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The Poem of Hashish | next

C H A P T E R  I  -   T H E  L O N G I N G  F O R   I N F I N I T Y

T H O S E  who know how to observe themselves, and who preserve the memory of their impressions, those who, like Hoffmann, have known how to construct their spiritual barometer, have sometimes had to note in the observatory of their mind fine seasons, happy days, delicious minutes. There are days when man awakes with a young and vigorous genius. Though his eyelids be scarcely released from the slumber which sealed them, the exterior world shows itself to him with a powerful relief, a clearness of contour, and a richness of colour which are admirable. The moral world opens out its vast perspective, full of new clarities.

A  M A N  gratified by this happiness, unfortunately rare and transient, feels himself at once more an artist and more a just man; to say all in a word, a nobler being. But the most singular thing in this exceptional condition of the spirit and of the senses which I may without exaggeration call heavenly, if I compare it with the heavy shadows of common and daily existence is that it has not been created by any visible or easily definable cause. Is it the result of good hygiene and of a wise regimen? Such is the first explanation which suggests itself; but we are obliged to recognise that often this marvel, this prodigy, so to say, produces itself as if it were the effect of a superior and invisible power, of a power exterior to man, after a period of the abuse of his physical faculties. Shall we say that it is the reward of assiduous prayer and spiritual ardour? It is certain that a constant elevation of the desire, a tension of the spiritual forces in a heavenly direction, would be the most proper regimen for creating this moral health, so brilliant and so glorious. But what absurd law causes it to manifest itself (as it sometimes does) after shameful orgies of the imagination; after a sophistical abuse of reason, which is, to its straightforward and rational use, that which the tricks of dislocation which some acrobats have taught themselves to perform are to sane gymnastics? For this reason I prefer to consider this abnormal condition of the spirit as a true grace; as a magic mirror wherein man is invited to see himself at his best; that is to say, as that which he should be, and might be; a kind of angelic excitement; a rehabilitation of the most flattering type. A certain Spiritualist School, largely represented in England and America, even considers supernatural phenomena, such as the apparition of phantoms, ghosts, &c, as manifestations of the Divine Will, ever anxious to awaken in the spirit of man the memory of invisible truths.

B E S I D E S  this charming and singular state, where all the forces are balanced; where the imagination, though enormously powerful, does not drag after it into perilous adventures the moral sense; when an exquisite sensibility is no longer tortured by sick nerves, those councillors in ordinary of crime or despair; this marvellous state, I say, has no prodromal symptoms. It is as unexpected as a ghost. It is a species of obsession, but of intermittent obsession; from which we should be able to draw, if we were but wise, the certainty of a nobler existence, and the hope of attaining to it by the daily exercise of our will. This sharpness of thought, this enthusiasm of the senses and of the spirit, must in every age have appeared to man as the chiefest of blessings; and for this reason, considering nothing but the immediate pleasure he has, without worrying himself as to whether he were violating the laws of his constitution, he has sought, in physical science, in pharmacy, in the grossest liquors, in the subtlest perfumes, in every climate and in every age, the means of fleeing, were it but for some hours only, his habitaculum of mire, and, as the author of "Lazare" says, "to carry Paradise at the first assault." Alas! the vices of man, full of horror as one must suppose them, contain the proof, even though it were nothing but their infinite expansion, of his hunger for the Infinite; only, it is a taste which often loses its way. One might take a proverbial metaphor, "All roads lead to Rome," and apply it to the moral world: all roads lead to reward or punishment; two forms of eternity. The mind of man is glutted with passion: he has, if I may use another familiar phrase, passion to burn. But this unhappy soul, whose natural depravity is equal to its sudden aptitude, paradoxical enough, for charity and the most arduous virtues, is full of paradoxes which allow him to turn to other purposes the overflow of this overmastering passion. He never imagines that he is selling himself wholesale: he forgets, in his infatuation, that he is matched against a player more cunning and more strong than he; and that the Spirit of Evil, though one give him but a hair, will not delay to carry off the whole head. This visible lord of visible nature - I speak of man - has, then, wished to create Paradise by chemistry, by fermented drinks; like a maniac who should replace solid furniture and real gardens by decorations painted on canvas and mounted on frames. It is in this degradation of the sense of the Infinite that lies, according to me, the reason of all guilty excesses; from the solitary and concentrated drunkenness of the man of letters, who, obliged to seek in opium an anodyne for a physical suffering, and having thus discovered a well of morbid pleasure, has made of it, little by little, his sole diet, and as it were the sum of his spiritual life; down to the most disgusting sot of the suburbs, who, his head full of flame and of glory, rolls ridiculously in the muck of the roads.

A M O N G  the drugs most efficient in creating what I call the artificial ideal, leaving on one side liquors, which rapidly excite gross frenzy and lay flat all spiritual force, and the perfumes, whose excessive use, while rendering more subtle man's imagination, wear out gradually his physical forces; the two most energetic substances, the most convenient and the most handy, are hashish and opium. The analysis of the mysterious effect and the diseased pleasures which these drugs beget, of the inevitable chastisement which results from their prolonged use, and finally the immorality necessarily employed in this pursuit of a false ideal, constitutes the subject of this study.

T H E  subject of opium has been treated already, and in a manner at once so startling, so scientific, and so poetic that I shall not dare to add a word to it. I will therefore content myself in another study, with giving an analysis of this incomparable book, which has never been fully translated into French. The author, and illustrious man of a powerful and exquisite imagination, to-day retired and silent, has dared with tragic candour to write down the delights and the tortures which he once found in opium, and the most dramatic portion of his book is that where he speaks of the superhuman efforts of will which he found it necessary to bring into action in order to escape from the damnation which he had imprudently incurred. To-day I shall only speak of hashish, and I shall speak of it after numerous investigations and minute information; extracts from notes or confidences of intelligent men who had long been addicted to it; only, I shall combine these varied documents into a sort of monograph, choosing a particular soul, and one easy to explain and to define, as a type suitable to experiences of this nature.

- Charles Baudelaire

The Poem of Hashish | next

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