Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask which you gratified us.
We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages.
We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.
Behold the time of the Assassins.
– Arthur Rimbaud
by Andrew Arnett
Drugs and the Romantic Movement
Industrial and technological advances of the post-Napoleonic “rational age” left many Europeans disenchanted, yearning for deeper spiritual meaning. Psychonauts of the era plummeted depths of the unconscious, mining the realm of dreams, emotion and the irrational side of man for philosophical gold.
This search would eventually give birth to existentialism, spiritualism, psychotherapy and other systems of thought. The writers and artists of this period set upon their own course of investigation, often times employing psychoactive chemicals as keys to unlocking creativity and meaning.
A plethora of drugs were utilized for this purpose.
Opium was en vogue amongst the circle of Romantic Movement writers in England which included Taylor Coleridge who, in an opium induced fever dream, penned the ultimate paean to drug hallucinations with the classic Kubla Khan (1816).
Coleridge’s close friend and mutual dope fiend Thomas de Quincey brought the pleasures and horrors of narcotics consumption to the average Londoner in a series of magazine articles entitled Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821).
Back on our side of the pond lived the American poet Edgar Allen Poe who, like his British counterpart, shared a love for ornate literary stylings sprinkled with a liberal dose of opium abuse. Poe himself is linked to the hallucinatory absinthe and once attempted suicide with laudanum.
Cocaine was another tool employed by the 19th century literati to break on through to the other side. In the late 1800s, on the heels of the publication of Sigmund Freud’s Über Coca, cocaine became the cause célèbre amongst artists and thinkers of the day.
Freud flagrantly advocated the use of cocaine and wrote, “Woe to you, my Princess . . . I will kiss you quite red and feed you until you are plump. And if you are forward, you shall see who is stronger, a gentle girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.”
Inspired by Freud’s enthusiasm, writers picked up the (8) ball and ran with it. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is little more than a thinly veiled study of the split personality disorder often associated with a person in the throes of cocaine addiction.
Stevenson himself is suspected of being a coke head, having been diagnosed as suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion.” Some speculate his nurse wife administered the stimulant drug while he wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a six day frenzy.
Though Sir Arthur Canon Doyle was not a consumer of drugs, his famous literary creation Sherlock Holmes was a notorious addict. In the short story A Scandal in Bohemia, Dr. Watson reveals that Sherlock Holmes “had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot on the scent of some new problem,” and describes the good detective as a “self-poisoner by cocaine and tobacco.”
The 19th century French writers were eager to find an alternative to addictive narcotics, one which nonetheless provided a means to access the artificial paradise.
They would have their cake and eat it too.
In the early 1800s, rumors of just such a drug circulated amongst the war veterans in Paris.
While fighting under Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign, French soldiers were exposed to the popular Middle Eastern drug hashish. With little alcohol available in a Moslem land, many a Legionnaire succumbed to the enchantments of hash. Back home, these vets regaled war stories rife with battle and spiked with hallucinatory enchantments seemingly straight out of the pages of One Thousand and One Nights.
Les Club des Hashishins
On a cold night in December, 1845, the writer Theophile Gautier made his way through the foggy streets of Paris towards the Isle Saint-Louis, a remote bohemian enclave in the midst of the city. He had an invite to attend the monthly meeting of an esoteric group at the Hotel Lauzen. The members called themselves Les Club des Hashishins.
Entering the inner sanctum, Gautier approached the members gathered round a table. Several voices greeted him with a hearty, “Here he is! Here he is! Give him his portion!”
A ‘doctor’ extracted a slice of greenish paste, served on a Japanese porcelain saucer, with a face beaming with enthusiasm stated, “This will be subtracted from your share in paradise.”
The ‘paste’ in question was dawamesk, a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, orange juice, butter and hashish.
“This green paste that the doctor had just passed out,” Guitieer writes in La Revue des Deux Mondes (Feb. 1, 1846) “was precisely that which the Old Man of the Mountain used to administer to his fanatics . . . that is, hashish, whence come hashisheen or hashish-eater, the root of the word ‘assassin,’ whose ferocious meaning is readily explicable of the blood thirsty habits of the votaries of the Old Man of the Mountain.”
Assembled amongst the club’s entourage was not your typical gathering of addled slackers. Far from it. Hash club card carrying members included Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gerard de Nerval, Eugene Delacroix, Ferdinand Boissard, as well as De Balzac, Flaubert and the always brooding Charles Baudelaire.
Baudelaire was a long standing alcoholic and opium addict, the quintessential misanthropic loner. His “Pome of Hashish,” contained in the the book The Artificial Paradise (1860), is considered one of the best literary descriptions of the hashish experience to be found. It analyzes the stages of the psychotropic trip, touching on concepts such as set and setting, synesthesia, and foreshadows the LSD studies of the 1960s and beyond.
Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, wrote The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), which features a hash smoking ‘Sinbad.’
“Taste this greenish paste,” Sinbad offers the hero in the story, “and the boundaries of possibility disappear, the fields of infinite space open to you, you advance free in heart, free in mind, into the boundless realms of unfettered reverie.”
The members of Les Club Hashishins, their literary styles and life styles, had significant influence on future writers, including French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine.
Arthur Rimbaud’s career as a poet ran from age 15 to 21. His works include the startling A Season in Hell (1873) and the innovative Illuminations (1886).
Together with the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, the two set out on a torrid, wild and vagabond existence ruled by absinthe and hashish. The use of mind altering chemicals was a deliberate attempt on the part of the poets to create new visions and forms.
“The poet makes himself a seer,” Rimbaud writes, “by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering. of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences.”
Some of those whom Rimbaud influenced include Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Pattie Smith and Jim Morrison.
This story was originally published by Andrew Arnett @ The Stoned Society