Baudelaire, Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix & Hugo Get a Little Baked at Their Hash Club (1844–1849)

Club des Hashischins

Hôtel de Lauzun, the meet­ing place of the Club des Hachichins

It may be cliché to say so, but there does seem to be a strong cor­re­la­tion between exper­i­ments with mind-alter­ing chem­i­cals and some of the most intrigu­ing exper­i­ments in lit­er­ary style. Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, Arthur Rim­baud, William S. Bur­roughs, Hunter S. Thomp­son…. Of course, it is nec­es­sary to point out that these tal­ent­ed writ­ers were already that—talented writers—substances or no. As one of Rim­baud’s mod­ern chil­dren, Pat­ti Smith, declares, drugs are “not real­ly how one access­es the imag­i­na­tion. It can be a tool, but when that tool starts to mas­ter you, you’ll lose touch with your craft.”

This seems to have hap­pened to Smith’s lit­er­ary idol. One of Rimbaud’s lit­er­ary heroes, Charles Baude­laire, also even­tu­al­ly suc­cumbed to his exces­sive use of lau­danum, alco­hol, and opi­um. But at one time, Baude­laire dab­bled with a much less destruc­tive drug, hashish, along with a coterie of oth­er artists, includ­ing Alexan­dre Dumas, Gérard de Ner­val, Vic­tor Hugo, Hon­oré de Balzac, and painter Eugène Delacroix. The French greats gath­ered in a goth­ic house, from 1844–1849, under the moniker Club des Hachichins and par­took of the drug, intro­duced to it by med­ical doc­tor Jacques-Joseph More­au and writer and jour­nal­ist Théophile Gau­ti­er. Writes The Guardian:

…rit­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly garbed in Arab cloth­ing, they drank strong cof­fee, lib­er­al­ly laced with hashish, which More­au called dawamesk, in the Ara­bic man­ner. It looked, report­ed the mem­bers, like a green­ish pre­serve, its ingre­di­ents a mix­ture of hashish, cin­na­mon, cloves, nut­meg, pis­ta­chio, sug­ar, orange juice, but­ter and can­tharides. Some of them would write of their “stoned” expe­ri­ences, although not all. Balzac attend­ed the club but pre­ferred not to indulge, though some time in 1845 the great man cracked and ate some. He told fel­low mem­bers he had heard celes­tial voic­es and seen visions of divine paint­ings. 

Baude­laire declared the hash admix­ture “the play­ground of the seraphim” and “a lit­tle green sweet­meat.” And yet, like Balzac, he “rarely, if indeed ever, indulged.” Gau­ti­er would write of the poet, “It is pos­si­ble and even prob­a­ble that Baude­laire did try hascheesh once or twice by way of phys­i­o­log­i­cal exper­i­ment, but he nev­er made con­tin­u­ous use of it. Besides, he felt much repug­nance for that sort of hap­pi­ness, bought at the chemist’s and tak­en away in the vest-pock­et.”

This “repug­nance” did not keep Baude­laire from oth­er drugs. And it did not keep him from writ­ing a short book in 1860 on hash and opi­um, Arti­fi­cial Par­adis­es (Les Par­adis Arti­fi­ciels). The Paris Review reprints an excerpt of one sec­tion, “The Poem of Hashish”—not in fact a poem, but a descrip­tive essay. Trans­lat­ed by Aleis­ter Crow­ley—anoth­er writer whose exper­i­ments with chem­i­cal excess con­tributed to some of the strangest books writ­ten in English—Baudelaire’s prose is almost med­ical in its pre­ci­sion. In part a response to Thomas de Quincy’s 1821 drug mem­oir Confession’s of an Eng­lish Opi­um Eater, the sym­bol­ist poet’s trea­tise does not draw the con­clu­sions one might expect.

Though he writes stun­ning­ly vivid, almost seduc­tive, descrip­tions of hash intox­i­ca­tion, instead of prais­ing the cre­ative effects of drugs, Baude­laire dis­par­ages their use and warns of addic­tion, espe­cial­ly for the artist. At one point, he writes, “He who would resort to a poi­son in order to think would soon be inca­pable of think­ing with­out the poi­son. Can you imag­ine this awful sort of man whose par­a­lyzed imag­i­na­tion can no longer func­tion with­out the ben­e­fit of hashish or opi­um?” Baude­laire rec­og­nized these sti­fling effects even as he lapsed into addic­tion him­self, describ­ing in with­er­ing terms the search “in phar­ma­cy” for an escape from “his habitac­u­lum of mire.”

You can read an excerpt of the Crow­ley-trans­lat­ed “The Poem of Hashish” at The Paris Review’s site and the full trans­la­tion here. Those who have indulged in their own cannabis experiments—legally or otherwise—will sure­ly rec­og­nize the poet­ic accu­ra­cy of his hash por­trait, so per­fect that it’s hard to believe he didn’t par­take at least once or twice at the all-star Club des Hachichins:

Hashish often brings about a vora­cious hunger, near­ly always an exces­sive thirst … Such a state would not be sup­port­able if it last­ed too long, and if it did not soon give place to anoth­er phase of intox­i­ca­tion, which in the case above cit­ed inter­prets itself by splen­did visions, ten­der­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, and at the same time full of con­so­la­tions. This new state is what the East­erns call Kaif. It is no longer the whirl­wind or the tem­pest; it is a calm and motion­less bliss, a glo­ri­ous resignèd­ness. Since long you have not been your own mas­ter; but you trou­ble your­self no longer about that. Pain, and the sense of time, have dis­ap­peared; or if some­times they dare to show their heads, it is only as trans­fig­ured by the mas­ter feel­ing, and they are then, as com­pared with their ordi­nary form, what poet­ic melan­choly is to pro­sa­ic grief.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Extols the Virtues of Cannabis (1969)

The Cof­fee Pot That Fueled Hon­oré de Balzac’s Cof­fee Addic­tion

Reefer Mad­ness, 1936’s Most Unin­ten­tion­al­ly Hilar­i­ous “Anti-Drug” Exploita­tion Film, Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Alan Drabke says:

    Arti­cles like this are dis­gust­ing. Cre­ative types who use drugs should be scold­ed, not idol­ized. Cal­i­for­nia was the first state to legal­ize mar­i­jua­na. Cal­i­for­nia was the first state to go bank­rupt. One out of every three fed­er­al wel­fare dol­lars goes to, you guessed it, Cal­i­for­nia.

  • Stan says:

    Cre­ative types prob­a­bly have lit­tle regard for those who would scold them no mat­ter what their process or tools…

  • arsh damour says:

    cre­ative types give a shit…

  • fresh socks says:

    Peo­ple who com­ment with­out read­ing should be scold­ed, Alan

  • Alan Drabke says:

    That first para­graph, the pho­ny dis­claimer, is always there. Use guyz ain’t foooolin me.

  • Padillla says:

    Most of what you know about the world comes from peo­ple that were not scold­ed because of their PERSONAL choic­es.

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