Drug-Lit Classics: Artificial Paradises by Charles Baudelaire
(Note: This review is based on the 1996 Citadel Press Edition, translation and introduction by Stacy Diamond. All photographs are in the public domain.)
The 1821 publication of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a watershed event, injecting into the Romantic era a commentary on what opium addiction actually involved, its effects on the mind, body and spirit, and effectively establishing the genre of drug literature as we know it today. The phenomenon of narcotic fancy was an integral part of the Romantic mindset, best exemplified by Colleridge’s opium-inspired epic poem ‘Kubla Khan’, and poets of the next generation over in France, notably Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, caught the vibes. In the 1840s, these two were members of the ‘Club des Hashischins’, a loose group of artists and writers who gathered in the Hotel Pimodan in Paris in order to partake of cannabis orally in what we would now describe as ‘heroic doses’. Of western countries at that time, France was the best acquainted with cannabis, due to its invasion of Egypt in the Napoleonic era and the subsequent interest in and importation of the drug by its soldiery. These poets would now put cannabis on the drug-lit map, alongside opium and its derivative laudanum.
In his 1843 account ‘Le Hachich’, Gautier beautifully captures the sensations: ‘My body seemed to dissolve until it became completely transparent… My eyelashes lengthened immeasurably and wrapped, like gold threads, around a small ivory spindle which then began to spin with astonishing speed. Shimmering cascades of multi-coloured gemstones, arabesques and flowers presented themselves in endless succession, in effects which I can only compare to those of a kaleidoscope…’
Baudelaire penned his first piece on the lyrical nature of intoxication in 1851: ‘Du Vin et du hachish’. It uses a poet’s eloquence and ironic perspective to explore man’s love affair with firstly wine then hashish, tracing the contours of the highs and lows with a subtle judgemental air hovering in the background. ‘How radiant are those wine-induced visions, brilliantly illuminated by the inner sun! How true and burning this second youth which man draws from wine. But how dangerous, too, are its fierce pleasures and debilitating enchantments. And so I ask the judges, legislators, and worldly men, all of you on whom good fortune smiles, to tell us truly: Would you, in your soul and conscience, have the pitiless courage to condemn a man who drinks of genius?’
When it comes to hashish, Baudelaire approaches the experience didactically, advising on set and setting, recommending favourable circumstances and pleasant surroundings. ‘Every delight, every contentment is magnified, and every pain, every anguish, is intensely and sharply felt.’ The drug, taken in the form of a paste, gives rise in Baudelaire’s account to what we recognise as a fairly full-blown trip, and he follows the various stages of its upward curve with an eloquence and authority that cannot help but bring on a smile. ‘The most common words, the simplest ideas, take on a bizarre new meaning. This merriment is more than you can bear, but all efforts to resist it will prove to be futile. The demon has invaded you, and any struggle you mount will only serve to accelerate the progress of the affliction.’
But of course this is only the beginning, and shortly, after your head grows heavy and your fingers turn to butter, the hallucinations begin. ‘External things, forms and images, swell to monstrous proportions, revealing themselves in fantastic shapes as yet unimagined. Instantly passing through a variety of transformations, they enter your being, or rather you enter theirs. The most singular ambiguities, the most inexplicable transpositions of ideas takes place in your sensations. Sound holds colour, colour holds music…’ After other synaesthesic joys and visionary journeys, a state of perfect bliss ensues. ‘All of the secrets about which theologians have grappled and which have been the despair of human understanding, now appear transparent and clear. All contradiction is resolved. Man becomes god.’
That 1840s dope was evidently amazing gear, but after singing the praises of the high, Baudelaire quickly changes tack, warning of the indolence that will follow from having spent one’s vital energies. He then takes a moralist’s tone, condemning a substance that can endow so much apparent bounty without any work being done in return. Curiously he then compares hashish with wine, coming out in favour of the latter. ‘Wine exalts the will, hashish destroys it. Wine is physically beneficial, hashish is a suicidal weapon.’ So, a marvellous account of the interior world of dope ends on a jarring note of ambivalence.
Later on in the 1850s, Baudelaire set about expanding the hashish section of ‘Du Vin et du hachish’ to form the first part of larger work: Les Paradis artificiels. The second part would deal with opium, drawing specifically on de Quincey’s experiences in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, of which Baudelaire was a huge admirer. Now, the two works are generally published together, under the title Artificial Paradises, writings on wine, hashish and opium, as is the case of the edition I’m using for this review.
The revised hashish section, ‘The Poem of Hashish’, is more reflective and philosophical than the earlier work, talking about the human spirit and the temptations of depravity before going into a history of hashish and its employment within Arab culture. When Baudelaire gets on to the drug effects, whole sections of the earlier work, which could hardly be improved upon, are reproduced virtually verbatim, though perhaps they lack somewhat in their earlier immediacy. He includes experience accounts from others to strengthen his ‘case’ against hashish, which now widens into an enquiry about the ethics of consciousness alteration, looking on it as an addiction of the intellect, the spirit and the artistic sensibilities, in the same way that opium serves as an addiction of all of those plus the body. ‘He who would resort to a poison in order to think would soon be incapable of thinking without the poison. Can you imagine this awful sort of man whose paralyzed imagination can no longer function without the benefit of hashish or opium?’
Though these sentiments jar with current cannabis enthusiasm, the writing is always lucid and perceptive, and indeed marvellous to read. Between the lines, we discern Baudelaire’s personal disposition towards cannabis, in line with other elements of his fastidious character and quite different, say, to that of fellow hashischin Gautier, who was much more in tune with ‘hippy’ sensibilities, and indeed looked the part.
The second part of Artificial Paradises, ‘An Opium-Eater’, does not concern itself with Baudelaire’s own experiences of the drug, but instead takes the form of an analysis and appreciation of the de Quincey work, involving long passages translated by Baudelaire, effectively introducing the work to a French-speaking readership for the first time. Clearly Baudelaire adores the Confessions and his account takes the form of a paean from one literary artist to another. He looks at de Quincey’s early life—his separation from parental care due to the death of his father, his prodigy as a Greek scholar, his sensitivity and health problems—in order to show both his predisposition to opium and his brilliance in describing its effects.
Then comes Baudelaire’s retelling of the two sections most familiar to us: ‘The Pleasures of Opium’ and ‘The Pains of Opium’, and this casts retrospective light on his writings about hashish and how the Confessions influenced him here. Seemingly Baudelaire styled his hashish accounts on the two-part de Quincey model, first the upside and then the downside, and from our modern perspective, understanding more about the pharmacology of both drugs, we can see how that model much better suits a truly metabolically addictive drug like opium, but far less so hashish, which for all its enchantments and possibly perils is not addictive in that way.
De Quincey’s account of his enslavement to opium and his ensuing nightmare interior journeys is awesome, and Baudelaire is very much in his element when describing this. ‘The reader will have already remarked that for some time, the man has not summoned the images, but rather the images have appeared of their own volition, spontaneously, despotically. He cannot now dismiss them, for the will has been enfeebled and can no longer govern the faculties. The poetic memory, heretofore a source of infinite pleasure, has become an inexhaustible arsenal of torturous instruments.’
Ultimately the value of Artificial Paradises lies in the depth and detail of its picture of how drug taking was perceived a century and a half ago, and on every page we’re reminded that Baudelaire, like Huxley, was a great writer, a master of language, and his ruminations and insights remain fascinating, regardless of how much or how little they align with our own.