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Imagination, Orientalism, and Opium in Romantic Writing

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Jeff Clapp

on 4 October 2013

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Transcript of Imagination, Orientalism, and Opium in Romantic Writing

Imagination, Orientalism, and Opium in British Romantic Writing
Romanticism and Imagination
Enlightenment philosophers saw the mind as a blank piece of paper.
They thought that information from the senses was simply written down.
But Romantic writers claimed the the mind had its own powers--that it could invent, create, and think without directly relying on experiences.
Romantic writers called that active form of mind "imagination."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge is the most philosophical Romantic writer, the one who imported German idealism into England.
His poetic reputation rests on only a few poems, however. Try "Frost at Midnight"--it's the best poem about becoming a parent.
Today, however, we're going to be interested primarily in his epic opium addiction.
Coleridge on Imagination
To show the why imagination was more important than reason, Romantic writers portrayed their inner worlds, emphasizing extreme, strange, intense thoughts and feelings.
Ah! from the Soul itself must issue forth
A Light, a Glory, and a luminous Cloud...
And from the Soul itself must there be sent
A sweet & potent Voice, of it's own Birth...

Now we need to add elements of CONTEXT to our discussion of LITERATURE.
Britain lost its North American colonies, and turned its imperial ambitions to other continents.
During the period of Romantic Literature,
Britain increasingly controlled India, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and many other places, until by 1820, 1/4 of the world's population lived within the British Empire.
Imagination and Empire
British romantic writers were intensely interested in remote parts of the world, particularly Britain's colonies.
Sometimes, IMAGINATIVE works of romantic literature are also IMPERIAL works of literature.
A simple example: Blake's "tyger." There are no tigers in England. When Blake tried to think of a cruel, dangerous, fearsome animal, he found one that lives in these parts of the world:
Blake's poem displays what scholars now call "Orientalism."
"The Orient" isn't anywhere in particular. Europeans used the term vaguely, to describe anywhere generally east or south.
Europeans associated a complex, but highly repetitive, set of traits with the Orient and "Oriental" people and places, including:
Such ideas about "the Orient" suggested that the British--
who thought of themselves as the opposite of all things Oriental--
had a right to own, control, and exploit a global empire.
A book that changed the world
I wouldn't even be giving this lecture if it weren't for this book.
by Edward Said
Orientalism in Painting
Although "Oriental" art sometimes actually represents real things which happen in the east, Orientalism primarily represents European fantasies.
That's why it doesn't matter if this person appears vaguely Middle Eastern or vaguely North American. Both paintings represent European IDEAS aboutimaginary places.
Coleridge's Poem
De Quincey's Confession
The Preface
Stanza One
Stanza Two
Stanza Three
To the Reader
The Pleasures of Opium
Introducing Pains...
The Pains of Opium
One of Piranesi's "Prisons of the Imagination"
Most scholars do not believe this story.
Coleridge's Preface presents us with careful theories of imagination and individualism.
"The author... retired to a lonely farmhouse..."
"he was called out by a person on business from Porlock..."
...he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading
the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage: "Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall." The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines...
Coleridge combines imagination with orientalism.
The first stanza evokes many of the central themes of orientalism:
Kubla's palace is like Coleridge's farmhouse...except more...imaginationey?
The second stanza aims to overwhelm the reader with powerful, vivid imagery.
And `mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
[the chasm] flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean...
Remember this maze.
The stanza identifies the poet's writing with Kubla Khan's building project. But in order for the poem to go forward, Coleridge needs a little help...
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight `twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And once THAT happens, Coleridge can become a kind of terrifying god himself:
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
De Quincey describes his book as a memoir, but even in 1821 everybody understood that it was not completely true.
And even though De Quincey claims that his book is not just self-revelation, that is exactly what it was. Part of romanticism was a new focus in literature on self-expression.
De Quincey compares his book to the
"spontaneous" confession of an "adventurer"
...just like Coleridge's "Purchas."
The memoirs of adventurers were very popular reading material as Britain expanded its overseas empire.
In this part of his book, De Quincey sets out to prove that opium elevates the mind, rather than intoxicating it.
Like Coleridge, De Quincey's visions combine
romantic ideas with orientalist ones.
London as New World
Some of these rambles led me to great distances, for an
opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes
in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing
my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west
passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I
had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such
knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynx’s
riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the
audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I
could almost have believed at times that I must be the first discoverer
of some of these terræ incognitæ, and doubted whether they had yet
been laid down in the modern charts of London.
Remember the maze?
Opium in the Garden
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
De Quincey:
Oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich
alike,...bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium![…] thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!
Bear in mind that (probably) no "Malay" ever came to DQ's door.
The book is organized like this:
1. Pleasures
2. A Malay Visits
3. Pains
What does this suggest?
Although "the Orient" has represented imagination and pleasure for Coleridge and De Quincey so far, now it will represent terror and torment.
For romantics, terror and torment are also
the work of the imagination.
Edmund Burke on "The Sublime"
SUBLIMITY includes[...]strength, violence, pain and terror [which] are therefore ideas which occupy the mind together. The sublimity of wild animals is due to their power...Infinity fills the mind with that sort of delightful horror which is the truest test of the sublime...
from "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" (1757)
"succession and uniformity of parts, which constitute the artificial infinite, give the effect of sublimity in architecture." (Burke)
If your goal is to go beyond the rationalism of Enlightment thinking, extreme terror is just as good as extreme beauty.
Remember Blake's tiger?
The torments of De Quincey's late addiction are first architectural:
The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him...for centuries. I escaped sometimes, and found myself in Chinese houses, with cane tables, &c. All the feet of the tables, sofas,&c., soon became instinct with life: the abominable head of the
crocodile, and his leering eyes, looked out at me, multiplied into a
thousand repetitions; and I stood loathing and fascinated....many times the
very same dream was broken up in the very same way: I heard gentle
voices speaking to me....and instantly I awoke. It was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside...
But soon his torments turn "Oriental":
Fortunately, his innocent children come to relieve him.
Romantic Sublimity
Beauty AND Fear, together
He could easily fall off that rock and die....
Opium acted as a bridge between Romanticism and Orientalism.
1. In the 1600s, early explorers brought opium to Europe from Turkey and other places.

2. Opium dissolved in alcohol--called "laudanum"--was used as medicine in Europe.

3. Opium smoking only became popular after Europeans learned from Native Americans to smoke tobacco.

4. British trading companies introduced opium smoking to large parts of the British empire and created a huge market, centered in Hong Kong.

5. Romantic artists and writers, looking to "the Orient" for sources of, and symbols for, imagination, (re)discovered the recreational use of opium.
It is typical of "Orientalism" that Europeans would "find" something they themselves introduced.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a primary British source of "imaginative" theory.
Thomas De Quincey
You could try his essay
"On Murder Considered as
One of The Fine Arts." Note how that title takes an extreme state--murderousness--
and thinks of it as art.

Later even more.
This is not a coincidence.
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