French Writers And The Club Des Hashischins

French Writers And The Club Des Hashischins

The current movement to legalize marijuana brings back memories of earlier historical events which made headline news. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was the well-known phrase often repeated by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary to encourage recreational drug use among mid-twentieth century Americans. In the 1940s he began studying the effects of psychedelic substances on writers of the Beat Generation—such famous people as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Leary, though, was not the first medical professional to do research of this kind. Not by a long shot. A full hundred years earlier, a similar, albeit more serious study took place in Paris which would be detailed by its pioneering physician in a 439-page book De Hachish et de l’Aliénation Mentale (“Of Hashich and Mental Illness”).

At the turn of the nineteenth century, after Napoléon’s troops had discovered hashish during a campaign in Egypt, the French public became enthralled with the culture of the area and tales of the exotic hallucinogen. Fast forward forty years or so to a psychiatrist at the Parisian Hôpital Salpêtrière, Jacques-Joseph Moreau. Having done tours of the Mideast himself, the French doctor thought that the drug’s “intellectual intoxication” paralleled psychosis, providing a means to determine the cause of and possibly a cure for mental illness. In order to test out his theory, like his successor Tim Leary, Moreau sought out volunteers among the cultural élite…mainly prominent literary figures. He believed that they would best be able to explain the thoughts and feelings they experienced during the episodes of induced madness.

How Moreau initially went about soliciting the help of the literati in 1844 is not clear. However, we do know that author Théophile Gautier received a letter in November of the following year introducing him to the group. A painter friend Fernand Boissard invited Gautier to come to his room in the Hôtel Pimodan to experiment with hash under medical supervision. Located at 17, quai d’Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis, the gothic mansion itself, presently renamed Hôtel Lauzun, was an ideal setting for such an unusual series of get-togethers.

Hôtel de Lauzun, the club’s meeting place

What Gautier found when he first arrived one foggy night was not a coterie of men sitting around smoking cannabis. Instead, Moreau had prepared a mixture of strong coffee liberally laced with hashish and ingredients like pistachios, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar to form a greenish paste called “dawamesk.” Participants ate the concoction with a spoon then enjoyed a banquet awaiting its effects. Gautier remembered his own hallucinations of distorted faces and the dementia “which invaded and then left my brain, finally enveloping it altogether.”

Gautier continued to attend the monthly meetings, sampling the drug about a dozen times. He also wrote a journal article in the Revue des Deux Mondes in February 1846 entitled “Le Club des Hashischins.” There, he described his fellow hashish club members who at times clothed themselves in Arab costumes—evidently to set the appropriate mood. Numbers grew to include some of the biggest names in French literature…Balzac, Baudelaire Dumas, Hugo, and Flaubert. In his publication Gautier provided details of their participation (or lack thereof) as well as their reactions. Balzac, it seems, only tried hashish once in December 1845, stating in a letter to his future wife Madame Hanska that he heard celestial­ voices and saw divine paintings. The famed novelist decided that he preferred to maintain his dignity rather than suffer the shame of giving up control over his will. Alexandre Dumas, père, attended the Hôtel Pimodan gatherings, but chose to use hash merely as a plot device in part of his novel The Count of Monte Crisco.

Dumas in 1855

Perhaps Gautier’s most surprising description of the Hashischins is that of Charles Baudelaire. A known alcohol and opium user, the Symbolist poet felt it was highly dangerous to subordinate one’s imagination and creativity to hashish. As a result, he seldom came to the meetings and rarely partook, opting to take notes on what happened to the others. Baudelaire later published a book called Artificial Paradises where he stated “wine exalts the will; hashish annihilates it.” His friend Flaubert criticized Baudelaire’s depiction of the drug as evil, saying that “the misuse of these substances” was the true culprit.

Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat, 1863

After five years in existence, the Club des Hashischins disbanded in 1849. And while Dr. Moreau continued his studies of the drug, there is no evidence that any of the eminent members of the group on Île Saint-Louis continued to use or abuse hashish.

Read more about writers of the Beat Generation and the famous nineteenth century French authors in my Cheapo Snob series of guidebooks to Paris.

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