Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Vision of Sudden Death by Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey asks the question which we hesitate to form and which therefore remains an uncondensed cloud of ghoulishness: Was there much blood? The book that most considers the peremptory demands of mortality is the essay collection Miscellaneous Essays( It contains the classic On the knocking at the Gate in Macbeth which shows how horripilation is wrought by the master. He then repeats the trick himself in The Vision of Sudden Death but reversing the temporal condition. First we get the soothing normal then we get the fright.

It is on a late night mail coach moving into the dawn drawn by 6 horses controlled by a giant one eyed coachman that this irruption of horror occurs. De Quincey as his wont is fortified by a light breakfast and what he describes as:

Having mounted the box, I took a small quantity of laudanum, having already travelled two hundred and fifty miles—viz., from a point seventy miles beyond London, upon a simple breakfast. In the taking of laudanum there was nothing extraordinary. But by accident it drew upon me the special attention of my assessor on the box, the coachman. And in that there was nothing extraordinary. But by accident, and with great delight, it drew my attention to the fact that this coachman was a monster in point of size, and that he had but one eye. In fact he had been foretold by Virgil as—
"Monstrum. horrendum, informe, ingens cui lumen adempium."

One sees here that device beloved of the British practitioner of the essay, the learned aside and the wilful divagation into pedantry with an outbreak of footnotes. Here we are artfully suspended in the ho hum tedium of the abstruse, the better to lull you with my dear. The coachman falls into a deep slumber having been engaged during the day in a court case at the local assizes. They are rushing along in the sandy margin of the road on the wrong side and the horses grateful for the mild going are picking up speed.

Suddenly from thoughts like these, I was awakened to a sullen sound, as of some motion on the distant road. It stole upon the air for a moment; I listened in awe; but then it died away. Once roused, however, I could not but observe with alarm the quickened motion of our horses. Ten years' experience had made my eye learned in the valuing of motion; and I saw that we were now running thirteen miles an hour. 

Yes indeed, uh-uh:

Before us lay an avenue, straight as an arrow, six hundred yards, perhaps, in length; and the umbrageous trees, which rose in a regular line from either side, meeting high overhead, gave to it the character of a cathedral aisle. These trees lent a deeper solemnity to the early light; but there was still light enough to perceive, at the further end of this gothic aisle, a light, reedy gig, in which were seated a young man, and, by his side, a young lady. Ah, young sir! what are you about? If it is necessary that you should whisper your communications to this young lady—though really I see nobody at this hour, and on this solitary road, likely to overhear your conversation—is it, therefore, necessary that you should carry your lips forward to hers? The little carriage is creeping on at one mile an hour; and the parties within it, being thus tenderly engaged, are naturally bending down their heads. Between them and eternity, to all human calculation, there is but a minute and a half.

In Irish mythology there is the coach which comes to fetch your soul, the coiste bodhar. Coiste Bodhar
Was this bearer of the King’s Mail to be such a vehicle?


ktismatics said...

This morning I began reading The Exquisite, a 2006 novel by Laird Hunt, who lives here in Boulder. Always alert for synchronicities, I read this on page 8:

A guy at the Dark Room, where I worked the door for a few weeks, lent me a beat-up copy of De Quincey's writings. My acquaintance was into the opium eater thing, which gave me shivers and made my head spin, but it was the long essay, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," that grabbed me, that set me to dreaming.

ombhurbhuva said...

It’s not that De Q. is promoting the idea of murder as a good thing but more that the deed having been accomplished the aesthetic impulse comes into play. Like skating judges marks are given for ingenuity of despatch, the instruments thereof, ancillary and perhaps arbitrary elements such as notes and arrangement of entrails. He would have approved of the C.S.I. team particularly the world weary aesthete of L.V. the Zen Macbeth touches, the pathologist who assures the corpse- ‘we’ll take care of you’.
Laird Hunt is a graduate of the school of Disembodied Poetics. Good school, I've taken night classes there for many years. They keep changing the teachers or is it just the form.

ktismatics said...

I'm on a roll now. In the second of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino commends "quickness" as a narrative technique. He recounts an ancient legend about Charlemagne: "The secret of the story lies in its economy: the events, however long they last, become punctiform, connected by rectilinear segments, in a zigzag pattern that suggests incessant motion." With dispatch he moves on to another illustration of quickness:

In the section called "The Vision of Sudden Death," De Quincey describes a night journey on the box of an express mail coach with a gigantic coachman who is fast asleep. The technical perfection of the vehicle, and the transformation of the driver into a blind inanimate object, puts the traveler at the mercy of the mechanical inexorability of a machine. In the clarity of perception brought on by a dose of laudanum, De Quincey becomes aware that the horses are running uncontrollably at thirteen miles an hour on the wrong side of the road. This means certain disaster, not for the swift, sturdy mail coach but for the first unfortunate carriage to come along that road in the opposite direction. In fact, at the end of the straight, tree-lined avenue, which looks like a "Gothic aisle," he sees a "frail reedy gig" in which a young couple are approaching at one mile an hour. "Between them and eternity, to all human calculation, there is but a minute and a-half." De Quincey gives a shout: "Mine had been the first step; the second was for the young man; the third was for God." The account of these few seconds has not been bettered even in an age in which the experience of high speeds has become a basic fact of life.

"Glance of eye, thought of man, wing of angel, which of these had speed enough to sweep between the question and the answer, and divide the one from the other? Light does not tread upon the steps of light more indivisibly than did our all-conquering arrival upon the escaping efforts of the gig."

De Quincey succeeds in conveying a sense of an extremely short period of time that nonetheless contains both the calculation of the technical inevitability of the crash and the imponderable -- God's part in the matter -- in virtue of which two vehicles do not collide.

ombhurbhuva said...

I find that I must demur re quickness as the chief constituent of the effect achieved by De Quincey in his essay. It seems to me that it is expatiation or a deliberate slowing of the pace in the initial section that allows him to capture time and change it into duration. For thirteen pages he occupies and lulls us with general considerations on the liturgical prayer that we be guarded from sudden death, the periphrasis of the Mussleman who will not call a pig a pig, and the number of stages from Manchester to Kendal, seven of eleven miles each if you want to know. He is in no hurry to meet sudden death. He has placed the idea in our minds and then by misdirection moved it and then reintroduced it. Notice, I have nothing up my sleeve as it were, but our minds are sitting on that egg like a broody hen, the death that is ahatching for us. It is all slow, slow, slow, slow, quick, quick this danse macabre. The last seven pages deal with the coach hurtling towards the reedy gig of woven basket work, a moving bower of love doomed it would seem to be wrecked.

“But the lady—! Oh heavens! will that spectacle ever depart from my dreams, as she rose and sank upon her seat, sank and rose, threw up her arms wildly to heaven, clutched at some visionary object in the air, fainting, praying, raving, despairing! Figure to yourself, reader, the elements of the case; suffer me to recall before your mind the circumstances of the unparalleled situation. From the silence and deep peace of this saintly summer night—from the pathetic blending of this sweet moonlight, dawnlight, dreamlight—from the manly tenderness of this flattering, whispering, murmuring love—suddenly as from the woods and fields—suddenly as from the chambers of the air opening in revelation—suddenly as from the ground yawning at her feet, leaped upon her, with the flashing of cataracts, Death the crowned phantom, with all the equipage of his terrors, and the tiger roar of his voice.
The moments were numbered. In the twinkling of an eye our flying horses had carried us to the termination of the umbrageous aisle; at right angles we wheeled into our former direction; the turn of the road carried the scene out of my eyes in an instant, and swept it into my dreams for ever.”

I remember back in the day after coming out from the Stella in Rathmines where they speak the best English according to Joyce. We had been to Driver with Ryan O’Neill, Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Dern, the Driver, the Girl, the Cop. By way of demonstrating his skills he comprehensively wrecks a Merc and does some fancy getaways. Ryan Gosling is quacking after the Driver. Very much like that couple in the gig we were walking along until we were distracted by a Ford Fiesta that was trapped in a parking space trying to get out revving furiously. We both of us stood there laughing. Koestler was right you know, bisociation is a part of humour (Act of Creation).