In a pivotal scene of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the young adventurer Franz d’Epinay visits the apparently deserted island of Monte Cristo on a hunting expedition. There he stumbles upon a band of smugglers who lead him, blindfolded, to a secret cave where their leader lives in Oriental splendor under the nom de guerre of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’. Sinbad – whom we may already suspect is the Count of Monte Cristo in disguise – serves him a sumptuous feast, followed by a small bowl of pungent greenish paste. “What is this precious sweetmeat?”, asks Franz. In reply, Sinbad tells him the story of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Assassin sect during the Crusades, who recruited his followers by feeding them a drug that “would take them into Paradise”, after which they would “obey his orders like those of God”.
His guest recognizes the story. “In that case”, he exclaims, “it’s hashish”.
Excerpted from Mike Jay’s Stranger Than Fiction, available in paperback from Amazon US and Amazon UK.
It is, Sinbad confirms, “the best and finest hashish from Alexandria”. “Nature wrestles with this divine substance”, he continues, “because our nature is not made for joy but clings to pain. Nature must be defeated in this struggle, reality must follow dreams; and then the dream will rule, will become the master, the dream will become life and life will become a dream…Try some hashish, my friend! Try it!”
Dumas’ scenario reflects his childhood immersion in The Arabian Nights, in which hashish-eating beggars are prone to imagine their hovels transformed into palaces; but it was also drawn from a more direct source. In February 1846, just as The Count of Monte Cristo reached the climax of its epic serial publication, the literary journal Revue des Deux Mondes published an article by Théophile Gautier entitled Le Club des Hachischins. Though archly fictionalised in mock-gothic style, it records a genuine literary salon. In 1845 the painter Fernand Broissard wrote mysteriously to Gautier inviting him to a private gathering in the lavishly-furnished upper rooms of the Hotel Pimodan on the Île de St. Louis, where Broissard lived. “Hashish will be taken”, he announced, “under the auspices of Moreau and Aubert-Roche” (of whom more later). “Arrive between 5 and 6 at the latest. You will have your share of a light dinner and await the hallucination”.
Gautier narrates from the perspective of a trembling neophyte making his way through the foggy winter night to the “half-worn, gilded name of the old hotel, the gathering-place for the initiates”. He raps the carved knocker, the rusty bolt turns and an old porter points the way upstairs with a skinny finger. The first figure he encounters is a mysterious master of ceremonies, ‘Doctor X’, who spoons a morsel of green jam onto an elegant Japanese saucer and profers it to the novice with the blessing: “This will be deducted from your share in Paradise”. The ‘jam’ – an Egyptian preparation known as dawamesc, hashish mixed with dried fruit and candied nuts to offset its bitterness – is washed down with Turkish coffee and a feast begins: a beggar’s banquet served in Venetian goblets, Flemish jugs, porcelain and flowered English crockery, no two pieces alike. The other guests are a flamboyant bohemian crew, complete with beards, medieval poignards and Oriental daggers. Gautier notices the drug’s derangement of his senses beginning with taste: “the water I drank seemed the most exquisite wine; the meat, once in my mouth, became strawberries, the strawberries meat”. His companions become distorted creatures with pupils “big as a screech owl’s” and proboscis-like noses. Once dinner is over, the cry goes up, “To the salon!”.
The salon is – as the upstairs suite of the Hotel Pimodan remains today – “an enormous room of carved and gilded panelling, a painted ceiling whose friezes depicted satyrs chasing nymphs through the grasses…here one inhaled the luxurious airs of times gone by”. Slowly it fills with fantastical figures “such are found only in the etchings of Callot or the aquatints of Goya”, a “bizarre throng” that plunges Gautier into a series of visions, hilarious and grotesque, interrupted by a piano recital that sends him into raptures, at first ecstatically soulful and then nightmarish, with demonic forms taunting him as he tries to escape but finds his movement slowed to a snail’s pace by an unseen force. The narrative reaches a climax with gigantic courtyards, classical monsters and the Funeral of Time before the clock indicates eleven, normal time is reborn and normal consciousness resumed, and the stunned initiate finds his carriage waiting for him in the street below.
On publication of Gautier’s reportage, the Club des Hachischins became a public sensation: the fantastic embodiment of a myth that had enthralled the European public. Since the first appearance of the Abbé Barrueil’s Memoirs of Jacobinism in 1797, through half a century of popular insurrections and royal restorations, many had believed that secret societies such as the Freemasons and Illuminati were fomenting the nationalist movements that would erupt into mass revolt in 1848. The early Freemasons had looked to history for precedents to their transnational and elite enterprise, and some had retrospectively incorporated the Crusader orders of the Templars and the Teutonic Knights into their lineage. But where had the Templars’ ritual secrecy and hierarchical structure come from? According to many, the Assassins were the original secret society, Hassan-i-Sabbah’s system of initiation was the fount of all conspiracy – and the source of his mysterious and evil influence was hashish.
This was a connection that had received confirmation in 1809 from the great Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, who had traced the lineage of the legendary Assassins and shown that their name derived from their alleged use of the drug for brainwashing and murder. Since that point, hashish had been regularly pressed into service to explain the ruthless fanaticism of revolutionaries through the ages. The most recent scholarly intervention was the History of the Assassins published in 1835 by Chevalier Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, a respected Orientalist but also a reactionary monarchist who claimed that the sect of the Assassins was the ultimate source of all revolution, libertinism and atheism: an “empire of conspirators” with a “doctrine of irreligion and immorality” and, in hashish, a blasphemous substance that makes its subject “able to undertake anything or everything”.
The Club des Hachischins was an outrageous satire on such beliefs, both appropriating and subverting them. “Hashish is replacing champagne”, Gautier claimed provocatively; “we believe we have conquered Algeria, but Algeria has conquered us”. Yet in the manner of a genuine secret society it succeeded in launching an enduring myth while leaving many of its mundane historical details in doubt. According to some contemporary accounts, it was elaborately styled as an Order of Assassins, with novitiates, initiates and a Sheikh or Prince who directed the ceremonies and rituals. In some versions it met once a month; others, perhaps more credible, suggest that there were only a handful of meetings and its active life was over by 1849; at least, the Hotel Pimodan seems to have been used only for a short period, the salons subsequently convening in smaller private rooms. The scenario of ritual gatherings and legions of initiates may perhaps be understood as part of the set-dressing, the ceremonial ambience it projected as a parody of the profane mysteries of the Assassin Order.
Gautier’s reportage, though set within an exoticised and fantastical frame, announces the arrival of a recognizably modern drug subculture, with the enduring motifs of long hair, outlandish dress, radical politics, all-night partying, sexual libertinism, heavy drinking and, of course, a voracious curiosity about abnormal states of consciousness. It was also the opening salvo of a substantial body of ‘drug literature’ exploring the properties of hashish. In addition to Gautier’s anticipation of gonzo journalism and Dumas’ incorporation of the drug’s reality-distorting effects into the most popular adventure of its day, Gustave Flaubert was obtaining his own supply of hashish from his chemist and embarking on a projected novel entitled La Spirale, whose protagonist was to be a hashish-taking painter on a journey to sublime madness. In 1851 Gerard de Nerval would incorporate a hallucinatory hashish tale into his Voyage en Orient, and Charles Baudelaire would publish his essay Du Vin et du Haschisch, which would in 1860 be revised and incorporated into Les Paradises Artificiels. The familiar roll-call of the Club’s members includes further luminaries such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Eugène Delacroix, though all such claims dissolve into rumour, and are presumably subject to inflation in the same manner as the club’s secret structures. It seems unlikely that many of the alleged members would have wished to undergo the experience very often: swallowing several grams of bittersweet paste and submitting to a prolonged derangement of the senses is a demanding ordeal, and some were doubtless glad to see their names added to the list of rumoured initiates without having to undergo it.
The salon is remembered for its artistic luminaries, but Fernand Broissard’s letter to Gautier reminds us that the convenors of this famous literary scene were primarily scientists. The prime mover was a psychiatrist named Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours, who seems the likely candidate for master of ceremonies as self-styled Sheikh of the Order: there is a surviving sketch by Gautier of him playing the piano in Turkish ceremonial dress. Moreau’s earliest partner in the project seems to have been his fellow doctor and hashish enthusiast Louis Aubert-Roche, whom he had met in Egypt and who in 1840 had published a paper on the use of the drug as a possible remedy for plague and typhoid.
Moreau’s own engagement with hashish had begun in 1837 at the convergence of two sources: his career in psychiatry and an extended residence in Egypt. After completing his medical degree in 1826 he had studied at the Charenton Hospital under Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol, a central figure in the reform of hospitals and the emergence of a clinical psychiatry. Esquirol proposed the diagnosis of ‘monomania’ for cases where a patient became focused on a particular obsession, and it was on this disorder that the young Moreau wrote his thesis. This new clinical language aimed to release mental illness from moral and religious judgement. In the predominantly Catholic world of French medicine, traditional presumptions about madness drew heavily on Christian doctrine: reason, or sanity, were viewed as God-given, and insanity as a recapitulation of the Fall and the descent into original sin. But Moreau believed that monomania, like many other mental disorders, was present to some degree in most sane people, not least psychiatrists; the insane were not lost souls, but merely those in whom these manias were magnified to an uncontrollable and debilitating degree. Reason and madness were not black and white, but a grey scale with an infinite number of gradations between them.
One of Esquirol’s treatments for monomania was the ‘rest cure’, sending patients off to an unfamiliar place where their compulsive routines and fixations could be broken and they could have a chance to rebuild their lives. In cases involving wealthy patients, this often took the form of an extended tour of foreign parts, accompanied by one of his assistants. Thus it was that Moreau was assigned to accompany patients first to Switzerland and Italy, and then, in 1836, on a three-year trip to Egypt.
Exploring Cairo and sailing up the Nile, Moreau was struck by the uncanny mental world of the Arab people he encountered, who communed with supernatural djinn on a daily basis and took their nightly dreams to be omens or glimpses of the future. At the same time he noted the relative paucity of mental illness in their society compared to that of Europe. He decided to examine one of many conspicuous cultural differences: the absence of alcohol, and the prevalence of hashish. He began investigating the drug: reading de Sacy and all the available literature; studying samples of the local preparation, dawamesc; interviewing hashish users and adopting local dress and customs to infiltrate himself into the world of the Cairo hashishin. It was here that he made contact with Louis Aubert-Roche, an epidemiologist who had noticed that hashish-using Egyptians appeared less susceptible to certain diseases and was investigating it as a possible remedy for typhus. He experimented with various doses of dawamesc and on his return he brought some back to Paris where, under the supervision of two companions, he swallowed a large spoonful “at least the size of a walnut, about 30g” and recorded the results.
Moreau’s primary observation was that all the sinister legends and stereotypes that had accreted around hashish up to this point had lacked a crucial piece of evidence: self-experiment. In his treatise of 1845, Du Hachisch et l’Alienation Mentale (Hashish and Mental Illness), he pronounced that “at the outset I must make this point, the verity of which is unquestionable: personal experience is the criterion of truth here”. To observe a sprawled and supine hashish-eater and to assume that the drug simply produces sedation is to be misled by superficial symptoms. If people intoxicated by hashish are disconnected from the outside world, it is not because less is going on inside their heads than usual but far more, rendering them too introspectively engaged to move or speak. It is not normal practice for psychiatrists to subject themselves to foreign poisons, but, Moreau maintained, “there is essentially only one valid approach to the study…observation, in such cases, when not focused on the observer himself, touches only on appearances and can lead to grossly fallacious conclusions”.
Moreau’s self-experiment with hashish, of which he offered the fullest account thus far published by a European, dramatically illustrates the potency of the traditional dose and the limitations of previous suppositions about brainwashed assassins. He swallows the strange-tasting paste with difficulty, and notices its effects while eating oysters, suddenly finding the procedure irresistibly hilarious. Recovering from fits of laughter, he realises his companions are convinced there is a lion’s head on the plate in front of them. When he finds himself grabbing a spoon and preparing to duel with a bowl of candied fruit, he decides it is time to leave the table, and is seized with an urge to hear music. He sits at the piano and prepares to play an air from the comic opera Black Domino, but is interrupted after a few bars by a vision of his brother standing on top of the piano, brandishing a forked, flashing and multi-coloured tail. The sense descends on him that this is some kind of theatrical performance, and he begins imitating the voices of various actors, then picking up a stove and dancing the polka with it. Now he is back at dinner, but this time five years in the past, with an old friend, ‘General H.’, serving a fish surrounded with flowers. Suddenly his spirits soar to intense delight, and he sees his young son sailing around in the sky with pink-trimmed white wings. “Surely there was never a nicer intoxication”, he purrs, “an ecstasy that only the heart of a parent can understand”. However, he has been crying and singing and has, in real life, woken his child; this brings him immediately back to his senses, and he hugs the infant “as if I were in my natural state”. He goes out to a cafe and orders an ice, but finds the people out in the street stupid-looking and disturbing, and returns home, still rapt in “a thousand fantastic ideas”.
For Moreau this was more than a bizarre flight of fancy: he saw in it a radical possibility for the advancement of psychiatry. Its greatest benefit, he suggested, would not be for patients but for doctors, allowing them direct access to the abnormal mental states they spend their professional lives attempting to treat. “We see only the surfaces of things”, he argued; “can we be certain we are in a condition to understand these sick people when they tell us of their observations?…To understand an ordinary depression, it is necessary to have experienced one; to comprehend the ravings of a madman, it is necessary to have raved oneself, but without having lost the awareness of one’s madness”.
But Moreau was interested in the effects of hashish not only on the sick and those who treated them, but on the exceptional: artists, poets, men of genius. For this group, the exotic drug was known thus far in Paris by reputation alone, much as it was to Franz in The Count of Monte Cristo. In 1843 Gautier had written, as an aside in a theatre review in La Presse, that “hashish has been familiar to us only by name. Some Oriental friends had promised several times to let us taste it, but whether for difficulties in procuring the precious stuff or from some other reason, the plan has not yet been realised”. Thus Moreau, together with Aubert-Roche, undertook to provide a forum for experiment.
Behind the mystique and ceremonial trappings of the Club des Hashischins, then, we can discern the hand of Moreau and his scientific method. If he wished to study how the drug affected literary and artistic minds, he needed an appropriate setting. A clinical or laboratory ambience would be likely to make subjects self-conscious and inhibited, or provoke anxiety about their physical or mental symptoms and turn the experience from dream to nightmare. As ‘Sheikh of the Assassins’ in his Turkish robes, Moreau was able to dispense the drug at the correct dose and supervise proceedings without explicitly taking on the physician’s role, discreetly encouraging his subjects to embrace the experience in all its exuberant strangeness. The Club would live in history through the literary effusions of its members; but this literature was ultimately, for its instigator, a by-product of a primarily scientific intent: to guide the most gifted and audacious minds of Paris along the spectrum between sanity and madness, to witness them exploring their temporary derangement and, with due respect to his Hippocratic oath, to preside over their safe return to reason.
Excerpted from Mike Jay’s Stranger Than Fiction, available in paperback from Amazon US and Amazon UK.