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Frederick Burwick, Thomas De Quincey: Knowledge and Power

Thursday, May 15, 2003 - 05:26
Frederick Burwick, Thomas De Quincey: Knowledge and Power. Romanticism in Perspective Series. New York: Palgrave, 2001.  xiii + 192 pp. $65.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-77403-5).

Reviewed by
Charles J. Rzepka
Boston University

Thomas De Quincey: Knowledge and Power reflects the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime devoted to the works of the English Opium-Eater, whose writings Fred Burwick has recently helped co-edit for Pickering & Chatto.  Burwick's familiarity with the manuscript and published sources of De Quincey's work is impressively displayed in this book, along with a mastery of German sources and Romantic science and philosophy that will not surprise readers who have consulted his many contributions on German and English Romanticism over the years.

The book comprises seven chapters, four of which (3, 4, 5, and 6) are revised and expanded versions of published essays well worth re-reading in their present form.  However, as one might expect from the presence of so much re-issued material, not all of it fits comfortably under the rubric announced in the sub-title, "Knowledge and Power," and the fit decreases as the book proceeds.

Burwick's examination of this well-known pairing in the introduction and first chapter of his book reflects, as he puts it, his interest in "the interactions of history and autobiographical experience, which inform De Quincey's notion of consciousness and direct his reflections as a critic" (xii).  In his first chapter, "Knowledge and Power," Burwick begins with the two essays, "Letters to a Young Man whose Education has been Neglected" and "The Works of Alexander Pope," where De Quincey explicitly introduced and elaborated upon the distinction between the two concepts.  Burwick then applies the idea of "power" to the impressionistic criticism of "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" and the later dream sequences of the "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach" so as to elucidate De Quincey's notion of the subconscious and its relation to literary imagery and political economy.

Burwick begins by likening De Quincey's "introspective mode of 'psychological criticism'" to Freud's method of Traumdeutung, where memories (in the form of visual images) provide evidence for the symbolic interpretation of dreams (4).  However, as De Quincey suggests in the "Suspiria," where he traces the antagonistic relationship between the dreaming faculty and the material technologies of production and communication, "power" is a feature not only of mental activity, but also of the world itself as a realization of this activity.  Thus, says Burwick, "because consciousness absorbs the exterior world, it has its own political economy" (6), an economy of the mind" driven by the calculus of emotional profit and loss (9).  In the "Suspiria," particularly, Burwick detects a subtle interplay between this emotional "economy of the mind" as it was first constituted in De Quincey's earliest experiences of the household economy of his childhood home at Greenhay, near Manchester, and as it was later transformed by the "vast economic complexity" of modern commercial society that helped precipitate the opium-eater's "fall from childhood grace" (10-11).  Linking these stages of mental and political economic activity are De Quincey's literary "involutes."  Noting explicit references to the high cost of vellum, a fact of economic history, in De Quincey's use of the medieval palimpsest to illustrate the psychology of "involutes," Burwick concludes that the famous section of the "Suspiria" on the "palimpsest" of the human brain is "more than a metaphor of the mind, it is a metaphor for the power that moves through history, that defines and shapes political economy" (21).

Chapter two, "Casuistry and Eidoclasm," examines what, according to Burwick, were "the often malignant counterparts to 'Knowledge' and 'Power'" in De Quincey's writings (24).  Burwick sees the two negative techniques combined in the opium-eater's comments on Goethe's reputation as an author in his review of Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm Meister.  De Quincey's writings on Coleridge's plagiarisms, and on the personal lives of the other "Lake Poets," for Tait's Magazine in the 1830s are also examined under the headings of "Casuistry" and "Eidoclasm."  In chapter three, "Sir Walter Scott and the Literary Pirates," Burwick extends his analysis to the casuistical gymnastics and Continental hero-worship surrounding the 1824 German hoax-publication of Walladmoor, a forged "translation" of a purported Scott original, which De Quincey both unmasked and translated into English himself in 1825.  In tracing the convoluted history of this bibliographical lusus naturae, Burwick provides us with a great deal of historical information, ranging from the practices of Welsh smugglers to the ins and outs of Continental literary piracy, and offers a cogent analysis of the distinctions between De Quincey's "English" brand of irony and the "German" variety practiced by the original forger, Ewald Hering, a.k.a. "Willibald Alexis."

Chapter four, on De Quincey's well-known essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," reprises Burwick's important article, "De Quincey and the Aesthetics of Violence," published several years ago in The Wordsworth Circle.  Given the significance of De Quincey's essay for recent work in popular cultural and crime fiction studies, as well as English and German Romantic aesthetics, it is gratifying to think that Burwick's contribution will now have access to a wider audience and assume a more permanent place on library shelves as a result of its republication here.  In this chapter, Burwick up-ends the conventional reading of De Quincey's essay as espousing "sympathy for the devil" by pointing out that, despite De Quincey's professions of interest in the mind of the murderer, it is the mind of the victim that the opium-eater chooses to foreground nearly throughout.  Furthermore, it is through this identification with the victim (or intended victim) and his or her experience of terror that the implicit links between De Quincey's argument and his critique of Kantian aesthetics, and particularly of the Kantian Sublime, can be most clearly discerned.  Specifically, De Quincey's main interest in "Murder Considered" is in debunking Kantian disinterestedness, since the compassion, pity, and terror that he excites by his focus on the victim, according to Burwick, are "neither to be prescinded nor suppressed," but are "always co-present with reason and imagination in the aesthetic experience" of murder (86).  Just for good measure, in the course of this superb exegesis Burwick directs the reader to two unpublished drafts of the essay, sets the composition record straight, and offers evidence for De Quincey's having visited Germany, twice, in the overall course of composition.

As their titles imply, the remaining three chapters, "Shakespearean Involutes," "Miltonic Overtures," and "Wordsworthian Associations," take as their focus De Quincey's relationship to three important precursors.  The Shakespeare chapter describes how De Quincey applied his theory of "involutes" to an interpretation of Shakespeare's life and works originally appearing in the seventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1838.  Particularly revealing is Burwick's demonstration of the influence of this essay (reprinted in the eighth and ninth editions) on subsequent Shakespeare biographies, up to and including Peter Quennell's, in 1963.  "Miltonic Overtures" examines the influence of Paradise Lost on De Quincey's "The English Mail Coach" with special attention to the opium-eater's use of ekphrasis in contrast to its appearance in the works of contemporaries like Coleridge and Keats.  Here again, Burwick's unparalleled knowledge of manuscript fragments and sources helps to illuminate his point in unprecedented fashion.  The final chapter on De Quincey and Wordsworth situates De Quincey's essay on Wordsworth's poetry, written for Tait's in 1845, within the late-eighteenth-century tradition of "associationism" extending from Locke to Hartley.  Burwick shows that De Quincey was the first critic of Wordsworth's poetry to read it in the manner in which the poet himself, in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, indicated it should be read, that is, as a "subconscious" (Burwick reminds us that De Quincey first used the term in print) representation of the poet's association of ideas "in a state of excitement."

While highly rewarding throughout, Thomas De Quincey: Knowledge and Power seems to run out of steam by the time it reaches the Wordsworth chapter, which does not measure up to the previous contributions in originality and deftness of execution.  Nevertheless, readers will benefit enormously from Fred Burwick's hard-earned insights, both critical and philosophical, into the etiology and permutations of De Quincey's key concepts.  In addition, the wealth of new and important information appearing in every chapter will make it indispensable to De Quincey scholarship for many years to come.