Greeks on de Quincey's Chinese stage: Orientalism, opium warfare, and the 'Theory of Greek Tragedy'

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Prior to the Opium Wars, in 1840 and 1857, the celebrated English Opium Eater Thomas de Quincey published journalism that urged Britain to attack China. De Quincey claims that the Qing Empire displays 'the demoniac hybris of Greek Tragedy'. While de Quincey's citation of classical literature to support imperialism is a commonplace of Victorian politics, some of his references to the ancient world reflect a Romantic anxiety concerning the fragility of empire. De Quincey theorizes that classical literature yields social 'power', yet doing so reveals his own powerlessness. This article examines the transposition of ideas between de Quincey's China articles and his 'Theory of Greek Tragedy'. De Quincey relies on a classical literature of 'power' to assert his identity in defiance of the Oriental other, but the concept with which he characterizes Manchurian folly-the daimon-also symbolizes his own helplessness. The supposedly inexorable conflict between Apollonian Britain and Dionysian China, the Malay visitor amok in Confessions, and opium use all entail the loss of individual agency identifiable with daimonic influence. The daimon-a figure for his own addiction-indicates that the Opium Wars articles continue the work of Confessions, as an encoded expression of de Quincey's plight as addict.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)314-332
Number of pages19
JournalClassical Receptions Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes

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