“Man cannot escape the fatality of his physical and moral temperament: Haschisch will be, for the man’s familiar thoughts and impressions, a deceptive mirror and a pure mirror."
Théophile Gautier "Le Club des Hachischins," Revue des Deux Mondes, February 1846.
Between the years of 1844-1849, the Parisian Pimodan House (Hôtel de Lauzun), a faded grand dowager of an establishment, served as the meeting place for a group who called themselves Club des Hachischins (Hash Eaters Club). These 19th century Romantic artists, cultural luminaires such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Gustav Flaubert, Hector Horeau, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Eugène Delacroix, gathered monthly to conduct séances and consume hash in the fabled salon. At first glance, these revels may seem to be Bohemian debauchery or a path to inward, metaphysical Truth searching; however, the curious gatherings were a French colonialist side effect reflecting Orientalist fetishism that was culturally prevalent in that era.
When the Club des Hachischins artists, popularly thought to be non-conformists, exploit hashish as an Oriental trope in their work, they actually flip to what Madeline Dobie terms “explicit advocates of colonial expansion” (15). Preoccupation with the Orient, meaning North Africa and the Middle East, figured heavily in the French imagination in the era, and Club des Hachischins is one point where colonialism and Romanticism intersect. Elizabeth C. Childs observes, “The Orientalist passion was ubiquitous, inspiring the décor and clothing of the fashionable, the fantasies of the poet, novelist and painter, the studies of the scholar, and the ambitions of the politician” (160). Orientalist fantasy had been fueled by the wildly popular, early 18th century French translation of 1,001 Arabian Nights, which had been retooled to be “less a translation than a Western edition of the ideal Eastern text” (Childs 162). France’s imperialist reach had created a mania for all things “Oriental” touching all segments of society at home, and that included the exoticism of hashish.
French hashish use increased when war veterans of Napoleon’s 1798-1801 Egyptian campaigns carried home their appetite for the exotic intoxicant some forty years earlier. The habit was widespread enough that French authorities issued an official 1800 pronouncement prohibiting its use abroad: “It is forbidden in all of Egypt to use certain Moslem beverages made with hashish or likewise to inhale the smoke from seeds of hashish. Habitual drinkers and smokers of this plant lose their reason and are victims of violent delirium which is the lot of those who give themselves full to excesses of all sorts” (qtd. in Grobbee and Hoes 183). Naturally, the veterans ignored the edict, and hashish use became as much a byproduct of French colonial exploitation as the Arabian Nights tales, further fueling Orientalist fantasy.
This colonial Orientalist dream was reiterated on many cannabis fronts. In 1809, Silvestre de Sacy, a scientist accompanying Napoleon, promoted a dubious theory derived from a convoluted reading of Marco Polo that the term “assassin” morphed from the word “hashish” in reference to legendary Persian hit squads operating during the 12th century Crusades (Abel 149). One version of the myth asserts that the operatives would partake of hashish before raids, supposedly emboldening them. The etymology of the word “assassin” is disputed; however, Orientalists, including Club des Hachischins members, kept stirring up romantic imagery, creating an ominous aura surrounding hashish for dramatic effect.
De Sacy’s student, Psychiatrist Jean Jacques Moreau de Tours (1804-84) was part of an investigation treating various mental illnesses in the 1840’s with hashish, and it was he who brought the party favors to Club des Hachischins. Moreau states, "There are two modes of existence - two modes of life - given to man. The first one results from our communication with the external world, with the universe. The second one is but the reflection of the self and is fed from its own distinct internal sources. The dream is an in-between land where the external life ends and the internal life begins" (17). Moreau’s agenda was to aid exploration of the in-between by observing hashish’s conscious-altering properties, and that led to experimentation with creative types such as authors and painters.
Dressed in ritualistic Arab garb, Moreau presented to the Club des Hachischins an exotic greenish paste, dawamesc, consisting of hashish, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pistachio, sugar, orange juice, butter and cantharides, as an extract in strong Turkish coffee. The mystique of L’Orient, no doubt, added to the allure of the green paste. Mike Jay asserts, “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.” Although, subsequent writings revealed that the guests didn’t use excessively, with some members even abstaining, hashish appears in some participants’ future works as themes aggrandizing the Orient, invoking danger and mystery and rejecting l'esprit bourgeois.
Exotic, sentimentalized imaginings permeate the work of Club des Hachischins members, which often feature cannabis use as a plot device or mood setter. This imagery appears to be an avenue for artists to gain currency as avant-garde. For instance, Gautier rekindles the assassin myth for dramatic effect in his description of Moreau dispensing dawamesk at one of the Club des Hachischins soirées: The “green paste that the doctor had just passed out among us was precisely that which the Old Man of the Mountain used to administer to his fanatics... that is, hashish, whence come hashisheen or hashish-eater, the root of the word 'assassin', whose ferocious meaning is readily explicable of the blood thirsty habits of the votaries of the Old Man of the Mountain"(qtd. in Abel 149). Additionally, Alexander Dumas recounts Marco Polo's story of the “Old Man of the Mountain and his band of Assassins” in The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) as Sinbad the Sailor, also a derivative of an Arabian 1,001 Nights folktale. These renditions are reworked Orientalist stories rather than imagery from hash induced dreams.
Hashish’s occurrence in literature at that time reflects fascination and romanticism of colonialism. It becomes clear in their personal papers that drug abuse was not the catalyst for the Club des Hachischins meetings. Essentially, hash use at the club was an artifice that served as more of a party theme than a great influence on their work; although, a few used the Orientalist theme to grandiose dramatic effect for self-promotion, a type of branding that they knew would be consumed greedily by their French audience.
While Moreau published a respectable scientific study in 1845 about hashish and mental illness, Baudelaire gives fantastical descriptions of hashish’s intoxicating effects in connection with his 1860 publication Les Paradis Artificiels, which features his French translation of Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater. In response, Flaubert takes Baudelaire to task for his florid account: "It seems to me that in a subject treated so eminently, in a work that is the beginning of science, in a piece of natural observation and induction, you have emphasized too greatly the spirit of evil. I would have preferred that you would not have accused hashish and opium of excesses. It was not the drugs that were evil, but rather the misuse of these substances" (qtd. In Abel 148).
In the end, the Club des Hachischins members achieved more escapism in their fantastical idealism of L’Orient, than in the trips they took on hashish. As F. Elizabeth Dahab argues, “The Orient was for Gautier and his friends, Nerval, Baudelaire, …that elsewhere where they could find beauty and escape from the ugliness of their society” (2). Regardless, their artistic production undeniably informed French cultural attitudes about colonialism’s distorted view of hashish and “the Other.”