“They count rosaries…. Please don’t laugh.” ∼ Pope Francis
Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, by turns glamorizing and ruing his dependence, was first printed anonymously in 1821. Its succès de scandale emboldened the father of addiction literature to acknowledge paternity in an official edition the following year. Literary cachet notwithstanding, quotidian journals didn’t approve. They feared susceptible readers would try the gate to De Quincy’s somber paradise, not knowing it might slam shut. The “bourgeois” critics, not for the first or last time, knew better than their betters.
Despite the book’s second half, “The Pains of Opium,” it is the first part, “The Pleasures of Opium,” that enthralled the Romantics and their Victorian progeny. Opium use, or that of its quasi-respectable distillate laudanum, was not confined to talentless degenerates and poetasters. Some of the most famous names of English Romanticism—Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, and Byron—indulged; after their brief lives flamed out in romantic style (although to be scrupulously accurate, Shelly drowned and Coleridge died a sexagenarian), a later generation took up De Quincy’s torch, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Rossettis, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker—and the consumptive Catholic, Francis Thompson. Like Keats, the author of “The Hound of Heaven” used laudanum to dull the pain of tuberculosis. In America, the drug’s most famous devotee was Edgar Allen Poe, for whom “nepenthe” brought no surcease of sorrow.
In France, Charles Baudelaire—the translator of both Poe and De Quincy—described the drug’s deadly allure in poems and journals. One may only guess how many lives were made briefer and duller by trusting his prescription against boredom: “stay drunk … all the time.” But unlike many of the Romantics, Symbolists, Surrealists, and spotty dropouts who imitated De Quincey, Baudelaire was endowed with an analytical mind and a sane sense of original sin. His declining years were thus tinged with remorse. Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, he had come back from the land of the dead with a message. Almost to a Jansenist degree, this student of de Maistre (“that soldier of the Holy Spirit” to whom the poet dedicated his essay Laughter), warned that pipe dreams would only deepen ennui—that delicate monster who’d swallow the world in a yawn. Was there any help for the tedium vitae afflicting artistic sensibilities? Yes, but not one palatable to his bohemian milieu—work and prayer. Even for the artist, discipline is more fruitful, and less yawn-inducing, than dissipation. “Work without hesitation—even if mediocre—counts more than reverie.” Prayer was necessary to sustain this resolve. “The man who prays at night is a captain posting sentinels; then he may sleep.”
As if this apostasy from the artist’s right—nay, duty—to burn with a consuming flame didn’t suffice to horrify bohemia, he recommended le chapelet. “The rosary is a medium, a vehicle,” he said in his journal, “the prayer at everyone’s disposal.”
Crime, as Rousseau noted, is excusable, even endearing, to advanced thinkers. But to be bourgeois, or to be ridiculous—one and the same thing among the dégénérés supérieurs of Baudelaire’s Parisian circle—was damnable. Admission of pious practices was a defection from the artist’s duty to scourge the philistines. Baudelaire had become an anti-artist, a “shopkeeper.” Sartre wouldn’t forgive him.
I take time with this little tour of the nineteenth-century drug scene not because addiction is inherently absorbing, or that addicts are enthralling as a class. As anyone who’s listened to LSD “trippers” can attest, the land from which they return is somewhat less fascinating than Xanadu. The great nineteenth-century writers would hold scant interest were it not for their great enthusiasms embodied in work. What Allan Bloom noticed about his students who’d recovered from prolonged drug abuse was the absence of great enthusiasms as well as the colorlessness of their conversation and of their lives. Those who emerged with enough intact grey matter did not become great artists; they typically became brokers and day traders. If drug addiction were an index of genius and charisma, then in the cities and towns in my county, and across the nation, we’d see a renaissance of human flourishing instead of an ashen waste of life, and indeed, of liveliness.
Today it would be hard to gain notoriety with a De Quincy-like confession when 70,000 or more Americans per annum die of overdoses. Thanks to this monstrous commonplace, the drug-confession genre is no longer shocking; it is, to use that dreaded word, boring.
Even though I lived in West Oakland in the late 1960s, met my wife in Berkeley, and dropped in on the “Be-In” with Allen Ginsburg and Timothy Leary in Golden Gate Park, I never dropped a tab, tuned in, turned on, or dropped out. Listening to my fellow Volunteers in Service to America relating their psychedelic voyages was never a temptation to cast off. I have no drug confession to make. My “reveal” is much more countercultural. It began with a reversion—“regression” according to agnostic friends—to the ancient faith.
To the best of my increasingly fallible memory, it started with small indulgences—dabblings—such as the sign of the cross and the Jesus prayer. A mild and tentative usage of something powerful, as De Quincy discovered, can prove a gateway. Pretty soon I caught myself saying Ave Marias and Pater Nosters. There were other steps along the road, but, after some time, I was fumbling the beads once a month and then weekly. Pretty soon, the rosary became a daily habit. I felt restive without it. I even prayed while driving. It’s not yet a felony, but I dread to think how many PWDs the traffic cams have been recorded. When, as sometimes happened after a hectic day, I fell asleep without having indulged, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and reach for the beads. There was no use denying it, I had a habit.
It was at a small gathering one evening in the mid ’70s that I first realized how abnormal I had become. The party was hosted by an academic, an alumnus of the same Jesuit university from which my wife had graduated. She and our host had maintained an off and on friendship since graduation. “Off” would suffice after host met spouse.
Those who harangue and explain their “breakthroughs” at parties can be a bane of social life. People have very different takes on what is vital, or even real today, and one never knows what is rattling around in another’s skull. Even before campus safe-spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like, it was advisable to tread gingerly in unfamiliar verbal terrain, especially among the liberally educated, a prickly and fragile class. Politics and religion had potential for chilling or overheating the atmosphere. Reticence was in order. It was our host who probed.
He wanted to catch up on changes in the lives of the partygoers.
Some had changed jobs or cars, exercise routines or diets. One had become a vegan and felt onehundred and ten percent better for it. There was a very voluble young man, gesturing with a celery stick, if I remember right. He was now a Buddhist in his basic approach to reality or unreality (Buddhism is noncommittal), but he still found certain aspects of Catholicism nourishing. Then it was our turn.
Well, there was some news. We had returned to the Church.
And did that entail any major lifestyle changes?
In a word, everything. Before, life was an ad hoc affair with no meaning beyond what we assigned it, now it had meaning conferred on it by One who spoke with authority. That was a big difference, but too in need of annotation to expound over drinks and finger food. I admitted that we went to Mass on Sundays instead of to the gym or the store; the malls, like most movies, were even less diverting than before.
That was the minimum price of admittance, no? If you thought it an option, you were—I tried to avoid the term “cafeteria Catholic” but hit on something equally offensive—a dilletante.
That’s a change, alright. Anything else?
In for a penny, in for a pound. We blurted it out—we were saying the rosary.
How can you?
Our host was incredulous. A bead-counter among the nones, the Buddhists, and the Catholic agnostics. A naked Maori with full-body tattoo would have seemed less primitive and more woke.
The conversation guttered; the party—for us—was over. We took our leave.
Since that soirée, the reaction has been repeated. I realize now that it’s okay to admit to reversion or conversion, provided it’s for sensible reasons: you have kids and recognize the need for structure; you admire what the Church does in the inner city and how it promotes peace and justice; or you share the Church’s opposition to fundamentalism, the denial of global warming, racism, sexism, Trumpism, etc. All within the bounds and rational.
But to revert or convert because it’s True with a capital T? No! Not that, please! Decent folk took you for a reasonable, sentient, liberal-minded human being. They welcomed you, unsuspecting, into their midst. In return, you expose your leprous lesions, admitting that you’re an ethnic, ghetto, pre-Vatican II suppurating throwback. Pope Francis described the antipathy this arouses rather well. Back in Buenos Aires, a “restorationist group” assured him of “thousands of rosaries” for his intentions. He felt as though he was “dragged back … sixty years! Before the Council. One feels in 1940.” Just so.
There are, I believe, compelling reasons—of the mind and of the heart—for remaining a bead-counter after all these years. They require, however, an expansiveness that would overburden an already longish essay; I hope to address them more fully in a future attempt.
(Photo credit: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA)