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University of Toronto Quarterly 75.4 (2006) 971-978

Addicts, Edicts, and Empty Infinities:
The Rhetoric of Drugs from De Quincey to Derrida
Robert Morrison
Professor of English, Queen's University
Marcus Boon. The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs; Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2002
Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield, editors.; High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction ;Berkeley: University of California Press 2002
Anna Alexander and Mark S. Roberts, editors. High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity; New York: State University of New York Press 2003

Thomas De Quincey first tried opium in 1804 for the relief of 'excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face.' The results were miraculous. The 'negative effect' of his physical suffering was 'swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me.' Opium bestowed upon him enormous spiritual joy. 'Here was a panacea,' he proclaimed. 'Here was the secret of happiness.' Over the next eight years De Quincey set himself the task of exploring the drug's 'abyss of divine enjoyment,' and committed a series of well-planned opium debauches as a means of heightening his pleasure in music, conversation, books, and solitude. Yet all the while the drug was tightening its hold on him, and in 1813 it pulled him under. His rheumatic body was usurped by an addicted body, and the escape from physical pain that the drug had previously permitted now rebounded in the fiercer agonies of withdrawal: 'the stomach ... often in great pain: unceasing restlessness night and day: sleep —— I scarcely knew what it was ... Lower jaw constantly swelling: mouth ulcerated ... violent sternutation ... impatience and hideous irritability.' Relief came only with the consumption of more opium. His intake levels shot upward. He determined on temperance. The grim cycle began again. For nearly fifty years De Quincey's drug habit imposed a highly predictable grid upon the utter chaos of his life. [End Page 971]

De Quincey's detailed account of his opium experience – the euphoria, the seduction, the sickening despair, the overconfidence, the profound confusion – stands as one of the seminal narratives in the literature of addiction. The patterns and ideas he examines generated fervent debate in his lifetime, and seem even more complex and relevant in ours. In How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z (1999), Ann Marlowe praises 'De Quincey's brilliant, unsurpassed Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,' and notes that 'ever since I read De Quincey in my early teens I'd planned to try opium.' After kicking her habit, she tellingly observes that a 'novel about heroin is weighed down by the inherent consistency of everyone's experience of the drug in a way that a novel about love or revenge is not; those experiences are universal but not identical. Few writers are skilled enough to overcome this obstacle. So heroin demands nonfiction, memoir, truth-telling, but even here the trick is to outwit the drug, to introduce what the drug will not: surprise.' Marlowe devours De Quincey, and then De Quincey's drug, in a failed quest for transcendence that is scarred by consumption, consumerism, disembodiment, and deadening repetition.

Yet while in Marlowe's summary heroin addiction produces few surprises, drugs and addictive behaviours have been the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years, and have become central to postmodern articulations of identity, alterity, desire, transgression, and control. The most important recent studies extend from Avital Ronell's Crack Wars (1992), Richard Klein's Cigarettes Are Sublime (1993), and Richard Rudgley's Essential Substances (1994) to Bruce Wilshire's Wild Hunger (1998), Sadie Plant's Writing on Drugs (1999), Mike Jay's Artificial Paradises (1999), Lawrence Driscoll's Reconsidering Drugs (2000), and Rebecca Shannonhouse's Under the Influence (2003). The three new books considered here draw extensively on previous scholarship, and examine the paradoxes of drugs from a wide variety of perspectives, including the criminal, medical, philosophical, artistic, political, sociological, and literary. Some chapters are damaged by...


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