Cleansing the heart

Thomas De Quincey:
On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
No 4 Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1827)

A note in this postcard-sized publication, issued to celebrate eighty years of Penguin paperbacks, tells us that the 26-year-old author was somewhat affected by the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London’s East End in late 1811. We know from The Maul and the Pear Tree how deeply traumatising for the public those violent killings were, and De Quincey apparently was to write more than once about them over some three decades.

In 1827 he wrote this witty satire for Blackwood’s Magazine—a piece which, incidentally, I fancy the Brontë siblings would have eagerly pored over—in the course of which X. Y. Z. (De Quincey’s pseudonym) quotes verbatim a lecture to the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. As the magazine editor noted, “We cannot suppose the lecturer to be in earnest, any more than Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, or Dean Swift in his proposal for eating children.” But we can also suspend our disbelief for a while to examine the outrageous claims of the anonymous lecturer, all written in a perfectly learned and civil style. Entitled the Williams’ Lecture on Murder (in honour of the supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities) the text is full of Latin and Greek quotations which fortunately are here translated for us in square brackets.

People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane […] Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us…

After a consideration of morality, with appeals to Coleridge, Aristotle and Mr. Howship the surgeon, the lecturer then dismisses pretty much all the murders, homicides and assassinations of the classical period. He begins with the first murderer, Cain,”a man of first-rate genius”:

All the Cains were men of genius. Tubal Cain invented tubes, I think, or some such thing…

Having established his tongue to be placed firmly in his cheek the author (or his proxy) romps through history, noting obscure murders and even murder attempts and holding up for especial approbation those involving philosophers such as Hobbes. In Munich we hear of “a distinguished amateur of our society” who goes to work on a baker, which proceedings are described in the manner of a boxing match between two unequal pugilists.

The reader will now have unavoidably noted that I have lapsed into a Regency mode of speech, the inevitable outcome of perusing De Quincey’s text. Pray bear with me as I complete my summary of this slim volume.

The lecture concludes with a few words about the principles of murder, which touch on the kind of person suited to be a murderer, the place and the time of the deed, and a few other particulars.

“The final purpose of murder, considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as Tragedy, in Aristotle’s account of it, ” we’re told, namely to cleanse the heart of pity and terror. Exactly who, then, is this connoisseur of heart-cleansing? A bloodthirsty surgeon? A butcher of finesse? A dispassionate dispatcher? None of these, it turns out: he declaims all pretensions to the character of a professional man. “I never attempted any murder in my life, except in the year 1801, upon the body of a tom-cat… ”

Fifty-six pages of black humour turned out to be just what I needed to restore composure when I was contemplating violence on certain politicians and their asinine supporters: though in truth I had no thoughts of assassination, only to bang heads together. No real sense I suspect would have thus been lodged there, sadly, but I may have—just possibly—felt a bit better.

From Blackwood’s Magazine 1827

5 thoughts on “Cleansing the heart

  1. The Ratcliffe Highway murders must have had a huge impact on society at the time – I’ve just been reminded of them by watching The Limehouse Golem (based on Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) and the killings are mentioned several times throughout that, even though they happened a few decades before the Golem story is set. Some crimes resonate through society for generations. Glad you enjoyed the De Quincey – even if it got you no closer to banging those politicians’ heads together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I understand it, the murders not only resonated at the time but for years afterwards. The horror may have been compounded by the assassination of the PM Spencer Perceval in 1812, along with Luddite machine-breaking that was rampant at the time (Charlotte Brontë features it at the start of Shirley) and despair at privations caused by the Napoleonic wars.

      There may well have been a general mood of the country going to the dogs—even though you will find precious little of that in Austen’s novels, for example. However, that feeling may well be the same as we’re experiencing with all this Brexit nonsense slowly coming to a head now. Yellow jackets as today’s Luddites? Possibly not. Perhaps growing knife crime is having as equivalent an impact as the Ratcliffe Highway events did.

      Thanks for the heads-up about the Peter Ackroyd, one to look out for!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting to view the crimes in context. As you say, they could have been seen as part of general trend. To be honest, the movie was patchy – an interesting use of real people (Karl Marx, Dan Leno etc) in a Ripper like context but over egged. I’d be interested to read the book though

        Liked by 1 person

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