Flashback Friday: The Hashish Club

Albert Goldman’s 1979 article examines “how the poets of Paris turned on Europe.”
Flashback Friday: The Hashish Club
High Times/ B. Emmett, 1979

For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’ve got an article from Albert Goldman from the July, 1979 issue of High Times magazine.

Though hemp has been a familiar drug for thousands of years in the Orient, it did not enter the carefully guarded precincts of European culture until the nineteenth century. Then, it made a sensational appearance by being injected into the nerve center of the Western World: the brilliant and influential Paris of the 1840s. The discovery of the drug at this particular time and place can be associated with a number of factors: Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the subsequent vogue of everything Oriental; the blossoming of the French Romantic movement, with its addiction to exotic images and sensations; the influence of the first great drug writers, particularly Thomas De Quincey, whose Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was translated as early as 1828 by Alfred de Musset and whose disciples included Charles Baudelaire, who revered De Quincey as a Romantic genius, paying him the tribute of a second, more eloquent, translation coupled with a commentary on the noble character of the English author.

Yet despite all these favoring circumstances, there would have been no vogue of hemp in Paris at this time if a certain young French psychiatrist had not brought the drug back from the Middle East and begun to experiment with it for purposes that had nothing to do with getting high or having visions or writing brilliant pieces in the Revue des Deux Mondes. As this whole episode in cultural history depends so completely on the original French Connection, the most natural place to begin the story of dope in the West is by introducing the “seraphic doctor.”

Jacques Joseph Moreau commenced his medical career by escorting wealthy psychotics on prolonged journeys to picturesque places: distraction being, as Dr. Johnson remarked to his fellow melancholic, James Boswell, the principal device for “the management of the mind.” During one such trip, which comprised sojourns in Egypt and Turkey, the young psychiatrist discovered hashish and was fascinated by its psychological effects. Observing that many of the symptoms of hashish intoxication were identical with those of madness, Moreau determined to experiment upon himself and others in a controlled setting to see if hashish would not offer a key to insanity.

The experiments that Moreau commenced in the early 1840s at Bicetre Hospital outside Paris made medical history. By employing hashish as a psychotomimetic, a substance that mimics the effects of madness, Moreau established the branch of medicine known today as psychopharmacology. Like later experimenters with LSD, mescaline and other hypnotics, he was determined to capitalize on the fact that no matter how extreme the delirium, how vivid the hallucinations, how compelling the delusions of the hashish eater, he never loses the capacity for self-observation and communication. “To understand the ravings of a madman,” Moreau was to write later in his remarkable book Hashish and Madness, “one must have raved himself, but without having lost the awareness of one’s madness.”

Moreau’s method was audaciously simple: first, he would take the drug and submit himself to the observations of his interns; then, he would give the drug to one of the interns and become himself the observer.

Moreau prepared his hashish in the manner he had observed among the Arabs. Using imported plants (his own attempts at cultivation on the hospital grounds did not produce plants of sufficient potency), he concocted an obsolete pharmaceutical preparation called an electuary. His recipe is interesting: “the flowering tops of the plant are boiled in water to which fresh butter has been added. When this concoction has been reduced by evaporation to a syrupy liquid, it is strained through a cloth. One thus obtains a butter of greenish color which contains the active ingredient. This extract is never absorbed in its pure form because of its obnoxious and nauseous odor. It is sweetened with sugar and flavored with scented fruit or flower extracts.”

Moreau’s basic dose of what the Arabs call dawamesc was a “lump the size of a walnut.” According to the computations of the leading authority on the pharmacology of cannabis, Professor Gabriel G. Nahas, this 30-gram dose contained approximately 150 milligrams of THC: a very large dose indeed, considering that the average marijuana cigarette delivers only 4 to 5 milligrams. With one-half or one-quarter of this dose, writes Moreau, “one will feel happy and gay, and one might have a few fits of uncontrollable laughter.” Only with the full dose, however, does one reach the state the Arabs call “al-kief.” Once, during the experiments, the hospital’s pharmacist took a triple dose. For three days he experienced all the symptoms of acute psychosis: hallucinations, incoherence and great agitation. Usually, however, the procedure was to take the normal dose, which produced a pattern of reactions that Moreau summarized in an eight-point list that stands to this day as the tersest and most telling of all descriptions of hashish intoxication. Arranged in an order of increasing mental derangement, the effects of hashish eating are:

1. Feeling of Happiness

“The eater of hashish is happy not like the ravenous man who is famished and satisfies his appetite, or like the hedonist who satisfies his desires, but like the man who hears news that overwhelms him with joy, like the miser counting his treasures, like the gambler favored by luck, like the ambitious man intoxicated by success.”

2. Excitement: Dissociation of Ideas

“One of the first noticeable effects of hashish is the gradual weakening of the power that we have to orient our thoughts as we wish. Imperceptibly, we feel ourselves overwhelmed by strange ideas unrelated to those on which we want to concentrate. These ideas, which we do not want to recall, crop up in our mind, one knows not why or how, become more and more numerous, livelier and sharper. Memory and imagination then predominate; present things become foreign to us, and we are concerned entirely with things of the past and of the future.”

3. Errors of Time and Space

“Under the influence of hashish, the mind can fall into the strangest errors concerning time and space. Time seems at first to drag with a slowness that exasperates. Minutes become hours, hours, days. Soon, with more and more exaggeration, all precise ideas of the duration of time escape us, the past and the present are merged.”

4. Development of the Sense of Hearing: The Influence of Music

“Pleasant or unpleasant, happy or sad, the emotions that music creates are only comparable to those one feels in a dream. It is not enough to say that they are more vivid than those of the waking state. Their character is transformed, and it is only upon reaching a hallucinatory state that they assume their full strength and can induce real paroxysms of pleasure or pain.”

5. Fixed Ideas (Delusions)

“You catch yourself at times imagining the most incredible things, the strangest monstrosities, to which you surrender body and soul. Then suddenly, on the stroke of lightning, conscious thinking returns: you take hold of yourself, you recognize the error in which you had indulged. You were crazy and you have become reasonable.”

6. Disturbance of the Emotions

“With hashish, the emotions display the same degree of overexcitement as the intellectual faculties. They have the mobility and also the despotism of the ideas. From irritation, one can pass rapidly to fury, from discontent to hate and desire for revenge, from the calmest love to the wildest passion. Fear becomes terror, courage a dedication that none can stop and that ignores danger.”

7. Irresistible Impulses

“Seeing an open window in my room I got the idea that if I wanted I could throw myself from that window. Though I did not think I would commit such an act, I asked that the window be closed.’’

8. Illusions and Hallucinations

“Progressively, one becomes the toy, first of simple illusions and then of true hallucinations which are like the remote sounds, the first lights, which are coming to use from an imaginary and fantastic world…It has happened to me many times that being in a rather lively state of intoxication and looking attentively at a portrait, I saw all of a sudden the portrait come to life. The head moved slightly and seemed to want to detach itself from the canvas. The entire face took an expression that only life may confer; the eyes especially were alive; I saw them turning in their orbits to follow all my movements.”

Moreau’s book was published in 1845. It sold only a couple hundred copies and did not even earn its author an election to the Academy of Medicine. Yet few scientists have ever registered such a direct impact on the finest literary minds of their generation. Moreau’s (and hashish’s) influence on the arts commenced two years before the publication of his volume, when he offered some hashish to a young writer of his acquaintance named Theophile Gautier.

One of the most flamboyant of the French Romantics, Gautier had distinguished himself first by leading the historic demonstrations that accompanied the initial performance of Hugo’s Hernani—the first shot of the literary revolution that was French Romanticism—shouting, “Death to the old wigs!’’ He had then composed a novel, titled Mademoiselle De Maupin, which recounted the adventures of a female transvestite. A phrasemaker, he uttered first the Romantic’s battle cry: “Art for Art’s sake.” Gautier was also an unblushing hedonist. In the preface to Mademoiselle De Maupin he wrote: ‘‘[I would] give a large prize to anyone inventing a new pleasure, for enjoyment appears to me to be the end of life and the only useful thing in the world.”

Giving Gautier his first taste of hashish produced sensational effects, which were soon published in the Parisian press. Gautier experienced three distinct episodes of consciousness alteration. In the first, he hallucinated torrents of gems in floral kaleidoscopic patterns (a classic drug image with many counterparts both in the subsequent literature of mescaline and LSD and in the ancient religious writings of the Hebrew and Oriental peoples). He also experienced great hilarity and began to toss pillows in the air like an Indian juggler. Half an hour later, the second wave of intoxication hit him; this time he saw “billions of butterflies with wings fluttering like fans,” as well as giant flowers that exploded fantastically, and he experienced synesthesia: “I heard the sounds of colors…A whispered word echoed in me like thunder…I swam in an ocean of sound.” Gautier had never felt such bliss; his basic image is that of a sponge soaking up delights, joys, sounds, perfumes, lights. The experience seemed to last 300 years, but in fact it occupied only 15 minutes. The third bout was the most intense. He became completely mad. He hallucinated every sort of grotesquerie: ‘‘goatsuckers, fiddle-faddle beasts, budled goslins, unicorns, griffons, incubi fluttered, hopped, skipped and squeaked through the room.” Seizing a pencil, he sketched Moreau from behind playing the piano while dressed in a Turkish costume with a sun on the back of his frock coat—the drawing survives. The musical notes are visualized flying off the instrument as in a modern comic book.

What happened next is a clear anticipation of Timothy Leary and his cenacle or Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. The young cultural revolutionary decided to spread hashish around like a new sacrament and to organize its devotees into a secret society. Taking a hint from the great French Arabist, Antoine Sylvestre De Sacy—who argued that the word assassin was derived from hashishin, i.e., “hash eaters” —Gautier called his new organization “The Assassins Club.” The original members included Gerard de Nerval, who was writing oriental romances and was subsequently to travel extensively in the Middle East; the painter Fernand Boissard and a sculptor, F.B. de Bois-denier; Dr. Moreau and another doctor, Louis Aubert-Roche; and, six years later, Baudelaire. Honore de Balzac visited the club but would not swallow the proffered spoon of dawamesc, fearing the loss of mental control (though subsequently he confessed in a letter to a female friend that he had tasted the drug under other auspices). Alexandre Dumas is sometimes listed as a member, but he belonged to another world entirely; his account of hashish in The Count of Monte Cristo is highly factitious.

The monthly meetings of the club were bohemian parodies of conventional club meetings. The dessert— dawamesc—and coffee (Turkish) were served before the main course so that the slow-acting drug could take effect by the end of the meal. The table settings and utensils were a bizarre conglomeration of chipped antiques and exotic weapons: krisses, poignards, daggers. The company itself was a motley crew of long-haired, bearded and queerly costumed men whose faces assumed strange appearances in the light of the flickering lamps and candles. When the meal concluded, the members repaired to the immense salon of the seventeenth-century mansion where Gautier resided: this drawing room was of “the purest Louis XIV style, with its paneling set off by tarnished gold leaf. Below the overhanging cornice, some pupil of Lasueur or Poussin had painted a scene of nymphs pursued by satyrs through the reeds. On the huge mantelpiece of Pyrenean marble, flecked in white and red, stood a clock in the form of a golden, harnessed elephant that carried on its back an armed turret on which was carved an enamel face with blue numerals. The armchairs and couches were old and upholstered with faded tapestries of hunting scenes.” Then, the fun would begin. Music would be played and stoned conversations and monologues commenced. Members would roll on the floor crying out in ecstasy or sit on the huge settees experiencing in frozen, trancelike states the streaming hallucinations produced by such massive doses.

For three years the club’s activities remained a secret, up until Gautier printed a dazzling description of the whole scene in France’s most celebrated literary and cultural journal, La Revue des Deux Mondes (February 1, 1846). The article applied an extravagant style to an extravagant experience. Modern readers have treated it with skepticism or assumed it was merely a product of the Romantic imagination. Moreau, the best judge of such matters, regarded Gautier’s description of the hashish experience quite differently, allowing for the “stylistic exaggeration” of the author, he concluded that “the effects of hashish could not have been better described.” Indeed, when one subjects this famous article to close literary analysis, what one discovers is that every one of Moreau’s eight categories of hashish experience has been brilliantly realized in passages of hyperbolic but essentially authentic imagery. Though it would be naive to read the account as a literal transcription, the piece must be pronounced a brilliant rendering of the archetypal hash trip.

The article, which reads like Edgar Allan Poe on speed, commences like a horror movie with a long, suspensefully charged series of pans and zooms, as the narrator, who has received a mysterious invitation to the club, arrives at the ancient mansion in the middle of the Seine on a cold, stormy night in December. Guided by the skinny finger of the concierge, he crosses the courtyard and climbs the vast palatial staircase adorned with paintings and frescoes, with Chimera and Cupid. Entering a domed apartment that transports him back two centuries, he encounters the “seraphic doctor,” who offers him a vermeil spoon filled with green paste, remarking portentously, “This will be subtracted from your share of paradise.” After the meal, the guests remove to the drawing room. The narrator, who is already so high that “he could not tell a peach from a cutlet,” goes into the chimney corner and sits down to clock his head. Instantly, there appears a grotesque apparition who is destined to preside over the whole Witch’s Sabbath that commences now in the hash eater’s mind. A weird little demon with a bird’s beak, a man’s coat and legs of bifurcated mandrake root covered with dirt, this creature is identified as “Daucas-Carota—of The Golden Pot” (a story by the great German fantasist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was so popular in Paris at this time that he became the hero of Offenbach’s masterpiece, Tales of Hoffmann, Daucas-Carota is not in The Golden Pot, but he is identical with a creature of German folklore that appears elsewhere in Hoffmann: the Alraunder: an incubus engendered by the sperm that drips from a hanged man’s erect penis onto the earth).

Announcing, “Today, we must die laughing,’’ Daucas-Carota summons forth a route of apparitions such as Hieronymous Bosch delighted to paint: “Monks with wheels for feet and cauldrons for bellies; warriors, in armor made of dishes, brandishing wooden swords in bird’s claws; statesmen moved by turnspit gears; kings plunged to the waist in saltcellar turrets; alchemists with their heads arranged as bellows, their limbs twisted into alembics; obscene figures made of bizarrely knobbed squashes.” As the narrator is dissolving into hysterical fits of laughter, one member of the club (probably Moreau), who has stayed straight so that he can monitor the others and keep them from throwing themselves out the windows, sits down to the piano and starts playing an ethereal melody by Weber.

Instantly, Gautier’s mood reverses; from “fantasia,” he passes without transition into “al-kief,” the state of blissful, erotically tinged ecstasy. Gazing at the nymphs pursued by fawns, he imagines himself Syrinx being chased by the horny goat-god, Pan. Desperate to avoid rape, he cowers, panting, behind the painted reeds.

The next mood change is to nightmare, as he plunges into the paranoia so typical of a hash trip. Imagining that the wicked demon has snatched off his head and replaced it with another, he rushes to the mirror and is horrified to discover that he looks like a Hindu or Javanese idol: “My forehead had risen; my nose, lengthened into a trunk, curled on my chest; my ears swept my shoulders; and to compound the grievance, I was indigo in color.” Smashing the troll until he restores the narrator’s real head, the crazed doper succumbs next to another delusion. A small, unknown voice whispers to him: “Beware, you are surrounded by enemies…you are a prisoner here: try to leave, and you will see.” Rising with great effort, he tried to flee through the door but he finds himself virtually paralyzed and his legs turning to marble!

When he staggers out to the landing and looks down the stairwell, he is appalled to see that the stairs have lengthened to infinity. When he steps on the marble treads, they sink beneath his feet like toad bellies. When he reaches the courtyard, it extends before him like the Champs-de-Mars. Now he feels old and gray. A mournful chorus assures him that “Time is dead.” He will never enjoy his eleven o’clock rendezvous with his mistress because the clock will remain for eternity at a quarter past nine. Just when this lowest ring of the dope hell has been reached, the club’s straight man strikes up a cheerful air on the piano and the narrator snaps out of his nightmare. Hastening down the stairs to his waiting carriage, he rushes off to his assignation, testing his reason by composing rhyming triplets.

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, many other authors, both in Europe and America, contributed to the swelling literature on hashish. Late in life, Baudelaire made his final statement on the subject. Addicted basically to opium and alcohol, like his hero, De Quincey, Baudelaire is not likely to have been a great hash eater. He had tasted the drug, however, in the most interesting circumstances in which it could have been consumed, and he has compiled his little store of hashish anecdotes; so when the occasion arose in the course of his journalistic career to contribute a paper on the topic, he must have felt himself well qualified for the task.

The work that emerged, “The Hashish Poem,” is a deeply jaundiced treatment of its theme. The general impression is that of an exhausted but dutiful lecturer eager to close up his notes and go home. Home, in this case, appears at the end of the piece, when Baudelaire sinks, almost gratefully, into a very somber meditation upon the evil of this paradisal drug. Sermonizing with the echo of the pulpit around his words, he excoriates the Romantic aspiration toward human divinity. Having denounced the drug as conducive to the ultimate sin of pride, he turns finally to destroy the myth of its Faustian powers of inspiration: ‘‘Let us grant,” he reasons, “that hashish gives, or at least increases, genius, yet it cannot be forgotten that it is the nature of hashish to diminish the will; thus it gives with one hand what it takes away with the other; it gives imagination without the ability to use it.” With these pessimistic words, the annals of the Assassins Club conclude.

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