Hashish and the European-Orientalist Fantasy

Hashish and the European-Orientalist Fantasy

Hashish, or cannabis; a substance that historically entranced the Western imagination with the “magic of the Orient”, like a lamp that sets forth the genie of creativity. Subsequent to colonial conquests, the narcotic entered European milieus as a potion tested out by doctors, poets, and artists alike, all in an attempt to discover the source of its magic.

Marijuana entered England at the turn of the seventeenth century, while France was introduced to hashish under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, who exchanged the printing press with the herb during his campaign in Egypt. At the time, it was described as a medical substance with mild sedative properties, but it wasn’t long before the French eschewed its medical properties in favor of more holistic aesthetic and cultural experience.

The literary/aesthetic tradition of hashish and opium consumption began with the popularization of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which was translated into French by Alfred de Musset in 1828. Thus, the European culturati opened its eyes to the experiences of such narcotics, in light of their innate aesthetic and creative properties.  The Romantics in particular were drawn to such substances, as an escape from the world and a stimulant for their individualist fantasies.

However, perhaps the most notorious phenomenon that erupted in the mid-1800s in association with cannabis was the Club des Hashischins in Paris. Its name accurately captured the nature of the members’ activities, where some of the greatest literati and intelligentsia of the era would gather to consume hashish and opium, among them no other than Dumas, Baudelaire, Balzac, and Delacroix. Under this pretext, they would hold “séances” in the name of literary and artistic production. The club was active from 1844 to 1849, and was frequented by the literati of the era at the Hotel de Lauzun, then known as the Hotel Pimodan, where Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier had taken board, on the Île Saint-Louis on the Seine.

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Gautier wrote about the club in an eponymously titled article in 1846, under the pretext that it was his “first visit”. He wrote about the “intellectual intoxication” he witnessed, describing what he saw as follows:

“My neighbors began to appear somewhat strange. Their pupils became big as a screech owl's; their noses stretched into elongated proboscises; their mouths expanded like bell bottoms. Faces were shaded in supernatural light. One among them, a pale countenance in a black beard, laughed aloud at an invisible spectacle; another made incredible efforts to raise his glass to his lips and the resulting contortions aroused deafening hoots from his companions; a man, shaken with nervous convulsions, turned his thumbs with remarkable agility; another, fallen against the back of his chair, his eyes unseeing and his arms inert, let himself drift voluptuously in the bottomless sea of nothingness.”

This may be the most candid summation we will ever have of the club frequenters and the state they entered, in search of their “aesthetic experiences”.

Another prominent account of the club was published by renowned physician Jacques-Joseph Moreau, who also regularly partook in its activities. His book, titled Hashish and mental alienation (1845), focused on his own personal experiences with the substance, as well as his visits to the club and his experimentations with hashish and opium. He describes his experience, writing: “One of the first measurable effects of hashish is the gradual weakening of the power to direct thoughts at will. We feel slowly overwhelmed by strange ideas unrelated to the subject on which we are trying to focus our attention. These ideas, which we have not willfully summoned in our mind, appear at random and become more and more numerous, lively, and keen. Soon they command more attention and generate bizarre associations and fantastic creations.

In the same book, he describes the interior of the club, pointing to a “fog” that surrounded the place. He also delves into the historical Hashashin (or Assassins); that is, the Nizari Ismaili disciples of Hassan-i Sabbah, and the rituals they performed in the mountains. He thus recalled the Oriental heritage associated with them, with its mythical aspects, in particular rendering the legends and fictions that became associated with the group, in an attempt to reignite them in the club.

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According to Gautier, club members held Oriental rituals in traditional Arab garb, drinking dark coffee and consuming sweets mixed with the herb. Such experiments resulted in the production of a wealth of writing, including Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish. The book contains 12 “Protocols of Drug Experiments” in which Benjamin recorded his own observations, culminating in a series of delirious but fascinating texts, often lacking cohesion:

Fall down the stairs again; full of merriment. Outside, it’s getting
light.
Now, fortunately, I lack nothing except what servant girls buy for
twenty-five pfennigs in an Egyptian dream book.
Death as zone surrounding the intoxication.
State of intimate despondency.
What I have now is not an African phase but a Celtic phase. Grows
ever brighter.
On being asked to say what it was I had earlier expounded on: “Now
I am the teacher become student.”
Something “washes over the state of depression.”
It can be seen very clearly from this what is lacking to make one
happy. It is the evidence of sorrow. Yes, it’s quite odd. Dying has an
imperative character very different from the imperative character it
had last time.
Vapors rising from the earth. Intermediate stage. Brightening of the
intoxication.
More chthonic. Saw [us] going down a flight of stairs, so that it was
as if we were sitting underground.

However, likely the most prolific chronicler of his dabbling with hashish was Baudelaire, particularly in his book Les Paradis Artificiels. Perhaps the most renowned example of this brand of literature, the notorious French writer’s prose-poetry experimentations inspired many to visit the club and sample the substance.

Experimentation with hashish or drugs in general is still widespread in artistic circles today, and the examples in modern history are countless. From the doomed partnership between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Valery, to Salvador Dali and Alejandro Jodorowsky, narcotics have seemingly been inextricably tied to artistic and creative production.

Though such substances had been discovered in Europe earlier, it was not until the expansion of the colonial project that the appetite for European-Orientalist imagery was whetted, thus bringing to life the vehicle of Orientalist production.

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