For Tonight curated by Paul O’Neill
Studio Voltaire, London
We read two books during a flight on our way from England to China. These were ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’, 1821, by Thomas De Quincey, and ‘Youth’ and ‘The End of The Tether’, 1902, by Joseph Conrad. Each narrative describes a journey across a physical, social and psychic landscape. De Quincey wrote in the ascendant years of the British Empire, while Conrad wrote towards, and perhaps in anticipation of, its decline.
Reading these books on this journey brought different layers of time into contact: th historical periods of the stories, the duration of the journeys described, and the passage of years between the events and their narration. As we read, the plane carried us away from Greenwich Mean Time towards the sun rising over the Pearl River Delta. It was here that China’s deep culture of ancestry was brought into contact with the materialist present and invented traditions of the British Empire; with trade already degenerating into corruption, the flashpoint of the 1839—1842 Opium War came when Lin Tse-hsu, Imperial commissioner of Canton, seized 20,000 chests of illicit British opium, dissolved it and flushed it away into the Pearl River Delta.
We read, instead of sleeping. Altered states of consciousness and changed levels of selfawareness are central to both books: De Quincey combines autobiography with hallucination and drug-induced fantasy, while Conrad pursues scenarios and portrays his characters with a grim determination as their choices lead them to the edge of madness. The pull towards dependence and destruction is presented in both books as an almost inevitable force. In one book this gravity produces a sense of awe at human strength, while in the other it impresses upon the reader the extent of human frailty.
The End of History is the title of a book by Francis Fukuyama, who asserts that the projects of liberal democracy and the ‘free market’ are interconnected, and that they became complete with the collapse of communism as a viable alternative to capitalism.