Wednesday, 17 March 2010
HASHISH, WINE, OPIUM by CHARLES BAUDELAIRE and THÉOPHILE GAUTIER
Drug experiences, especially those of a hallucinogenic nature, vary according to the mind, expectation, experiences, surroundings, blah blah blah of the user, with those of an artistic or literary bent seemingly having the most extravagant experiences – or at least being able to articulate them in purple prose beyond “we were off our fucking tits”.
Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier were no exceptions and their early psychedelic explorations are compiled in Hashish, Wine, Opium. The language as you’d expect from mid-nineteenth century decadent French poets is beautiful and romantic and full of phrases and words that have long since fallen from fashion. They took their experiments very seriously and recorded in exquisite detail the highs and lows of their first studies; from the splendours to the horrors. I love this passage from The Opium Pipe, written in 1838. Gautier (that’s him illustrated above) is visited by the vision of a beautiful woman dressed in white who asks his name:
“Without hesitation, I replied that it was Carlotta, which was perfectly true and then she told me she had been a singer and that she died so young that she had known nothing of the pleasures of life and that before plunging forever into a frozen eternity, she wished to enjoy the beauty of the world, intoxicate herself with every pleasure and drown in an ocean of earthly delights, that she felt an unquenchable thirst for life and love.”
Kindly come with me fair maiden. It wasn’t all joyful tripping though as he later recounts in Hashish (1843):
“I became quite mad for an entire hour. All the Pantagruelian fantasies defiled through my imagination: Caprimulges, Coquesgrues, harnessed Oysons, Unicorns, Griffins, Nightmares, the whole menagerie of monstrous dreams trotted, hopped, flew and shrieked through the room: there were trumps terminating in a cloud of foliage, hands opening to become fish fins, heteroclite creatures with feet like chair legs and clock faces foe eyes, enormous noses dancing a cachuca on chicken feet; and as for myself I imagined myself the parrot of the Queen of Sheba , the mistress of the late King Solomon.”
Goodness knows what Caprimulges, Coquesgrues or harnessed Oysons are, but I wouldn’t fancy meeting one in a dark Parisian side street whilst off me trolley. So studious were Gautier, Baudelaire and their ilk in their quest for these new experiences (in the West at least) they formed the Club of Assassins to share experiences. William Burroughs often wrote about Hassan-i Sabbah, The Old Man of The Mountains, who kept his 11th century Persian followers dosed in a garden of hashish so they would conduct murders on his behalf just so they could return there; the word “assassin” deriving, it was claimed, from “hashish”. Incidentally, our intrepid Gallic cousins cooked the hashish paste with butter, pistachio nuts, almonds and honey to form a jam and washed down with coffee before eating an evening meal. Yum.
Charles Baudelaire gets top billing due to his greater fame (all those who studied at the School of Manics, 1991-1995, will know The Flowers of Evil) yet only has one contribution, Wine and Hashish (1851). His somewhat pompous patronising tone is funny at times, but at others you want to give him and his intellectual posturing a slap. He compares wine to hashish. “Wine is for those who work and deserve to drink it”, hashish “is made for wretched idlers”.
The most memorable line in the whole book though, and one remember that was written over 150 years ago, comes again from our man Théophile Gautier, who for a brief moment abandons all literary pretensions and gets down to basics: “I went off my head and started to rave”. Tres bien.
Hashish, Wine, Opium by Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier is published by One World Classics, priced £7.99