Death on April Fool’s Day

IN THE SECOND half of the Confessions of an Opium-Eater (1821), where Thomas De Quincey waxes lyrical on the downsides of his drug addiction, you will find the following elegantly expressed observations:

I have had occasion to remark, at various periods of my life, that the deaths of those whom we love, and indeed the contemplation of death generally, is (cæteris paribus) more affecting in summer than in any other season of the year. And the reasons are these three, I think. First, that the visible heavens in summer appear far higher, more distant, and (if such a solecism may be excused) more infinite. The clouds, by which chiefly the eye expounds the distance of the blue pavilion stretched over our heads, are in summer more voluminous, massed, and accumulated in far grander and more towering piles. Secondly, the light and the appearances of the declining and the setting sun are much more fitted to be types and characters of the Infinite. And thirdly (which is the main reason, the exuberant and riotous prodigality of life naturally forces the mind more powerfully upon the antagonist thought of death and the wintry sterility of the grave. For it may be observed, generally, that wherever two thoughts stand related to each other by a law of antagonism, and exist, as it were, by mutual repulsion, they are apt to suggest each other.

The expanse of sky is more distant in summer and is therefore richly indicative of infinite space; the revolution of the sun in earth’s sky, from rising to setting, symbolically invokes infinite time; the visual vigour of life during the day casts a shadow of greater contrast with the subdued stillness of night. De Quincey asks us to forgive him these solecisms, and in a way he is quite right to do so. Though not, I would add, because the powers of the written word have betrayed him. Rather, the “law of antagonism,” which is a “law” of imagination as much as of thought, cuts in many directions. It is even more plastic than he allows. At the very bottom of Dante’s Inferno Satan is trapped not in molten lava, but immovable glacial ice.

What struck me when I first read the above passage was the tension between its appropriateness and its inadequacy. There is truth to what De Quincey has written, surely, but it is by no means an unquestionable truth. My dad died on April Fool’s Day. For me the “contemplation of death” occasioned by the passing of a loved one occurred in spring. If we allow the pathetic fallacy of a contrast between death and summer, there may be a similar opposition between death and spring. Perhaps there’s an even greater one between the finality of death and the frivolousness of a day dedicated to practical jokes. Death on April Fool’s Day. It wasn’t funny; it wasn’t it a hoax. Though something like “mutual repulsion” did occur to me. The celebration of trickery is not wholly inappropriate to the cold finality of death. April Fool’s Day may serve as a kind of memento mori, a reminder of the capriciousness of fate. I should add that my dad had a number of health issues later in life. His death did not come out of nowhere. If his life was cut short, as we sometimes say, invoking not just the narrative wholeness we typically expect of human biography but the string of vitality which the ancient Greek Fate Atropos severs, it wasn’t totally unanticipated. The knives were already out. Like the springtime snowstorms that spill over the Rocky Mountains onto the plains of Alberta, I knew it might come, I knew it might still be shocking, and I knew its icy fingers might grip me with devastating force.

Several times in his Confessions De Quincey tells us that he was an intensive reader of Immanuel Kant and other German idealists (Fichte, Schelling). Maybe this allows me something of a Hegelian rejoinder—without necessarily getting lost in the weeds of abstrusely speculative logic. True, I would say to our opium-eater, the two sides of any determination are suggestive of one another. Life and death, death and life; summer and winter, winter and summer. And in the realm of affection—our emotional response to the death of someone we love—that may appear to be sufficient to explain the operation of “mutual repulsion.” Life certainly seems to have its proper analogy in summer, death in winter. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” says Mamillius to his mother Hermione, who is about to be (mistakenly) arrested on suspicion of adultery and treason (A Winter’s Tale, II, i, 33—note that the play is a comedy, a happy-ending story which is meant to enliven the “sterile” season’s dullness). But connections and contrasts such as these can be formal and empty, particularly if they derive from and rest content with the “immediacies” of human consciousness. The realization of full human freedom, Hegel said repeatedly—in the Phenomenology of Spirit, in the Logic, in various Lectures on history, religion, art, etc.—depends on the philosophical comprehension of necessity. Human self-awareness, gathered up historically like the sunset voyage of Minerva’s owl, must pass over the mere observation of opposites such as positive and negative, life and death, cause and effect, into a higher, dynamic, and dialectical recognition of their achieved synthesis.

Whatever their limitations, De Quincey’s Kantian reflections on death are nevertheless striking. They follow the two foundational investigations of the first critique (The Critique of Pure Reason) into time and space, and they are connected with the aesthetic themes of the third critique (The Critique of Judgment), the sublime and the beautiful. But if he takes his cue from German idealism’s transcendental coordinates, the observations aren’t exactly incontrovertible (apodictic) deductions. It does not seem quite so obvious to me as it did to him that the summer sky is suggestive of greater degrees of expansiveness than the pitch-black canopy of night—pierced with stars whose light comes from a galaxy far, far away. Nor is it evident that the sun’s (apparent) rotations are any more expressive of the endless cycle of the seasons and the passage of time than the phases of the moon. That light and life belong together is indeed true—there is much greater biodiversity between Earth’s tropics, for instance, which is closer to the sun and therefore receives more direct sunlight, than at the poles. But as twenty-first-century viewers of David Attenborough’s documentaries, we know that relatively abundant life has found a way in even the most inhospitable of circumstances, including, often surprisingly, where there is no light at all (such as the bottom of the ocean).

In other words, if I can make the case that the infinity of space is perceptible much more clearly at night, and that the endless circularity of time is at least as evident by the melancholy light of the moon as the golden rays of the sun, it does seem true that nighttime on earth is, on average, stiller than during the day. At the very least these ruminations undermine the confidence we might feel inclined to put in De Quincey’s conclusions, however metaphysically refined and persuasive his classically-infused rhetoric. Which brings me back to my Hegelian/historical point: De Quincey’s romantic reflection is still relatively formal and abstract. For the “deaths of those whom we love” and the “contemplation of death generally” are not disconnected from the concrete contingencies of our lives as we actually live them. Those contingencies may include the symbolic significance of the seasons, to be sure. But given the plasticity of human nature, a plasticity whose historicity I would be prepared to acknowledge in tandem with (some of) the profound transcendental insights offered by Kant, the seasonally-inspired abstractions of time and place are not really sufficient grounds for making credibly tangible generalizations about the human reaction to death. There are just too many historical/cultural factors involved which the opium-eater blithely overlooks.

At the moment I happen to have just finished reading James Welch’s novel Fools Crow. It’s a story from and about the indigenous perspective (Pikunis/Blackfeet) of American settlement of the west (Montana) after the Civil War. In it the sun and moon (to take the two relevant parallels) are usually referred to as the “Sun Chief” and the “Night Red Light.” Their movement, like the four cardinal directions themselves, are always understood within a significant and sacred cosmos. It’s just one example, but it contains a necessary reminder. Some acknowledgement of the webs of meaning—webs which do not merely retreat in the face of progress and science, but are transformed, as Charles Taylor insists in A Secular Age—in and through which we live cannot be omitted if we want to understand the human predicament in the widest sense possible.

The Confessions was first published as a book in 1821, over 200 years ago. Although its world may have much in common with ours, there are important differences too. That time-span and those differences demand our attention. For the essay not only testifies to discrepancies in the historical consciousness of the romantic era itself (which have their own antecedents), it alerts us to discrepancies between that form of life and the forms we inhabit today. Take De Quincey’s non-moralizing attitude towards drugs. That was relatively uncommon in his day, as his defensiveness attests. But it is one which many readers in twenty-first-century Canada would readily endorse. Or take De Quincey’s repeated allusions to his candour. He acknowledges that his forthrightness may be unwelcome to many readers—breaching the bounds of social tact and propriety as they then were. At the same time, though, the fact that his essay was quite popular indicates that a significant portion of the reading public was not completely at odds with the literary comportment of the opium-eater. Among other things, then, the Confessions is a trace of changing sets of historical attitudes and forms—about drugs, about politeness, about the proper relationship between private and public life, and so on. Bearing the private soul to a wider public audience, whether in autobiographies or in autofiction, has become much more widespread since the nineteenth century. His foray can be seen as a glimmer of the democratization of literature, something which glitters even more brightly today.

De Quincey himself was partially cognizant of his place within tributary streams of historical change. I say partially because he makes explicit reference to Rousseau’s Confessions, the proto-romantic and paradigmatic literary precedent. In it the philosophe made several shocking personal revelations (e.g. abandoning offspring born out of wedlock to foundling hospitals) and openly discussed taboo topics (e.g. masochism), defending himself in the process and the morality of his secular social enterprise. As Oscar Wilde put it with characteristic wit (in “The Critic as Artist”), “Humanity will always love Rousseau for having confessed his sins not to a priest, but to the world.” This correctly alerts us to the fact that Rousseau’s was a civic project infused with the sensibility of a religious devotee (which Wilde in his essay transformed into an aesthetic project). In noteworthy contrast to Augustine’s Confessions, “le souverain Juge” to whom the philosophe appeals at the start of his revelations is a divine being entirely in keeping with the Enlightenment civil religion he outlined in his (highly controversial) Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard.

Like Rousseau, De Quincey defends himself against the charge of immorality (for becoming addicted to opium); he apologizes for speaking of his private life in such detail (much less touchily than Rousseau does); and by narrating his experiences he aims to be “useful and instructive.” Although his civic purpose is not quite as explicit or as philosophically grounded as his Enlightened predecessor, it is nonetheless infused with a romantic public-mindedness, even a utilitarian social ethos. In being proud of his common origins De Quincey echoes Rousseau once more. He goes out of his way to say that he is not aristocratically born and, with a relatively heavy and self-congratulatory moral inflection, that he owes his progress in the world largely to his own talents (though his middle-class background did not leave him without many helpful connections, as he acknowledges). If the arbitrariness of nature is to blame for the painful physical ailments that brought him to try opium in the first place and then become dependent on it, readers are still asked to appreciate the degree to which he is a self-made man.

So there are aspects of the Confessions which are more familiar to contemporary readers, having become more common over time, and some which are more alien. Take the place of science in our culture today and our greater understanding of outer space. Both of these affect agreement with De Quincey’s aesthetic assertions. What appeared “natural” to him will not always line up with what appears “natural” to us (or to the Pikunis of Fools Crow). Above I suggested that nighttime was more indicative of the infiniteness of space and time by drawing upon our greater scientific knowledge about outer space—knowledge which likewise attests to its haunting emptiness and the seemingly marginal place humanity and Earth occupies within it (we are hardly the centre of the universe, a truth which was held in most ancient conceptions of the cosmos, from Greece to India). De Quincey could employ his romantic aesthetic sensibilities in order to reinvest a natural world mechanized and materialized by the scientific revolution with (immanent) cosmic spiritual significance. His quotations of Wordsworth’s poetry and his Blake-like championing of Milton’s demons in Paradise Lost are indices of this. On the other side of Darwinian evolution and a big bang dating to billions of years ago, however, our sense of cosmic “disenchantment” (originally Schiller’s term, made famous by Weber) is in many ways more profound than De Quincey’s, even if that same process is beginning to weigh less heavily on many of us (the rise of the “nones”). Nowadays there are a variety of ways to fill our lives with meaning, some of them drawing from the same well as De Quincey, quite a number of them not. If he cites romantic poets and German idealists, it is undoubtedly significant that the thinker praised most highly in the Confessions is the political economist David Ricardo. Ultimately the opium-eater imagined (and rationalized) society in terms of a kind of bourgeois bootstrap individualism. In some of his notebooks (Grundrisse), and with Ricardo in mind, Marx called this kind of social picture a “Robinsonade.” That is, a delusional utopian individualism on par with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. With its amalgam of middle-class ordinariness, romantic self-reliance, nascent Victorian utility, plus the repeated invocation of the vagaries of fate, the Confessions was quite a popular tale in its day—and continues to resonate.

One of the negative side-effects of his opium use, De Quincey writes, manifested itself most potently in his dreams. Some of these were fantastical and relatively benign, others were terrifying and shook him to his core. In one noteworthy case the “Orient” invades his slumber, grips him with existential vertigo, and completely overwhelms him. It is strikingly similar to the central disorienting episode at the cave in Forster’s A Passage to India. This parallel suggests that from the start of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth the notion of mutual and sympathetic understanding between the British and the “others” of the world—over whom they frequently held some form of violently hierarchical power—was often an assumed impossibility.

In the more directly autobiographical section of the Confessions De Quincey tells the story of a Malay who comes to see him one day. He cannot fathom why. The two men are unable to communicate an intelligible word to one another. Only mutual incomprehension follows (and danger for the unnamed Malay, to whom De Quincey gave opium). In Forster’s case, he allows Fielding and Aziz to plant the seed of friendship, sympathizing as they do with one another, only for it to be uprooted at the novel’s conclusion by the incomprehensible prospect of a postcolonial future. De Quincey spells out this type of incomprehension in considerable detail. He insists, for example, that if he were required to live in China he would go “mad.” All of southern Asia is the seat of “awful images and associations.” Neither America nor Africa presents a spectacle so scary (they are assumed to be more “primitive” and therefore less baffling). By contrast, the religions of India, being so “ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate,” combined with the antiquity of their “institutions, histories, modes of faith, etc.,” positively overpowers him. What kinds of institutions does De Quincey have in mind? Well, contemplating the caste system causes him to “shudder.” The mere populousness of southern Asia, “swarming with human life,” stuns him. Again, much of this is reminiscent of A Passage to India’s cave encounter: the “mysterious,” ephemeral Orient necessarily provokes profound disequilibrium and radical fear. It’s as if the mere idea of living in India or China blows all the fuses of the imperial European mind. Forester describes the reverberating sound in the cave which overwhelms Adela as being “entirely devoid of distinction”. De Quincey gives voice to a similar anxiety, one whose persistence would have quite the imperial career: that the stability of his personality would be dissolved in the Orient, his individuality would be swallowed up and submerged in the vast “ocean” of Asian existence. Withholding even the mere possibility of sympathetic understanding, there opens up, in retrospect quite predictably, an expanse of difference over which the dehumanizing colonial fancy can run amok:

I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barrier of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy, placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyze. I could sooner live with lunatics, or brute animals.

De Quincey’s opium-addled imagination posits a transcendental otherness to the cultures of southern Asia. Might there not be a significant connection between his Oriental nightmares and his bourgeois bootstrap individualism?

NEEDLESS TO SAY, De Quincey does not see the invocation of Rousseau and Goethe, Kant and Wordsworth, to say nothing of the epochal differences between the confessional genre in its modern and ancient forms, as historical evidence belonging to a development which needs to be narrated purposively and self-consciously comprehended. I put it this way not to so much because I want to endorse Hegel’s ontological commitments regarding history tout court, but because I think considered historical reflection is indeed dialectical and directional. How so?

In the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, sketched in 1845, Marx famously complained that philosophers have too often mistaken their endeavours. The point of philosophy is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it. If Marx got many things right, and if his biting criticism often hit its mark, in this instance I’d say his aim was a bit off. For he sets interpretation over against action as if a way of seeing the world is entirely distinct from a way of being in the world. It’s the hackneyed dualism pitting theory against practice. As rhetorically effective as putting things this way may be, it’s too simplistic. And that’s not least because, as a historically-sensitive reading of ancient Greek philosophy makes clear—and Marx should have known better since he wrote his doctoral thesis on the ancient Greek materialist philosophers Democritus and Epicurus—philosophy is at once a way of life as well as a way of ideas (for an extended account of this see Pierre Hadot’s Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique?). The purpose of investigating nature according to the light of our material perceptions and then reflecting on them, Epicurus wrote in the “Letter to Pythocles,” is to achieve “freedom from disturbance and a firm conviction”. One of the principle sources of disturbance, his “Letter to Herodotus” tells us, is beliefs about celestial beings (gods) and their relationship to human affairs, beliefs which were contained in and promoted by Greek myth and religious tradition; another was the fear of death. In the Epicurean cosmos the gods are perfectly content in their celestial abode and do not intervene, providentially or otherwise, in the affairs of humankind. Epicurean philosophical interpretation necessarily changed the world by revising beliefs and practical life insofar as it was intimately bound to religion.

And yet, having made this necessary point, I still want to say there’s something to Marx’s polemical thesis. For often enough those intellectuals who have interpreted the world have done so, either explicitly or implicitly, straightforwardly or indirectly, in ways which upheld an unjust social order. Marx thought this was true for thinkers as different as Hegel and J. S. Mill. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get some things right. He frequently acknowledged when the did so. But what they got right was right within a vision that was ultimately wrong. It was insufficiently comprehensive; it was insufficiently historical, which is to say that it wasn’t dialectical and thus rightly critical of the injustice of economic forms such as capitalism and its attendant social ideologies (in this Marx was obviously still very much indebted to Hegel).

Consider Marx’s attitude towards Balzac. He didn’t admire La Comédie humaine because he agreed with Balzac’s (royalist) politics. Quite to the contrary. Because the ideological bias which manifested itself in the descriptive quality of the works which made up that great collection—a comprehensive social portrait comparable to the The Divine Comedy’s cosmic picture—was, in spite of itself, accurate and incisive. A subtle dialectical thinker could draw on it for critical inspiration and use it for their own ends, which is precisely what Marx did. Allowing for all the complexities that would necessarily be involved, tracing the literary figure of the miser (characteristically mired by the sin of avarice) from the Inferno to Eugénie Grandet via Moliere’s L’Avare could indeed illustrate the (indirect) sense in which “man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the condition of his material existence, in his social relation, and in his social life”.

The point of a Marxisant hermeneutics, I would then say in consequence, is to interpret the world in the light of truth and for justice and beauty (i.e. to change the world for the better). Given Marx’s wider claims, this will be a matter of understanding ideologies past and present, which includes analyzing works of literature and their relationship to the history of social forms. I mention beauty here because I’m reminded of another important line from The Communist Manifesto, one which connects changing the world to the democratic attainment of aesthetic fullness, in keeping with Marx’s distinctly romantic conception of humanity’s creative powers: a classless society is one in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

So how do we interpret the world in such a way as to change it for the better? (Marx) And how do we do so while keeping in mind that such interpretation will always be historical? (Hegel) Evidently these are big questions. I can only gesture towards a response here. I’ll do so by focusing on the traces of the past which are part of the present (taking my cue from Paul Ricœur in La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli). De Quincey’s Confessions is a historical trace. Other examples include items in an archive, such as a Harappan figurine, a Viking ship, or a fairly complex document such as The Doomsday Book—a snapshot of a Norman-ruled English society in 1086. A trace which I have been thinking about a lot over the past number of years is a photograph of my dad reading a collection of short stories by Louis L’Amour (Law of the Desert Born). As Roland Barthes put it in La chambre claire (before the age of Photoshop), a photograph is a trace of what was but is no longer. It re-presents something that existed formerly in the now of my present. What should I do with such a trace? In this case, the photograph works as a kind of symbolic stand-in for my dad and his relationship to me, including all the direct and indirect ways he made me who I am. I can either let the traces of my personal past exert their influence on me behind my back, so to speak, which means that I’m unknowingly and unreflectively participating in a dance of the dead, or I can take up that photograph of my dad, and with it my relationship to him, in an intentional, dialectical, and self-conscious way. By “working-through” the significance of this trace, which includes both the personal and historical dimensions, and transporting it intentionally to my world by putting it to the question and letting it in turn question me, this photograph can become a constructive, active element in the intersubjective performance of what I’ll call “living history.”

Let’s turn from this quite personal trace back to my meandering thoughts on De Quincey’s Confessions and their trajectory. First, there’s my initial reading of the essay. This includes my personal reaction to the text as it stands, which entailed the sombre memory of my dad’s death. Here I have directly bridged the world of the text and my world. Next, I offered a few contextual considerations about the essay, focusing briefly on aspects of its intellectual background. This gives colour and composition to the work in terms of its historical setting, its philosophical assumptions, and its literary attributes. Ideally this “framing” will lead to greater comprehension of the trace in question. The third and final step would be the synthetic integration of the world of the work and my world—something along the lines of what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the “fusion of horizons” in Wahrheit und Methode—through the analytical act of interpretation. How does De Quincey’s Confession derive and differentiate itself from the “form of life” in which he produced his work? How does the answer to that question then relate to my own “form of life,” both in the sense of the wider historical world to which I belong and the particular, personal way in which I realize it? In lieu of this synthetic hermeneutical step, I have instead drawn attention to its necessity.

Separating thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (the Hegelian trinity) from one another in this way, as if they are sharply distinct chronological moments in the process of historical understanding, isn’t quite right, since in reality all three are at work throughout. My reaction to De Quincey’s statement about death did not occur in the absence of my experience as a historian—in fact I read his work precisely because of its historical provenance and I did not know about his aesthetic reflections beforehand. I am at once the son of a now dead father, a historian interested in the ideas of the past, and a citizen of a liberal democracy. I can differentiate the perspective I take on a given trace into distinct levels, but in practice they will all be operative to greater or lesser degrees.

As I’ve summarized it here (with Michel de Certeau’s L’Écriture d’histoire in mind), the practice of history includes an encounter with a trace, an investigation of that trace in terms of its form, content, and context, often fleshed out by putting a range of historical-critical questions to it and coming up with informed and imaginative answers, and then the composition of an analytical narrative upon the basis of that encounter and investigation which may put me and my world to the test. Even if this is where the work of a historian ends, i.e. with the presentation of research to their profession and the wider public in articles, books, podcasts, exhibitions, and so on, most historical scholarship today is produced by scholars working at a college or university. Historians are educators. In Canada they are usually instructors in the liberal arts and part of a pedagogical process training students in the humanities. To put it rather generically, this is meant to deepen and widen the critical, reflective, and synthetic capabilities of citizens in their personal, professional, and political life.

Whatever else needs to be said about Hegel’s thought—and quite a lot needs to be said, for all sorts of reasons, not least because of an Orientalism that bears some deeply problematic parallels to De Quincey’s (in the Addition to Section 151 of the Encyclopedia Logic, for example, Hegel attributed the alleged lack of individuality in Spinoza’s “ephemeral” philosophy of substance to his Oriental/Jewish background)—I think he was on the right track about the historical task of philosophy. As human beings capable of reflective comprehension, each of us (personally, professionally, politically) should strive to take up the existential web through which we live and move and have our being. By joining Hegel with Marx and Socrates, we might then imaginatively interrogate our form of historical consciousness with all the comedic playfulness, tragic seriousness, and ironic self-awareness we can muster (my take on what Dominick LaCapra calls “dialogic interchange” in History and Criticism). Then, with whatever degree of historical self-awareness we have thereby gained, as individuals and communities we can strive to realize the past anew in the present. This will be an ongoing dialectical and directed process (and pace Hegel, never complete).

As opposed to a passive acquiescence to the dead weight of the past, it seems to me that living history—a phrase partly indebted to Nietzsche’s “untimely meditation” on the subject—will require active qualities such as courage, steadfastness, loving-kindness, and prudence. And that’s because, as Nietzsche saw, though for quite different reasons and in elitist terms which I would repudiate (e.g. “strong” versus “weak”), what we do with our social heritage and cultural memory, how we strive to realize the past anew in the present is ultimately a question of justice. Unlike the blind inertia of the past, living history will be informed by and open to the truth of critical investigation and, at least for those of us who are radically committed to egalitarian democracy, animated by a desire to create a fairer society. At a minimum this means thinking consciously about the shape of our social relations and the degree to which they reflect a situation in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

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