The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 15, 2016

August 15, 1785

Our attention today falls on Thomas de Quincey (August 15, 1785  to December 8, 1859). He is best known now for his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", (1821) but we pause today over a different delight. First though let us glance at the life of this friend of the Romantic poets. Thomas de Quincey was, according to Bartlesby,

the son of a merchant of literary tastes.....[H]e was sent to Oxford, and during this period began taking opium. The rest of his life was spent mainly in the Lake Country, near Wordsworth and Coleridge, later in London, and finally in Edinburgh and the neighborhood....

Most of De Quincey’s writings were published in periodicals, and cover a great range of subjects. He was a man of immense reading, with an intellect of extraordinary subtlety, but with a curious lack of practical ability. Though generous to reckless... in money matters, and an affectionate friend and father, his predominating intellectuality led him even in his writings to analyze the characters of his friends with a detachment that sometimes led to estrangement. 

[I]n his literary and philosophical writings, he shows a remarkable clearness and precision of style...[T]he power of thought and expression found throughout his work [and].. a gorgeousness of imagination [can be seen in this excerpt.]

Our quote is part of the sequels he wrote to to his very popular essay "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts", (1827). I found it in The Posthumous Works of Thomas De Quincey: Ed. from the Original Mss., with Introductions and Notes (1891), under the title "
On Murder as a Fine Art (some Notes For A New Paper.)" He starts by considering factors that might lead to erecting statues to murderers. This De Quincey says would decrease crime since the criminals could not go unrecognised after their initial crimes.

[De Quincey shows how it might work. We could ]
erect statues to ...murderers ...should ... their next of-kin, or other person interested in their glory, make out a claim either of superior atrocity, or, in equal atrocity, of superior neatness, continuity of execution, perfect preparation or felicitous originality, smoothness or curiosa felicitas (elaborate felicity). The men who murdered the cat, as we read in the Newgate Calendar, were good, but Williams better who murdered the baby. And perhaps (but the hellish felicity of the last act makes us demur) Fielding was superior. For you never hear of a fire swallowing up a fire, or a rain stopping a deluge (for this would be a reign of Kilkenny cats); but what fire, deluge, or Kilkenny cats could not do, Fielding proposed, viz., to murder the murderers, to become himself the Nemesis. Fielding was the murderer of murderers in a double sense —rhetorical and literal. But that was, after all, a small matter compared with the fine art of the man calling himself Outis, on which for a moment we must dwell. Outis—so at all events he was called, but doubtless he indulged in many aliases—at Nottingham joined vehemently and sincerely, as it seemed, in pursuit of a wretch taxed with having murdered, twelve years previously, a wife and two children at Halifax, which wretch (when all the depositions were before the magistrate) turned out to be the aforesaid Mr. Outis. That suggests a wide field of speculation and reference...Note the power of murderers as fine-art professors to make a new start, to turn the corner, to retreat upon the road they have come, as though it were new to them, and to make diversions that disarm suspicion. This they owe to fortunate obscurity, which attests anew the wonderful compensations of life; for celebrity and power combine to produce drawbacks....

[Another example might be someone who].... ran away by the blaze of a burning inn, which he had fired in order to hide three throats which he had cut, and nine purses which he had stolen. There is no guarantee for such a man's character...No, not in the classes standing favourably for promotion. The privilege of safe criminality, not liable to exposure, is limited to classes crowded together like leaves in Vallombrosa [a reference to Milton's "Paradise Lost"]; for them to run away into some mighty city, Manchester or Glasgow, is to commence life anew. They turn over a new leaf with a vengeance. Many are the carpenters, bricklayers, bakers' apprentices, etc., who are now living decently in Bristol, Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool, after marrying sixteen wives, and leaving families to the care of twelve separate parishes. That scamp is at this moment circulating and gyrating in society, like a respectable factotum, though we know not his exact name, who, if he were pleased to reveal himself in seventeen parts of this kingdom, where (to use the police language) he has been 'wanted' for some years, would be hanged seventeen times running, besides putting seventeen Government rewards into the pockets of seventeen policemen. Oh, reader, you little know the unutterable romances perpetrated for ever in our most populous empire, under cloud of night and distance and utter poverty. Mark that—of utter poverty. Wealth is power; but it is a jest in comparison of poverty. Splendour is power; but it is a joke to obscurity. To be poor, to be obscure, to be a baker's apprentice or a tailor's journeyman, throws a power about a man, clothes him with attributes of ubiquity, really with those privileges of concealment which in the ring of Gyges were but fabulous.

These thoughts may point to a corner in the development of modernity. De Quincey's suspicions the modern city has armed itself against, with cameras in public areas and photo recognition software. And to what avail: now the urge for FAME is a motivating factor for criminals.  Perhaps today De Quincey 
would suggest statues again, to deter criminals by satiating their claim to notoriety.

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