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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?’ Read more…

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