De Quincey's Liminal Interspaces: 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.'

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Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,803 words

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[(essay date fall 2001) In the following essay, Snyder maintains that the "liminal interspaces charged with the threat of transgressive violence" in De Quincey's works "become metonymic analogues for his conception of masculinized agency."]

Among the topoi that figure prominently in Thomas De Quincey's discursive prose as well as his Gothic fiction are doors, gates, and thresholds. Such iconography in the latter genre, of course, should come as no surprise. As numerous studies have shown, these tropes can be construed as boundary markers between "inner" and "outer," "self" and "other," or "private" and "public," often signifying the flexible interstices behind which lurks the Freudian "Uncanny." Not all scholars, however, have been disposed to read these spatial metaphors as adumbrating some hidden or repressed interiority. In The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick draws attention to how the psychoanalytic model privileges the idea of depth while devaluing that of surface, leaving unexplored the exchanges that occur in terms of contiguity (11-12).1 Few would deny, I think, that De Quincey's ouvre is rife with such architectural planes, or what the present essay will describe as liminal interspaces charged with the threat of transgressive violence. In "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," I shall argue, these sites become metonymic analogues for his conception of masculinized agency, specifically in relation to what in an 1838 Gothic novella titled "The Household Wreck" he calls "the mighty Juggernaut of social life" (12:159).2

An appropriate text with which to begin is the familiar reflection "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" (1823), included with several of De Quincey's extended papers on literary theory in David Masson's fourteen-volume edition of The Collected Writings. Anticipating twentieth-century subjective or affective criticism, the piece seeks to account for the Burkean "awfulness" and "solemnity" in the play immediately after Duncan's murder when Macduff and Lennox arrive at Dunsinane in Act 2. Before offering his explanation of this scene's impact, De Quincey exhorts the reader to ignore the barrier of "his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind" (10:389). He then proceeds to draw a comparison with the perspectival "laws of vision": even as two rectilinear walls or juxtaposed houses cannot be apprehended properly "by a person looking down the street from one extremity," so the aesthetic power of the play's interlude cannot be grasped by one who refuses to abandon the "horizontal line" of self-distancing (10:390). Ours must instead be, De Quincey goes on to assert, "a sympathy of comprehension" that involves imaginative identification with the murderer (10:391). Within these few pages the essay maps a heuristic approach that deploys, almost unconsciously it seems, imagery of encroachment and surveillance, the setting being an ordinary neighborhood like that of Ratcliffe Highway in London's East End where John Williams "made his début" in 1812 and "executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation" (10:390).

What prompts De Quincey's brief mention of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420084388