Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Thomas De Quincey's On Murder

On Murder is a unique and brilliant work, a collection of essays and a story by Thomas De Quincey,
the 19Th century British writer and essayist, most famous for his Confessions of an
English Opium Eater.
Born in Manchester in 1785, De Quincey won a scholarship to Oxford, though he did not eventually get a degree there. He published extensively for London magazine and then for Blackwoods, the magazine that was the undoing of Keats. De Quincey was an opium addict and wrote on opium addiction. He contributed to other leading magazines and his essays were penetrating insights into various literary, cultural and philosophic aesthetics of his times.

I have not read Confessions but I chose to read On Murder, for as a genre, detective stories have always been a weakness, having grown up on the exploits of the great detective myself. On Murder includes his famous essay called On murder as one of the fine arts, second paper on murder and a postscript and the short story called The Avenger. In addition, there are manuscript writings, a note to Blackwoods editor and another paper on murder as a fine art. However the first essay is called On The Knocking at the gate of Macbeth, a fine piece of literary criticism.

The short story the avenger is a tale of revenge, of a series of murders in a German village, where young and old are mercilessly murdered, without any care for robbery. For months, the main actors wonder at the reasons till finally we find out that the culprit lives within, an esteemed young man, who has carried out these acts for personal reasons, wreaking havoc at the people who had broken his family apart. His mother being Jewish is cited as a reason for having suffered, and thus we have religious persecution followed by a kind of terrorism, a revenge, apolitical but with motive. De Quincey says that this tale has moral lessons and deserves deep attention but I must admit I could not find any moral lesson here, apart from the brilliant prose.

Knocking at the gate of Macbeth refers to Macbeth, wherein, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth asks" whence is that knocking? how is it with me, when every noise appalls me?" This is De Quincey at his best, from philosophy to black satire, and he equates the Eastend murders to nothing less than the work of a supreme artist, liberating the audience from painful ennui. The murderer has hell within him, and we must look into this hell. The interest must be with the murderer, a sympathy of comprehension, not a sympathy of pity. After the London murders, De Quincey warns that the next crime must be spectacular because the amateur auteur will be dissatisfied with a paltry one. I found this essay to be really brilliant as it fore runs much Criminal and Forensic psychology and actually allows it to be discussed as a separate discipline, away from purely social constructs.

The essays On Murder are an aesthetic consideration on murders from antiquity, preferably in the Western World. De Quincey traces murder to its first roots, that of Abel by Cain down to the 19th century. It is not the ordinary murder that entices him, but one that has a bizarre, an outre aura attached to it. A murder done for material gain is dismissed outright. It has to be the work of an artist, a sketch, a painting, for it must draw the interest of the connoisseurs of crime, like De Quincey himself. He evolves for us the personality of the ideal murderer, for the murderer must be an artist, an auteur, a romantic. He must play to the gallery, to the club that De Quincey was a member of. the result of murder should be to improve and to humanize the heart; Any person who did not have the sword of Damocles hanging on his head, even if he was a philosopher is not worth his salt. He talks us through the dark ages, to The old man of the mountains, the secret sect of the hashishi, from where we get the word Assassin, the Arab Syrians, who were a scourge of their fellow people.

Writes De Quincey" if a man calls himself a philosopher and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him; He traces a connection between philosophy and murder and we are in the 17th and 18th centuries, Hobbes and Kant having eluded their murderers. Then we have De Quincey talking about the qualities of a murderer. He should be a good man, and not kill to save himself, and the murdered person should not be a public person, for that would be an assassination and not murder.Tthe pope is not suitable, for he is never seen, I suspect most people regard him as an abstract idea. The subject chosen should be in good health.

De Quincey writes extensively on the artistic aspects of a series of murders in London's East end in 1811. He devotes two essays towards unravelling the psychological profile of the supposed murderer, besides alluding to other sensational murders of his day. In particular, he writes about the murderer John Williams who in 1811 killed 7 people brutally in London's East end. He builds up the killers profile and while he wants to be on his side all the time, he does sympathize with the victims and also constructs the psyche of the witnesses. He also allows the reader to understand the role of a solver of crimes, a detective.

The reading is aided by the excellent introduction and notes in the Appendix, for there is a profusion of literary references and Latin quotes. De Quincey was enormously well read and he adds to the newspaper stories of his day in addition to punning on the major works of his predecessors, especially Coleridge and the romantics. He quotes Shakespeare extensively and his quotes are a wicked humorous take on him. The style is witty, the prose smart and there is a toying, a playfulness in his words. De Quincey assures us that I never attempted any murder in my life and for the higher departments of the art, I confess myself to be utterly unfit.

Nowadays we have Forensic psychologists who build up criminal profiles and personality characteristics and let us know the possibility of future offending. But here we have De Quincey pioneering this art itself, drawing us into the metaphysics of murder, the philosophy of cleansing the heart by means of pity and terror.

This is a strange but brilliant collection of essays. It is dark and morbid but it allows an insight into the 19th century here in Britain, a public wanting to read sensational literature. De Quincey gives that and more. He romanticizes crime unlike anyone and places it on a philosophic pedestal, an aesthetic throne. To me he sounds much like Ivan Karamazov and Bakunin, the Russiann nihilists like Vera, who romanticize political homicide. I endorse this work unreservedly for those who want a psychological insight into crime and murder besides some fantastic literary critiques. And, it is so well written too.


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