The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XIV. Hail! Pythagoras

NOTE: You can see where Ludlow reworked a portion of his earlier article “The Apocalypse of Hasheesh” to write this chapter.

The hemisphere of sky which walls us in is something more than a mere product of the laws of sight. It is our shield from unbearable visions. Within our little domain of view, girt by the horizon and arched by the dome of heaven, there is enough of sorrow, enough of danger, yes, enough of beauty and of mirth visible to occupy the soul abundantly in any one single beholding. That lesser and unseen hemisphere which bounds our hearing is also amply large, for within it echo enough of music and lamentation to fill all susceptibility to the utmost. In this world we are but half spirit; we are thus able to hold only the perceptions and emotions of half an orb. Once fully rounded into symmetry ourselves, we shall have strength to bear the pressure of influences from a whole sphere of truth and loveliness.

It is this present half-developed state of ours which makes the infinitude of the hasheesh awakening so unendurable, even when its sublimity is the sublimity of delight. We have no longer any thing to do with horizons, and the boundary which was at once our barrier and our fortress is removed, until we almost perish from the inflow of perceptions.

One most powerful realization of this fact occurred to me when hasheesh had already become a fascination and a habit. In the broad daylight of a summer afternoon I was walking in the full possession of delirium. For an hour the expansion of all visible things had been growing toward its height; it now reached it, and to the fullest extent I apprehended what is meant by the infinity of space. Vistas no longer converged; sight met no barrier; the world was horizonless, for earth and sky stretched endlessly onward in parallel planes. Above me the heavens were terrible with the glory of a fathomless depth. I looked up, but my eyes, unopposed, every moment penetrated farther and farther into the immensity, and I turned them downward, lest they should presently intrude into the fatal splendors of the Great Presence. Unable to bear visible objects, I shut my eyes. In one moment a colossal music filled the whole hemisphere above me, and I thrilled upward through its environment on visionless wings. It was not song, it was not instruments, but the inexpressible spirit of sublime sound — like nothing I had ever heard — impossible to be symbolized; intense, yet not loud; the ideal of harmony, yet distinguishable into a multiplicity of exquisite parts.

I opened my eyes, but it still continued. I sought around me to detect some natural sound which might be exaggerated into such a semblance; but no, it was of unearthly generation, and it thrilled through the universe an inexplicable, a beautiful, yet an awful symphony.

Suddenly my mind grew solemn with the consciousness of a quickened perception. And what a solemnity is that which the hasheesh-eater feels at such a moment! The very beating of his heart is silenced; he stands with his finger on his lip; his eye is fixed, and he becomes a very statue of awful veneration. The face of such a man, however little glorified in feature or expression during his ordinary states of mind, I have stood and looked upon with the consciousness that I was beholding more of the embodiment of the truly sublime than any created thing could ever offer me.

I looked abroad on fields, and waters, and sky, and read in them a most startling meaning. I wondered how I had ever regarded them in the light of dead matter, at the farthest only suggesting lessons. They were now, as in my former vision, grand symbols of the sublimest spiritual truths — truths never before even feebly grasped, and utterly unsuspected.

Like a map, the arcana of the universe lay bare before me. I saw how every created thing not only typifies, but springs forth from some mighty spiritual law as its offspring, its necessary external development — not the mere clothing of the essence, but the essence incarnate.

I am aware that, in this recital, I may seem to be repeating what I have said before of my dreadful night of insight; but between the two visions there was this difference, the view did not stop here. While that music was pouring through the great heavens above me, I became conscious of a numerical order which ran through it, and in marking this order, I beheld it transferred to every movement of the universe. Every sphere wheeled on in its orbit, every emotion of the soul arose and fell, every smallest moss and fungus germinated and grew according to some peculiarity of numbers which severally governed them, and was most admirably typified by them in return. An exquisite harmony of proportion reigned through space, and I seemed to realize that the music which I heard was but this numerical harmony making itself objective through the development of a grand harmony of tones.

The vividness with which this conception revealed itself to me made it a thing terrible to bear alone. An unutterable ecstasy was carrying me away, but I dared not abandon myself to it. I was no seer who could look on the unveiling of such glories face to face.

An irrepressible yearning came over me to impart what I beheld, to share with another soul the weight of this colossal revelation. With this purpose I scrutinized this vision; I sought in it for some characteristic which might make it translatable to another mind. There was none. In absolute incommunicableness it stood apart. For it, in spoken language, there was no symbol.

For a long time — how long a hasheesh-eater alone can know — I was in an agony. I searched every pocket for my pencil and note-book, that I might at least set down some representative mark which would afterward recall to me the lineaments of my apocalypse. They were not with me. Jutting into the water of the brook along which I then wandered, and which, before and afterward, was my sole companion through so many ecstasies, lay a broad, flat stone. “Glory in the highest!” I shouted, exultingly; “I will at least grave on this tablet some hieroglyph of what I feel.” Tremblingly I sought for my knife; that, too, was gone! It was then that, in a phrensy, I threw myself prostrate on the stone, and with my nails sought to make some memorial scratch upon it. Hard, hard as flint! In despair I stood up.

Suddenly there came a sense as if some invisible presence walking the dread paths of the vision with me, yet at a distance, as if separated from my side by a long flow of time. Taking courage, I cried, “Who has ever been here before me? who, in years past, has shared with me this unutterable view?” In tones which linger with me to this day, a grand, audible voice responded “Pythagoras!” In an instant I was calm. I heard the footsteps of that sublime sage echoing upward through the ages, and in celestial light I read my vision unterrified, since it had burst upon his sight before me.

For years previous I had been perplexed with his mysterious philosophy. I saw in him an isolation from universal contemporary mind for which I could not account. When the Ionic school was at the height of its dominance, he stood forth alone the originator of a system as distinct from it as the antipodes of mind.

The doctrine of Thales was built up by the uncertain processes of an obscure logic; that of Pythagoras seemed informed by intuition. In his assertions there had always appeared to me a grave conviction of truth, a consciousness of sincerity which gave them a great weight, though I saw them through the dim refracting medium of tradition, and grasped their meaning imperfectly. It was now given to see, in their own light, the truths which he set forth. I also saw, as to this day I firmly believe, the source whence their revelation flowed.

Tell me not that from Phœnicia he received the wand at whose signal the cohorts of the spheres came trooping up before him in review, unveiling the eternal law and itinerary of their revolutions, and pouring on his spiritual ear that tremendous music to which they marched through space. No. During half a lifetime spent in Egypt and India, both mother-lands of this nepenthe, doubt not that he quaffed its apocalyptic draught, and awoke, through its terrific quickening, into the consciousness of that ever-present and all-pervading harmony “which we hear not, because the coarseness of the daily life hath dulled our ear.” The dim penetralia of the Theban Memnonium, or the silent spice-groves of the upper Indus, may have been the gymnasium of his wrestling with the mighty revealer; a priest or a gymnosophist may have been the first to anoint him with the palæstric oil, but he conquered alone. On the strange intuitive characteristics of his system; on the spherical music; on the government of all created things, and their development according to the laws of numbers; yes, on the very use of symbols, which could alone have force to the esoteric disciple (and a terrible significancy, indeed, has the simplest form to a mind hasheesh-quickened to read its meaning) — on all of these is the legible stamp of the hasheesh inspiration.

It would be no hard task to prove, to a strong probability, at least, that the initiation to the Pythagorean mysteries, and the progressive instruction that succeeded it, to a considerable extent consisted in the employment, judiciously, if we may use the word, of hasheesh, as giving a critical and analytic power to the mind, which enabled the neophyte to roll up the murk and mist from beclouded truths till they stood distinctly seen in the splendor of their own harmonious beauty as an intuition.

One thing related of Pythagoras and his friends has seemed very striking to me. There is a legend that, as he was passing over a river, its waters called up to him, in the presence of his followers, “Hail! Pythagoras.” Frequently, while in the power of the hasheesh delirium, have I heard inanimate things sonorous with such voices. On every side they have saluted me, from rocks, and trees, and waters, and sky; in my happiness filling me with intense exultation as I heard them welcoming their master; in my agony heaping nameless curses on my head as I went away into an eternal exile from all sympathy. Of this tradition of Iamblichus I feel an appreciation which almost convinces me that the voice of the river was indeed heard, though only by the quickened mind of some hasheesh-glorified esoterie. Again, it may be that the doctrine of the metempsychosis was first communicated to Pythagoras by Theban priests; but the astonishing illustration which hasheesh would contribute to this tenet should not be overlooked in our attempt to assign its first suggestion and succeeding spread to their proper causes.

A modern critic, in defending the hypothesis that Pythagoras was an impostor, has triumphantly asked, “Why did he assume the character of Apollo at the Olympic games? Why did he boast that his soul had lived in former bodies, and that he had first been Æthalides, the son of Mercury, then Euphorbus, then Pyrrhus of Delos, and at last Pythagoras, but that he might more easily impose upon the credulity of an ignorant and superstitious people?” To us these facts seem rather an evidence of his sincerity. Had he made these assertions without proof, it is difficult to see how they would not have had a precisely contrary effect from that of paving the way to a more complete imposition upon popular credulity. Upon our hypothesis it may be easily shown, not only how he could fully have believed these assertions himself, but also have given them a deep significance to the minds of his disciples.

Let us see. We will consider, for example, his assumption of the character of Phoebus at the Olympic games. Let us suppose that Pythagoras, animated with a desire of alluring to the study of his philosophy a choice and enthusiastic number out of that host who, along all the radii of the civilized world, had come up to the solemn festival at Elis, had, by the talisman of hasheesh, called to his aid the magic of a preternatural eloquence; that while he addressed the throng, whom he had chained into breathless attention by the weird brilliancy of his eye, the unearthly imagery of his style, and the oracular insight of his thought, the grand impression flashed upon him from the very honor he was receiving, that he was the incarnation of some sublime deity. What wonder that he burst into the acknowledgment of his godship as a secret too majestic to be hoarded up; what wonder that this sudden revelation of himself, darting forth in burning words and amid such colossal surroundings, went down with the accessories of time and place along the stream of perpetual tradition?

If I may illustrate great things by small, I well remember many hallucinations of my own which would be exactly parallel to such a fancy in the mind of Pythagoras. There is no impression more deeply stamped upon my past life than one of a walk along the brook which had so often witnessed my wrestlings with the hasheesh-afreet, and which now beheld me, the immortal Zeus, descended among men to grant them the sublime benediction of renovated life. For this cause I had abandoned the serene seats of Olympus, the convocation of the gods, and the glory of an immortal kingship, while by my side Hermes trod the earth with radiant feet, the companion and dispenser of the beneficence of Deity. Across lakes and seas, from continent to continent we strode; the snows of Hæmus and the Himmalehs crunched beneath our sandals; our foreheads were bathed with the upper light, our breasts glowed with the exultant inspiration of the golden ether. Now resting on Chimborzao, I poured forth a majestic blessing upon all my creatures, and in an instant, with one omniscient glance, I beheld every human dwelling-place on the whole sphere irradiated with an unspeakable joy.

I saw the king rule more wisely; the laborer return from his toil to a happier home; the park grow green with an intenser culture; the harvest-field groan under the sheaves of a more prudent and prosperous husbandry. Adown blue slopes came new and more populous flocks, led by unvexed and gladsome shepherds; a thousand healthy vineyards sprang up above their new-raised sunny terraces; every smallest heart glowed with an added thrill of exultation, and the universal rebound of joy came pouring up into my own spirit with an intensity which lit my deity with rapture.

And this was but a lay hasheesh-eater, mysteriously clothed in no Pallas-woven, philosophic stole, who, with his friend, walked out into the fields to enjoy his delirium among the beauties of a clear summer afternoon. What, then, of Pythagoras?

It was during this walk that one of the strangest phenomena of sight which I have ever noticed appeared to me. Every sunbeam was refracted into its primitive rays; wherever upon the landscape a pencil of light fell, between rocks or trees, it seemed a prismatic pathway between earth and heaven. The atmosphere was one network of variegated solar threads, tremulous with radiance, and distilling rapture from its fibres into all my veins.

It is singular in how many ways, during the hasheesh life, the harmony of creation was typified to me. The harp of the universe, which I have already mentioned, was itself once repeated invision; other representations, on a scale perhaps even as grand, have left but a dim outline upon my memory; yet there is one which, though at least thrice repeated, lost no glory by growing familiar, but more and more deepened its first impress of awe and rapture. The first time that it occurred to me was when, at the close of my walk amid the majesty of apotheosis, I sat quietly at the window of my room looking out upon the sunset which bathed the gigantic landscape before me. As yet the magnifying effect of the drug had not begun to decrease, and I gazed with fascinated eyes upon mountains which scaled heaven, and a river which was oceanic, in a breathless exultancy which vibrated on the diamond edge of pain.

Suddenly the landscape floated out of sight, and in its place there sat on the trembling ether a tremendous ship, which within itself included every portion of created being. Not a God-born essence, not a microscopic atom, but was builded up into some bulwark, beam, or spar of the colossal vessel. Its marked outline was traced with the more glorious things of creation, the baser formed its inner and hidden parts. Its sides, its stern, its bow were wrought of mighty stars whose rays interlaced; its masts were similar constellations, that at their heads, a million leagues above me, yet still distinctly radiant, bore systems of suns for lanterns. Like lanterns flashed far off upon the prow, and dazzling clouds and nebulæ, filled out with the breath of an omnipotent will, strained the crystal yards upon which they hung.

Now I was transferred to the deck of this infinite ship; her name was whispered in my ear, “The Ship of the Universe,” and the helm was put into my hand. With unutterable symphonies we floated out upon the boundless space, and on the distant bows there broke in music the waves of resplendent ether. It was at this post of pilotage, steering out into the unknown void, that I felt human nature within me grow godlike to an insane excess. The helmsman, the master of all being but the Divine, I burst into a chant of triumph, which shook the starry lights above me till their clusters rained glory like wine.

I bethought me, forgetful of the infinity of the ocean we were traveling, that I might mark the rate of our progress, and so drew out my watch. Its second-hand had stopped. I held it to my ear and heard it tick. Again I looked at it; the hand was motionless. Continuing my gaze, I saw it at length move slowly through one of the second-spaces, when it stopped once more. Still I looked, and at last became aware that, by the hasheesh expansion of time, I was enabled to realize as a quite prolonged and definite period — a period as great as in our ordinary state a whole minute, at least, would appear — that almost infinitesimal instant during which a second-hand actually is motionless at the end of its vibration between two consecutive ticks.

Previous: “Eidola Theatri and the Prince of Whales” Table of Contents Next: “‘Then Seeva Opened on the Accursed One his Eye of Anger’”