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Thomas De Quincey - On Murder (Oxford World's Classics)


内容提示: oxford world’s classicsON MURDERThomas De Quincey (1785–1859) was born in Manchester to aprosperous linen merchant. As a young boy he read widely andacquired a reputation as a brilliant classicist. At 17 he ran away fromManchester Grammar School and spent five harrowing monthspenniless and hungry on the streets of London. Reconciled with hisfamily, he entered Oxford University in 1803, but left five years laterwithout taking his degree and moved to the English Lake District tobe near his two literary i...

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oxford world’s classicsON MURDERThomas De Quincey (1785–1859) was born in Manchester to aprosperous linen merchant. As a young boy he read widely andacquired a reputation as a brilliant classicist. At 17 he ran away fromManchester Grammar School and spent five harrowing monthspenniless and hungry on the streets of London. Reconciled with hisfamily, he entered Oxford University in 1803, but left five years laterwithout taking his degree and moved to the English Lake District tobe near his two literary idols, William Wordsworth and SamuelTaylor Coleridge. In 1813 he became dependent on opium, a drughe began experimenting with during his days at Oxford, and overthe next few years he slid deeper into debt and addiction. His mostfamous work, Conf essions of an English Opium-Eater, appeared in theLondon Magazine in 1821, and launched his career as a contributorto the leading magazines of the day, where he wrote on a widevariety of subjects, including politics, literature, history, philosophy,and economics. In 1823 he published his most famous piece ofliterary criticism, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, inwhich he explored the representation and psychology of violence.Four years later in Blackwood’s Magazine he published his brilliantexercise in black humour, ‘On Murder Considered as One of theFine Arts’, which he followed with a ‘Second Paper On Murder’ in1839 and a ‘Postscript’ in 1854. De Quincey also wrote terror fic-tion, and in 1838 produced ‘The Avenger’, his most disturbingtreatment of retribution and racial violence. De Quincey spentmuch of his life battling poverty, debt, and addiction, but his workwas widely admired, and British and American editions of hiswritings began to appear in the 1850s. He died in Edinburgh on8 December 1859.Robert Morrison is Professor of English literature at Queen’sUniversity, Kingston, Ontario. He has edited writings by LeighHunt, Richard Woodhouse, and Jane Austen. With Chris Baldick,he produced editions of The V ampyre and Other Tales of the Macabreand Tales of Terror f rom Blackwood’s Magazine for Oxford World’sClassics. oxford world’s classicsFor over 100 years Oxf ord World’s Classics have broughtreaders closer to the world’s great literature. Now with over 700titles––f rom the 4,000-year-old myths of Mesopotamia to thetwentieth century’s greatest novels––the series makes availablelesser-known as well as celebrated writing.The pocket-sized hardbacks of the early years containedintroductions by Virginia Woolf , T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene,and other literary figures which enriched the experience of reading.Today the series is recognized f or its fine scholarship andreliability in texts that span world literature, drama and poetry,religion, philosophy and politics. Each edition includes perceptivecommentary and essential background inf ormation to meet thechanging needs of readers. OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICSTHOMAS DE QUINCEYOn MurderEdited with an Introduction and Notes byROBERT MORRISON1 3Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6dpOxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship,and education by publishing worldwide inOxford New YorkAuckland Cape Town Dar es Salaam Hong Kong KarachiKuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City NairobiNew Delhi Shanghai Taipei TorontoWith offices inArgentina Austria Brazil Chile Czech Republic France GreeceGuatemala Hungary Italy Japan Poland Portugal SingaporeSouth Korea Switzerland Thailand Turkey Ukraine VietnamOxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Pressin the UK and in certain other countriesPublished in the United Statesby Oxford University Press Inc., New YorkEditorial matter © Robert Morrison 2006The moral rights of the author have been assertedDatabase right Oxford University Press (maker)First published as an Oxford World’s Classics paperback 2006All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press,or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriatereprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproductionoutside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department,Oxford University Press, at the address aboveYou must not circulate this book in any other binding or coverand you must impose this same condition on any acquirerBritish Library Cataloguing in Publication DataData availableLibrary of Congress Cataloging in Publication DataData availableTypeset in Ehrhardtby RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, SuffolkPrinted in Great Britain byClays Ltd., St. Ives plcISBN 0–19–280566–5978–0–19–280566–91 CONTENTSAcknowledgementsviIntroductionviiNote on the TextxxviiiSelect BibliographyxxixA Chronology of Thomas De QuinceyxxxiiiOn the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth3On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts8The Avenger35Second Paper on Murder Considered as One of theFine Arts81Postscript [to On Murder Considered as One of theFine Arts]95Appendixes. Manuscript WritingsA. Peter Anthony Fonk143B. To the Editor of Blackwood’s Magazine155C. A New Paper on Murder as a Fine Art161Explanatory Notes166 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSLike all critics of De Quincey, I am deeply indebted to GrevelLindop, who developed the idea for this volume, and who hasrepeatedly challenged and broadened my understanding of DeQuincey. I would also like to thank Judith Luna for her enthusiasmand support. For expertise and advice of all kinds, I am grateful toChris Baldick, Bonnie Brooks, Iain Brown, Jeff Cowton, MichaelCummings, Jeff Eckert, Robert Freeman, Louis Godbout, CliffordJackman, Heather Jackson, Robin Jackson, Adam Johnstone, MarkJones, Frank Jordan, Bernard Kavanagh, Larry Krupp, Justin JaronLewis, Charles Mahoney, Julian North, Seamus Perry, WilliamReeve, Christopher Ricks, David Smith, Paul Stanwood, BarrySymonds, Beert Verstraete, Paul Wiens, and Romira Worvill. Specialthanks to Brandon Alakas for his hard work, insightful questions,and meticulous scholarship. I am indebted to the staffs of severallibraries: the National Library of Scotland; the Dove Cottage Library,Grasmere; and the Countway Library of Medicine, HoughtonLibrary, and Widener Library, Harvard University. I would espe-cially like to thank the staffs of the Joseph S. Stauffer Library andthe W. D. Jordan Special Collections, Douglas Library, Queen’sUniversity. My research on this edition was greatly facilitated bygenerous grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities ResearchCouncil of Canada and the Advisory Research Committee ofQueen’s University.My greatest debt, comme toujours, is to Carole, Zachary, andAlastair. INTRODUCTION‘May I quote Thomas De Quincey?’ asks the murderer politely inPeter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. ‘In the pages ofhis essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” I firstlearned of the Ratcliffe Highway deaths, and ever since that time hiswork has been a source of perpetual delight and astonishment tome.’1 De Quincey burst onto the literary scene in 1821 with his best-known publication, Conf essions of an English Opium-Eater, and in thedecades that followed he produced works of fiction, biography, andvarious modes of autobiography, as well as essays on a remarkablydiverse range of topics, from literary theory, science, and politicaleconomics to philology, geography, philosophy, and history. PerhapsDe Quincey’s most thoroughgoing preoccupation, however, was vio-lence. He wrote often of murderers, exploiting sources from Romanbiographies to contemporary newspapers, but at the centre of hisfascination stands John Williams, the presumed killer in 1811 ofseven people in two different incidents separated by only twelve daysand a few city streets in London’s East End. De Quincey’s responseto Williams’s attacks were written over the course of more thanthirty years, and ranged from penetrating literary and aesthetic criti-cism to disturbing fictive transpositions, brilliantly funny satiric highjinks, and gruesomely vivid reportage. The works collected in thisvolume brought De Quincey great contemporary notoriety, andinspired a long line of writers on crime, detection, aesthetics, andviolence. They also hold a peculiar appeal to the modern reader,for they presage academic and popular assaults on conventionalmorality, the highly diverse commodification of violence, and theworld-weariness that regards the spectacle of murder with bothcynicism and fascination.De Quincey’s keen interest in violence and crime is part of a broadand longstanding tradition in Britain and well beyond. ‘If all novelsand dramas turning upon startling crimes were to be expunged fromour literature, we should have to make a surprisingly clean sweep,’remarked Leslie Stephen in ‘The Decay of Murder’ (1869). ‘Hamlet1Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (London, 1994), 30. and Othello and King Lear would have to go at once.’2 In the seven-teenth century highly popular broadsheets, pamphlets, and squibsdescribing gruesome murders and execution scenes were typicallyframed by a piously insistent morality which made clear that badguys finish last. Providential fictions such as John Reynolds’s Triumphof God’s Revenge (1621–35) featured a wrathful God who smotesinners, and combined ‘impassioned Moralizing’ with a ‘heart &soul . . . swallowed up in the notion of “Murder” ’, as Samuel TaylorColeridge observed.3 By the eighteenth century notorious thievessuch as John Sheppard and Dick Turpin had become favouritefigures in ballads, plays, romances, and burlesques, while the firstNewgate Calendar (1773), running to five volumes and dealing withthe violent excesses of dozens of major criminals, fed a voraciouspublic appetite and spawned many imitations. John Villette’s Annalsof Newgate (1776) extended the pattern of blending violence andmorality ‘to expose . . . the infamy and punishments naturallyattending those who deviate from the paths of virtue’.4 At the sametime, the novel was evolving in close connection with criminality andtransgression. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) is a tale of thieverywhich ends in murder and remorse, while Henry Fielding’s JonathanWild (1743) is a fictionalized version of the life of the infamouscriminal executed in 1725. The maudlin extremes of the novel ofsentiment culminated in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows ofYoung Werther (1774), where the eponymous hero, ravaged by hope-less passion and half in love with death, put a bullet through his headand touched off a suicide epidemic across Europe. The gothicism ofHorace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Lewis’s TheMonk (1796), Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), and CharlotteDacre’s Zofloya (1805) employed the paraphernalia of dungeons,castles, subterranean passageways, virtuous maidens, and tormentedvillains, but had at their heart a preoccupation with emotionalextremity, brutal usurpation, and murderous vengeance. The noblecriminal at war with society dominated works from FriedrichSchiller’s Robbers (1781) to Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830), while2Leslie Stephen, ‘The Decay of Murder’, Cornhill Magazine, 20 (December 1869),722.3The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Marginalia IV, ed. H. J. Jacksonand George Whalley (Princeton, 1998), 237–8.4Laurence Senelick, The Prestige of Evil: The Murderer as Romantic Hero f rom Sadeto Lacenaire (New York, 1987), p. xviii.Introductionviii English writers such as William Blake, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley,and Percy Shelley produced re-evaluations of mythic rebels likePrometheus and Cain. In the early 1830s Newgate novels by EdwardBulwer Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth featured compas-sionate or glamorized portraits of actual eighteenth-century thievesand murderers, and provoked responses such as Charles Dickens’sOliver Twist (1837–8) and William Thackeray’s Catherine (1839–40),both of which presented a harshly realistic view of criminal life.De Quincey’s interest in violence, and especially murder, played akey role in the evolution of crime literature, and was persistent,various, and wide-ranging. He surveyed the distant past for strikingexamples of murder, and highlighted in particular the RomanEmperors Caligula and Nero, the Judaean King Herod the Great,and the Thugs of India, a confederacy of professional assassins that‘gave rise to endless speculation’ in De Quincey, as his publisherJames Hogg put it. ‘The far-reaching power of this mysteriousbrotherhood, the swiftness and certainty of its operations, the strangegradations of official rank, and the curious disguises adopted––allthese exercised an influence on his mind which seemed never towane.’5 De Quincey had an extensive knowledge of seventeenth- andeighteenth-century gallows writing, including cases such as ‘the oldParisian jeweller Cardillac, in Louis XIV.’s time, who was stung witha perpetual lust for murdering the possessors of fine diamonds’.6 Asa young man, De Quincey was an enthusiastic reader of the NewgateCalendar, and a great admirer of the gothic fantasies of Schiller,Lewis, and especially Radcliffe, whom he described as ‘the greatenchantress’ of a generation.7 As a writer, he frequently examinedliterary texts through the lens of crime, as when he observed that‘the archangel Satan’ in Milton’s Paradise Lost must contend with an‘angelic . . . constable or an inspector of police’8 stationed at thegates of Paradise. During his editorship of the Westmorland Gazette(1818–19) De Quincey filled the columns of the newspaper withassize reports and lurid murder stories, and over the next forty years5James Hogg, De Quincey and his Friends (London, 1895), 174.6The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Nine, ed. Grevel Lindop, RobertMorrison, and Barry Symonds (London, 2001), 46.7The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Two, ed. Grevel Lindop (London, 2000),146.8The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Eighteen, ed. Edmund Baxter (London,2001), 35–6.Introductionix paid close attention to the trials and circumstances of several notori-ous murderers, including William Burke and William Hare, WilliamPalmer, Madeleine Smith, and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, whodined with De Quincey in London in 1821 and later revealed himselfas ‘a murderer of a freezing class; cool, calculating, wholesale in hisoperations, and moving all along under the advantages of unsuspect-ing domestic confidence and domestic opportunities’.9No killer, however, captured De Quincey’s imagination like JohnWilliams, the man thought responsible for two horrendous acts ofcarnage in late 1811. Near midnight on Saturday, 7 December,Williams entered Timothy Marr’s lace and pelisse warehouse at 29Ratcliffe Highway. Once inside he locked the door, and within amatter of minutes ruthlessly dispatched all four inhabitants. Theservant girl, Margaret Jewell (called ‘Mary’ by De Quincey), hadbeen sent out to fetch dinner, and when she returned to find the doorlocked she raised the alarm. A neighbour gained entry at the back ofthe house and the front door was quickly opened. Eyewitnesses sawMarr’s wife Celia sprawled lifelessly headlong. Marr himself wasdead behind the store counter. The apprentice James Gowen wasstretched out in the back near a door that led to a staircase. Mostsinisterly, downstairs in the kitchen, three-month-old TimothyMarr, junior, was found dead. ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradlethan nurse unacted desires,’ wrote William Blake in The Marriage ofHeaven and Hell.10 Williams took Blake at his word. He crushedthe skulls and cut the throats of all four victims. Twelve days later––again around midnight, again in the same East London area––Williams struck again, this time at the household of a publican namedJohn Williamson. ‘A man named Williams does quite accidentallymurder a man named Williamson,’ observed G. K. Chesterton; ‘itsounds like a sort of infanticide.’11 Williams’s attack on this secondoccasion was not as successful, but his savagery was equally chilling.Williamson himself was found dead in the cellar. He had apparentlybeen thrown down the stairs. His throat was cut. His wife Elizabethand the maid Anna Bridget Harrington were discovered on the main9The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Sixteen, ed. Robert Morrison (London,2003), 388.10The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, commentaryby Harold Bloom (New York, 1982), 38.11G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown: A Selection, ed. W. W. Robson (Oxford, 1995), 6.Introductionx floor, their skulls battered and their throats slit. A lodger named JohnTurner, however, managed to escape by climbing out of a third-floorwindow and calling for help. An angry crowd gathered, but by thetime they entered the house Williams had fled. Kitty Stillwell, the14-year-old granddaughter of the Williamsons, had been asleepupstairs the entire time. She was unharmed. Several suspects werearrested in connection with the atrocities, including Williams, whowas detained on 22 December and who was founded hanged in hisprison cell four days later, an apparent suicide. The court chose tohear the evidence against him, but the circumstances of his deathwere widely interpreted as a confession of guilt. On New Year’s EveWilliams’s body was publicly exhibited in a procession through theRatcliffe Highway and then driven to the nearest crossroads, where itwas forced into a narrow hole and a stake driven through the heart.In response to these horrors, Leigh Hunt wrote of ‘Watchmen’ andthe dangers of ‘such ferocious fellows as Williams’, while RobertSouthey told a friend that ‘no circumstances which did not concernmyself ever disturbed me so much. I . . . never had so mingled afeeling of horror, and indignation, and astonishment, with a sense ofinsecurity too’.12 Not everyone, however, adopted this solemn tone.When Charles Lamb asked his friend George Dyer ‘what he thoughtof the terrible Williams, the Ratcliffe Highway murderer’, there was a‘pause for consideration’ and then ‘the answer came: “I should think,Mr Lamb, he must have been rather an eccentric character” ’.13De Quincey’s reaction to Williams and the Ratcliffe murdersranged from impassioned solemnity to black humour, and the essaysand fictions of the present volume are all haunted by his presence,sometimes directly, sometimes only in outline. De Quincey pub-lished ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’ in the LondonMagazine in 1823, just two years after he had launched himself tonotoriety in the same magazine with the publication of his Conf es-sions of an English Opium-Eater. ‘On the Knocking’ is his most cele-brated piece of literary criticism, and brings the murderer and thewriter into the same orbit, for both are interested in pleasure andpower, and both seek freedom by outstripping or subverting thesocial institutions they feel thwart or confine them. Shakespeare and12Leigh Hunt, ‘Watchmen’, The Examiner, 212 (19 January 1812), 33; Selectionsf rom the Letters of Robert Southey, ed. J. W. Warter, 4 vols. (London, 1856), ii. 248.13E. V. Lucas, The Lif e of Charles Lamb, 2 vols. (London, 1905), i. 163.Introductionxi Williams are both creators of bloody dramas, great artists who per-form upon the stage of London, and awe their audiences withsupreme moments of self-assertion and violence. ‘Murder is nega-tive creation’, writes W. H. Auden, ‘and every murderer is thereforethe rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent.’14 In ‘On theKnocking’, De Quincey characteristically approaches Williams fromat least two different angles. On the one hand, he introduces thesatiric aesthetic that enables him to see Williams’s performance ‘onthe stage of Ratcliffe Highway’ as ‘making the connoisseur in mur-der very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with any thing thathas been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by thedeep crimson of his’ (p. 4). The essays ‘On Murder’ that followspring from the seedbed of this aesthetic. Yet on the other hand, thecircumstances surrounding Williams’s extreme brutality reveal toDe Quincey the emotional impact of a particular moment inMacbeth, and lead also to reflections on the psychology of murderand the representation of violence. ‘Murder in ordinary cases . . . isan incident of coarse and vulgar horror,’ he asserts; ‘and for this rea-son––that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural butignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.’ Such an attitude is ill-suited to ‘the purposes of the poet’, and so Shakespeare throws ‘theinterest on the murderer’, where ‘there must be raging some greatstorm of passion,––jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred,––whichwill create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look’(pp. 4–5). In an 1818 essay, William Hazlitt remarked that ‘at presentwe are less exposed to the vicissitudes of good or evil. . . . The policespoils all; and we now hardly so much as dream of a midnight mur-der. Macbeth is only tolerated in this country for the sake of themusic.’15 De Quincey, however, dreamt often of midnight murder,and in his response to Hazlitt he reveals Macbeth as a play wherethe world of violence is ‘cut off by an immeasurable gulph from theordinary tide and succession of human affairs’ (p. 6), and where themind of murder is acutely and unnervingly revealed.Within two years of publishing ‘On the Knocking’ De Quinceyhad left the London Magazine, and by 1826 he had returned to14W. H. Auden, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, in The Complete Works of W . H. Auden,4 vols. (1988––continuing), iv. 265.15The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London, 1930–4),v. 10.Introductionxii Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, where he had begun his career as amagazinist in 1819. Blackwood’s, with its owner William Blackwoodas editor and De Quincey’s closest friend John Wilson as lead writer,was the most exuberant, popular, and unpredictable magazine of theage. It prized erudition, outrage, irony, and extremity, combiningurbanity and elitism with what De Quincey described as a ‘spirit ofjovial and headlong gaiety’ that meant ‘an occasional use of streetslang was not out of harmony’.16 The magazine is most frequentlycited for its truculent Toryism and vitriolic assaults on the so-called‘Cockney School of Poetry’, which included Leigh Hunt and JohnKeats, but it also published some remarkably insightful literary criti-cism, especially on William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, and itwas famous for the concentrated dread and precisely calculatedalarm which shaped its tales of terror and guilt, many of which werewritten by distinguished authors, including Walter Scott, John Galt,James Hogg, and of course De Quincey himself.17 De Quinceyreviewed Robert Gillies’s edition of German Stories in Blackwood’sfor December 1826, and offered readers a characteristic blend ofmirth, scholarship, wit, and colloquiality. Several of the tales inGillies’s collection turned upon the ‘appalling interest of secret andmysterious murder’, but in other instances De Quincey could notavoid a more humorous tack: ‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink teawith your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling inthe tea-urn.’18 In 1828 Blackwood complained that he ‘always’ had ‘asuperabundance of what may be called good articles’, but what hewanted were ‘articles which have some distinctive or superiorcast about them’.19 In early 1827 he published De Quincey’sengaging assessments of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and ImmanuelKant, but De Quincey’s next essay––‘On Murder Considered as Oneof the Fine Arts’––revealed how fully he could exploit the Blackwood’scontext of irony, subversion, and extravagance. In the words of16The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Seven, ed. Robert Morrison (London,2000), 80.17See Tales of Terror f rom Blackwood’s Magazine, ed. Robert Morrison and ChrisBaldick (Oxford, 1995).18The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Six, ed. David Groves and GrevelLindop (London, 2000), 19, 15–16.19Irene Mannion, ‘Criticism “Con Amore”: A Study of Blackwood’s Magazine1817–1834’, Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1984, 102.Introductionxiii Edgar Allan Poe, De Quincey knew ‘How to Write a BlackwoodArticle’.20‘On Murder’ seizes on the satiric and artistic approach to murderthat De Quincey introduced in ‘On the Knocking’, pushing the logicof such a rationale in ways that are both disturbing and seductive,and submerging the ethical to the aesthetic. ‘Everything in this worldhas two handles,’ he argues with the deadpan aplomb that gives theessay such energy. ‘Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by itsmoral handle . . . and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also betreated aesthetically . . . that is, in relation to good taste’ (pp. 10–11).De Quincey was not the first to employ such a breezy and ironizedattitude toward violence and crime. In John Gay’s The Beggar’sOpera (1728), Peachum notes that ‘Murder is as fashionable a Crimeas a Man can be guilty of. How many fine Gentlemen have we inNewgate every Year, purely upon that Article!’21 Denis Diderot’snarrator in Rameau’s Nephew (written 1761–74) begins ‘to find irk-some the presence of a man who discussed a horrible act, anexecrable crime, like a connoisseur of painting or poetry’.22 TheMarquis de Sade’s Juliette (1797) features ‘the Sodality of theFriends of Crime’, while in Thomas Love Peacock’s NightmareAbbey (1818), Mr Flosky asserts that ‘if a man knocks me down, andtakes my purse and watch by main force, I turn him to account, andset him forth in a tragedy as a dashing young fellow’.23 De Quincey’sviews on murder are also buttressed by a variety of philosophicalsources, including Aristotle’s notion of catharsis: ‘the final purposeof murder, considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as that ofTragedy, in Aristotle’s account of it, viz. “to cleanse the heart bymeans of pity and terror” ’ (p. 32). De Quincey also reworked andextended key eighteenth-century notions of the sublime. In A Philo-sophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beauti-f ul (1757), Edmund Burke describes a theatre audience anxiouslyawaiting the performance of ‘the most sublime and affecting tragedy’20‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’, in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed.Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1969–78), ii. 334–62.21John Gay, Dramatic Works, ed. John Fuller, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1983), ii. 7–8.22Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, trans. Leonard Tancock (Harmondsworth,1966), 97.23Marquis de Sade, Juliette, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York, 1968), 417;‘Nightmare Abbey’ in The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith andC. E. Jones (London, 1924–34), iii. 52.Introductionxiv when it is ‘reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the pointof being executed in the adjoining square’. The theatre of courseempties in a moment, demonstrating ‘the comparative weakness ofthe imitative arts’ and proclaiming ‘the triumph of real sympathy’.24Art and violence are again conjoined: Shakespeare is good, but thespectacle of public execution is better. In The Critique of Judgement(1790), Kant defines the sublime as that which does ‘violence to ourimagination’, and acknowledges that dreadful natural calamities––‘volcanoes with their all-destroying violence, hurricanes with thedevastation they leave behind’––may evoke the sublime ‘as long aswe find ourselves in safety’.25 De Quincey saw clearly the openingsand opportunities that such positions allowed, and he moved quicklydown a very slippery slope. For ‘once natural violence was con-sidered as a possible source of aesthetic experience,’ Joel Blackobserves, ‘what was to prevent human violence, which inspired per-haps even greater terror, from making aesthetic claims as well?’26 DeQuincey’s reply in ‘On Murder’ is ‘nothing’, and in the essay helaunches himself and his readers into an exhilarating and disorientat-ing world of irony and aesthetics. In 1829, two years after DeQuincey’s first essay ‘On Murder’ appeared, Walter Scott wasapproached by ‘one David Paterson’, who had worked for theEdinburgh anatomist Dr Robert Knox, and who had been involvedin buying bodies from the serial killers William Burke and WilliamHare. Paterson asked Scott if he was interested in writing about ‘theawfull tragedy of burke and hare’, and offered ‘sketches of one ortwo persons who I dair say will be promenent characters’. Scottdeclined with immediate and heartfelt disgust: ‘The scoundrel hasbeen the companion and patron of such atrocious murderers andkidnappers and he has the impudence to write to any decent man.’27De Quincey felt no such inhibitions. When faced with similaropportunities to explore and exploit contemporary murders, heembraced notoriety and gleefully ignored the ‘decent man’ in favourof the aesthete.24Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime andBeautif ul, ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford, 1990), 43.25Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge,2000), 129, 144.26Joel Black, The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature andContemporary Culture (Baltimore, 1991), 14.27The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. W. E. K. Anderson (Oxford, 1972), 542–3.Introductionxv Yet De Quincey’s subversion of morality is perhaps not as clean orcomplete as he would have us believe. In Conf essions of an EnglishOpium-Eater he grappled with similar issues, dismissing moralityand attempting to slip into the freedom of aesthetics. ‘Let no manexpect to frighten me, by a few hard words, into embarking . . . upondesperate adventures of morality,’ he declares. Earlier, he confessesit, ‘as a besetting infirmity of mine, that . . . I hanker too much aftera state of happiness. . . . I cannot face misery’.28 But De Quinceycannot escape misery either, and is repeatedly staggered by his ownsuffocating sense of humiliation and paralysis. ‘I had the power, if Icould raise myself, to will it’, he writes; ‘and yet again had not thepower, for the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon me, or theoppression of inexpiable guilt.’29 As hedonism collides with shame,De Quincey often half admits the very sin he is bent on denying:‘Guilt . . . I do not acknowledge: and, if I did, it is possible that Imight still resolve on the present act of confession.’30 A similardynamic is at work within ‘On Murder’. De Quincey wants theliberation and fun that comes from a temporary release from socialvalues, and he achieves this through a blandly outrageous misap-propriation of language, and a prolonged series of ironic deflations,substitutions, and inversions that enable him to keep morbidity atbay and graze the brink between comedy and horror. His remark that‘every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has eitherbeen murdered, or, at the least, been very near it’ initiates a hilarioussurvey, often tinged with fact, in which he observes that RenéDescartes was almost murdered by ‘professional men’, ThomasHobbes ‘was not murdered’ but ‘was three times very near beingmurdered’, Nicolas Malebranche was in fact murdered by GeorgeBerkeley, and Immanuel Kant ‘had a narrower escape from a mur-derer than any man we read of, except Des Cartes’ (pp. 16, 20, 23). Ina discussion of artistic preconception, De Quincey bemoans the factthat ‘people will not submit to have their throats cut quietly; theywill run, they will kick, they will bite; and, whilst the portrait painteroften has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist, inour line, is generally embarrassed by too much animation’ (p. 26).Such outrageously poker-faced lamentations run riot throughout theessay but, as in Conf essions, De Quincey in ‘On Murder’ only stays or28The Works of Thomas De Quincey: V olume Two, 232, 54.29Ibid. 73–4.30Ibid. 10.Introductionxvi upends ethical judgement: he does not escape it. As editor of theWestmorland Gazette, he justifies including dozens of assize reportsof murders and rapes because they teach ‘the more uneducatedclasses’ their ‘social duties’, and ‘present the best indications of themoral condition of society’.31 In ‘On Murder’, De Quincey insiststhat the victim ‘ought to be a good man’, and ‘severe good taste’demands that ‘the subject chosen ought also to have a family ofyoung children wholly dependent on his exertions’. The better theper...




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