Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

A Response to Crispin Sartwell's « Addiction and Authorship »


Alan Bewell[ # ]
University of Toronto

In responding to Crispin Sartwell's suggestive paper, with a view to fostering further discussion, I would like to place the confession with which he opened his talk today - "I'm both an addict and an author" - within a discursive context, one that I believe informs today's session. The "confession of the addict" is a very modern genre, in some ways, it is the prototype for all modern confessions, from Dostoevsky to Nabokov to perhaps Jerry Springer, in which the author speaks of a compulsion that both defines and divides his or her identity. This discourse emerged during the Romantic period, most explicitly with Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and, of course, with the social and cultural mythologies that developed around his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The "confession of the addict" constitutes a certain way of framing questions of human subjectivity. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the "addict" has represented a special kind of subject, produced primarily in philosophical, medical, and literary discourse. It is not a discourse that exists on its own, however, for the "confession of the addict" is part of a larger "discourse on addiction". Where confessions had previously functioned within a juridical or theological context, the confession of the addict promises to tell us things about ourselves that maybe we did not know, maybe we have always known, yet which we normally choose to deny.

Addicts confess to non-addicts. The authority to speak comes from the addiction. As Professor Sartwell remarks : "I've decided that I've already done all the research that I need to do : now all I have to do is write". The truth that is revealed by the addict is a truth that has been gained through addiction. Yet since the promise of the author-addict (whatever the addiction might be) is that what will be brought to light in the confession is not a private or individual experience, but a truth about the human condition that the non-addict would otherwise remain unaware of, the confession of the addict makes larger claims about human nature and volition. For Sartwell, addiction is at least one place where the "delusion of freedom melts away"(1). Why are non-addicts fascinated by such confessions ? Why is the reading about compulsion so addictive ? Why do literary addicts of all kinds - from drug addicts to food addicts, from alcoholics to workoholics - continue to find an audience for the confession of their compulsions ? Michel Foucault argues in his History of Sexuality that what defines the modern period is that it can't stop talking about sex. Perhaps, this is only part of the story. Maybe to be modern is to be unable to stop talking about one's addictions. Thus, the musician Robert Palmer's, "Might as well face it you're addicted to love", may be less in its contribution to the history of sexuality than to the discourse of addiction. Deep down all non-addicts know that they too are addicts, in the same way that an alcoholic who no longer drinks knows that he is still an alcoholic. We know that we too could become addicted to a drug, a passion, an idea, and we too could follow this addiction to its end. The "confession of the addict" therefore can be said to produce a special kind of subjectivity that calls into question conventional rationalistic or moralistic representations of the self. For the confession to work its magic, it cannot simply produce an addict; it must also construct an audience of non-addicts (which includes the audience in this room) and this latter group must see in this confession the enactment of some kind of deep truth otherwise denied to them. Every confessing addict seems to say to his auditors : "Might as well face it, you're addicted to ____". (Here you are to fill in the blank.)

From its beginnings, the discourse of addiction, of which the confession of the addict is one component, has been one in which notions of identity have been contested. Questions about human desire, willpower, the body and the mind are continually raised by any attempt to sort out who is controlling whom in the world of the addict. Sartwell nicely points out the manner in which the addict's fractured and contradictory being seems to confirm the "common-sense Western notion of the self" as a self-divided being. The word "addict" comes from the Latin word "addictus", meaning "given over". It referred to slaves, as in "one being given over to another". But who does the giving, and who is given over when this process takes place within the body and mind of the "addict" ? Who speaks when the addict speaks ? Is it the drug talking ? De Quincey seemed to suggest this possibility when he said of his Confessions that "Not the opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale" (114). Perhaps, what speaks is the "enslaved" self, the self possessed by or "under the influence" of something else, the "addicted" self "given over" to somebody or something else. Perhaps, the addict is a "truer", more authentic self, whose compulsions are not an exterior control, but the expression of a purer being, a deeper self, that has been occluded or managed by society and language. Since the Romantic period, the discourse on addiction has served as a dark mirror in which questions of human identity have been scrutinized. In it, traditional hierarchies of body, soul, and mind have been either anxiously affirmed or radically destabilized. Sartwell's paper contributes to this latter tradition of destablizing confessions.

The focus of Professor Sartwell's paper is on the internal conflict that shapes the identity of the addict. One might note, however, that the identity of the addict is also shaped by a contestation of discourses that take within society itself. There is not just one kind of addict, but many, as the subjectivity that constitutes the "addict" changes depending upon what discourse he or she appears in. It is worth recognizing, given that this plenary paper is part of a colloquium on "Health", that Professor Sartwell does not address the subjectivity of the addict through medical discourse, where that subjectivity is seen as an expression of pathology. Issues of public health and of the impact of an addictive lifestyle upon health of the addict are nowhere present in this paper. His addict is not understood within a context of sickness and its treatment, nor is it linked to powerful public discourse on the link between addiction and AIDS. Sartwell's "addict" is primarily a subjectivity shaped within the context of philosophical discourse. His "confession" addresses philosophical questions about the nature of human identity, as the addict questions notions of will and social convention. Being an "addict" does not appear to be all that bad a condition, but then again we live in a society where, as Eve Sedgwick has suggested, addiction seems epidemic. Ultimately, in such a context, the term may not mean much.

Professor Sartwell adopts the position that addict engages in a willfulness that takes him beyond the will. Addiction is not "enslavement", but an attempt to abolish hierarchies. I find this argument oddly fairly conventional, and here I guess I am indicating some disappointment with the deep truth that this contemporary confession brings to light. Adopting a fairly traditional idea that the will is fundamentally linked to language and institutions, while "desire" and the body stand "outside of language" (12), Sartwell sees addiction, like authorship, as a kind of enfranchisement, which uses the very means of self-control to go beyond it; it is a means of going beyond a hierarchical and contradictory self structured by language and power. What is this "pure desire" that stands outside of language ? When he says "I have no control, literally none over what I desire" (4), the "I" that he is referring to sounds much more centered, much less self-divided than the contradictory "I" of the addict, with which he began his talk. Replace pure mind with pure desire, and it sounds like the "thinking subject" has now been replaced by the "desiring one". Also, what is this state of peace that comes through the journey into addiction ? The drug that destroys may seem to promise some kind of deeper truth - that of oblivion, objectivity, or in Sartwell's words, the "collapsing into the ideal presence of an animal or an inanimate object, into a full-bore objectivity a pure block or plenum that is surface all the way down, infinite or indivisible". The promise of a kind of earthly paradise, either Coleridge's Xanadu or Sartwell's pure objectivity, is, indeed, inseparable from the discourse of addiction. Yet I wonder whether this description is fully expressive of the contradictions that have traditionally shaped the discourse of the addict, contradictions that I sense are deeply part of Sartwell's own viewpoint, but are not, at least in this context, stated as directly as they might be.

In considering Professor Sartwell's comments on the relationship between addiction and authorship, it might be worthwhile considering two other author-addicts. Take for instance Coleridge's latter years when, as a public laudanum addict, he held court to the major literary, medical, and philosophical figures of his day. Coleridge at this time was not famous for what he wrote, but for his extraordinary powers as a talker. Here is Keats's description of his one encounter with Coleridge : "I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things - let me see if I can give you a list - Nightingales, Poetry - on Poetical Sensation - Metaphysics - Different genera and species of Dreams - Nightmare - a dream accompanied by a sense of touch - single and double touch - A dream related - First and second consciousness - the difference explained between will and Volition - so many metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness - Monsters - the Kraken - Mermaids - Southey believes in them - Southey's belief too much diluted - A Ghost story - Good morning - I heard his voice as it came towards me - I heard it as he moved away - I had heard it all the intervall - if it may be called so" (Armour and Howes 277). Keats nicely captures the obsessive qualities of Coleridge's talk, and the weird experience that his contemporaries felt as they encountered a person who seemed unable to stop talking, whose identity was reducible to a ghostly stream of language, in De Quincey's words, an "eternal stream of talk" (Armour and Howes 197). Wordsworth described his non-stop talking as being akin to a "majestic river, the sound or sight of whose course you caught at intervals, which was sometimes concealed by forests, sometimes lost in sand, then came flashing out broad and distinct, then again took a turn which your eye could not follow, yet you knew and felt that it was the same river : so there was always a train, a stream, in Coleridge's discourse, always a connection between its parts in his mind, though one not always perceptible to the minds of others" (380). When at another time, having devoted hours listening and nodding his head in agreement to another Coleridgean talkathon, Wordsworth was asked by a puzzled auditor if he had understood what Coleridge was getting at, Wordsworth was more blunt : "Not a word of it". Coleridge's fame as a talker emerged at the same time as his fame as an addict, and the variety of opinions concerning the relationship between the two suggests the perplexity with which Coleridge's auditors listened to his extraordinary talk. Some thought that talking was a substitute for writing : strong authors write, weak ones talk. Many saw this talk as the expression of a diseased will. Dorothy Wordsworth blamed opium :"the principle effect of opium on Coleridge" she writes, "was to bring up his weaknesses abreast of his strength, to nourish that dreamy self-indulgence and that habit of endless talk which he had even when a child" (Armour and Howes 373). Others saw the compulsion to talk as itself an addiction. Others quoted from the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", noting Coleridge's "strange powers of speech" (134). Like the Wedding Guests, Coleridge's auditors were often rapt by this talk. Needless to say, they noted that Coleridge's "glittering eye" was not only similar to that of the Ancient Mariner, but also, as Harriet Martineau notes, "common among opium eaters" (297). This is an extraordinary kind of authority in which the power of the words does not lie in the ability of the auditors to understand them, but instead in obsessive stream of language itself, the possession of words, of a will that has become almost entirely caught up and addicted by words. Nobody knew what to make of Coleridge's strange and wondrous inability to make normal conversation, his incapacity for dialogue. Some called it genius, others sickness, others addiction. Nevertheless, Coleridge's contemporaries couldn't get enough of his talk. Today's plenary speaker is not unlike Coleridge in his ability to produce a similar state of uncertainty, especially when he declares, for instance, that "I am up here now just uttering. Maybe this will offend you but I didn't think as I wrote this and two minutes after I finished I couldn't remember what I'd written; the point was just to fill the right amount of space with something that sounded like communication" (8).

In contrast to Professor Sartwell's essentially dualistic view of the power struggles that shape the self, one might place De Quincey's more geological view of the self as a palimpsestic site of contestatory powers. Rather than seeing the self as being structured by a power relationship between a linguistically constructed will and a nonlinguistic desire, De Quincey sees the self as a palimpsest in which no writing - either of will or desire - is ever lost, in which opium discloses the many layers that underlie the construction of a being. For De Quincey, opium does not enfranchise; it gives knowledge of the contradictory, and often tragic depths of one's being. There is no peace at the end of the opium-eater's journey, only guilt and pain raised to an even more apocalyptic pitch. It does not lead to a place beyond language, but instead uncovers layer after layer of inscriptions, as one layer has replaced another not by erasing it, but by writing over it. In De Quincey's Confessions, there is no place outside of language, or no inside of desire, "no erasure of inscription", as Sartwell argues, to which opium takes the addict. The journey is instead downward and inward into more fantastic and more horrific levels of impassioned power and fatalistic impotence. The self that emerges in De Quincey's Confession is structured by a play of power and contradiction on all levels of his being. Against his description of what addiction means to the addict, Trainspotting is a very slight production, indeed. Perhaps, this is a sign that the relationship between the powers that shape the modern subject, most powerfully articulated in the conflict between addiction and will, have lost much of their sublimity. Maybe, to use Wordsworth's words, in the contemporary understanding of the self the truths that once powerfullly resided in the discourse of the addict have faded "into the light of common day".


Armour, Richard W., and Raymond F. Howes, eds. Coleridge the Talker : A Series of Contemporary Descriptions and Comments. Ithaca, NY : Cornell UP, 1940.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Ed. Alethea Hayter. Harmondsworth, England : Penguin, 1971.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York : Pantheon Books, 1978.

Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham : Duke UP, 1993

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