Opium and Infinity

Anthroposophical Quarterly  14.3 (Autumn 1969)

‘O I have had a new world opened to me, in the infinity of my own Spirit!’ The voice is Coleridge’s; and without the context (a letter in 1813), one might take it for his own triumphant claim on behalf of his own profoundly spiritual philosophy. Alas, it is nothing of the sort:

O infinite in the depth of darkness, an infinite craving, an infinite capacity of pain and weakness … O God save me – save me from myself … driven up and down for seven dreadful days by restless Pain, like a Leopard in a Den, yet the anguish and remorse of Mind was worse than the pain of the whole Body – O I have had a new world opened to me, in the infinity of my own Spirit!

In Opium and the Romantic Imagination1 Miss Alethea Hayter sets herself a limited objective and achieves it with the authority and competence of an elegant and practised scholar. She will investigate the question: Does opium affect the creative processes of writers who use it? To that end she passes in review the opium habits of De Quincey. Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Crabbe, Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, Francis Thompson, Keats, and some other writers including Dickens and Scott, who took opium occasionally, and seeks with caution and humility to trace the effects, if any, of opium on the colour and quality of their imaginative power as expressed in their writings. Most readers will be surprised by the number of examples available to her, but in point of fact only a few of them – De Quincey, Coleridge, Poe, Baudelaire, Thompson – were ever addicted to the point of danger. Our surprise is further diminished when we reflect that, down to a time almost within living memory, laudanum, which is a mixture of opium and alcohol, was a common remedy, or ‘tranquiliser’, prescribed by doctors for all manner of minor ailments and was frequently administered to babies. It is surprising none the less to learn that Scott, for instance, who was in great pain while dictating The Bride of Lammermoor, was so far affected by the quantity of laudanum he took in order to keep himself going, that he could recall nothing of the book he had just composed, when he came to read the proofs.

The principal conclusion at which the book arrives, after sifting and weighing the evidence for some three hundred pages, is that opium, while it may ‘unbare some of the semi-conscious processes by which literature begins to be written’ actually originates nothing. ‘Opium works on what is already there in a man’s mind.’ It selects, emphasises, colours – or discolours – a given content of imagination. But the manner in which it operates is recognisably characteristic and can be identified to some extent in imaginative contents as different from each other as those of, for instance, Coleridge and Baudelaire. One and the same mental image may be either bright or macabre, according to the style in which it is handled, and (as every undrugged dreamer knows) the context in which it is embedded. Moreover, the images to which a writer actually gives expression have always been selected from a vast number of other potentially available to him. It is in her handling of the imagery employed by the writers with whom she deals, at such time as they may be presumed to have been more or less under the influence of opium, that Miss Hayter’s abundant skill and delicacy are most needed and are most evident.

Finally she herself selects one particular image as the most characteristically ‘opium’ one and beautifully elaborates it in her concluding chapter. It is the image of the buried temple – a vast, fantastically colonnaded and complex, infinitely soaring structure sunk beneath land or sea, of which the dreamer is the only occupant. Yet the temple is somehow also a prison. The opium-eater seeks infinity as a way out of the rough ravages of reality – but he is also seeking security – a word which has acquired a sinister double meaning in our totalitarian age. In the end opium mocks him by presenting him with infinity itself in the semblance of a prison from which there is only one way out:

Is this the floor? Is it quite solid beneath you? Are you sure it isn’t hollow? There is an opening there, there is a way down. It is not safe unless the floor, you need it, you must have it. You cannot stay here, you are not safe yet. You need to go down to where the floor will be solid, and keep you up. You need it. You must go on down.

So the book concludes. But some readers may go on to reflect on the curious resemblance between this temple-prison of the opium-dreamer and the ‘real’ world from which (and this is its link with Romanticism) it pretends above all to offer a way of escape. Inseparable from the opium experience are telescoped vastnesses of time and space:

Already you have been leaning for hours on this railing, looking down through the arches and flights of stairs. Perhaps it has been weeks, not hours; perhaps it has been centuries. … There is a great deal of time. It was only yesterday that you thought about it last, only a thousand years ago, only a moment ago.

The intuition of infinity which first appeared with the Renaissance, in Giordano Bruno for instance, was a predominantly spiritual one. But it has since become the mere unbridled immensities of the hypothetical Newton-Lyell-Darwin cosmos. Perhaps man has been on a solid earth for thousands of years, perhaps for millions, perhaps for billions. There is plenty of time. There is plenty of space – enough for light itself to acquire a ‘velocity’ through it.

One could walk about here for ever, it is so spacious and intricate. Across that bridge, and round the pillar, and up the spiral staircase, and along the vaulted tunnel, and over the drawbridge. It ends in mid-air, but that does not matter for you, of course, you can overcome that.

One could rocket about here for ever … round that orbit … and along that trajectory … but you must have a solid floor … you must have a space-ship, you need it, you must have it.

The opium vision appears as a grim caricature of what is itself already a caricature. ‘Infinity’ is not just a lot of time and space. It is outside of time and space by containing them. It cannot therefore be experienced in the body, whether with or without the help of drugs. There is in fact no other infinity but the freedom of the spirit, and that is to be won, not by extending the scope of the phenomenal world or travelling through it, but only in the fully conscious realisation that its being is one with man’s own inner being, or rather with that of the Christ within him. Paradoxically, it is that alone which gives to the real world its reality – the substantial ‘otherness’ from our finite selves, which the physicist’s world of waves and particles, no less than the gorgeous palaces of the opium-eater (where, as Miss Hayter puts it, ‘No identities are stable, they combine and engraft on each other’), keep uneasily hinting that they lack.

These things are all too easy to say, but they need saying over and over again, and (as Rudolf Steiner knew so well) in as many different contexts as possible, to an age which is experimenting more eagerly than ever with devices for crossing the threshold of the spiritual world without crossing it. And paradoxically again, it was Coleridge above all, among the Romantics, who strove to say them clearly and categorically in the two contexts of literature and philosophy. ‘The infinity of my own spirit’ came to have another meaning for him besides the spurious one evoked by the horrors of opium; and that other was precisely the universality, and therefore spiritual freedom, to be achieved by man as the apex of evolution. Man does not become freer and freer by travelling farther and farther out into the world of space or deeper and deeper into the confines of his own fancy. He is free because he is the world, and he will act freely in the measure that he shall have realised that identity.

These reflections are, of course, outside Miss Hayter’s frame of reference; but just because there was no place for it in her admirable book, one would like to add to the extract from Coleridge’s tortured letter, with which her chapter on him commences, an extract from his Hints towards a More Comprehensive Theory of Life, written three or four years later:

Man possesses the most perfect osseous structure, the least and most insignificant covering. The whole force of organic power has attained an inward and centripetal direction. He has the whole world in counterpoint to him, but he contains an entire world within himself. Now, for the first time at the apex of the living pyramid, it is Man and Nature, but Man himself is a syllepsis, a compendium of Nature – the Microcosm! Naked and helpless cometh man into the world. Such has been the complaint from eldest time; but we complain of our chief privilege, our ornament, and the connate mark of our sovereignty. Porphyrigeniti sumus!2 In Man the centripetal and individualising tendency of all Nature is itself concentred and individualised – he is the revelation of Nature! Henceforward he is referred to himself, delivered up to his own charge; and he who stands most on himself, and stands the firmest, is the truest, because the most individual Man. In social and political life this acme is inter-dependence; in moral life it is independence; in intellectual life it is genius.

Owen Barfield

1 London, Faber & Faber, 1968. Return.
2 ‘We are born in the purple’.
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.