…Our Ladies of Sorrow. I know them thoroughly, and have walked in all their kingdoms. Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end.
– Thomas De Quincey, Suspiria de Profundis
Although it will never achieve the status of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis deserves a small place in horror history for having helped to inspire Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy: SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) – films that depict the evil caused by three ancient witches known as Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears). Although Argento takes great liberties with his source of inspiration, the resulting films do contain interesting echoes of De Quincey’s (literally) hallucinatory imagery.
Published in 1845, Suspiria de Profundis is a sequel to DeQuincy’s most famous work, 1821’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The earlier work is by far the more historically important. At a time when opium was an easily available cure-all, as ubiquitous as aspirin is today, Confessions offered a first-hand account of both the pleasures and the pains of opium use. Almost single-handedly, De Quincy changed public thinking about opium, casting the opiate not merely as a useful medicine or a soporific but as the catalyst for something akin to a religious experience. Although his observations were of a personal nature, not backed by systematic research, he overturned many myths about opium and vastly contributed to the store of knowledge on the subject, including the problem of widespread addiction (although the concept of “medical addiction” did not exist quite as we know it today).
Suspiria de Profundis is a further elaboration on the theme of Confessions. Rather than educating the public on the details of opium use (how many drops are necessary to achieve relief from pain, how difficult it is to ween oneself from the habit), De Quincey instead focuses on spiritual effects, offering up a series of mystical visions with all the conviction of a Biblical prophet.
De Quincey was given to prolix prose. When describing his visions, the rococo richness of his writing helped convey the profound impact of his opium exerpience in a way that no straight-forward description could achieve. Unfortunately, he felt the need too deeply to lay the foundation for his opium dreams. Just as Confessions begins with a long prologue about the illness that first drove him to seek opium as a solution, Suspiria de Profundis wallows in early memories of childhood (particularly the death of a beloved sister), theoretically because these childhood experiences provided the inspiration for his later hallucinations. It is a structural gambit guaranteed to test the reader’s patience as he wades through maudlin memories of sorrow, which (one has to assume) will pay off later. (Too bad De Quincey was born to soon to learn a trick from Vladimir Nabokov, who managed to depict memories of the past concurrently with the main action of his novels, revealing the exposition when its significance was clear in relation to present events, instead of front-loading it all at the beginning.)
After the lengthy prefatory material, a brief chapter titled “The Palimpsest” compares the human mind to a palimpsest – an ancient piece of writing parchment periodically erased and reused by new generations. In De Quincey’s time, archaeologists had learned to restore the earlier writing, and De Quincey (anticipating Freud by decades) believed that the human mind operated on similar principles: the past might seem to be erased from memory, but it was never so far gone that it could not be restored, particularly through the agent of opium.
It is an interesting idea, which De Quincey illustrated with three visions: “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” “The Apparition of the Brocken,” and “Finale to Part I – Savannah-La-Mar.” In these chapters, De Quincey describes the phantasmagorical imagery that came to him while taking opium at Oxford. “Levana” is heavily influenced by the death of his sister. “Brocken” speculates that the “Dark Interpreter” (a recurring figure in his dreams) is but a reflection of himself, though possibly influenced by outside forces. “Savannah” speculates on the significance of human loss and suffering seen from the viewpoint of eternity.
The highlight of the book is certainly the “Levana” essay. In his typically condescending way (“Reader, that do not pretend to have leisure for very much scholarship, you will not be angry with me for telling you…”), De Quincey fills us in on the mythology of Levana, a Roman goddess who oversaw the birth and education of children. Expounding on the grief he felt as a child, and insisting that his personal experience is not unique, De Quincey goes on to write that often he saw Levana communing with three sisters, Our Ladies of Sorrow, who he presents as physical embodiments of the abstraction of human suffering. Yet at the same time, he presents them not as mere symbols but as something real. Yes, De Quincey admits, the words he attributes to them are his own invention, yet he insists that he is but interpreting what they revealed to him:
Like God, whose servant they are, they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven – by changes on earth – by pulses in secret rivers – heraldries painted on darkness – and hieroglyphics written on the human brain. They wheeled in mazes; I spelled their steps. They telegraphed from afar; I read the signals. They conspired together; and on the mirrors of darkness my eyes traced the plots. Theirs were the symbols, – mine are the words.
De Quincey goes on to enumerate the three sisters: Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum. The first is the Mother of lamentations and grief expressed loudly in tears. The second reflects the deeper despair expressed in sighs of resignation. The final sister is the “mother of lunacies, the suggester of suicides.”
Over a century after it was written, De Quincey’s compelling vision is still able to ring a primordial chord in the soul of a reader, not least because, with the forceful power of his language, he insists with conviction that he is not merely manipulating symbols but rendering in human words abstract powers that do exist in the universe, though visible only to the dreamer, the visionary, the religious ecstatic, the eater of opium.
It is important to note that, Dario Argento radically revises De Quinceys supernatural trinity. In De Quincey’s essay, Our Ladies of Sorrow are servants of God, embodiments of suffering whose work eventually leads to some kind of revelation or understanding. In Argento’s films, the Three Mothers are, more simply, ancient witches who cause suffering for no other reason than the joy of it.
The second half of Suspiria de Profundis wanders off into vague philosophizing. Having recounted his childhood grief and the visions it produced under the effects of opium, having contemplated the effect of a past that is not dead but ever alive in the imagination, De Quincey wonders whether the human mind would have the capacity to endure if it could see forward as well as it could see backward. Although rendered at length in verbiage intended to convey a profound idea, his concept is easily reducible to a simple question: Who would want to go on living if they could see how badly things would inevitably turn out? It’s a sentiment worthy of a high school student whose heart has been broken by his first love; as a statement on universal human suffering, it may have some validity, but it is delivered in a way that feels abstract and academic, lacking the power to spur genuine contemplation or consideration.
It is a weak ending for the book, which feels truncated. Earlier De Quincey had given indications that we would be seeing more of his “Dark Interpreter,” and one suspects he had intended to include more passages paralleling his visions with the experiences that inspired them and his philosophy that was inspired by them. It is unfortunate that the promise, to provide more of the most interesting element of the book, went unrealized.
De Quincey’s work can be difficult for modern readers. The author suffered perhaps too much from a Romantic sensibility, which infuses his writing with a certain sensitivity but also reflects an even bigger ego-centrism. Again and again, one receives the impression that De Quincey believed his pain and suffering was somehow special, and his ability to dream set him apart from other mere mortals. Although he shows some consideration toward the poor (particularly a young prostitute who helped him at a crucial moment in his own life), his work reeks of class snobbery. He makes sexist assumptions about details that need to be explained for the benefit of uneducated female readers (which may be valid, based on the realities of public education at the time – but was it necessary to be so condescending about it?). There is also a heavy dose of racism, typical for the era. (The Turks, who were smoking opium for centuries before De Quincey was born, apparently don’t know how to do it right; they just lie around in a stupor instead of enjoying the profound visions which De Quincey relates to us.)
That said, both Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis can be rewarding reading material for horror fans with a literary bent – and not merely fans of Argento’s Three Mothers films. The emphasis on grief and mourning, on loss and suffering that leads to melancholy but also to beautiful ruminations, finds parallels in the work of Poe, whose poems often found beauty in contemplating the death of a young woman (e.g. “Lenore,” The Raven,” and “Annabelle Lee”). Also, De Quincey’s opium-inspired visions of vast, nearly indescribable vistas, rendered in convoluted contortions of the English language, prefigure similar dreamscapes recounted by H.P. Lovecraft in many of his tales of terror and imagination. If you desire a glimpse of another world, a sense of how the appearance of reality can change when seen through an altered state of consciousness, De Quincey can be your guide. He may take a long time to reach the desired destination, but that destination is worth the journey.
The Penguin Classics trade paperback, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings, packages both Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis with a later essay, The English Mail-Coach. The book contains a chronology of significant events in De Quincey’s life, an Introduction, suggestions for Further Reading, elaborate annotations (which help decipher De Quincey’s endless references to Romantic poetry and classical literature, especially Greek, which the author often neglected to translate), and an Appendix on Opium in the Nineteenth Century.
The Introduction and the Appendix are of particular interest. The former provides a context for De Quincey’s contribution to literature: working in an established tradition of self-incrimination, the author virtually invented the image of the addict as a romanticcreative figure, whose work is inspired by the drug use that wrecks havoc on his personal life. The Appendix lays out the facts of what was known and – more importantly – believed about opium in the 19th century, before De Quincey came along and overturned the applecart. In some ways, this historical context may be more interesting to modern readers than De Quincey’s hallucinatory ravings. It certainly is fascinating to realize that, at one time, England suffered from widespread but unrecognized opium addiction (the drug was so cheap and easily available that people took it whenever they felt bad – without realizing that they were not curing a malady but simply easing the pains of withdrawl).
For those curious to read De Quincey’s work, this is the recommended volume.