Incapable of Being Disentangled: On De Quincey’s Impassioned Prose

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This article makes the case that perlocution, a notoriously tricky species of speech act, opens up news ways of thinking about De Quincey’s autobiographical writings, particularly Suspiria de Profundis. Because its effects are indirect, uncertain and unpredictable, perlocution helps us understand language’s ability to entangle: readers, writers, memories, experience, events, other texts. That uncanny ability to entangle things—and our inability to ever fully disentangle them—is one of De Quincey’s abiding preoccupations. Its readiest models are the famous involute and the palimpsest, but examples of it exist throughout his oeuvre. De Quincey’s thinking on these and related matters anticipates later theoretical concepts such as Freud’s “tangle of dream thoughts," Benjamin’s verschränkte Zeit (entangled time), and Derrida’s double bind, “which can only be endured in passion.”

Incapable of Being Disentangled: On De Quincey’s Impassioned Prose

Andrew Warren
Harvard University

There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled and which moreover adds nothing to our knowledge of the content of the dream (Freud 525 / 564).

Such a relation does the Dark Interpreter, whom immediately the reader will learn to know as an intruder into my dreams, bear to my own mind. He is originally a mere reflex of my inner nature . . . What he says, generally, is but that which I have said in daylight, and in meditation deep enough to sculpture itself on my heart. But sometimes, as his face alters, his words alter; and they do not always seem such as I have used, or could use. No man can account for all things that occur in dreams (De Quincey, Suspiria de Profundis 147).

I. Perplexed Combinations & Entangled Time

1.        Language has long been associated with the dangers of getting entangled in it. Hobbes, for instance, warns that someone who does not use language carefully and consciously “will find himself entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twigs; the more he struggles, the more belimed” (28). Or, in the opening of his first Enquiry, Hume says that abstruse philosophers and religious fanatics alike, “unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles [words] to cover and protect their weakness” (1.11, 7). It is the same tack taken in Locke’s “On the Abuse of Words,” where power can be grasped by “employing the ingenious and idle in intricate disputes about unintelligible terms, and holding them perpetually entangled in that labyrinth” (3.10.9, 495). Hume likely gets the image from Locke, and Locke from a chapter in Bacon called “The Intellect’s Ladder, or the Thread of the Labyrinth.” Bacon, in turn, inherits these tropes from the Italian humanist Cardano’s De Subtilitate, which talks of “things which through impropriety of language rather than intention are unintelligible and entangled like knots which chance to twist upon themselves” (qtd. Wilson 40).

2.        What interests me in these accounts is language’s apparent agency, its ability to ensnare without anyone’s direct “intention,” as Cardano puts it. The tradition of British empiricism rarely uses terms such as entangle, but when it appears it often describes language’s material-like power, a force that can “hold” you “perpetually entangled in that labyrinth”: i.e., language itself. There is, of course, also a more positive, and more literary, account of language’s entangling activity, one that goes at least back to Petrarch. That counter to language’s undead materialism is perhaps best articulated by Sterne’s Yorick who describes his Sentimental Journey thus: “’Tis going, I own, like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance in quest of melancholy adventures. But I know not how it is, but I am never so perfectly conscious of the existence of a soul within me, as when I am entangled in them” (95). Here language (“adventures,” or rather the temptingly melancholy narratives of them that Yorick hears, reads and relates) might be material, but its entangling activity uncovers something seemingly immaterial—the “soul within me” and, perhaps, within it. For Sterne, the eighteenth century’s arch-thinker of entanglement, getting “entangled in telling a plain story” (TS, 263) and in the relationships that telling precipitates, is active proof of language’s divinity.

3.        More than half a century later, having imbibed critiques of that empiricist tradition by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the German Idealists, and also having imbibed tremendous quantities of a very different kind of riposte to empiricism (viz., opium), De Quincey arrives at a Sternian conclusion, at once speculative and devastating:

And, recollecting it [his sister’s death], often I have been struck with the important truth—that far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes (if I may coin that word) in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly, and in their own abstract shapes (Suspiria, 97). [1] 
Try as we may—and Suspiria is a record of De Quincey’s trying—we cannot “disentangle” or “abstract” (separate, isolate, pull away) certain “compound experiences” or “perplexed combinations” of our memories.

4.        Our deepest thoughts’ and feelings’ “concreteness” (their having grown together), it would seem, happens in a Proustian verschränkte Zeit, an “entangled” or “intertwined” time where experiences only become legible when properly constellated in memory and lived time (SW2.1 244). For Benjamin, “The eternity which Proust opens to view is intertwined time, not boundless time. His true interest is in the passage of time in its most real—that is, intertwined—form”; “the heart of Proust’s world” is “this universe of intertwining” where “correspondances rule” (SW2.1 244). This is a fair description of De Quincey’s involutes, where past artifacts and events become legible only when properly constellated with lived reality. But De Quincey’s eternity yawns deeper, and his “true interest” is harder to locate, much less his conception of truth. “The world,” as Benjamin says elsewhere, “is knowable now,” which is precisely where to find “truth” (SW1 277). In that now that exceeds subjective intention, “truth is charged to the bursting point” by the historical images that happen, at that moment, to become synchronic with it. A now worthy of the name draws aspects of the past into alignment with it and in a flash knowledge is produced—“the text [and the possibility of reading it] is the long roll of thunder that follows” (Arcades 462 N2a,3). De Quincey’s oeuvre and personal mythology are also premised on a model of reading: the brain as palimpsest, [2]  the constant record of his reading and anxieties about reading, the Dark Interpreter, [3]  the universe’s “languages” and “ciphers” and “their corresponding keys,” [4]  The Sorrows’ system of signs, legible only in dreams, and the prophecy that he shall “read elder truths, sad truths, grand truths, fearful truths” (S 144). [5]  Even before our deepest thoughts, feelings and truths are passed to another via a literary text, they must first pass to us; the author must read and interpret them before, and for, his audience.

5.        Later on I will interpret more carefully the involutes’ power and the withering effects of the death of De Quincey’s sister. I will also return to Freud’s un-unravellable “tangle of dream thoughts”—that is, to psychoanalysis, and resistances to it. But I will first linger on a nexus of concepts that structures my argument. Entanglement (or intertwining, or involution, or twisting) clearly is one, and it is related—or so I argue—to De Quincey’s articulation of truth (§3) [6] , and resistance (§4), and passion (§3 & §4), and performative utterance (§2). De Quincey is sincerely interested in receiving and communicating truths. [7]  Reading and writing—and perhaps also speaking, listening, thinking, remembering, hallucinating and dreaming [8] —happen for him within a tangled field of time and language whose (perlocutionary) effects can be profound, but also oblique and unpredictable. He is a confessed “self-dialogist . . . perhaps the earliest that has existed,” because at a young age he “caught too early and too profound a glimpse of certain dread realities” (10.11–12), or truths. At a certain pitch, however, even De Quincey’s self-dialogism sometimes “swerves out of [his] orbit, and mixes a little with alien natures,” as when the Dark Interpreter’s “words alter” (S 147). Like the Sorrows, that haunting figure also whispers “truths” to De Quincey in his sleeps (S 245). But to become intelligible those truths must—presumably—later be recollected (gathered) and disentangled from his other experiences and interpretations. Their reinterpretation can only happen via an entangling (an involution) and a resistant disentangling (an analysis, an untying), which is itself another kind of entangling. This endless and sincere process of receiving and reinterpreting the truths that pass to us is what I think De Quincey means by “impassioned prose,” his confessions’ signature “mode” (238). In this piece I suggest that perlocutionary speech acts, whose effects are entangling and incalculable, are a worthwhile model for interpreting—or rather, reinterpreting—De Quincey’s impassioned prose.

II. Perlocution & Entanglement

6.        But what exactly are speech acts in general, and perlocution in particular? Speech acts do not, or do not merely, describe; they act, they produce effects in the world. In J.L. Austin’s terms, speech acts are thereby “performative” rather than “constative” utterances. But realizing the difficulty of distinguishing performative and constative utterances, Austin moved on to a tripartite categorization of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts. Let me give you Cavell's quick checklist from “Performative and Passionate Utterance”: “the locutionary act (saying something meaningful), the illocutionary act (what is done in saying something), and the perlocutionary act (what is done by saying something)” (169). Austin himself defines a perlocutionary act as one which produces “certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them” (101). You can see why perlocution is the trickiest of the three types—all those ors and mays (thoughts, feelings or actions; audience, speaker, or other persons; it may be done by design, or intention, or purpose—or not) spread the concept out into who knows what, or where, or how. Austin repeatedly tries to contrast this diffusion with what he takes to be a more stable target, illocutionary acts’ specific force to get something done. If in an illocutionary act the effect must be contained in what is said, in a perlocutionary act the effect cannot be contained in it; if for an illocutionary act to succeed there must be a communally agreed upon set of rules to judge its success, for a perlocution to work the speaker is on his own—he must use whatever imagination, subtlety, or flair that he has at his disposal. Weirdly, one can perform a perlocutionary act via a locution—that is, by simply stating a meaningful fact. For example, I might prevent you from reading or liking a novel by saying “Byron hated that novel”—or, that might make you reread it and like it even more. Again, you can see why perlocution exasperated Austin, and why Cavell and Miller see it as the place where his system breaks down. It gives reign to “parasitic,” “not serious” and “not full normal” uses of language (104). If what Austin calls “the doctrine ‘of illocutionary forces’” (100) seems predictably Newtonian, perlocution is more like quantum mechanics, where God plays dice and disparate elements are mysteriously entangled.

7.        In Miller’s reading, “Austin is haunted by poetry . . .” (38); jokes and poetry are “etiolated,” whitened, and have “no force”; although Austin “uses tropes brilliantly and commands a powerful rhetoric, but he does not generally reflect on the implications of the way his use of tropes is necessary to get said what he wants to say” (39). Put another way, Austin wants to say it “straight,” but uses tropes and turns to do so; he must use them. Indeed, for Miller How To Do Things with Words is haunted by a “lurid under text of violence and catastrophe” (49), perhaps because it cannot grasp its own tropological foundation. Tracing Austin's growing stable of terms—from performative and constative, to locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary, to behabitives, expositives, commissives, and verdictives—Miller concludes: “the project frays out into increasingly unmanageable complexity, the complexity of everyday usage in ordinary language” (13). That's the process of getting “bog[ged], by logical stages, down,” a phrase Miller borrows from Austin and uses repeatedly. Miller's point, I think, is that Austin was all too aware of ordinary language's resistance to theorization, the way it lures you in and entangles you. The figure of the fray and the bog connote entanglement in the term’s traditional sense—Thomas Browne, for instance, wonders how the viscosity of a chameleon’s tongue “inviscates and intangleth” insects. For Austin, the entangling tongue is human speech itself.

8.        Or, as Miller puts it, “words are not pictures of reality. They are part of the thing, tangled inextricably with the event they describe” (Tropes 43). In Ariadne’s Thread, he extends this into a claim about literature’s resistance to interpretation: “The critic may fancy himself safely and rationally outside the contradictory language of the text, but he is already entangled in its web” (23). That happens, for Miller, because it’s impossible to isolate any given portion of a text from the whole: a critical problem or “knot may be in one region untied, made unperplexed, but only at the expense of making a tangle of knotted crossings at some other point on the loop” (22)—a double bind. This does not mean that criticism is futile, but merely that works of literature also interpret themselves. Describing Joseph Conrad’s “self-interpretive elements” in Fiction and Repetition, Miller declares that “No literary text has a manifest pattern, like the design of a rug, which the eye of the critic can survey from the outside” (23). Here we see what will later become Miller's claims about the critic's performative utterances and the impossibility of purely constative criticism.

9.        Of course, the model of reading here is deconstructive, but also psychoanalytic, as much work on De Quincey is. Joel Faflak has suggested that De Quincey’s readers become inscribed within “the text’s transferential field of reading.” In a Miller-like vein, Faflak says that “Our inability to master the text’s meaning . . . mirrors uncannily the text’s call for knowledge and interpretation that is built into its very structure” (25). What interests me is the text’s “call” to read it, know it, interpret it, perform it. In Theory of the Lyric, Jonathan Culler has recently warned of the dangers of “celebrat[ing] the performative character of literature, as a simple consequence of the conventions of literary discourse” because it distracts us from its real perlocutionary work. “The most important acts a poem performs,” he suggests, “are likely to be those not entailed by it” (130). [9]  Here literature, and linguistic entanglement, becomes a kind of latent actant—a speech actant, if I may coin a term. [10]  By this I simply mean language’s power to produce effects that exceed a single act or an individual intention; as perlocutionary speech acts, speech actants persist through time and entangle people and things, self and others. Even worse, entanglement is itself a stubborn kind of speech actant. To coin yet another term, entanglement often becomes an “undead metaphor”—one which renews itself in the connections it makes between different things, particularly when those connections cannot be conceptually mapped. If such relations are increasingly problematized across the latter half of the Enlightenment, which I think they are, De Quincey’s oeuvre—as both theory and palimpsest of inexplicable connections—marks this trend’s ne plus ultra.

10.        De Quincey, in his “Letters to a Young Man,” had much to say about the definition of literature and its relationship to knowledge and power, which we might roughly associate with constative and performative utterances—a kind of “mixed discursive mode,” to borrow Ian Balfour’s phrase. [11]  In his reading of those letters, Brian McGrath has persuasively argued that De Quincey marshaled his redefinition of literature (and hence power) to selectively manage the mushrooming list of texts one had to read (847–48). Yes, had to read—that is, I think, literature's call, or at least the call of the literary marketplace. Literature’s proper call is slightly different—“all literature seeks,” in De Quincey’s words, “to communicate power” (3.71) where other texts only communicate knowledge. Real literature is a stronger actant inasmuch as it calls more powerfully on us to read it. But where do we locate this call, this seeking to communicate? Here is where the diffuseness of effects, persons and intentions of perlocution’s model is useful for thinking with De Quincey, and frustrating. As Cavell says, the problem in part is that “in perlocutionary acts, the ‘you’ comes essentially into the picture” (180). [12] 

III. Truth-Telling & Impassioned Prose

11.        Robert Morrison has connected De Quincey’s Confessions to what Foucault in 1975 called “the production of truth,” modernity’s social demand to confess what one truly is (x). Several years later, in Wrong-Doing and Truth-Telling, Foucault discusses truth-telling as a “speech act” (14). “Avowal is,” according to Foucault, “a verbal act through which the subject affirms who he is, binds himself to truth, places himself in a relationship of dependence with regard to another, and modifies at the same time his relationship to himself” (17). Foucault’s more general strategy is to examine how a subject constitutes himself as an object—that is, to look at both “the formation of procedures by which the subject is led to observe himself, analyze himself, interpret himself, recognize himself as a domain of possible knowledge” and “the way in which the subject experiences himself in a game of truth where he relates to himself” (461). [13]  For some, such as the Cynics, this truth-telling (parrhesia) or production of truths (alethurgy) is embedded in a concrete existence or way of life (a bios); for De Quincey that way of life is constituted by reading, writing, interpretation, memory, dream, analysis, revision and addiction. [14] 

12.        Clearly, Foucault’s thinking here is tied to the practice and genre of confession, as his as-yet unpublished book on Saint Augustine and early Christianity, Les Aveux de la Chair (Confessions of the Flesh), attests. [15]  On this front Jean-Luc Marion’s work is salutary. For him, Augustine’s Confessions merely “orient” the reader towards God. They are “written neither to describe nor to demonstrate nor to instruct, but to provoke confession”; they “tend only to produce an effect, or rather an affect, upon the interlocutor, understood as each reader. This intention is defined exactly as a perlocutionary act" (46–47)—that is, a speech act whose consequences are inexplicit, incalculable and perhaps even untraceable. Every word of Augustine’s Confessions strains to accomplish, not represent, something; it cannot even represent to itself what it seeks to accomplish. Thus “the truth of this perlocutionary word does not rest on the truth (at least in the sense of adequation of mind to thing, Wahrheit) but on the will to say the truth (veracity or sincerity, Wahrhaftigkeit)” (46).

13.        De Quincey’s confessional mode consists in playing truth as adequation off of the will to speak the truth (to perform it, produce it, elicit it), even as his will is overwrought by doubts and complications and broken open by other voices. That is, he tries to represent and reproduce a truth that he himself doesn’t fully grasp or believe he can ever communicate directly, to himself or a reader; he is never sure where his writing comes from or where it is going. [16]  To borrow Yoon Sun Lee’s more general description of Romantic prose, De Quincey’s styles continually try to map their past, present and future occasions to communicate that truth more fully; his form unfolds through the endless unfixing and revising of its occasions. “You understand now, reader, what I am” (54), De Quincey tells us, but nevertheless his Confessions’ moral “is addressed to the opium-eater”: “If he is taught to fear and tremble, enough has been effected” (78). But that education can only happen through the Confessions’ “true object”—“those parasitical thoughts, feelings, digressions” (88) and the (perlocutionary) “effects” they incite. [17]  This is also the “important truth” of involution: “no complex or very important truth was ever yet transferred in full development from one mind to another” (3.97). Hence Suspiria’s worries about the earlier Confessions’ “true object” (88). [18]  De Quincey doubts whether a style couched in “the simplicity of truth” that “moves truly and faithfully” through circumstances can determine what the reader “attaches” to it (88–89); he also openly wonders about the “true interpretation” of his addiction’s “final symptoms,” the later ones addressed in Suspiria which “differ in something more than degree from” Confessions’ two accounts (85). No complex or very important truth, it seems, can ever be transferred in full development within the same person, much less “from one mind to another”; they must make the perilous journey through language and its unpredictable effects. Even our own truths must “pass through the several stages of growth” (3.97) and degrees of, or absolute, ruin. [19] 

14.         Speaking of Augustine, De Quincey defines his own Confessions and Suspiria as “modes of impassioned prose” (238). [20]  He means by this “the very idea of breathing a record of human passion, not into the ear of the random crowd, but of the saintly confessional. . . . Impassioned, therefore, should be the tenor of the composition” (238). Its only examples are “those of St. Austin”—miraculous abbreviation!—and, on a lesser scale, Rousseau. Across his autobiographical works De Quincey stresses this enamoring. We see “impassioned minds” (112), “impassioned memory” (169), impassioned themes, interests and passages (237–38). The lesson of the Suspiria thereby mirrors what he calls “the education of Levana,” the Roman goddess of childbirth who “lifts” infants from the earth into “the atmosphere of our troubled planet,” who “present[s] its forehead to the stars, saying, perhaps, in his heart—‘Behold what is greater than yourselves!’” (S 138). Paradoxically Levana’s lifting happens by opening up the labor of our hidden depths: “that mighty system of central forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life, which by passion, by strife, by temptation, by the energies of resistance, works for ever upon children” (139). One of De Quincey’s problems is to instantiate this system of forces—of lift and descent, of expansion and contraction, of passion, strife, temptation and resistance—in his own writing. Citing Wordsworth, De Quincey asserts that true style is the “incarnation of thought.” And yet language as “counter-spirit” threatens to reopen the original fracture between thinking and expressing that conditions language’s actual use. That counter-spirit is, says Wordsworth, “unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve.” [21]  Separate but inseparable, De Quincey could say that language and thought are entangled, or “incapable of being disentangled.” Indeed, I hope to have shown that he often does say this.

IV. Resistances to Analysis: De Quincey’s Double Binds

15.        De Quincey devoted a great deal of energy to the topic of style. He asserts, for instance, that the “periodic style of writing” practiced by newspapers tires one out not for its “length… the paralytic flux of words,” nor “even the cumbrous involution of parts within parts.” Rather, “It is the suspense, the holding-on, of the mind until . . . the sentence commences—this it is which wears out the faculty of attention” (12.21). Imagine an age where that’s newspapers’ problem, that they’re too reflective! But look how easily De Quincey moves between claims about style and its effect on the act of reading. Style’s “organic aspect” expresses “all possible relations that can arise between thoughts and words—the total effect of a writer”; the emphasis here is on the “use of words,” style’s so-called “commerce with thought” (12.24–25). I am not sure whether this commerce is exactly the same thing as the call literature makes upon us, but it’s close. What wears us out in reading the “periodic style” is its periodicity, the way that it turns back upon its point. [22] 

16.        De Qunicey’s own style, meanwhile, attempts to get at truth, but through a different sort of turning or twisting, one that resembles the tangling of a vine. Permit me to return to De Quincey’s “true object”:

The true object in my “Opium Confessions” is not the naked physiological theme [of opium addiction] . . . but those wandering musical variations upon the theme—those parasitical thoughts, feelings, digressions, which climb up with bells and blossoms round about the arid stock; ramble away from it at times with perhaps too rank a luxuriance; but at the same time, by the eternal interest attached to the subjects of these digressions, no matter what were the execution, spread a glory over incidents that for themselves would be—less than nothing. (88)
This oddly twinned discourse of truth and the entangling parasite marks this section of Suspiria, which ends with a double crescendo—one intellectual, one emotional—that I will cite again:
I have been struck with the important truth—that far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes (if I may coin that word) in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly, and in their own abstract shapes. (97)
That intellectual crescendo sets up his real goal of communicating the “burden of the incommunicable,” the awe he feels at his sister’s death. “Out of this digression [the involute], which was almost necessary for the purpose of showing how inextricably my feelings and images of death were entangled with those of summer, I return to the bedchamber of my sister. From the gorgeous sunlight I turned round to the corpse . . .” (98). He describes his sister’s “marble lips, the stiffening hands, laid palm to palm, as if repeating the supplications of closing anguish,” and asks: “could these be mistaken for life?” (99).

17.        De Quincey’s inability to communicate directly how summer and death became associated in his mind is somehow powerful. Before the digressive account of the involutes, he articulates his crisis with extreme economy: “the glory is around us, the darkness is within us” (97). Summer’s glory evokes, almost as a conceit, the death we carry within us. But the association is not complex enough; he feels compelled to describe an even “subtler reason why the summer had this intense power of vivifying the spectacle or the thoughts of death.” For me, the most devastating detail is how the passage invisibly links the Bible’s depiction of palm trees, which young De Quincey associated with summer and Oriental climes, with his sister’s “stiffening hands, laid palm to palm, as if repeating the supplications of closing anguish.” [23]  “’Palms!’—what were they? That was an equivocal word… palms, as a product of nature, expressed the pomps of summer” (97). But what about these palms had “haunted” him, and when? It was not merely their association with “the peace” and “the summer . . . the deep sound of rest below all rest, and of ascending glory.” But there are always further connections, in esse or in posse. What haunts him, in part, is the sheer number of connections he can make, or have made, across the tangled register of his knowledge and experience.

18.        We should ask with him: “could these [his sister’s hands] be mistaken for life?” Or for a “vivifying spectacle”? Could his memories, or dreams, or writing—his progressive compounding of experience—be mistaken for life or vivifying spectacle? The passage’s true power and devastation seems to come from our inability to “disentangle” these “compound experiences,” even trifling ones. Just as we can never fix those experiences’ full or proper occasions, we can never experience something in its singularity or “abstract shape.” To return to Benjamin’s phrase, there is no disentangled time, simply better or worse constellations of it. Pulling apart our perplexed thoughts and feelings (ab-stracting or analyzing them) only layers in more connections—(with Hobbes, again, “the more he struggles, the more belimed”). The depths momentarily opened within compounded experience can be expressed—or sounded—only by sighs: “One profound sigh ascended from my heart, and I was silent for days” (S 85).

19.         For Sterne, these details, twists, connections, overlappings and involutions were ultimately a boon to life and literature—“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them” (Tristram 54). But for De Quincey they express anxiety, or even ruin. De Quincey begins the Confessions by stating that he is “bound to confess” his excessive indulgence in opium, but that he has “untwisted almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered” him (4). The Suspiria’s involutes shows how there is always something that resists untwisting, perhaps even the “true interpretation of these final symptoms” (85)—the chain of interpretation and the inevitability of new links. Rei Terada has compared De Quincey’s psychic model to early Freud, where it is not the order of one’s thoughts, but rather their density that signals a healthy psychic economy. Within the brain, stimuli from within and without can become “unbound” in such a way that they catastrophically “destabilize one’s energy system”—what is sought is an “ego that is neither straightjacketed by its own bindings nor overwhelmed by stimuli inconveniently becoming unbound” (221).

20.         I will conclude by thinking with Derrida’s “Resistances of Psychoanalysis” about a slightly later, but related Freudian model. That work draws chiefly upon a few passages from the Interpretation of Dreams, specifically those places—and those patients—which “resist analysis.” There Freud gives his famous, Shandyean analogy of the “navel of the dream,” a passage excerpted in my epigraph. Here it is in full:

There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled [ein Knäuel von Traumgedanken anhebt, der sich nicht entwirren will] and which moreover adds nothing to our knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown. The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network [in die netzartige Verstrickung] of our world of thought. It is at some point where this network is particularly close that the dream-wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium (525 / 564).
For Freud the mushroom (the dream-wish) merely marks the knotty ground that gives rise to it. That set of tangles is unanalyzable both because the links are too numerous and because it reaches into the “unplummable” depths; it is, in the language of the note, its “point of contact with the unknown” (143n2) and in the body of the text the threads of dream-thoughts “have no definite endings” (564).

21.        A version of this passage originally occurs, as Derrida points out, in a note a couple hundred pages earlier in The Interpretation of Dreams. It comes as a kind of “confession” given by Freud for his inability to decipher his dream about Irma’s injection—that is, the one where he begins to feel that he might be responsible for her refusal to accept his interpretation of her condition. It is thus a case of the responsibility or the ethics of interpretation. It’s an imperative that extends even into the analyst’s own dream life despite his once believing that it was the patient’s sole responsibility to accept or decline interpretations. But with the dream her and his psychic lives become, as it were, entangled. In Greek analysis simply means untying, disentangling, “solving” and “dissolving”; analysis should therefore solve that problem. But for Derrida the unweaving of any psychic phenomenon is always tied to a twinned, resistant weaving. Analysis resists itself as much as patients resist an interpretation imposed on them by a psychoanalyst; all analysis, all interpretation is haunted by that imperative to resist.

22.        But: Faudrait-il résister? Et d’abord à l’analyse? So begins Resistances’ first essay. Its seven words ask at least six questions: Must one resist? Must one resist, first, psychoanalysis? Or analysis? But also: Must one endure or withstand (résister) psychoanalysis, or analysis? But the problem is even worse: “If it were necessary to resist analysis,” Derrida continues, “one would still have to know whence comes this ‘one must’ and what it means. One would have to analyze it.” These increasingly tangled questions, all beneath an ambiguous title: Résistances de la psychonalyse—resistances of / from / by psychoanalysis. Faudrait-il résister? What does it mean to resist if one must do it? The question feeds back on itself, like the liar’s paradox. Derrida eventually names the problem a double bind, concluding that “a double bind cannot fully be analyzed: one can only unbind one of its knots by pulling on the other to make it tighter”—it “cannot be assumed; one can only endure [souffrir] it in passion” (36).

23.        In De Quincey’s impassioned prose we see an entangled and entangling system whose effects—on readers, on himself, on Austin’s “other people”—seem incalculable, but nevertheless calls to be endured. [24]  In a kind of Foucauldian avowal that binds him to the sad truths that will unfold his spirit, De Quincey places a demand upon us: “view me, as one viridantem fioribus hastas—making verdant, and gay with the life of flowers, murderous spears and halberts—things that express death in their origin, (being made from dead substances that once had lived in forests,) things that express ruin in their use” (88). Or, to paraphrase, watch me do things, or do things, with words.

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How To Do Things with Words. Edited by J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa, 2nd ed., Harvard UP, 1975

Balfour, Ian. The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy. Stanford UP, 2002.

Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: a Psychopathology of Empire. Yale UP, 1991.

Benjamin, Walter. Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McGlaughlin, Harvard UP, 1999.

---. “Image of Proust.” Selected Writings: 1927–1930, vol. 2.1. Harvard UP, 1999.

---. Benjamin, “Theory of Knowledge.” Selected Writings: 1913-1926, vol. 1. Harvard UP, 1999.

Bouveresse, Jacques. Nietzsche contre Foucault: Sur la Vérité, la Connaissance et le Pouvoir. Agone, 2016.

Burgess, Miranda. “Sydney Owenson’s Strange Phenomenality,” in Romantic Circles Praxis: New Approaches to Romantic Prose, 2016.

Burt, E.S. Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Wilde. Fordham UP, 2009.

Cavell, Stanley. “Performative and Passionate Utterance” in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow. Belknap Press, 2006.

Clark, David. “We ‘Other Prussians’: Bodies and Pleasures in de Quincey and Late Kant.” European Romantic Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 2003, pp. 261–87.

Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Harvard UP, 2015.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Other Writings. Edited by Robert Morrison, Oxford UP, 2013.

---. The Works of Thomas De Quincey. Grevel Lindop, general editor. Pickering and Chatto, 2000–2003. 21 Vols.

Derrida, Jacques. Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Stanford UP, 1998.

Elden, Stuart. Foucault’s Last Decade. Polity, 2016.

Faflak, Joel. Romantic Psychoanalysis: the Burden of the Mystery. SUNY UP, 2009.

Fay, Elizabeth. “Hallucinogenesis: Thomas De Quincey’s Mind Trips.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 49, no. 2, summer 2010, pp. 293–313.

Foucault, Michel. The Courage to Truth. Edited by Arnold Davidson, translated by Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

---. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage, 1990.

---. Language, Madness and Desire: On Literature. Translated by Robert Bononno, U Minnesota P, 2015.

---. “Michel Foucault.” Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, edited by James B. Faubion, The New P, 1999.

---. Wrong-Doing and Truth-Telling: the Function of Avowal in Justice. Edited by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt, translated by Stephen W. Sawyer, U of Chicago P, 2012.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Basic Books, 2010.

Gabriel, Markus. “Schelling.” The Oxford Handbook of German Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal, Oxford UP, 2015.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. “Everything Is a Primal Germ or Nothing Is: the Deep Field Logic of Nature.” Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 106–24.

Heidegger, Martin. Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, Ohio UP, 1985.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge UP, 1996.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter Millican, Oxford UP, 2007.

Latour, Bruno. The Politics of Nature. Translated by Catherine Porter, Harvard UP, 2004.

Lee, Yoon Sun. “Introduction” to Romantic Circles Praxis: New Approaches to Romantic Prose, 2016.

Lindstrom, Eric. “‘Dog Sleep’: Creaturely Exposure in De Quincey and Wordsworth.” Criticism, vol. 55, no. 3, Summer 2013, pp. 391–422.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter Nidditch, Oxford UP, 1979.

Marion, Jean-Luc. In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine. Translated by Jeffrey Kosky, Stanford UP, 2012.

McGrath, Brian. “Thomas De Quincey and the Language of Literature: Or, on the Necessity of Ignorance.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol. 47, no. 4, autumn 2007, pp. 847–62.

Miller, J. Hillis. Ariadne’s Thread: Story Lines. Yale UP, 1995.

---. Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Harvard UP, 1985.

---. For Derrida. Fordham UP, 2009.

---. Reading for Our Time: 'Adam Bede' and 'Middlemarch' Revisited. Edinburgh UP, 2012.

---. “Williams’ Spring and All and the Progress of Poetry.” Daedalus, vol. 99, no. 2, spring 1970, pp. 405–34.

---. “Wallace Stevens’ Poetry of Being.” Tropes, Parables, Performatives, Duke UP, 1991.

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Rajan, Tilottama. Dark Interpreter: the Discourse of Romanticism. Cornell UP, 1980.

Regier, Alexander. Fracture and Fragmentation in British Romanticism. Cambridge UP, 2010.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Edited by Robert Folkenflik, Modern Library, 2011.

--. A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings. Edited by Tim Parnell and Ian Jack, Oxford UP, 2008.

Terada, Rei. “Living a Ruined Life: De Quincey’s Damage.” Romanticism and the Emotions, edited by Joel Faflak and Richard Sha, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Wilson, Catherine. The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope. Princeton UP, 1997.


[1] For De Quincey’s Confessions, Suspiria and the manuscript material related to them, I cite Morrison’s Oxford edition; all other references are to the Pickering and Chatto edition, indicated by volume and page. I would like to thank Eric Lindstrom and the “Ordinary Language and Romantic Performative” special session at NASSR 2015, Yoon Sun Lee for her acute and patient reading of an early draft, and Elizabeth Fay for her insightful suggestions for the final version. BACK

[2] “What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished” (S 135). The brain is receptive to impressions; they typically remain hidden and recorded-over, to be brought into sudden constellation with other experiences and memories. John describes an involute as “an intricately coiled or interwoven manifold.” In reading De Quincey’s entire corpus as tied to master-involute, the death of his sister, I think Barrell sometimes condenses or oversimplifies this figure of the tangled manifold; for him, involutes seem far more capable of being disentangled. See The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: a Psychopathology of Empire (Yale UP, 1991), 32. BACK

[3] The Dark Interpreter begins as a “reflex” of De Quincey’s own “inner nature,” someone he encounters in (opium) dreams. His function is therapeutic: “in uttering your secret feelings to him, you make this phantom the dark symbolic mirror for reflecting to the daylight what else must be hidden forever.” But he is like a “Greek Chorus,” and sometimes “swerves out of [his] orbit, and mixes a little with alien natures” so that De Quincey “does not always know him . . . as [his] own parahelion” (S 147). In Dark Interpreter: the Discourse of Romanticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), Tilottama Rajan describes De Quincey’s Dark Interpreter as constituting a “doubled and split” “perceiving self . . . both passive and active, both the contemplator and sufferer of what occurs” (198). BACK

[4] See “Infant Literature,” where De Quincey describes childhood’s “special power for listening to the tones of truth” (19.68) and truth’s “authentic whispers” (19.69), a fact he connects to “involutes of human sensibility”: “combinations in which the materials of future thought or feeling are carried as imperceptibly into the mind as vegetable seeds are carried variously combined” into the world (19.73). His model for this involution is the scene from the Arabian Nights where a magician places his ear to the earth and picks out Aladdin’s footsteps six thousand miles away from among “the mighty labyrinth of sounds which [even] Archimedes . . . could not sum or disentangle” (19.74). BACK

[5] The Sorrows are three sisters (fates, really) who, disdaining “the infirmities of language” (S 140), communicate to De Quincey through pure symbols. BACK

[6] Following Markus Gabriel’s persuasive reading of Schelling’s Freedom Essay, we might posit a theory of performative predication here. “Schelling thinks of freedom in terms of performances: freedom is our capacity to produce objects by so much as stating their existence, as when we assert that we just asserted something, which produces an assertion as an object of investigation.” What allows us to do this is “the Unground,” the universal undetermined X that is identity in difference. It has no content itself, but “is maximally topic-neutral: it stands for whatever can be the case and make a statement about it true” (97). De Quincey’s “abstract shapes” are like this identity-in-difference, but all that “pass[es] to us” of it are “concrete objects” and “perplexed combinations.” The “important truth” that strikes De Quincey is, perhaps, disjunction or identity, a truth he futilely tries to comprehend via entanglement, what Schelling might call “interconnected resistants” (zusammenhängende Gegenstände). See also Iain Hamilton Grant, “Everything Is a Primal Germ or Nothing Is: the Deep Field Logic of Nature,” Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, 19.1, 106-24. BACK

[7] De Quincey’s sincerity is by no means opposed to irony. He begins the first part of Suspiria by declaring that “it is so painful to a lover of openhearted sincerity, that any indirect traits of vanity should even seem to creep into records of profound passion” (88). And yet, if language is necessarily “infirm” (147) and truths can never pass to us “directly,” then ironic distance and reinterpretation are necessary. BACK

[8] For a discussion of the blurring of dream, hallucination, writing and decipherment, see Elizabeth Fay’s “Hallucinogenesis: Thomas De Quincey’s Mind Trips,” Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2010, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 293–313. BACK

[9] Culler goes on to cite Barbara Cassin’s recommendation that we subsume illocution and perlocution under the rubric of performance rather than performativity; in a footnote, he pairs her work with Gadamer’s, which speaks about how literature tasks us with performing it so that a truth might emerge—a literary work is “an event [Ereignis] that appropriates us into itself” (367n35). BACK

[10] I have in mind here Latour’s inflection of actant, an integral aspect of which is our inability to trace the exact relationships “between objects and social actors, no matter what dialectical pirouettes one thought oneself supple enough to carry out” (77). BACK

[11] Balfour on Coleridge’s Statesman’s Manual: “The prophetic is, in De Quincey’s terms, literature of knowledge and literature of power: It has the ephemerality of a topical discourse of persuasion and, ideally, the timelessness of the most fundamental truths. This tension can be ascribed in part to its mixed discursive mode, both performative and constative . . . Coleridge seems perfectly aware of the uncertain or mixed mode of prophetic speech-acts . . . The dual character of topicality and permanence . . . is precisely what he tries to achieve in his own text.” See The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy (Stanford UP, 2002), pp. 257+. BACK

[12] Ellen Burt ties the Confessions’ representations of performative language to the problem of hospitality, to an “other” such as the Malay or the Welsh, and thus to the other as such: “The iterability of language means that the masterful, staged performative that unsays the said and allows one to enter into inaugural, heartfelt dialogue with the human other, may not be distinguishable from repetition. Or, to put it another way, the house of language is always open to visitation by a poetic spirit, which spirit allows consideration of the potential meaning of patterns that language has as a written language. Those patterns don't just gainsay the said; they also gainsay saying, and with it the scene of ethical relation and dialogue as implicating only humans” (139). I will only add that De Quincey explicitly theorizes this ethical and linguistic relation, and that he often does so through the trope of entanglement. BACK

[13] See the late encyclopedia article, “Michel Foucault,” that Foucault himself pseudonymously wrote, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, edited by James B. Faubion (The New P, 1999). BACK

[14] See The Courage to Truth, edited by Arnold Davidson, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 171–73. For a more critical engagement with Foucault’s conceptions of truth, one which calls upon him to be a more serious logician in line with the analytic tradition (which Foucault knew), see Jacques Bouveresse’s Nietzsche contre Foucault: Sur la Vérité, la Connaissance et le Pouvoir (Agone, 2016), pp. 136–37. BACK

[15] Stuart Elden cites the importance of confession in Foucault’s late thought: “Foucault’s interest in confession might move from power relations to the production of truths [in the late 1970’s], but it remained at the center of his concern . . . Confession is the crucial element in both the abandoned [the modern genealogies of power abandoned after The History of Sexuality, Volume 1] and unfinished plans [the ancient ethical genealogies of subjectivity and truth begun in Volumes 2 & 3].” See Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity, 2016), pp. 132–33. BACK

[16] Eric Lindstrom gives a wonderful reading of De Quincey’s uncanny experience of being woken by his own voice while in a “dog sleep”: “Far from a pleasurable exteriorizing of expressive identity, agency, and intent, this voice is exterior to De Quincey in the radically alternate sense of originating as though from outside of him. Yet the source of the disruptive noise is the somatic body most deeply contained inside . . . Such a source of interiority and inward sensation takes us too far inside the body of the writer” (399). BACK

[17] David Clark has suggested that Kant himself sometimes operates in a second gear, where he is no longer a seeker after truth, but a “practician” of it (265). That is something De Quincey in fact accuses Kant of doing unwittingly, so that he (De Quincey) can attend “once more to the intricacies that lie at the heart of the confessional speech-act, the secret communications that obtain necessarily there between self-aggrandizement and self-debasement, dissimulation and truth-telling, avowal and disavowal” (263). BACK

[18] De Quincey’s Confessions claims: “The interest of the judicious reader will not attach itself chiefly to the subject of the fascinating spells, but to the fascinating power. Not the Opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale, and the legitimate centre on which the interest revolves” (77). BACK

[19] Rei Terada’s “Living a Ruined Life: De Quincey’s Damage” begins by taking seriously Suspiria’s setting, “where ruin is understood to be absolute” (85); her question is what would it be to understand absolute ruin? BACK

[20] Joel Faflak argues that De Quincey’s impassioned prose collapses genre (poetry and prose, metaphysics and psychology) into a “transitional psychoanalysis,” which in turn collapses other distinctions: “Autobiography, understanding, and impassioned prose are thus separate signifiers of the subject’s identity, and yet collapse into one another by force of the unconscious” (158, 276n16). BACK

[21] Alexander Regier helpfully reads, via Benjamin, De Quincey’s complex citing of Wordsworth here (151-52). Regier also suggests that Benjamin’s is a performative theory of language: “. . . to cite a word is to call it by its name . . .. It performs a fracturing process that involves breaking a word out of Language” (146). BACK

[22] This is perhaps the same as the turn of mind he finds in Malthus’s twisted mind: “Mr. Malthus has the most perplexed understanding. He is not only confused himself, but is the cause that confusion is in other men. Logical perplexity is shockingly contagious, and he who takes Mr. Malthus for his guide through any tangled question, ought to be able to box the compass very well; or before he has read ten pages he will find himself (as the Westmoreland guides express it) ‘maffled’.” (3.285-86). BACK

[23] “Palm to palm” resonates too with the priest’s “earth to earth . . . ashes to ashes . . .dust to dust . .  . the farewell volley announces that the grave—the coffin—the face are sealed up for ever and ever” (103). Those same words were announced at his father’s funeral (De Quincey’s first, he claims): “Then first it was that solemn farewell of the English burial-service, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,’ and the great eloquence of St. Paul in that matchless chapter of his epistle to the Corinthians, fell upon my ear; and, concurring with my whole previous feelings, for ever fixed that vast subject upon my mind” (10.13). Barrell gives a compelling, though somewhat different, reading of the “palms” passages (33). BACK

[24] This is perhaps the dark obverse of what Miranda Burgess, in her piece, defines as Owenson’s “varied texture of love”: “an ethics of interdependency as pleasure—lacking in determined outcomes, radically unproductive and, therefore, in Owenson’s terms, “free”—when it is read amid the histories of Romantic form and life.” BACK

Published @ RC

February 2017