Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving from its
lowest depths of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse
of the world within me! Here was a panacea, a pharmakon
nepenthes for all human woes; here was the secret of
happiness about which philosophers had disputed for
so many ages: happiness might be bought for a penny,
and carried in the waistcoat pocket.
–DEQUINCEY’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater.”
HE was a tall, thin personage, with a marked brow and a sunken eye.
He stepped towards a closet of his apartment, and poured out a few drops of a dark liquid. His hand shook, as he raised the glass which contained them to his lips; and with a strange shuddering, a nervous tremor, as if all the delicate chords of his system were unloosed and trembling, he turned away from his fearful draught.
He saw that my eye was upon him; and I could perceive that his mind struggled desperately with the infirmity of his nature, as if ashamed of the utter weakness of its tabernacle. He passed hastily up and down the room. “You seem somewhat ill,” I said, in the undecided tone of partial interrogatory.
He paused, and passed his long thin fingers over his forehead. “I am indeed ill,” he said, slowly, and with that quavering, deep-drawn breathing, which is so indicative of anguish, mental and physical. “I am weak as a child, weak alike in mind and body, even when I am under the immediate influence of yonder drug.” And he pointed, as he spoke, to a phial, labelled “Laudanum,” upon a table in the corner of the room.
“My dear sir,” said I, “for God’s sake abandon your desperate practice: I know not, indeed, the nature of your afflictions, but I feel assured that you have yet the power to be happy. You have, at least, warm friends to sympathize with you. But forego, if possible, your pernicious stimulant of laudanum. It is hurrying you to your grave.”
“It may be so,” he replied, while another shudder ran along his nerves; “but why should I fear it? I, who have become worthless to myself and annoying to my friends; exquisitely sensible of my true condition, yet wanting the power to change it; cursed with a lively apprehension of all that I ought now to be, yet totally incapable of even making an effort to be so! My dear sir, I feel deeply the kindness of your motives, but it is too late for me to hope to profit by your advice.”
I was shocked at his answer. “But can it be possible,” said I, “that the influence of such an excessive use of opium can produce any alleviation of mental suffering? any real relief to the harassed mind? Is it not rather an aggravation?”
“I know not,” he said, seating himself with considerable calmness,–“I know not. If it has not removed the evil, it has at least changed its character. It has diverted my mind from its original grief; and has broken up and rendered divergent the concentrated agony which oppressed me. It has, in a measure, substituted imaginary afflictions for real ones. I cannot but confess, however, that the relief which it has afforded has been produced by the counteraction of one pain by another; very much like that of the Russian criminal, who gnaws his own flesh while undergoing the punishment of the knout.'”
“For Heaven’s sake,” said I, “try to dispossess your mind of such horrid images. There are many, very many resources yet left you. Try the effect of society; and let it call into exercise those fine talents which all admit are so well calculated to be its ornament and pride. At least, leave this hypochondriacal atmosphere, and look out more frequently upon nature. Your opium, if it be an alleviator, is, by your own confession, a most melancholy one. It exorcises one demon to give place to a dozen others.