The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XIII. Eidola Theatri and the Prince of Whales.

Waiting until the next day at evening I took a moderate bolus, say twenty-five grains, and repaired to the theatre.

In the action of the pieces which were performed I lived as really as I had ever lived in the world. With the fortunes of a certain adventurer in one of the plays my mind so thoroughly associated me that, when he was led to the block and the headsman stood over him, I nerved myself for the final stroke, and waited to feel the steel crash through my own neck. He was reprieved, and, in his redemption, it was I who exulted.

The effect of some rich-toned frescoing above the stage was to make me imagine myself in heaven. Yet “imagine” is not the proper word, for it does not express the cloudless conviction of reality which characterized this vision. There were no longer any forms or faces visible below me, but out of the wondrous rosy perspective of the upper paneling angels came gliding, as through corridors hewn of ruby, and showered down rays of music, which were also beheld as rays of color.

A most singular phenomenon occurred while I was intently listening to the orchestra. Singular, because it seems one of the most striking illustrations I have ever known of the preternatural activity of sense in the hasheesh state, and in an analytic direction.

Seated side by side in the middle of the orchestra played two violinists. That they were playing the same part was evident from their perfect uniformity in bowing; their bows, through the whole piece, rose and fell simultaneously, keeping exactly parallel. A chorus of wind and stringed instruments pealed on both sides of them, and the symphony was as perfect as possible; yet, amid all that harmonious blending, I was able to detect which note came from one violin and which from the other as distinctly as if the violinists had been playing at the distance of a hundred feet apart, and with no other instruments discoursing near them.

According to a law of hasheesh already mentioned, a very ludicrous hallucination came in to relieve the mind from its tense state. Just as the rapture of music, lights, and acting began to grow painful from excess, I felt myself losing all human proportions, and, spinning up to a tremendous height, became Cleopatra’s Needle.

A man once remarked to young Dumas, “My poor friend, M. Thibadeau, returned home, took off his spectacles, and died.” “Did he take off his spectacles first?” asked Dumas. “Yes, truly,” replied the other; “but why?” “Merely how delightful it must have been to be spared the grief of seeing himself die!”

About as absurd a duality as that inferred for Monsieur Thibadeau, if he had kept on his spectacles, was the duality with which I looked up and saw my own head some hundred feet in the air. Suddenly a hasheesh-voice rang clearly in my ear, “Sit still upon thy base, Eternal Obelisk!” Ah me! I had not realized till then how necessary it was that I should preserve the centre of gravity. What if I should go over? One motion on this side or that, and dire destruction would overwhelm the whole parquette. From my lofty top I looked down upon responsible fathers of families; innocent children; young maidens, with the first peach-bloom of womanhood upon their cheeks; young men, with the firelight of ambitious enterprise new-kindled in their eyes. There was absolutely no effort which I was unwilling to make to save them from destruction. So I said to myself, “Be a good obelisk and behave yourself, old fellow; keep your equilibrium, I entreat you. You don’t want to clothe all the families of New York in mourning, I know you don’t; control yourself, I beg.” Bold upright and motionless I sat, until it pleased the gods to alter my shape, most opportunely, when I was just giving out, to the far more secure pyramid, after which all hallucinations gently passed away.

The hasheesh state, in its intensest forms, is generally one of the wildest insanity. By this I do not mean to say that the hasheesh-eater at such a season necessarily loses his self-control, or wanders among the incoherent dreams of a lawless fancy, for neither of these propositions is true. As I have heretofore remarked, self-government during the delirium, from being at first apprehended as a necessity, grows up at length into a habit, and the visions that appear before the shut or open eyes of the ecstatic have an orderly progress and a consistent law according to which they are informed, which elevate them above the prodigal though meaningless displays of fancy into the highest sphere of imagination.

Yet, after all, there are reasons for calling the state an insanity, and a wild insanity, which will defend the name to all who can realize them from a description, and far more completely to those who have known them by experiment.

In the first place, when self-control has reached its utmost development, and the tortured or exultant spirit restrains itself from all eruptive paroxysms of communication among those people to whom its secret would be unwisely imparted, there is still a sense of perfect passivity to some Titanic force of life, which, for good or evil, must work on through its seeming eternity. Hurried through sublimest ascending paths, or whirled downward through ever-blackening infinitudes, longing for a Lemnos where the limbs may rebound from solid ground, even though shattered by the shock, there is no relief for the soul but to endure, to wait, and through a time of patience but faintly imaged by the nine days of the headlong Hephæstus. When the Afreet who was of old your servant becomes your lord, he is as deaf to petitions as you were avaricious in your demand for splendors.

Again: at the moment of the most rapturous exultation, the soul hears the outcry of the physical nature pouring up to its height of vision out of the walls of flesh, and the burden of that cry is, “I am in pain; I am finite, though thou art infinite!” The cords which bind the two mysterious portions of our duality together have been stretched to their ultimate tensity, and the body, for the sake of its own existence, calls the soul back into the husk which it can not carry with it. Oftentimes, in the presence of the most ravishing views, have I felt these cords pulling me downward with as distinct a sensation as if they were real sinews, and, compelled to ask the question “Is this happiness or torture?” soul and body have returned opposite verdicts.

These two facts constitute hasheesh a most tremendous form of insanity.

At intervals, however, in the enchanted life which I led under the influence of the drug, there occurred seasons of a quieter nature than the ravishment of delirium, when my mind, with a calm power of insight, penetrated into some of its own kingdoms, whose external boundaries only it had known before, reflected, marveled, and took notes as serenely as a philosophic voyager.

In the department of philological discovery I sometimes reveled for hours, coming upon clews to the geneaology of words and unexpected affinities between languages, which, upon afterward recalling them (though only in a few cases was I able to do this), I generally found substantiated by the authorities of science, or, if they had not before been perceived by any writers who I had at hand, at least bearing the stamp of a strong probability of correctness.

I mention but one of them as with me merely conjectural, for it bases its plausibility upon a root in the Sanscrit, with which language I do not pretend to be acquainted.

I remembered during one of these calm, suggestive states that the Latin cano (to sing) and candeo (to shine) were supposed to derive their origin from a common Sanscrit root, whose signification was “to dart forth, as the sun his rays of light.” The thought struck me, Might not other vocal utterance than singing be found cognate with the out-darting of light also? I would see. The Latin “fari,” “to speak,” referred me back to its Greek equivalent, φάναι. The verb “to shine” was “φαίνειν” So far, in sound at least, the two were affiliated. It now occurred to me that “φως” was both “a light” and “man,” in his prerogative of speech, with a slight variation of accent in the different cases. I had here four words (dividing the last by its two meanings), all of whose original roots must have been something very nearly like φα-. On referring to authorities, I found that the fountain-head of the Greek “φαίνω” is supposed to be the Sanscrit “bhâ,” “to shine forth.” Following out the result of my previous argument, I connected all the words with this root, and in this conjecture saw both light and speech as effluences from Brahm, the great giver of all radiance, and man not merely an effluence from him, but, in virtue of speech, a “shiner” also, a reflector of Him from whose radiance he came, and into whose glory he should be absorbed. Now all this process (be its result true or false) was accomplished internally in a hundredth part of the time which it will take to read it — nay, almost instantaneously, and with a sense of delight in the mental activity which carried it on such as the creation of his highest ideal by an artist gives him when he stands mute before his marble.

Another field through which I sometimes wandered was sown with those sound-relations between words which constitute the pun. For hours I walked aching with laughter in this land of Paronomasia, where the whole Dictionary had arrayed itself in strophe and antistrophe, and was dancing a ludicrous chorus of quirk and quibble. If Hood had been there, the notes which he would have taken had supplied him with materials for the Comic Annuals of a cycle. Rarely did the music of a deeper wit intermingle with the rattling fantasies of the pun-country; never was any thing but the broad laugh heard there, and the very atmosphere was crazy with oxygen. Were it possible to transport to a country such as this those grave professors of the moralities who have been convicted of contempt of the court of Mirth, and high treason to the King of Misrule, how delightful would it be to behold their iron diaphragms vibrating perforce, and the stereotyped downward curves at the corners of their mouths reversed until they encroached upon the boundaries of their juiceless cheeks! But, in hasheesh states, temperament and previous habit so much decide tendencies, that the transport-ship which bore these convicts would float inevitably to the mouth of Acheron, or strand midway upon some reef upraised by a million of zoophytic Duns Scotuses.

Out of the number of double-entendres which appeared to me (and they probably amounted to thousands), I recollect but very few. To recall them all would be nearly, if not quite as difficult as to remember the characteristics of each separate wheat-head in a large harvest-field after having but once passed through it. I give two of them.

A youth, not at all of that description which “maketh a glad father,” was seen standing at the counter of a gaudy restaurant. Glass after glass of various exhilarating compounds was handed to him by the man in waiting, and as quickly drained. I did not observe that the genius of decanters received any compensation for the liquors consumed from the young man who demanded them, and modestly asked him how he had been induced to purvey to the drinker’s thirst on so liberal a scale. With arms akimbo, and casting upon me a most impressive look, the official replied, “Like the man in Thanatopsis, I am

“‘Sustained by an unfaltering trust.’”

Upon the steps of the post-office stood another young man, who had been disappointed in a remittance from the parental treasury. “What are you doing there?” I asked. “I am waiting patiently until my change come.”

Occasionally there intervened between the vagaries of pun and double-entendre some display of comic points in human nature, which were as amusing as the puns themselves. For instance, I remember the representation to me of a man of remarkable self-esteem, who happened, as he sat in my presence, to appease the irritation of his scalp with his digit. Just then a peal of thunder shook the sky above us. “Heavens!” cried our friend, “to think that it should thunder because a man scratched his head!”

I feel that these things lose very much of their original effervescence in the relation, for at the time they none of them seemed so much told to me as acted before me; nor was it the action of a stage, but of a vivified picture, where fun, in all its myriad mutations, was embodied to sight, and the joke was as much apprehended by the eye as by the feeling. Every gesture of the figures that passed before me told more of raillery than tongue could utter, and it was this fact that sometimes made pantomime upon the stage a perfect feast of mirth to me as I sat seeing it in the appreciative state induced by hasheesh. At such seasons, not the faintest stroke of humor in look or manner escaped me, and I no doubt often committed that most gross error in any man, laughing when my neighbors saw fit not to be moved.

At one time, in my ramble through the realm of incongruities, I came to the strand of the Mediterranean, and beheld an acquaintance of mine standing close beside the water. With a tourist’s knapsack upon his back, and a stout umbrella in his hand, to serve the double purpose of a walking-stick, he drew near and accosted me. “Will you go with me,” said he, “to make a call upon a certain old and valued friend?”

“Most willingly, if you will let me know his name.”

“It is the Prophet Jonah, who still occupies submarine lodgings in a situation, to be sure, rather cold and damp, yet commanding a fine water privilege.” “There is nothing,” I replied, “which would please me more; but how is it to be accomplished?” “Be patient, and you shall see.” Just then a slight ripple ridged the surface of the sea, bubbles appeared, and then there followed them the black muzzle of Leviathan, who, with mighty strokes, pushed toward the shore. Arriving there, his under jaw slid half way up the beach, and his upper jaw slowly rose like a trap-door, disclosing a fearful chasm of darkness within. I looked down the throat of the beast, and beheld descending it a rickety wooden staircase, which was evidently the only feasible access to interior apartments. Hardly would I have dared to trust myself to the tumble-down passage but for the importunate hand of my companion, which pressed me along beside him through the doorway and down the steps. The monster let down his grisly portcullis behind us, and in total darkness we groped to the bottom of our way, where we emerged into the most shabby room that ever dawned upon the eyes of the visiting committee of a benevolent association.

The central figure was an unutterably lean and woe-begone looking man, who, on a rush-bottomed chair, the only one in the room, sat mending his sole pair of unmentionables by the aid of a small needle-book which I was informed his mother had given him on leaving home.

“Mr. Jonah, Mr. Fitz-Gerald,” said my friend, sententiously. “Very happy to know Mr. Fitz-Gerald,” returned the seer; though, as I took his lank and ghostly fingers in mine, he looked the very antipodes of happy. Decayed gentleman as he was, he shuffled around to do the honors of his mansion, and offered us the chair in which he had been sitting. We refused to dispossess him, and took our seats upon the shaky pine table, which, with one battered brazen candlestick, holding an inch of semi-luminous tallow, and a dog’s-eared copy of Watt’s Hymns, also a gift from his mother, completed his inventory of furniture.

“How do you like your situation?” asked my friend.

“Leaky,” replied Jonah; “find the climate don’t agree with me. I often wish I hadn’t come.”

“Can’t you leave here when you want to? I should think you would clear out if you find it uncomfortable,” said I to our entertainer.

“I have repeatedly asked my landlord to make out his bill and let me go,” replied the gentleman; “but he isn’t used to casting up his prophets, and I don’t know when I shall get off.”

Just then Leviathan, from the top of the stairs, by a strange introversion looked down into his own interiors, and in a hoarse voice called out to know whether we were going to stay all night, as he wanted to put down the shutters.

“Be happy to give you a bed, gentlemen, but I sleep on the floor myself,” woefully murmured the poor seer. “You mustn’t neglect to call on me if you ever pass through Joppa, and — and — I ever get back myself.” We wrung Jonah’s hand convulsively, rattled up the crazy stairs, and ran out upon the sand just as Leviathan was about shoving off into deep water.

It may, perhaps, be hard to conceive how this incongruous element of the hasheesh visions should comport with all I have said upon the subject of those delicious raptures of beauty and sublime revealings of truth which break upon the mind under the influence of the drug.

How, it will be asked, as oftentimes it has been asked me already, can you put any confidence in discoveries of unsupposed significancy in outer things, and wonderful laws of mental being, attained during the hasheesh state, when you have also beheld vagaries of fancy which Reason instantly pronounced absurd? You do not believe that you really saw Jonah; how, then, can you believe that you saw truth?

I would answer thus: The domains of intuition and those of a wild fancy were always, in my visions, separated from each other by a clearly-defined and recognized boundary. The congruous and the incongruous might alternate, but they never blended. The light which illustrated the one was as different from that shed upon the other as a zenith sun is from lamplight. Moreover, at the time of each specific envisionment, I beheld which faculty of mind was working as distinctly as in the simplest tests of his laboratory the chemist knows whether cobalt or litmus is producing a certain change of color. The conviction of truth in the one case was like that of an axiom; in the other, such only as is drawn inferentially from mere sense.

We very little realize in our daily life that there are two species of conviction felt at various times by every man, yet a moment’s reflection will show that it is so. I look, for example, at a piece of silk, and pronounce it black; if I were now to turn away without any further inspection, I should not be at all astonished to hear afterward, from some one who had examined the fabric more closely and in a better light, that it was not black, as I had pronounced it, but a dark shade of blue. I would be very willing to abjure my previous conviction, and, in this willingness, would show that I ascribed no absolute infallibility to the proofs of sense. Yet if the same man should assure me that the silk was both wholly black and wholly blue at the same time, I should instantly reject his assertion as absurd, for the reason that it was a violation of the very law of possibility. There would be no need of going back to test his truth, for it is denied by an entirely different conviction from that of sense — the conviction arising from an insight into necessary and universal law.

Between the convictions of reality in the different hasheesh states, the boundary-lines are drawn even more distinctly than in the natural; and not only so, but the hasheesh-eater beholds those lines and acknowledges them, as the ordinary observer never does, from the fact that the practical wants of life make it convenient, nay, even imperative, that the data of sense should be treated as valid for the basis of action. We have neither time nor power in our present day-labor to secure the same unerring verdict upon objects of sense which the axiom gives us upon objects of intuition.

Nor is it necessary that in this life such a power should be possible. In a former part of these pages we have suggested a reason why it would not be best for the soul, thus early in its career, to have its intuitional domain enlarged. We may here, by another process, get at some of the final causes why this domain is just so large as it is. We have a sufficient scope of intuition for all our earthly purposes. Those truths are imparted to us as axioms which are necessary for the shaping of our habitual conduct. In the thousands of constantly-recurring cases where, to direct our course wisely, it is necessary to know that a straight line is the shortest distance between two given points, that the whole is equal to its parts, and numerous similar facts, it would greatly hinder action were it necessary to take the rule and the balance into each specific consideration, and make a measurement according to sense. These truths, therefore, stand before every man in a light which shows them to be universal and necessary; they are every where assented to upon their mere statement. The animal is not God’s grand laborer, but man’s; he, therefore, needs no such faculty as intuition, the work of his little day requiring neither dispatch nor accuracy; and when he is impressed for human uses into the harness or the mill, the intuitions of his master guide him through the rein and the halter.

Doubtless, as our field of action widens, our intuitional eyesight shall be increased also; not only because otherwise we should be mortified and saddened by our purblindness and the sense of making no progress proportional to the pace of our circumstances, but because God will never leave the workmen of his purposes hampered in their action among the colossal plans of the eternal building.

There is one more fact to which I would advert in this rather rambling portion of my narrative, which characterizes the hasheesh state at times when it does not reach the height of delirium. I refer to a lively appreciation of the feelings and manners of all people, in whatever lands and ages — a catholic sympathy, a spiritual cosmopolitanism. Not only does this exhibit itself in affectionate yearnings toward friends that are about one, and an extraordinary insight into the excellencies of their characters, but, taking a wider sweep, it can understand and feel with the heroism of philanthropists and the enthusiasm of Crusaders. The lamentation of the most ancient Thracian captive is a sincere grief to the dreamer, and the returning Camillus brought no greater joy to Rome, as he threw his defiant sword into the scale, than over the chasm of ages he sends thrilling into the hasheesh-eater’s heart. Whether it is the Past or the Present that is read or heard, he sorrows in all its woes and rejoices in all its rejoicings. He understands all feelings; his mind is malleable to all thoughts; his susceptibilities run into the mould of all emotions.

Sitting in this fused state of mind, I have heard the old ladies of the Latin time, as they sat gossiping over spindle and distaff, keep up their perpetual round of “inquit” and “papæ” with as distinct and as kind appreciation as were they our own beloved American aunts and grandmothers, knitting after tea amid the interchange of “says he” and “do tell.” For Epaminondas, coming glorious from Leuctra, I could have hurrahed as enthusiastically as any Thebian of them all, or hobnobbed with Horace over his

“Pocula veteris Massici”

with a true Roman zest and full-heartedness. At such times no anachronism seems surprising; time is treated as an insignificant barrier to those souls who, in the element of their generous humanity, possess the only true bond of conjunction, and a bond which, though now so elastic that it permits years and leagues to keep souls apart, shall one day pull with a force strong enough to bring all congenialities together, in place as well as in state, and every man shall be with those whom, for their inner qualities, he has most deeply lived through all his life.

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