Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dickens and Opium

In an Opium Den

In 1830 Hector Berlioz conceived his Symphonie Fantastique as an autobiographical tale which according to the composer's own detailed program was composed to describe the tortured dreams of a sensitive artist in lovesick despair who takes an overdose of opium and becomes haunted by visions of an unattainable woman.
In the penultimate movement of this epitome of Romanticism he depicts the musical equivalent of opium hallucinations ('Marche aux supplice'). This music referred to the pleasures of opium, production of which had been growing since the eighteenth century development of the opium trade by the British East India Company.
Even before Berlioz, in 1821 Thomas de Quincey published the first edition of his now famous Confessions of an English Opium Eater chronicling his experiences with the drug. These included his dreams and the original manuscript was written in haste at one might say a 'fever pitch'. The final section, "The Pains of Opium", recounts the extreme of the author's opium experience (up to that time), with insomnia, nightmares, frightening visions, and difficult physical symptoms. Thomas de Quincey revised his 'Confessions' for a new edition in 1856 and it is this edition that we enjoy today.

All this is in preface to a brief discussion of Charles Dickens and opium. Dickens' biographer Peter Ackroyd notes a slight connection between de Quincey and Dickens' family during their move early in Charles' life to the city (Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, p. 19). It does not seem to be a stretch to imagine that the mature Dickens was aware of, if not familiar with, de Quincey's work. It with this in mind that we turn to the opening scene of The Mystery of Edwin Drood which is set in an opium den. It is the aura of this den and the degenerates within that create the first hint of mysteriousness that will be with the reader throughout the, unfortunately, uncompleted work. A brief passage follows:
"Shaking from head to foor, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court."(p. 7)

The man is John Jasper who, in a Jekyll and Hyde fashion, will inhabit the book and find the aura of the opium den is not the only part of his aspect that suggests villainy. One mystery in the story is that no proof is ever presented of any overt malediction on his part; therefore we must simply rely on his creepily obsessive behavior enhanced by the aura of the opium den to feed our speculations. At the end of the manuscript we have only journeyed halfway into the story; thus the ends are left loose and destined to lay before us like unanswered questions for eternity.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2002 (1870)

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