“Small, fierce, and restless eyes”:
Stereotype and Hybridity in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
academic essay by Kelly O’Connor
“Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!” exclaims Thomas De Quincey as he concludes the chapter on “The Pleasures of Opium” in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (55). Despite its pleasures, opium’s association with the Orient proves to be a source of continual anxiety for De Quincey. His representations of the Orient and the Oriental make great use of what Homi Bhabha calls the stereotype in The Location of Culture. Central to Bhabha’s theory of stereotype is the concept of hybridity, wherein neither the colonized nor the colonizer emerges from the colonial encounter unchanged, which I argue is one of the main causes of De Quincey’s demonstrated anxiety. As De Quincey increases his opium use, he loses himself in a new hybrid identity. I will begin by discussing De Quincey’s anxieties, move on to an exploration of Bhabha’s theories of stereotype and hybridity, and then consider examples of stereotype and hybridity in Confessions itself.
Scholar John Barrell writes that “the use of opium was associated in the English imagination with every Asian country from Turkey, through Persia and India, to China” and that “to describe oneself as an ‘eater’ of opium was to claim kinship with a recognisably Turkish identity” (17). De Quincey demonstrates anxiety about his opium usage from the beginning of the essay. He feels the need to assert multiple times that he does not feel guilty about his opium habit. “My self-accusation,” he writes, “does not amount to a confession of guilt” (4). Later, he reminds us that “guilt, therefore [he] do[es] not acknowledge” (5). He also highlights the quality of his own character, while outlining what he sees as widespread opium use among the English upper class. He “affirm[s] that [his] life has been, on the whole, the life of a philosopher” and lists a number of men “distinguished for their talents, or of eminent station […] who were known to [him] […] as opium eaters” (4, 5). The combination of repeated denial of guilt and association of opium with intellectual and distinguished individuals shows defensiveness in the introduction to De Quincey’s essay. It is as though he is trying to write opium out of its well-known oriental context and into the quotidian of the English intellectual and aristocratic classes.
It is when we consider De Quincey’s direct encounters with the Oriental that Homi Bhabha’s theories of stereotype and hybridity become particularly useful. For Bhabha, stereotype is a “major discursive strategy” of fixity, which is the “sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism” and connotes “an unchanging order as well as disorder” (94). Colonial discourse strives to place the colonizing power and the colonized into a fixed binary, in which they are opposites. The stereotype strives to define what is known and fixed, but is simultaneously subject to ambivalence as it “vacillates between what is […] known and something that must be anxiously repeated” (95). That is, colonial writing seeks to place the colonial subject firmly in the place of the ‘other,’ with certain defined characteristics. Yet, these characteristics must be constantly repeated because they cannot be proven to be true. Sumit Chakrabarti calls this an “implicit paradox within this system of operation” used by binary politics. “Whereas the consistent ‘other’ing of the colonized is used to situate the West in a position of binary superiority, the complete knowability or visibility of the subject is also assumed, as if the paradigms of Western systems of knowledge have managed to know or read the ‘other’ completely” (8). For her, the problem arises when the colonial power believes that the stereotype is true because it assumes it can have complete knowledge of the colonised.
We see many examples of stereotype in De Quincey’s Confessions. Ania Loomba describes what can be expected from colonial stereotypes. She says that racial stereotyping “goes back to the Greek and Roman periods,” but was “reworked during medieval and early modern Europe” in order to be compatible with the Bible (92). Depictions of the colonial other as black or dark are connected with “the Biblical association of blackness with the descendants of Ham, Noah’s bad son, and with the forces of evil,” among other things (92). We see this common aspect of stereotype exemplified by De Quincey in his meeting with the Malay, whose skin is “enamelled or veneered with mahogany” and whose “small, fierce, restless eyes” seem demonic (63). Juxtaposed to the Malay is the “exquisite fairness” of the little English girl (63). The pure and beautiful familiar is contrasted with the dark and evil other, exemplifying the constructed binary described by Bhabha. Loomba also notes that stereotypes held by Europeans about non-Europeans tend to be similar across different cultures. For example “laziness, aggression, violence, greed, sexual promiscuity” among others are attributed by the Europeans to “Turks, Africans, Native Americans, Jews, Indians, the Irish, and others” (93). De Quincey highlights the sexual threat of the Malay, who “had placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish,” while his potential for aggression is noted when he is likened to a “tiger-cat” (63), in line with what Loomba describes as the generic stereotype of the colonial other. When we consider that stereotypes are similar for different cultures, the constructedness of the stereotypes employed by De Quincey is emphasized.
De Quincey’s use of stereotype is also evident when his defensiveness about opium consumption returns. He tries to separate Oriental opium use from his own kind of use. Indeed, in the title to his work De Quincey begins this quest to differentiate himself by adding the epithet ‘English’ to his self-described status as an ‘Opium-Eater’. He is attempting to qualify his opium use and distance himself from the Oriental to allow his oriental-influenced habits to position himself in the ‘English’ side of his binary. Despite his efforts, the infiltration of the Orient into his life through opium is inescapable. He later describes how his opium use is intellectual: he goes to the opera and experiences “choruses” which “were divine to hear” but questions “whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure [he] had” (50). Rather, “Turkish opium-eaters, it seems, are absurd enough to sit […] on logs of wood as stupid as themselves” (49). His repetition of the difference between English and Turkish opium use is an example of the forced reiteration of an unprovable stereotype.
It is not enough, however, to highlight the use of stereotype and expose its limitations. Bhabha proposes that criticism should shift from “the ready recognition of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse” because judging “the stereotyped image on the basis of a prior political normativity is to dismiss it, not to displace it” (95). In other words, it is not enough to recognise the use of stereotype and to condemn it; one must consider its effect and utility in colonial discourse. While unfavourable stereotypes justify the assertion of European dominance over colonised groups, they also work as a mechanism for defining the colonising power as the opposite of the colonial other (96). Barrell explains this phenomenon, positing that “the abundantly decorated surfaces of the artefacts of Turkey, Egypt, Persia, India and China” were “particularly valuable and easy to appropriate,” yet the imagery was “not understood and not thought worth understanding” (8). Their incomprehensible and yet beautiful decoration caused them to “become the very opposite of what they appeared to be – blank screens on which could be projected whatever it was that the inhabitants of Europe, individually or collectively, wanted to displace, and to represent as other to themselves” (Barrell 8). The colonising society decides what it wants to be, and arbitrarily paints the colonised society as its opposite. Lack of comprehension of the colonial other allows the colonizer to cast it in whatever role it sees as opposite to itself.
Bhabha’s theory of hybridity, however, shows that stereotyping in colonial discourse does not exist in a vacuum. “Hybridity,” he writes “is the sign of the productivity of colonial power” as well as “the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminatory identities that secure the ‘pure’ and original identity of authority)” (159). Furthermore, it “displays the necessary deformation and displacement of all sites of discrimination and domination” (159). That is, neither party emerges from the colonial encounter unchanged. So as much as De Quincey may try to maintain his constructed binary, it will never accurately describe either his culture or the Orient. Colonial discourse, of which stereotype plays a large part, simultaneously tries to fit the colonised into the fixed box of the ‘other’ and the colonising authority into its opposite. Neither the defined role of the self nor that of the other is as fixed as colonial discourse would like to make us believe: there are both more and fewer differences than this discourse allows. This type of discourse also subjects the colonising power to the threatened ‘return of the look’, wherein hybridity “unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power” (Bhabha 160).
In De Quincey’s Confessions, Bhabha’s hybridity and return of the gaze are seen in his Asiatic opium dreams, in combination with stereotype. De Quincey does demonstrate a certain respect for “Asiatic things” because of the “antiquity […] of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c.” (De Quincey 81). He raises Oriental culture above that of “Africa,” which he calls “wild, barbarous, and capricious,” and likens “a young Chinese” man to “an antediluvian man renewed” (81). While he does demonstrate an appreciation for the Oriental in this case, he simultaneously engages in stereotyping. While he recognises that Asian cultures are as long-established as Western ones, in referring to their “antiquity” and describing their people as “antediluvian,” he is characterizing them as halted in the past. It seems that for De Quincey, while the traditions of these cultures are rich, they are also primitive, their people stuck in the days of the Old Testament.
De Quincey’s anxiety about the East is evident in this passage: his transportation to Asia inspires “horror” (80). He is “terrified by the modes of life” in China, and claims to have experienced “unimaginable horror” (81). In his previous encounter with the Malay, De Quincey observed the East, but in his dreams he is forced to experience it and in some cases to become it, exemplifying Bhabha’s concept of hybridity. This time, De Quincey becomes “the idol” and “the priest.” He is “worshipped” and “sacrificed” (81). It is his body which is “buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins with mummies and sphynxes” (82). In these dreams De Quincey is changed by the East. The stereotype no longer works as a mechanism for him to distance himself from the East and assert his dominance over it.
We also see in these dreams an example of the return of the look. As I have described, De Quincey is at first terrified by his dreams. Then, “sooner or later, [comes] a reflux of feeling that swallow[s] up the astonishment, and le[aves him], not so much in terror, as in hatred and abomination of what [he sees]” (82). As he sees the East more and more as a part of himself, he starts to hate what he sees and, consequently, he hates what the opium is doing to him. What he begins to hate is the presence of the East within himself. Hybridity is also present in the recurring image of the crocodile, which is anthropomorphised. Other animals are presented as objects of horror. “Monkeys,” “paroquets,” “cockatoos” (81), as well as other “ugly birds” and “snakes,” but these are only listed as inactive images (82). The crocodile, on the other hand, infects De Quincey with its “cancerous kisses” who is “compelled to live with him” as it threatens him with its “leering eyes” (82). The crocodile in these opium dreams reminds us of the mail-coachman in De Quincey’s The English Mail-Coach, who after being noted to have “one particularity […] in which he too much resembled a crocodile” actually becomes a crocodile in later dreams (De Quincey 207; 209). This human-crocodile hybrid is symbolic of De Quincey’s own hybrid identity: he cannot escape the Orient because it can control his life by infecting him or compelling him to live with it, and by infiltrating society with its human form.
Other critics point to the crocodile as an example of De Quincey’s hybrid identity. Indeed, Barrell considers De Quincey’s use of the crocodile in Confessions as well as in The English Mail-Coach to be a “mise-en-scène […] of De Quincey’s horrified discovery that his is (to use Homi Bhabha’s term) a hybrid identity; that is relation with an imaginary East […] is a relation (at best) of symbiotic interdependence” (18). That is, the crocodile’s recurrence shows that De Quincey’s efforts to distance himself from the East through his use of stereotype has failed. De Quincey cannot escape the colonial encounter unchanged. Thomas Schmid notes that “this crocodile is not even necessarily going to go away with the onset of waking consciousness and its usually reliable, aminergically-driven aptitude for linear, logical thought. This crocodile is going to keep coming back” (37).
Confessions presents another useful example of hybridity in De Quincey’s earlier opium use. When he sets out on “Saturday nights, after [he has] taken opium” to wander through London, he finds the city’s “knotty problems of alleys,” “enigmatical entries” and “sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares” so foreign and untamed that he likens himself to early settlers exploring British colonial territories (52-53). He attempts to navigate by “fixing [his] eye on the pole-star” and looks for the “north-west passage” such that he fancies himself “the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae” (53). When De Quincey becomes the coloniser, London becomes the Orient. The many human faces he sees on these journeys return in later years to haunt him. This passage is echoed later in his dreams in which “the sea appear[s] paved with innumerable faces” and again in his Asiatic dreams where he reflects that “Asia is, and has been for thousands of years, the part of the earth most swarming with human life” (80; 81). It is not only De Quincey who is losing his identity because of the colonial encounter, London also espouses a hybrid identity. Thus the Orient seems to present a threat to De Quincey personally, as well as British society as a whole.
David Higgins writes that this hybridity constitutes a “dissolution of boundaries” for De Quincey (291). “The boundaries between human and inhuman frequently break down” when he is “alienated from humanity by his nightmarish addiction” (290). There seems to be a deep connection in Confessions between representations of the Orient and De Quincey’s opium addiction. It is opium that transports him to the Orient in his dreams, it is opium that creates the recurring crocodile, and it is opium that makes London feel like a terra incognita. Higgins notes that De Quincey’s contemporary Charles Lamb had anxieties about the Orient which “had much to do with his work as a clerk for the East India Company – a career that he sometimes represented as a sort of living death – and his awareness that […] he relied on imperialism for his ‘bread and cheese’” (288-289). De Quincey similarly relies on imperialism to fuel his debilitating opium addiction. When the crocodile returns in his dreams, it is perhaps a reminder of, or symbolic of, this addiction which refuses to leave him alone. The crocodile follows him in his dreams as his obsession for opium follows him in his life. As opium becomes inseparable from De Quincey’s life, the Orient becomes inseparable from De Quincey’s new hybrid identity.
To conclude, let us return to De Quincey’s use of stereotype. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey’s consumption of opium, associated with the Orient, problematizes his self-identification as a colonial Englishman. In vain, he calls himself an ‘English Opium-Eater’ to qualify his use of the substance and to reaffirm his own Englishness. To ease his anxiety about the effects of consuming an Oriental product, De Quincey employs stereotypes to represent the Orient as the ‘other’ and to define himself as different from it: he places himself and the Orient on opposite ends of a binary, with himself in the superior position. These efforts, however, must be unsuccessful because the colonial encounter affects both the colonizer and the colonized from the start, as Homi Bhabha details in his theory of hybridity. For both England in its encounters with Asia and De Quincey in his encounters with opium, contact with the Orient creates a hybrid identity that no amount of stereotyping can deny, no matter how many times it is anxiously repeated.
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