This essay examines De Quincey’s accounts of systems in The Logic of Political Economy (1844) and “System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes” (1846).
De Quincey’s Systems
University of Utah
1. The idea of the system was one of De Quincey’s many obsessions; he returned to it again and again over the course of his career as a writer. In addition to essays on the transport system and accounts of systems of publication and communication, he wrote extensively about political economy, probing its development after Adam Smith and attempting to address its defects as a discipline and to correct the misapprehensions that he argued limited its potential as a science.
2. De Quincey was initially a skeptic. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he claims that when he first surveyed recent works of political economy, he found them to be “generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head, and practised in wielding logic with a scholastic adroitness, might take up the whole academy of modern economists and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus heads together with a lady’s fan” (65). David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) made him a convert. It did for De Quincey what Wordsworth’s poetry would do for Mill. “For two years,” he wrote, “I believe that I read no book but one” (64). Reading Ricardo inspired “wonder and curiosity,” “emotions that had long been dead in me,” and roused him from the personal and intellectual malaise brought on by opium (65). In a passage that is as much an expression of his own ambitions as a reflection on Ricardo’s accomplishment, he marvels that “an Englishman, and he not in academic bowers, but oppressed by mercantile and senatorial cares,” had “deduced, à priori, from the understanding itself, laws which first gave a ray of light into the unweildy chaos of materials, and had constructed what had been but a collection of tentative discussions into a science of regular proportions, now first standing on an eternal basis” (65-6). Circumstances prevented De Quincey from finishing his first work on Ricardo (to be titled A Prolegomena to All Future Systems of Political Economy), but after the Confessions had made his reputation and secured him a position as a regular contributor to the London Magazine, he produced critiques of Malthus, a series of dialogues on Ricardo, an essay on Ricardo and Adam Smith, and, finally, for Blackwood’s, the three essays that would be become The Logic of Political Economy (1844) (originally titled Ricardo Made Easy; or, What is the Radical Difference between Ricardo and Adam Smith? With Occasional Notices of Ricardo’s Oversights).
3. While De Quincey notices Ricardo’s oversights, he works tirelessly in The Logic of Political Economy to explicate the “scientific proportions” and “eternal basis” of Ricardo’s theories. In the preface, he diagnoses the fundamental problems of contemporary political economic theory, claiming that “as regards its practical applications,” economic science is “as treacherous as Shakespeare’s ‘stairs of sand’” (119). The image he conjures up to illustrate economics’ unsound foundations—of “phantom arrays of fleeting columns and fluctuating edifices,” created by winds on the Arabian desert—recalls his description of Piranesi’s architectural drawings in the Confessions (119). For the opium eater, the impossible coherence of Piranesi’s designs represented the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction” which animated his own dreams (Confessions 71). The image of economic theory as shifting Arabian sands reflects the same power but perceived from something like the opposite direction. Rather than Piranesi’s impossible coherence—design undone by paradox—De Quincey finds in political economy a promise of coherence that is perpetually, and simultaneously, extended and withdrawn. Despite Ricardo’s genius, “nothing can be postulated—nothing can be demonstrated; for anarchy, even as to the earliest principles, is predominant”; the sandcastles of political economy are “for ever collapsing into dust” (Logic 119).
4. The Logic of Political Economy seeks to bring order to this chaos by shoring up “the distinctions which are elementary to the science” (118). Its focus is Ricardo’s theory of value, which, De Quincey argues, commentators had utterly misunderstood. This failure to appreciate Ricardo’s revision of Smith, he claims, stunted the development of political economy as a systematic mode of thought. But even as he works in the service of system, De Quincey encounters the very problem he argues the political economists had utterly failed to address. However beautifully conceived in theory, in practice, systems are governed by extrinsic conditions. Like men in Marx’s conception of history, the market does not make prices just as it pleases; it makes them “under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 15). Thus the tendency of political economists to imagine that the law of supply and demand operates in a vacuum, independent of preexisting circumstances, amounts to “metaphysical confusion”:
5. As exhaustive (and exhausting) as it is, The Logic of Political Economy does not pursue the implications of its analysis to their logical conclusion. System building requires a closed frame of reference. Two years later, however, in an essay on what would appear to be an unrelated topic, De Quincey takes up the complications that emerge when systems are situated in space and time and offers a striking illustration of the limitations of the systematizing impulse. “System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes,” which appeared in Tait’s in 1846, is ostensibly a notice of the Scottish astronomer John Pringle Nichol’s Thoughts on Some Important Points Relating to the System of the World. Rather than a formal review, however, De Quincey takes his friend’s book as his “text”—about which his “little paper … may be said to hover” (“System” 7, note 1). Nichol’s book was a work of popular science; De Quincey aims to inspire the reader with the sublimity of the universe revealed by recent advances in astronomy. His purpose is not to criticize or even summarize Nichol’s account but, “through the light torrent spray of fanciful images or allusions,” to give the reader “momentary glimpses of objects vast and awful” (8, note 1).
6. “System of the Heavens” opens with a question about the age of the earth. Kant had posed the question in an essay De Quincey translated and published in Tait’s in 1833. In revisiting it, he transforms Kant’s inquiry into a puzzle. He points out that the question does not concern the absolute age of the Earth, because knowing the Earth’s age without a frame of reference would tell us nothing. Instead, Kant asks, “What proportion does that amount form of the total career allotted to this planet?” (8). At issue, in other words, is not “the positive amount of years through which our Earth has existed” but “the period of life, the stage, which she may be supposed to have reached” (8, 9). In sketching out the implications of the question, the essay develops a fanciful conceit in which the Earth is “a lady planet” and “our dear little mother.” That asking her age is “a delicate point,” and the question “improper,” doesn’t prevent De Quincey from speculating about it at length and in absurd detail (8). “Is she a child, in fact,” he asks, “or is she an adult? And, if an adult, and that you gave a ball to the Solar System, is she that kind of person that you would introduce to a waltzing partner, some fiery young gentleman like Mars; or would you rather suggest to her the sort of partnership which takes place at a whist-table?” (9).
7. Kant had warned against using “the sequence of human generations … as a measure for God’s works at large” (“Question” 168). But De Quincey’s personification of the planets and the analogy he draws between planetary time and generational relationships aren’t intended to measure the Earth’s age in human years. They underscore the fact that age, of the Earth or a human being, is not an absolute value but a relationship. De Quincey suggests that Kant goes wrong when he loses sight of this fact, and the oversight prompts him to wonder whether there is, “after all, any stationary meaning in the question?” (“System” 10). If we could persuade “our dear excellent mother the Earth” to tell us her age, “still that would leave us all as much in the dark as ever: since, if the answer were ‘Why, children, at my next birth-day I shall count a matter of some million centuries,’ we should still be at a loss to value her age: would it mean that she was a mere chicken, or that she was ‘getting up in years’”? Conversely, if the Earth confessed only “generally to being a lady of a certain age,” we would know “the valuation of the age” but not “the absolute years numerically: would a ‘certain age’ mean that ‘mamma’ was a million, or perhaps not much above seventy thousand?” (12). However the question is posed, it assumes a coordinating set of conditions that is absent; taken in isolation, neither version tells us what we want to know. Like market value, any meaningful calculation of the age of the Earth “must always be binomial.” As De Quincey puts it, “there is apparently this two-edged embarrassment pressing upon the case” (11-12).
8. This insight, it turns out, is the real focus of De Quincey’s essay, and it reveals the central problem with the question of the Earth’s age. He variously entertains the idea that the Earth is a child or an adult; a lady, “a healthy growing girl,” or “a fine noble young woman”; or even “in the category of decaying, nay, of decayed women” (9-10). But, however the Earth is figured, she is also a mother to man and a sister to the other planets in the solar system, and these intersecting identifications “explode” Kant’s problem. The Earth’s geological transformations suggest that she is, perhaps, “both young and old”:
9. In an effort to establish a stable frame of reference—to find a “stationary meaning”—De Quincey turns to “the analogy of our whole planetary system” (which, he claims, Kant has “overlooked”) (13). He reasons that, as siblings, any difference in age between the planets should be negligible and asks how old “we take our brother and sister planets to be? For this determination as to a point in their constitution will do something to illustrate our own” (12). For example, if Jupiter is, as Kant seemed to believe, a young planet—as De Quincey puts it, “the younger brother of our mamma”—how can the Earth be “an old decayed lady” (13)? Moreover, if the Earth were old, surely we, her children, would be old as well—a claim De Quincey refutes, citing “a thousand indications of strength and budding youth” in the nineteenth century, including the promise of “Lord Rosse’s almost awful telescope” (14). While it might seem that De Quincey confuses planetary time and human time (men are young, so the Earth can’t be old), his real point has to do with their coordination. That the Earth is at once our mother and Jupiter’s sister reminds us that it is a part of two systems, one terrestrial and one celestial. Asking questions about the Earth’s age invokes the system to which it belongs, and inquiring about the solar system in turn entails consideration of the systems of which it forms merely a small part. The resolving power of the new telescope not only reveals worlds beyond worlds; it discovers systems beyond, and within, systems.
10. Lord Rosse’s telescope brings the paradoxes of system into focus. The problem with larger and larger telescopes, De Quincey observes, is that more power does not mean greater resolution: “Concurrently with all increase in the space-penetrating power, there arises an increasing confusion in the images reflected. As the power of this instrument advances in one direction, correspondingly it recedes in another” (14-15). Initially, it seems that Lord Rosse’s telescope has overcome this obstacle:
11. The universe revealed by the new telescope puts us in touch with the sublime, De Quincey suggests, less because it expands the scope of our knowledge than because it externalizes the power that lies within the human mind. “In reality,” he writes, “the depths and the heights which are in man, the depths by which he searches, the heights by which he aspires, are but projected and made objective externally in the three dimensions of space which are outside him.” The astronomer’s objective discoveries are merely the shadows of subjective power; they are “the mirror to a mightier abyss that will one day be expanded in himself” (“System” 15). De Quincey’s stunning description of the nebula of Orion imagines this sublime abyss as “a head thrown back, and raising its face (or eyes, if eyes it had) in the very anguish of hatred to some unknown heavens” (19). The image of the nebula expresses “brutalities unspeakable” and “a convolute of cruelty and revenge” (19, 20). In linking this allegorical visage to Milton’s allegory of sin and death, De Quincey makes the stars continuous with literature and religion in their ability to provoke pity and fear. In resolving them into a superhuman shape, he retains human form as his point of reference—a practice that connects him to the first watchers of the skies, who saw stars and created constellations.
12. David Masson comments on the “weird and fantastic effect” of this passage (“System” 18, note 1). Part of its strangeness, surely, is that Rosse’s telescope actually contributes very little to the effect.  Before Rosse, De Quincey claims, the nebula was famous for its resistance to “the most potent of telescopes” (17). After Rosse, it is now famous for its “submission … to the all-conquering telescope” (18). Whether the nebula resists or submits is, in a sense, irrelevant, because its significance has to do with its status as a mirror to the observer’s mind. In a note to the revised version of the essay published in 1854, De Quincey answers those who criticized his depiction of the nebula by insisting on the essentially subjective nature of description: “All such appearances, whether seen in fire, or in the clouds, or in the arbitrary combinations of the stars, are read differently by different people.” These differences sometimes result from different conditions—the appearance of the nebula is affected by its motion and the motion of the Earth; it changes when the power of the telescope is adjusted—but De Quincey insists that “even where the grouping is exactly the same, being so rigorously limited as to exclude all action of caprice, the result may yet be very different” (19, note 2). Like Wordsworth’s descriptions of the appearance of clouds or storms, the purpose of De Quincey’s description is not accurate representation. Instead, the nebula is the vehicle for the realization of an image of his subjective reflection.
13. If it seems that De Quincey gives away too much in asserting the fundamentally subjective nature of perception, it would be a mistake to allow his weak relativism to obscure his strong commitment to the significance of depths and heights. Spatial references are of course crucial to the discourse of the sublime but not merely because they reflect its character as Longinus or Burke described it. They also highlight the situation and orientation of the perceiver. It’s crucial, for De Quincey, that Lord Rosse and Wordsworth both look upward. In a long, seemingly bizarre footnote, he remarks that, “if on a public road you meet a party of four women, it is at least fifty to one that they are all laughing; whereas if you meet a party of [men], you may wager safely that they are talking gravely, and that one of them is uttering the word money.” He concludes that,
14. In another sense, however, De Quincey’s claim marks an interest in what Kant called “orientation in thinking.” Anna Henchman has recently drawn attention to this connection, tracing the influence of Kant’s 1786 essay and his Theory of the Heavens (1755) on “System of the Heavens.” For De Quincey, Henchman argues, “astronomical observation has disrupted the categories of subjectivity and objectivity by revealing that there is no fixed point in the entire universe,” and, in describing the “ebb and flow” of De Quincey’s estimation of Kant, she traces a trajectory that reproduces his shifting assessments of political economy: at first enthusiastic about The Critique of Pure Reason, De Quincey becomes disturbed by its “emphasis on the subjective nature of external reality”; finally, prompted by Coleridge, he returns to Kant’s critical philosophy—in particular the “idea that orientation and direction are necessary parts of thinking” (Henchman 68, 69). Henchman’s reading of De Quincey’s essay shows how its “rapid shifts in point of view, scale and even genre” reflect his understanding of the “universe in flux” revealed by Lord Rosse’s telescope, an uncertainty he worked to assuage by turning to Kant’s radical recasting of the relationship between subjective and objective observation (Henchman 72). What is perhaps most striking about her account, however, is the underlying sense that Kantian orientation in fact intensifies the instabilities that De Quincey sought to alleviate.
15. In “What is Orientation in Thinking?” Kant emphasizes the importance of correlating external objects (like “the sun in the sky”) with the “feeling” of an internal difference in the subject (between, for example, one’s left and right hands) (238). In essence, he grounds our experience of the objective world in this subjective sense of direction. Without this “subjective distinction,” Kant claims, “objective data” alone would be insufficient:
16. In “System of the Heavens,” De Quincey argues that we inhabit a universe in which the transpositions Kant imagines are perpetual. The motions of the Earth, the other planets, the stars, and the systems to which they belong leave us always in the dark, depriving us of a stable frame of reference. For left and right, De Quincey substitutes up and down, depth and height, space and time. In his reading of the nebula of Orion, for example, he asks the reader to turn Nichol’s picture upside down, “for it happens that in the professor’s book it is placed upside down as regards the natural position of the human head” (19). This shift in orientation mocks Kant’s careful reasoning—a fact De Quincey playfully acknowledges when he says that “were it not treasonable to insinuate the possibility of an error against so great a swell as Immanuel Kant, one would be inclined to fancy that Mr. Kant had really been dozing a little on this occasion” (11). But his point throughout “System of the Heavens” is to demonstrate the disorienting effects of the realization that the universe affords no fixed spot in relation to which we might orient ourselves. In a universe in flux, human heads, unlike Kant’s hands, can have no “natural position.”
17. “Great is the mystery of Space,” De Quincey writes, “greater is the mystery of Time” (15). Nebular astronomy after William Herschel demonstrates the continuity between these propositions and thus illustrates the full scope of the telescope’s power to perplex. At the end of the eighteenth century, Herschel’s improved telescopes, which brought nebulae like Orion closer, seemed to promise that these “milky spots” would eventually all be resolved into “starry worlds” (21). (This is, in fact, what Lord Rosse claimed—mistakenly it turned out—to have discerned in the nebula of Orion.) The relative distinctness or diffusion of these spots, it was assumed, was a function of their distance from the observer. “But,” De Quincey observes, “that did not follow: for, in the treasury of nature, it turned out that there were other resources for modifying the powers of distance, for muffling and unmuffling the voice of stars.” A world “at the distance x,” pushed back to “a double distance,” should become less distinct. Instead, “by compression, by deeper centralization,” it becomes brighter. Push it back again, and it grows faint; but repeat the operation, moving the starry bodies to four times their original distance, and “once again it shall shake off the oppression of distance” and grow brighter (22). And this, De Quincey argues, is merely one of several “cases of perplexity” in sidereal astronomy. The astronomer finds that size and distance collide (“is the size less or the distance greater?”), the motions of the universe and of the earth within it are “doubtfully confounded,” and the relative positions of two distant stars are impossible to determine (is proximity real, “or simply an apparent proximity from lying in the same visual line, though in far other depths of space?”) (24). In revealing the vastness of space and exponentially expanding its sublime distances, the telescope confounds the observer’s ability to find anything in it—or, more precisely, to speak with any degree of certainty about what he has found.
18. Lord Rosse has not just “created immeasurable worlds”; he has discovered innumerable occasions for confusion (23). In sidereal astronomy, distance, magnitude, and motion are not positive values, but relationships and thus sources of equivocation. The double stars that, along with the nebular hypothesis, claimed the attention of astronomers from Kant and Herschel to Rosse and Nichol, are “equivocal phenomena—phenomena that are reconcilable indifferently with either of two assumptions” (26). De Quincey argues that depth, height, and the vast distances of space are not cognizable by infants, animals, or brutes: “Man only has a natural function for expanding, on an illimitable sensorium, the illimitable growths of space…. To man is as much reserved the prerogative of perceiving space in its higher extensions as of geometrically constructing the relations of space. And the brute is no more capable of apprehending abysses through the eye than he can build upwards or analyze downwards the aerial synthesis of Geometry” (16). “System of the Heavens” is an attempt to make sense of the expanded, and expanding, universe revealed by the telescope through such “aerial synthesis.” The attempt fails, but its failure is precisely De Quincey’s point. Like Memnon’s head, which De Quincey encountered soon after it arrived at the British Museum in 1821, space “baffles and confounds all faculty of computation” (17).  Attempts to calculate interstellar distances yield results which mystify rather than enlighten: traveling at a speed three times that of the earth in orbit, it would take forty-one thousand years to reach a star in the constellation Cygnus; at the same rate, reaching “that distance to which Lord Rosse’s six-feet mirror has so recently extended our vision” would take two hundred and fifty million years. The problem is not the difficulty of the computation (calculating the ratio of these distances “is a simple rule-of-three problem for a child”), but that the result is measured in terms of human time (in years) and yet defies human comprehension (26). Lord Rosse’s telescope has transformed men into brutes. Faced with the overwhelming scale of the universe, man joins the “deer, or hares, or foxes, and the pack of hounds in pursuit, chaser and chased, all going headlong over a precipice together” (16).
19. De Quincey’s word-painting of the Orion nebula does not resolve this failure; it cannot. Instead, it takes the failure of human comprehension and, out of it, creates an experience of the sublime. This is the point of the essay and the point of looking up into the sky. The mysteries De Quincey addresses are worth his attention precisely because they defy his understanding and, in their defiance and cold contempt (reflected in “the detestable phantom” of the Orion nebula), inspire him to hold “up a mirror of description to appearances so grand, and in a dim sense often so symbolic” (19, note 2). Near the end of the essay, De Quincey imagines “a man in the last century, and an eminent man too” who rejected the sublimity of astronomy: “on the contrary, he regarded the solar system as decidedly vulgar; because the planets were so infernally punctual … that they forced him … to think of post-office clocks, mail-coaches, and book-keepers. Regularity may be beautiful, but it excludes the sublime” (29).  This complaint, he argues, was the result of living “in the days of mere planetary astronomy.” It is answered, and more than answered, by the discoveries that have transformed “our own little system” into “a subordinate province.” “We ought no longer to talk of astronomy, but of the astronomies” (30). With the multiplication of astronomical systems (De Quincey enumerates “1, the planetary, 2, the cometary, 3, the sidereal; … 4, the nebular”), the sublimity of the heavens is restored or revealed anew; systems of such amazing size and complexity necessarily produce “variety,” “irregularity,” and “anomalies” sufficient to sustain our sense of the sublime (30-31). “And,” he concludes, “for all purposes of frightening us, anomalies in systems so vast are as good as a ghost” (31).
20. Clifford Siskin has argued that the “specific mode of producing knowledge in writing—systems within SYSTEM—was the Enlightenment, not Enlightenment as the condition of modernity …, but the … temporally and geographically localized Enlightenment that did not make it out of the eighteenth century” (206). From this standpoint, De Quincey’s systematizing is a late example of how systems “tended to sink under their own weight” (206). We might understand De Quincey’s systems—economic and astronomical, but also the mail-service system as it is depicted in “The English Mail-Coach” or the mind and personal identity as they are constituted by memory in the Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis—along these same lines and interpret his inability to make them make sense as failures. For De Quincey, though, the failures that undo systems are themselves productive—of sublimity and, in keeping with Kant’s larger point about the sublime, of thought. Systems are fictions, but they are necessary—or at least unavoidable. And they necessarily fail. If their creation reflects a conviction that the mind, world, and universe are governed by reason, their failure is a testament to the persistent desire to make sense of the mysteries and accidents we encounter, especially those that defy our comprehension.
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