The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XXI. Concerning the Doctor; not Southey’s, but mine.

At the time of my greatest need, I was so fortunate as to make the acquaintance of one man whose sympathy was, for months of trial, one of my strongest supports. Half discouraged in my attempts at self-rescue, I passed an hour in conversation with him, and fortitude came to me anew; for soul and its connection with the body had so long been his study that he knew how, with the utmost delicacy, to turn thought out of unwholesome channels; moreover, he had the heart as well as the brain for doing good. I need not say that he was a doctor.

I can not resist the temptation to a digression in this place for the purpose of giving my testimony, for the highest that it is worth, to one fact of past experience. It is this: if I have ever met a man before unknown to me, whose sympathies flowed instinctively toward distress, whose self-sacrifice had become an inseparable part of nature, whose comprehensive interest in all that might ennoble our kind was equaled only by his loving patience with its present infirmities, I have called him “doctor,” and, nine times in ten, have not been mistaken.

Society has now grown old enough, for the sake of self-respect at least, to despise and abandon those stale jokes upon doctors which tickled her childish ear. With her superstition of the value of a horse-shoe as prophylactic against witches, let her also put aside the inanities which she talks, in her less sombre mood, of the physician in league with the sexton, and the solemnity of mock-learning which reigns over a circle of gold-headed canes. When frightened, she is ever ready to send for the doctor; she stops joking as soon as she is parturient, apoplectic from last night’s surfeit, or appalled at the consequences of having swallowed a button.

True, there are empirics in medicine. There are men who tamper with the delicate springs of life upon no other authority than that of a

“possunt quia posse videntur.”
We have all seen the advertisement of one “whose sands of life have nearly run out,” and as we marvel at the length of time during which those sands have been just on the verge of their final down-flow, we are led to ask if, for the sake of that world upon which an incalculable benefit in cases of consumption may be conferred for the price of one shilling, the benevolent possessor of the recipe may not occasionally have tipped up his hour-glass or diminished its aperture.

We all know the quack in medicine. We are not blind to the thousand astonishing cures of as many desperate maladies, to the placards on the highways, the columns of the press, the almanacs, the guides, the angels that come down in a hurry from heaven, calling through a trumpet to the moribund to hold on till they get there, with a bottle of sirup under each arm which shall restore peace to his afflicted family.

All these things we know; yet are there no other quacks than quacks in medicine? Are there no quacks of divinity? no quacks at law? no political quacks, that dose a diseased nation? no literary quacks, who break down the æsthetic constitution of the people? But, because Brigham Young points out the road to future blessedness through a phalanstery of wives, shall we no more go to church? Because Jeffreys was a villain, must no more causes be adjudicated? And are we to abjure all faith in the science of government inasmuch as some placeman theorizes to the mob in fustian during a campaign, or anathematize all authors in that somebody has befouled the pool of reading-mind by a volume of the Rag-picker’s Nephew?

If we hold faith in gold, notwithstanding base metal, let us be assured that nowhere is that gold found at a higher percentage of purity than among doctors. Where one Faun hath stolen the mantle of Esculapius, as the good sire lay sleeping, there are a hundred upon whom he has dropped it as upon worthy children.

Of all men, the doctor is to be peculiarly cherished. Let us not forget that there was one season, very early in all our lives, when without him we might not have been. Let us remember how often, uncomplainingly, he has deprived himself of sleep, of meat and drink, of all those social endearments which beautify the world to us, that we might be set at ease upon some whimsical ailment, some pulse too little or too much. When the hour of a real need calls for him, with what anxiety he watches every flush of cheek and wandering of eye, with what strategic skill he brings to an issue the battle between the forces of life and death, with what calm earnestness he throws his own energy upon our side, how with the very parental anxiety he watches hour after hour at the painful bed, with what eye of suspense he beholds the crisis come, and now, when he knows that a Greater than he has come silently into the consultation, waits until an unseen finger has touched the clogged fount of life, and given him reason to rejoice with them that do rejoice.

In a deep sympathy, in tenderness, in allowance for human frailties, there is no man who meets us on the ways of life that more resembles that mightier Physician whose cures are felt in all the arteries of the world. Like Him, the doctor is compassionate, because, measurably with Him, “he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust.” And, last of all, yet not least, be it not forgotten that there is waiting for us an hour of shadow in the Hereafter, when, all medicine failing us, save that grand one which is to cure us of the body which hath afflicted for years, the voices of farewell, mixed with weeping, that shall be heard around our pillow, will not lack one tone which hath cheered us on through so many remediable distresses, but among the last whom our closing eye shall gather in before it looks on the grand mysteries will be he who, yielding us up unwillingly to the Stronger, remains to help the beloved whom we can help no more — the doctor.

It is hard to understand how any man who, like the physician, from morning till night, and often from night till morning again, is occupied with enginery and the repair of this complicated system of forces, the body, should rest contented with a mere external survey of the levers and pulleys of its machine, or the chemical phenomena of its laboratory. If he be the true man of science which his profession imperatively demands, he can not help perceiving, in a multitude of instances, that some intangible agent is working out processes for good or ill which do not array themselves under any material classification. Changes are taking place which do not seem to originate in the specific function operated upon; new elements enter the consideration of death or cure which can not be referred to food or medicine. The true physician will not be contented until he has gone back of the wheels, and investigated the nature of that strange imponderable force which is energizing them. To him the spiritual in his art is of even more importance than the bodily.

I have not, after all, been making a very wide digression, since it has just led me into the description of my friend the doctor — to me, the doctor by eminence, since, spiritually, he did for my recovery that which none else could, in a life-time, have accomplished for it corporeally.

All his life he had been communing with the great and beautiful thinkers to whom our mysterious double nature was a beloved study. Yet no man perfected in mere book-lore was he. Without seeking apologies wherewith to excuse himself from following in the train of the dogmatists of any age, he had thought for himself, and, in the possession of an inner world thus acquired, he was independent of other resources to an extent which was equaled only by my hasheesh kingship, and by that only in degree and not in permanency. With him the spirit of all things was as much a felt presence as their gross embodiment is to material men.

From the commencement of our acquaintance I was as much with him as the pressure of cares would allow me to be, and, when my own life had become to me a vague and meaningless abstraction, by participation with his thought and sympathy I somehow gradually drew into it an injected energy which made its juiceless pulses throb again, and awoke me out of the lethargy into which I was sinking deeper with every day. For months, but for him, the allotted course of my duties had been a mechanical round; a galley-slave, a mill-horse, could not have labored with less interest or more weariness.

As the mountain of exercises and compositions grew gradually more and more level with the plane of my table, and the evening wore on toward night, I was wont to soliloquize, “One hour more, and I will go to see the Doctor.” Once at his rooms, and the iron mantle of pedagogic restraint fell off; I was in the human character again; nay, more, I seemed to take off my body and sit in my soul. This very resumption of naturalness and freedom by one whose position demanded all day a peculiar self-control and reticence, will be understood by those whom fortune (or misfortune) has placed in like circumstances to be the most delicious privilege for which the tired mind can yearn. The ceasing to seem to be what he is not must always be an untold relief to any one who has not, by long training in the necessary caution of a responsible place, utterly ceased to be what he was.

Yet the benefit conferred upon me by my acquaintance with the doctor was something more than could be comprehended in this mere exchange of the technical for the natural, the life of a profession for the life of humanity. A most kind and lively interest did he bestow upon all that pertained to my past enchanted existence, and never with more gentleness and care than he did could an own brother have supported me through the horrors wherein I was painfully journeying on my way to complete disenthrallment. By condolence, by congenial converse, by suggestion of brighter things, by indication of a certain hope in the distance if I would but press on, in a thousand ways did this friend nerve me to persistent effort, and close more tightly behind me the gates of return.

It was through his labors chiefly that I began once more to take an interest in the world, not through any renewed affection for its mere hollow forms, but for the sake of that inner essence which they embodied. Henceforth forever, after abandoning hasheesh, was all endurance with the external creation to be denied me unless I could penetrate deeper than its mere outside. I had known the living spirit of nature; in its husks I no longer found any nourishment, but rather the material for a certain painful loathing to expend itself upon. In my then present condition, I beheld as little beauty in the best of external things, I granted as little admiration, as any old Athenian whose eyes last fell on the divine and spirit-breathing master-pieces of Phidias, revivified to pass judgment upon some elaborately-carven gatepost.

Through the aid of the doctor I began slowly to perceive the possibility of penetrating deeper than the shard of things without the help, so dearly bought, of hasheesh. Taking up, for instance, the subject of a spirit which works throughout all creation, by which the most microscopic plant-filament, no less than the grandest mountain, is inwrought and informed, we often talked together in parables, which, however, were never obscure to us, since we possessed that best dictionary of meanings, the bond of a close, congenial sympathy.

Let no one accuse us rashly of Pantheism, since it is not affirmed that we ascribed to that spirit of things divine, or in any way self-conscious attributes. Thus, as we were one day standing side by side before a window exquisitely arabesqued with trees by the noiseless graver of the frost, did the doctor discourse upon its process and its reasons:

“That the thing which men call dead matter has not wrought out this beauty is evident. The matter is here, but a more subtle force has moulded it according to hidden laws. The very necessary and primordial condition of matter is inertia, and without the touch of human hands inertia has here been overcome. Look at that palm-tree. We might shut out from our eyes its artificial frame, and all the other surroundings which connect it with man’s workmanship, and, as we gazed upon its articulate trunk, and the plumy shoots spreading from the expanded bud which forms the capital of the shaft, believe ourselves upon an oasis of Araby.

“Wherein differs this palm-tree from its brothers of the desert, the tropical garden, and the bank of Nile? In this only. The spirit of a palm has been viewlessly wandering from zone to zone in search of a body. It reaches a warm land, and there, from ammoniacal soils, from water-atoms, from numberless elements, it slowly builds about itself, in conformance to its inner laws, roots, trunk, and branches, until some way-worn Howadji throws himself down under its shadow, saying, ‘Blessed be Allah! another palm-tree.’

“A second palm-spirit, in its ethereal journeyings, comes not to the earth, but hither to this window-pane. Here it finds no soils, but only the water-drops, which all day long have been collecting from the atmosphere. Its visit is by night, and when we draw near the window in the morning, lo! the spirit has erected for itself a body of purest crystal, shaping it faultlessly, by its own unerring law, into the palm-tree which we see here.

“To-morrow the spirit of the Alga may float hither for its incarnation, and on the day after the spirit of the Fern.”

Had I possessed any part in the origination of this idea, I should not venture to characterize it as I now do, singularly beautiful; yet I believe that I shall not speak without hope of sympathy in saying that such it did certainly seem to me. It chanced that in the long and severe winter which we passed together at W——, my friend and I had many opportunities of beholding the verification of his prophecy, for to our windows did come frequently both Fern and Alga, with many another spirit from the universal Flora, whose filaments and petals bitter blasts only breathed into more finished perfectness, and whose fragrance was a better, a more enduring one than that of odor, since it was exhaled to the soul without mediation of corruptible organs.

As we looked upon the frost-glorified panes, our minds meanwhile tinged with this poetic theory, it was impossible to refrain from carrying up the analogy into a field which is vaster, and orbed by higher destinies than those of the unconscious creation. To a certain body of the palm alone is the breath of winter fatal. In the higher zones an incarnation reared of soils and earthy juices perishes and droops away; yet the spirit of the palm is not dead. Wafted away, it collects for itself other materials to dwell in, and crystallizes around itself a form which shall only be beautified and confirmed by that very power which destroys its other embodiment.

There is another wind in Araby, called Sarsar, the icy wind of death, which blows not upon the tree, but on the man. At its chill the bodily drops off, but the soul has never felt it. Set free by the same breath which was lethal to its shell, it voyages into another region, it crystallizes around itself “a more glorious body.” Who shall say that, to this new creation which it has informed, those very influences which worked the dismemberment of its ancient covering — labor, pain, attrition, and all the thousand forces of decay, shall not the more through all the ages act to ennoble the soul, to make it a grander, better, and more harmonious being? Shall he who so clothes the grass of the field, and much rather clothes us, though of little faith, grant good uses of ill destiny to unconscious and not to conscious being?

As a legitimate and by no means unexpected consequence of our living somewhat in seclusion, and holding both opinions and converse which were not absolutely universal, there were not wanting those who dubbed us visionary, the severest epithet of reproach which can be hurled by A., whose horizon of interests is bounded by beef and clothes, at B., who inquires within a wider scope. I do not remember that we ever writhed very convulsively under this fearful thunderbolt, but bore it as became not altogether annihilated, good-humored martyrs.

As we talked of this subject upon a certain evening, thus spake the doctor in parable:

“Once upon a time there abode in a bar of iron two particles of electricity. Now one of these particles, being of an investigating temperament, to the great discredit of his family, and the shame and confusion of face of all who held high seats in the electric synagogue, set out upon a wild voyage of discovery. For a long time he was absent, and, as no tidings came from him, it was supposed he had perished ignominiously at the negative pole. In the mean while, the other particle of electricity, who staid at home and minded his own business, by gradual accretions had secured to himself size and dynamic consideration in the community. After the lapse of several seconds (which must be known is a long period to individualities which travel as rapidly as the electric) the erratic particle returned, and visiting his friend, the particle who had attained a position of high respectability, happened to let fall in conversation this remark: ‘I have discovered in my journeyings that we are not the only beings extant, but that, in fact, we live in and are surrounded by a body called iron, which, from our difference of state, it possessing a far greater density than we, we do not perceive.’

“Thereat the other particle waxed wroth, and muttered something like ‘humbug!’ But the traveler, pressing the claim of his new fact, did so excite his respectable friend that he broke forth thus: ‘Do you pretend to belie the evidence of my senses? All my life I have been going up and down about my business, and have never yet seen, heard, smelt, tasted, or felt such a thing as iron in the whole time. Why don’t I run my head against it?’ Since that day, it is credibly stated that whenever the practical particle stands on ’Change talking with other practical particles, and the inquiring particle comes along, the former shakes his head, and says to his friends, ‘Unreliable — talks nonsense about a crotchet which he calls iron — visionary, very visionary.’”

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