‘other’ never facilitated a hostile invasion of body and nation, but was present at conception, and is indeed the origin of all things ‘British’.
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In a similar vein to Coleridge, De Quincey condemns the exposure of the ‘other’ within the self, but still paradoxically seeks it by means of opium intake. John Barrell comments that De Quincey identifies the internal manifestation of the Orient within as an infection, and adopts measures to protect him against this. One such method follows the process of inoculation, whereby in taking a piece of the Orient into himself, namely opium, De Quincey hopes to dismiss that which he does not attribute to himself, conceptualising an internal West against East division in terms of what is familiar and what is alien. However, as Barrell suggests, this measure is destined for failure because the subject reinforces the infection by the same means he hope will crush it.
Integral to De Quincey’s musings on Orientalism is the visit of the Malay in ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’. The Malay is depicted in a demonic fashion, with ‘fiery eyes’ that ‘took hold of my fancy and my eye in a way that none of the statuesque attitudes exhibited in the ballets at the Opera House’. The ‘otherness’ of the Malay is overtly referred to in its comparison to the domesticity of the young servant; mention is made of an ‘impassable gulf’ that exists between their methods of communication. In addition, the figure with a ‘turban and loose trowsers of dingy white’ is harshly juxtaposed with the ‘native spirit of mountain intrepidity’ displayed by the young servant:
‘And a more striking picture there could not be imagined, than the beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness… contrasted with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enamelled or veneered with mahogany… his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations.’
The impression given is one of a man, or, as his title may imply, a collective, who are dehumanised, depicted in terms of a polished piece of furniture; his only relief is that his ‘trowsers of dingy white’ are excused by the ‘dark panelling’ of the kitchen. Furthermore, De Quincey emulates Coleridge’s sense of ‘holy dread’ within ‘Kubla Khan’ in the manner in which he expresses the young servant’s reaction to the appearance of the Malay:
‘he had placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish; though her native spirit of mountain intrepidity contended with the feeling of simple awe which her countenance expressed as she gazed upon the tiger-cat before her.’
Provided here is not only a comment on the approach taken by the familiar West to the alien East, one that, although threatening, still proves intriguing, but perhaps further indicates De Quincey’s own personal struggle with his opium intake. Moreover, significance lies in De Quincey’s attempts to converse with the Malay in Classical Greek, in that it exemplifies Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism; De Quincey’s construction of a material conjoined East, in which differences between India and China, for instance, are ignored is why he believes speaking to the Malay in any ‘Oriental’ tongue will suffice.
De Quincey’s oriental dreams in the later stages of ‘Confessions…’ provide a supplementary outlook on the Orientalism construct. He reveals that ‘the causes of my horror lie deep’, continuing:
‘As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and reverential feeling connected with it… The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c. is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian man renewed.’
De Quincey is of the opinion that the sheer age and permanence of the Orient implies that it provides the origin for everything attributed to British culture and identity. This notion is enhanced by his further consolation that ‘the barrier of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyse’; De Quincey ironically accepts that there is in fact, no barrier at all, and that what may indeed lie on the other side manifests itself within him during his opium reveries.
Thus, De Quincey inverts his own previously conjured distinctions between West and East, self and other, through his opium ingestion. Paradoxically, that which reveals itself as most ‘other’ to him is still ironically the origin of his own self. De Quincey’s conceptualised Orient is thus rendered useless as he accepts that the West always was the East to begin with, and that any argument to the contrary is a futile one.
Allen, N. B., A Note on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. Modern Language Notes, 57, 1942, pp. 108-113
Berridge, V., Opium and the People: Opiate Use and Drug Control Policy in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century England, 2nd edition (London: Free Association, 1999).
Cooke, M. G., De Quincey, Coleridge, and the Formal Uses of Intoxication. Yale French Studies, 50, 1974, pp. 26-40
Hayter, A., Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber, 1968).
Jay, M., Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century (Sawtry: Dedalus, 2000).
Leask, N., British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire (Cambridge: University Press, 1992)
Said, E. W., Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003)
Schneider, E., The “Dream” of Kubla Khan. PMLA, 60, 1945, pp. 784-801
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