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John Barrell, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey : A Psycho-pathology of Imperialism.

John Barrell, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey : A Psycho-pathology of Imperialism (Yale UP, 1991), 235 pp., $30.00 cloth.

John Barrell's study begins where most studies of De Quincey begin--in the sunlit upstairs room that seven-year-old Thomas crept into to take a last look at his dead sister Elizabeth. Critics have been drawn to De Quincey's recollection of this scene in the 1845 Suspiria de Profundis for very good reasons: It is one of the finest examples of the prose poetry of which he was capable, it is extraordinarily detailed, and De Quincey himself speaks of it in ways that make it almost inevitably central to an understanding of his work. In one of several digressions within this account, De Quincey reminds us of an "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) as compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly, and in their own abstract shapes." Such moments, which seem to collapse Freudian "dream-work" and literary production, prove irresistable to modern psychological critics.

Two exemplary readings of De Quincey, J. Hillis Miller's in The Disappearance of God and Robert Maniquis' "Lonely Empires: Personal and Public Visions of Thomas de Quincey," have made prominent use of De Quincey's account of his last sight of his sister's corpse. Miller answers the questions implicit in this "involute" through a phenomenological account that had great resonance for a critical audience that was anxious to get "beyond formalism." De Quincey's visit to the upper room is a scene of loss that produces a discontinuous self that his later work attempts to make whole: "Until now the self has been diffused into its surroundings. Now it contracts to a point and sinks into the solitude of itself" (Miller 20). Maniquis, writing on the other side of the post-structuralist divide, contends that the sight of Elizabeth's corpse produces not so much a fall into an intensely separate self as the threat of engulfment or the loss of self: "Neither the world nor the self yields a center that will hold"; De Quincey is "without the absolute point" that would "begin to define, often desperately, the 'real self,' 'the absolute self,' or the 'central intellect'" (Maniquis 57). Barrell's account is less an advance on either of these readings than a retelling for yet another audience, one that, instead of a story of the alienated self or the decentered self, wants to hear of the social construction of the self.

Barrell begins by proceeding as if the involute of "the closed door, the footfall on the stairs, the motionless woman, the kiss, the Wandering Jew" (32), which recurs with remarkable frequency in the most unlikely places, constituted a primal scene for De Quincey. He leads the reader through a dizzying variety of texts that includes the usual dream visions but extends to the relatively untouched ground of his fiction, translations of German tales, historical and political writing, and perhaps most disturbingly, his imperialist apologia. He documents the ways in which De Quincey seems to attach oriental imagery to the scene of his sister's death (and later to death generally), to imagine his enemies as oriental, and to transfer guilt from childhood traumas to orientals or oriental scenes. Along the way he notes how the various positions taken by De Quincey in these rehearsals shift with dismaying flexibility from observer to victim to victimizer. He then notes how De Quincey's essays on the Afghan and Indian wars present various threats to British women and children in terms of the narrative he has constructed about his own childhood. Such imagery, read one way, seems to suggest that De Quincey cannot express his horror and indignation without recourse to the violence of his childhood traumas. But Barrell then shifts the grounds of his argument, noting that these recombinations and rehearsals of De Quincey's encounter with Elizabeth's corpse can be read in social as well as in existential terms. Hence the primacy of this "primal" scene is put into question. Instead of reparations for or recuperations of the losses he sustained in childhood, these moments may be read as displacements of a public guilt onto childhood memories. Instead of being the cause of De Quincey's racist and imperialist fantasies--which, as Barrell amply documents, ran to the genocidal--the guilt felt at the sight of his sister's corpse is an effect that legitimates them. The family romance becomes the reflex of a social guilt.

Barrell's hesitancy--even anxiety--in assigning precedence to this sequence marks his greatest break from earlier treatments of De Quincey. It allows him to ask interesting but open-ended questions--about the relation of history to the psychical, and of public to the private experience. His final speculation--deliberately exorbitant--is quite engaging: "There may have been something about ... the 'family man,' the man brought up in, and eventually taking his place at the head of, the middle-class and aristocratic British family in the period of imperial expansion at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries--there may have been something in the coincidence of family history and imperial history that emerges as the characteristic racism--as the common characteristic of the different racisms--of a whole generation of authors" (189-90). The Victorian paterfamilias may have been accused of many things in past treatments, but this raises the stakes considerably. I am unsure how so wide a charge might be sustained or answered, but to frame the question in such a way might well lead to productive reassessments of the meaning of the brisk, supercilious racism characteristic of so many of these writers.

Barrell's book is a pleasure to read--his close readings of the recapitulations of De Quincey's persistent "involute" are bracing, and his range of reference within the sprawling De Quincean oeuvre are impressive. His use of De Quincey's extravagant translations is notable: Through comparison with the German originals he is able to find cogent evidence for De Quincey's symptomatic recourse to Elizabeth's death. Barrell's book represents a considerable step in the task of plumbing the imperial unconscious, and the methods he develops to uncover the peculiar infection of Thomas De Quincey will prove useful and suggestive to future students of British colonialism.

Mark Parker

Randolph-Macon College
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Author:Parker, Mark
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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