Thomas de Quincey ate and drank a lot of opium.
He started in 1804, while a student at Oxford. By 1812, he had become an addict. By 1821, he’d eaten enough opium to kill Iggy Pop and wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater, inaugurating the tradition of addiction literature.
Despite the success of Confessions, he struggled financially for the rest of his life. A journalist and writer, he supposedly only produced quality prose when he was using opium. When he kicked opium for prolonged spells, he wasn’t productive.
That creativity paradox has practically become a trope: art requires skill and application; drugs and alcohol hinder skill and application; art is enhanced by drugs and alcohol.
I think the trope is grossly exaggerated, the college kid’s rationalization for taking a bong hit at 10:00 AM Tuesday morning.
Still, there’s something there. Some artists created better when stoned (the country singer-songwriter Roger Miller).
When things are murky, things become clear.
The Romantic Walked at Night
You know what else de Quincey did?
He walked at night, under the gaslights of London and Edinburgh.
His Oxford acquaintances, Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, walked at night, too, so much so that the government put them under surveillance.
The Romantic Rejected Light
Wordsworth and Coleridge were the first major English Romantic writers (with William Blake).
Romanticism was a violent reaction against Enlightenment thinking.
Romanticism didn’t think everything could be known, manipulated, and mastered. The Romantics celebrated the unknowability of things, including those things that escaped logical grasp: emotions, imagination, the sublime and transcendent, passion, even terror. They didn’t dismiss their daydreams; they pondered their nocturnals. They wept at the sunset, wandered the Alps, and absorbed energy from the landscape, sensing a spiritual correspondence between man and nature. They celebrated early psychology, unrequited love, the exiled hero, the quixotic, and the futile.
Night is Uncertainty: Our Natural State of Existence
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the romantic pioneers, Wordsworth and Coleridge, embraced the evening (Wordsworth’s first collection of poems was titled, An Evening Walk). They liked the shadows, twilight, and ocular uncertainty.
The Enlightenment was convinced certainty was in its grasp. Through science and observation, humans would conquer nature.
The Romantics “proved” otherwise, simply by walking at night and seeing the uncertainty, much like Samuel Johnson “disproved” George Berkeley by kicking that rock.
“I Stumbled When I Saw.” Gloucester, King Lear
“Vision just happens to be the most efficient mechanism for acquiring knowledge.” Semir Zeki, neurobiologist
Vision gives knowledge and vision is best in the daylight.
But maybe knowledge isn’t the only thing.
Maybe an over-emphasis on knowledge is a bad thing.
You might crush Trivia Pursuit. You might have ten college degrees. But you’re still almost entirely ignorant compared to everything there is to know.
We all know that, but then we latch onto the pursuit of knowledge, behaving as though it’s the most important thing when, upon reflection, it might be the worst thing.
The worst thing?
I’m not exaggerating.
Delusion is dangerous. If we think knowledge gives us a measure of control, it’s not knowledge. It’s delusion, and then when something hits us that we can’t control, we get knocked down. We get disoriented, we panic, we get dejected and demoralized.
We all saw it during COVID.
The modern world feeds us the delusion that knowledge gives control. It doesn’t. At best, it gives a little control for short periods.
Learn with Wonder or for Control?
Don’t get me wrong: learning is good.
But do you learn with a sense of wonder or a sense of control? If it’s control, you’re stuck in the Enlightenment delusion. If wonder, you’re veering closer to Romanticism.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself how you respond when uncertainty hits your life. If you panic (trust me, I know the sensation), you’re thinking like one of the dolts from the Enlightenment. You need more Romanticism in your life.
Maybe you can start by acting like the Romantics, at least in their noble or harmless activities.
A simple start: Stroll at night. Feel the uncertainty. Embrace it as your natural state.
It’s worth a try.