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  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis

        8.  The Poet's Eye

DRUGS DID NOT SIMPLY SATISFY EXPECTATION; ON OCCASION, THEY could nourish it. In the 1790s Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had been prescribed laudanum—opium in an alcohol solution—for the relief of pain, found that it altered his perception; it could give him optical illusions—about distances, say:
    The poet's eye in his tipsy hour
Has a magnifying power
Or rather, the soul emancipates the eyes
Of the accidents of size

    Laudanum could also start reveries in which his imagination appeared to carry him away, as if in a dream, but leaving him with sufficient consciousness to be able to direct, to some extent, the course they were taking. In one of them, he composed Kubla Khan.


Laudanum and laughing gas

    Why comparable experiences had not been familiar before, remains a mystery. Opium had been used in Europe since medieval times; chiefly as a sedative, but doctors had come to realise that its effects could vary greatly. 'It causes sleeping, and watching'—Dr. John Jones wrote, in a treatise published at the beginning of the eighteenth century—'stupidity and promptitude in business, cloudiness and serenity of mind. It excites the spirits, and yet quiets them; it relaxes, and weakens, yet it enables us to undergo labours, journeys, etc.; it causes a furious madness, yet composes the spirits above all things.' But its vision-inducing potential was not grasped until Coleridge's experience, and not generally known until the publication in 1822 of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, with his description of what happened when he first took laudanum—tincture of opium in alcohol— for rheumatic pains in the head:
in an hour, O heavens! What a revulsion! what a resurrection, from its lowest depths of the inner spirit ! What an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes; this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened up before me, in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea ... here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.

    Agony of mind was soon to follow—as Jones had warned; 'great and even intolerable distresses, anxieties and depression of spirits'. So intolerable were the withdrawal symptoms that many respected citizens who had begun to take opium as Coleridge and de Quincey had done, for the relief of pain, were unable to break the habit. Some, laudanum destroyed; others, like William Wilberforce and Wilkie Collins, managed to come to terms with it, taking large but not increasing doses. But laudanum did not provide them with visions. It merely kept the distresses, anxieties and depressions at bay.
    Might there not be other drugs, though, which could expand an artist's horizon, without enslaving him? Shortly before the turn of the century Humphry Davy, the discoverer of nitrous oxide, found that 'sniffing' gave him a feeling of ecstasy; 'nothing exists but thought' he told himself as he awoke; 'The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!'. Soon, 'the laughing gas' and ether were being dispensed at 'frolics', which became a popular pastime. In parts of Ulster, ether became so popular that its consumption took on the proportions of an epidemic, whose consequences were entertainingly described by K. H. Connell in his Irish Peasant Society, from contemporary accounts. The atmosphere of some towns 'was "loaded" with ether. Hundreds of yards outside Draperstown, a visiting surgeon detected the familiar smell; market days smelt "not of pigs, tobacco smoke or of unwashed human beings"; even the bank "stove" of ether, and its reek on the Derry Central Railway was "disgusting and abominable".'
    The Ulstermen appear to have been using ether as a cheap alternative to alcohol; a tablespoonful—enough on which to get pleasantly, though briefly, inebriated—cost one penny. But some people used it as a vision-inducer. 'You always heard music, and you'd be cocking your ears at it', as an ether-taker put it; or you would 'see men climbing up the walls and going through the roof, or coming in through the roof and down the walls, nice and easy'. What a man experienced after taking it was limited, apparently, by his capacity for experience. As De Quincey put it, if a man took opium whose talk was of oxen, he would dream about oxen—'if he were not too dull to dream'. For a few individuals, though, ether or laughing gas provided sensations which they would treasure throughout their lives. In his Varieties of Religious Experience, William James was to recall how they could 'stimulate the mystical consciousness to an extraordinary degree', and though the truths might fade, 'the sense of a profound meaning having been there persists'.


The forbidden game

    The gases, however, could be dangerous in inexperienced hands; and many experimenters could get little but hilarity out of them. An alternative possibility as vision-inducer was Indian hemp, introduced into France by the men of Napoleon's army of the Nile, and taken up for experimental purposes in the 1840s by Jacques Moreau, a Parisian doctor who thought it might help in the treatment of patients suffering from mental illness. Trying it out on himself, he found it put him into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, and then gave him visions of an entirely pleasurable kind. 'It is really happiness which is produced', he wrote,
and by this I mean an enjoyment entirely moral, and by no means sensual, as might be supposed—a very curious circumstance, from which some remarkable inferences might be drawn... for the hashish eater is happy, not like the gourmand or the famished man when satisfying his appetite, or the voluptuary in the gratification of his amative desires—but like him who hears tidings which fill him with joy, or like the miser counting his treasures, the gambler who is successful at play, or the ambitious man who is intoxicated with success.

    Dr. Moreau shared the delights of his discovery with the members of the Club des Hachichins, founded in 1844, Dumas, Gautier and Baudelaire being among its members. Gautier described his reactions to the drug two years later in the Revue de deux mondes: 'frenetic, irresistible, implacable laughter' succeeded by grotesque hallucinations,
fantasies of droll dreams confusedly danced about; hybrid creations, formless mixtures of men, beasts and utensils; monks with wheels for feet and cauldrons for bellies: warriors, in armours of dishes, brandishing wooden swords in birds' claws; statesmen moved by turnspit gears; kings plunged to the waist in salt-cellar turrets ...

    Baudelaire's account was more clinical. People trying hashish for the first time, he observed, would complain that it had little effect, which might be attributed to their resistance. But it would suddenly hit them with 'a sort of irrelevant and irresistible hilarity... as painful as a tickle'. Occasionally this led on to weakness and stupor, but for some people, 'a new subtlety or acuity manifests itself in all the senses', and this was when hallucinations set in. 'External objects acquire, gradually and one after another, strange new appearances; they become distorted or transformed. Next occur mistakes in the identity of objects, and transposals of ideas. Sounds clothe themselves in colours; and colours contain music.'
    Such experiences could be very satisfying; 'the universality of all existence arrays itself before you in a new and hitherto unguessed at glory'. But in the end, for Baudelaire, they were regressive in their effects. The hashish-eater, he decided, 'completely confounds dream with action, his imagination kindling more and more at the spectacle of his own nature corrected and idealised, he substitutes this fascinating image of himself for his real individuality—so poor in strength of will, and so rich in vanity'. And,
the morrow! the terrible morrow! All the body's organs lax and weary, nerves unstrung, itching desires to weep, the impossibility of applying oneself steadily to any task—all these cruelly teach you that you have played a forbidden game... The especial victim is the will, that most precious of the faculties. It is said, and it is almost true, that hashish has no evil physical effects; or, at worst, no serious ones. But can it be said that a man incapable of action, good only for dreaming, is truly well, even though all his members may be in their normal condition?

    Other experimenters with hashish were to reach a similar conclusion; among them the American Fitzhugh Ludlow—though he stressed that it was not the drug, but man's reliance on it, that caused the problems: 'the soul withers and shrinks from its growth towards the true end of its being beneath the dominance of any sensual indulgence', so that though the bondage might continue to be golden, there was all the while erosion of strength.
    Not all the devotees of hashish experienced Baudelaire's 'terrible morrow'. A few were able to smoke it and examine its effects as dispassionately as they might have examined the effects of tobacco; among them the young Charles Richet, later to be a Professor of Physiology in Paris, and a Nobel prizewinner. Richet observed, as others had done, that for anybody under the influence of hashish, time could appear to stand still—or at least to pass more gradually; and in 1877 he presented a plausible explanation. Man's mind, he pointed out, is full of indetermined and incomplete ideas, intertwined. Disentangling them took time; and 'as time is only measured by the remembrance of ideas, it appears prodigiously long'. What hashish did was speed up the process:
in the space of a minute we have fifty different thoughts; since in general it requires several minutes to have fifty different thoughts, it will appear to us that several minutes are passed, and it is only by going to the inflexible clock, which marks for us the regular passage of time, that we perceive our error. With hashish the notion of time is completely overthrown, the moments are years, and the minutes are centuries; but I feel the insufficiency of language to express this illusion, and I believe, that one can only understand it by feeling it for himself.

    But such detachment was rare among the members of the Club des Hachichins and their successors; and they had given hashish a reputation as a vision-inducer which experience, for the majority of people who tried it, failed to justify. It had been the atmosphere of the Club des Hachichins, and the personalities of its members, which had lent Indian hemp its potency, rather than any quality in the drug.

Chapter 9

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