The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow


The singular energy and scope of imagination which characterize all Oriental tales, and especially that great typical representative of the species, the Arabian Nights, were my ceaseless marvel from earliest childhood. The book of Arabian and Turkish story has very few thoughtful readers among the nations of the West, who can rest contented with admiring its bold flights into unknown regions of imagery, and close the mystic pages that have enchanted them without an inquiry as to the influences which have turned the human mind into such rare channels of thought. Sooner or later comes the question of the producing causes, and it is in the power of few — very few of us — to answer that question aright.

We try to imitate Eastern narrative, but in vain. Our minds can find no clew to its strange, untrodden by-ways of speculation; our highest soarings are still in an atmosphere which feels heavy with the reek and damp of ordinary life. We fail to account for those storm-wrapped peaks of sublimity which hover over the path of Oriental story, or those beauties which, like rivers of Paradise, make music beside it. We are all of us taught to say, “The children of the East live under a sunnier sky than their Western brethren: they are the repositors of centuries of tradition; their semi-civilized imagination is unbound by the fetters of logic and the schools.” But the Ionians once answered all these conditions, yet Homer sang no Eblis, no superhuman journey on the wings of genii through infinitudes of rosy ether. At one period of their history, France, Germany and England abounded in all the characteristics of the untutored Old-world mind, yet when did an echo of Oriental music ring from the lute of minstrel, minnesinger, or trouvère? The difference can not be accounted for by climate, religion, or manners. It is not the supernatural in Arabian story which is inexplicable, but the peculiar phase of the supernatural both in beauty and terror.

I say inexplicable, because to me, in common with all around me, it bore this character for years. In later days, I believe, and now with all due modesty assert, I unlocked the secret, not by a hypothesis, not by processes of reasoning, but by journeying through those self-same fields of weird experience which are dinted by the sandals of the glorious old dreamers of the East. Standing on the same mounts of vision where they stood, listening to the same gurgling melody that broke from their enchanted fountains, yes, plunging into their rayless caverns of sorcery, and imprisoned with their genie in the unutterable silence of the fathomless sea, have I dearly bought the right to come to men with the chart of my wanderings in my hands, and unfold to them the foundations of the fabric of Oriental story.

The secret lies in the use of hasheesh. A very few words will suffice to tell what hasheesh is. In northern latitudes the hemp plant (Cannabis Sativa) grows almost entirely to fibre, becoming, in virtue of this quality, the great resource for mats and cordage. Under a southern sun this same plant loses its fibrous texture, but secretes, in quantities equal to one third of its bulk, an opaque and greenish resin. Between the northern and the southern hemp there is no difference, except the effect of diversity of climate upon the same vegetable essence; yet naturalists, misled by the much greater extent of gummy secretion in the latter, have distinguished it from its brother of the colder soil by the name Cannabis Indica. The resin of the Cannabis Indica is hasheesh. From time immemorial it has been known among all the nations of the East as possessing powerful stimulant and narcotic properties; throughout Turkey, Persia, Nepaul, and India it is used at this day among all classes of society as an habitual indulgence. The forms in which it is employed are various. Sometimes it appears in the state in which it exudes from the mature stalk, as a crude resin; sometimes it is manufactured into a conserve with clarified butter, honey, and spices; sometimes a decoction is made of the flowering tops in water or arrack. Under either of these forms the method of administration is by swallowing. Again, the dried plant is smoked in pipes or chewed, as tobacco among ourselves.

Used in whatever preparation, hasheesh is characterized by the most remarkable phenomena, both physical and spiritual. A series of experiments made with it by men of eminent attainments in the medical profession, principally at Calcutta, and during the last ten years, prove it to be capable of inducing all the ordinary symptoms of catalepsy, or even of trance.

However, from the fact of its so extensive daily use as a pleasurable stimulus in the countries where experiments with it have been made, it has doubtless lost interest in the field of scientific research, and has come to be regarded as only one more means among the multitude which mankind in all latitudes are seeking for the production of a sensual intoxication. Now and then a traveler, passing by the bazar where it was exposed for sale, moved by curiosity, has bought some form of the hemp, and made the trial of its effects upon himself; but the results of the experiment were dignified with no further notice than a page or a chapter in the note-book of his journeyings, and the hasheesh phenomena, with an exclamation of wonder, were thenceforward dismissed from his own and the public mind. Very few even of the permanently domesticated foreign residents in the countries of the East have ever adopted this indulgence as a habit, and of those few I am not aware of any who have communicated their experience to the world, or treated it as a subject possessing scientific interest.

My own personal acquaintance with this drug, covering as it did a considerable extent of time, and almost every possible variety of phenomena, both physical and psychological, proper to its operation, not only empowers, but for a long time has been impelling me to give it a publicity which may bring it in contact with a larger number of minds interested in such researches than it could otherwise hope to meet. As a key to some of the most singular manifestations of the Oriental mind, as a narrative interesting to the attentive student of the human soul and body, and the mysterious network of interacting influences which connect them, I therefore venture to present this experience to the investigation of general readers, accompanying it with the sincere disavowal of all fiction in my story, and the assurance that whatever traits of the marvelous may appear in its gradual development are inherent in the truth as I shall simply delineate it. I am aware that, without this disavowal, much — nay, even most that I shall say, will be taken “cum grano salis.” I desire it, therefore, to be distinctly understood at the outset that my narrative is one of unexaggerated fact, its occurrences being recorded precisely as they impressed themselves upon me, without one additional stroke of the pencil of an after-fancy thrown in to heighten the tone or harmonize the effect. Whatever of the wonderful may appear in these pages belongs to the subject and not to the manner.

The progress of my narration will be in the order of time. I shall begin with my first experiment of the use of hasheesh, an experiment made simply from the promptings of curiosity; it will then be my endeavor to detail the gradual change of my motive for its employment from the desire of research to the fascinated longing for its weird and immeasurable ecstasy; I shall relate how that ecstasy by degrees became daily more and more flecked with shadows of immeasurable pain, but still, in this dual existence, assumed a character increasingly apocalyptic of utterly unpreconceived provinces of mental action. In the next succeeding stage of my experience, torture, save at rare intervals, will have swallowed up happiness altogether, without abating in the least the fascination of the habit. In the next and final one will be beheld my instantaneous abandonment of the indulgence, the cause which led to it, and the discipline of suffering which attended the self-denial.

The aim of this relation is not merely æsthetic nor scientific: though throughout it there be no stopping to moralize, it is my earnest desire that it may teem with suggestions of a lesson without which humanity can learn nothing in the schools. It is this: the soul withers and sinks from its growth toward the true end of its being beneath the dominance of any sensual indulgence. The chain of its bondage may for a long time continue to be golden — many a day may pass before the fetters gall — yet all the while there is going on a slow and insidious consumption of its native strength, and when at last captivity becomes a pain, it may awake to discover in inconceivable terror that the very forces of disenthralment have perished out of its reach.

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