August 12, 2020

Painting Phantoms on the Darkness with Thomas De Quincey and Herman Melville

By Stuart Mitchner

When Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out our power last Tuesday morning, I already had Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Herman Melville’s Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent close at hand, along with flashlights, battery-operated lanterns, and a portable CD player. Besides the fact that both writers have sailed similarly stormy seas of thought, I knew we’d be printing on August 12, three days before De Quincey’s August 15th birthday and two weeks after the 201st birthday of Herman Melville, who discovered the Opium Eater on his way to writing Moby-Dick.

Painting in the Dark

When Confessions first appeared in the September 1821 issue of London Magazine, elegantly addressed to the “Courteous Reader,” Melville was 2 years old, a reader in the making who would bond with the book in London shortly before Christmas 1849. A hop, skip, and a virtual jump later, it’s August 2020 and De Quincey’s lighting this grateful reader’s way through the after-midnight darkness of a power outage. Taking occasional breaks from the book, I become an impromptu cinematographer, moving the flashlight beam around the living room, poking holes in the darkness and zooming in on details: the densely shadowed corner of a print from Goya’s Disasters of War; a fragment of winding road on a large Art Nouveau vase; flowered fireplace tiles; the bronze glimmer of the andirons; and above the mantle an oil painting of a night scene by an unknown artist, a firelit shoreline, a boat being unloaded by spectral figures, the scene becoming gloomier, more sinister as the flashlight sweeps over it.

Picking up where I left off in the book, it’s as if De Quincey’s been reading my mind, setting the scene, asking if “the reader is aware” that children have the power of painting phantoms “upon the darkness,” a power that in some is “simply a mechanical affection of the eye” while “others have a voluntary or semi-voluntary power to dismiss or to summon them” (my italics because we were told the power would be restored by now, c’mon PSE&G, give us back our power, power, power!), and after a child informs De Quincey that when he tells the phantoms to go, they go, but that sometimes they come when he doesn’t want them to come, the Opium Eater assures him that he has “as unlimited a command over apparitions as a Roman centurion over his soldiers.” Picturing the confused and by now perhaps terrified child, I’m reminded this is the same man who was found by one of his daughters one evening sitting at his desk with his hair on fire.

Night Music

Meanwhile as De Quincey’s describing how a theater suddenly “lighted up” within his brain, presenting “nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour,” I’m busy putting together a phantasmal music hall of my own with some headphones and an Insignia CD-player from Best Buy.

Wishfully thinking that history might repeat itself, I’m tempted to begin my program of night music with Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, who was singing when the living room lights came suddenly gloriously on during the Superstorm Sandy power outage of 2012. I go with Moby’s Wait for Me instead, a more fitting choice anyway since Richard Melville Hall was named Moby at birth as a gesture to his great-great-great-great uncle’s signature work. Listening to the choral orchestral majesty of “A Seated Night” with headphones is the musical equivalent of a De Quincey ecstasy, or, more to the point, a Ralph Vaughan Williams fantasia created on equipment in a Lower East Side apartment by a former club DJ who wrote the background music for the first year of the 21st century. By 2009, Moby wanted to focus on making something that he loved, “without really being concerned about how it might be received by the marketplace.” The result, according to his online diary, is “a quieter and more melodic and more mournful and more personal record” not to mention that “some of the songs sound pretty amazing in headphones.”

It’s all the more amazing to have heard “A Seated Night” for the first time 33,000 feet above the Atlantic on a flight to England. Never mind the superlatives, everything’s richer, deeper, darker with music of “more than earthly splendour” in your ears while you paint flashlight phantoms on the walls of a pitch-dark living room.

“The Fun of Life”

Thanks to Melville’s oldest grandchild (presumably Moby’s great-great aunt) Eleanor Melville Metcalf, I’ve been reading around in Cycle and Epicycle (Harvard 1953), her collection of Melville’s correspondence, along with the aforementioned Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent (Harvard 1948), which she edited and annotated with a nicely balanced mixture of familial pride and sweetly earnest scholarly diligence. Toward the end of Cycle and Epicycle, she offers a “more personal” view of her grandfather in her account of childhood outings to Central Park, where “the joy of all existence was best expressed by running down the hills, head back, skirts flying in the wind” while he followed “more slowly” behind her, calling, “Look out, or the cop may catch you!” Four decades later, “Tittery-Eye” (his nickname for her) expresses her sense of “the man who moves through these pages” with an epigraph from the British writer, H.M. Tomlinson: “Our peering curiosity is the measure of his mastership. His contribution to the fun of life, and his deepening of its mystery, only quicken interest in his person, and desire to examine his relics for traces of his secrets.”

“A Most Wondrous Book”

The traces of Melville’s secrets I found in the Journal date to his last weekend in London before the return voyage to America. While he’s not averse to the use of superlatives, as when referring to a “glorious dinner” now and then, there’s nothing remotely comparable to his enthusiasm for De Quincey’s Confessions. On December 21, 1849, while waiting in someone’s office, where he’d gone “to see about my money,” he “ran out, & at last got hold of ‘The Opium Eater’ & began it in the office. A wonderful thing, that book.” On the afternoon of Sunday December 23, he’s so wrapped up “reading the ‘Opium Eater’ by the fire,” that he’s forced to “employ a fashionable … evasion of visitors.” The next entry is at 3:30 p.m.: “Have just this moment finished the ‘Opium Eater.’ A most wondrous book.” The next, penultimate entry begins “After finishing the marvelous book yesterday, sallied out for a walk about dusk.”

“The Counterpane”

Considering that Melville binged on The Opium Eater the last week of the year before he began writing Moby-Dick, a reader can find immediate evidence of De Quincey’s presence in introductory material like the “Etymology” supplied by the pale Usher who “loved to dust the old grammars” that “somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality” and in the prose of the introductory “Extract” supplied by a Sub-Sub Librarian, “who appears to have gone  through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane.”

The symbiotic electricity is most evident in the passage from the fourth chapter, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael awakens with Queequeg’s arm thrown over him and recalls a childhood moment that seems haunted by De Quincey’s passage about painting phantoms on the darkness:

“At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it — half steeped in dreams

— I opened my eyes, and the before sunlit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side.”

Backyard Theatrics

We have several outdoor variations on the phantom theatre that suddenly “lighted up” within DeQuincey’s brain, presenting us with daily spectacles of “more than earthly splendour.” We’re down to two avian venues after a raccoon nicknamed Hurricane Rocky for the Beatles song toppled the original Edwardian music hall and a skinny replacement billed as the “squirrel buster.” As for the suet feeder, which still has to be brought in overnight to prevent nocturnal raids, the theater analogy doesn’t quite hold; you might as well try staging a play in a knight’s visored helmet.

Deprived for three nights of cable access to the current addiction (The Bureau), we sit for hours on the deck gazing at our bird feeder combination of Paris Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Circus tent, the so-called “Absolute Squirrel Proof Feeder” with its adjustable counterweight around the back, and feed platters guaranteed to shut tight when large birds or squirrels arrive. Advertised for use year round, it’s said to be the cardinals’ favorite, with the balance adjusted against access to “greedy squirrels, blue jays, and grackles.”

The catch is if you shut out the squirrels and grackles, it’s like staging King Lear without the Fool, Richard the Third without Richard, the Tempest without Ariel and Caliban, and the Symphonie Fantastique without Berlioz. Above all, you need the squirrels, one in particular, though I’m not sure which anthropomorphic hero does justice to such skill and tenacity. Whether it lands on the green roof of the feeder from some adjoining precipice, or after ascending the nearest tree, this display of power and energy that needs no PSE&G draws cheers from the audience on the deck, especially when Super Squirrel hangs   there pounding the “shut-tight” trays until they rain sunflower seeds. Such moments defy hyperbole. When a chipmunk comes on the scene, it’s pure Walt Disney, but add some croaking grackles and a goldfinch flashing, darting, and swooping overhead and it’s Paradise Lost — or Paradise Regained.