The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XXIV. The Visionary; to which Chapter there is no Admittance upon Business

There are those philosophers who, in running the boundary-line between the healthful and depraved propensities of our nature, have left the longing for stimulus on the condemned side. Notwithstanding all that I have suffered from the most powerful stimulant that the world possesses, I can not bring myself to agree with them. Not because the propensity is defensible on the ground of being universal. True, the Syrian has his hasheesh, the Chinaman his opium; he must be a poverty-stricken Siberian who lacks his ball of narcotic fungus, an impossible American who goes without tobacco, and over all the world liquor travels and domesticates itself, being of all stimulants the most thoroughly cosmopolitan. Yet, if we make this fact our basis, we are equally committed to the defense of the quite as catholic propensities toward lying, swearing, and hating one’s rival.

But there is one ground upon which the righteousness of the tendency toward stimulants may be upheld without the fear of any dangerous side-issues, namely, the fact that it proves, almost as powerfully as any thing lower than direct revelation, man’s fitness by constitution and destiny by choice, for a higher set of circumstances than the present. Let it, however, be understood what, in this instance, is meant by the tendency to stimulus.

We do not mean that mere bodily craving which, shared equally in common by the most bestial and the most spiritual of men not disembodied, urges them alike to some expedient which will send their blood throbbing with a livelier thrill of physical well-being, blind them to the consideration of disagreeable truths, and eclipse all thought by the dense shadow of the Animal.

That of which we speak is something far higher — the perception of the soul’s capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth, and Good than she now gains through the chinks of her cell. It is true that there are not many stimuli which possess the power in any degree to satisfy such yearnings. The whole catalogue, so far as research has written it, will probably embrace only opium, hasheesh, and, acting upon some rarely-found combinations of temperament, liquors.

Ether, chloroform, and the exhilarant gases may be left out of the consideration, since but a few people are enthusiastic or reckless enough in the pursuit of remarkable emotions to tamper with agents so evanescent in their immediate, so fatal in their prolonged effects.

But, wherever the yearning of the mind is toward gratifications of this nature — where it is calling earnestly for a nobler excellence in all its objects, nay, even wearied, discontented with those it now has, shall we pronounce this state a right or a wrong one?

Let us see what verdict we would give upon certain other yearnings. When the poor man fences in for himself a little spot of waste land, he first erects a dark and low cabin, that his household gods may not be shelterless. Pleased for a while by the hovel life, greatly better as it is than camping out upon the roofless moor, he feels all his aim satisfied, and insphered within the attainment of Nature’s response to sheer physical necessities.

By-and-by, after the pleasures of not being cold, wet, exposed to suspicious eyesight, nor hungry (since he has a little potato-patch behind the cabin), have become somewhat odd to him, he happens to think, “How would a few flowers look before my door? There is something inside of me which seems to approve of flowers; I think they would do me good.” So the poor man wanders out into the wood, and there, in that most ancient and incense-breathing temple of our God, he kneels down on the turfy hassock, which Spring, that ever-young opener of the cathedral doors, has laid for him, and gently, without unearthing a fibre of their roots, lifts a clump of violets.

When, a day or two afterward, we come along past the rude cabin, and as we lean over the fence to ask the tenant how he fares, what do we do when our eyes fall upon a little dot here and there of something more than ground, or grass, or vegetables — azure faces looking brotherly up at the same-colored heaven? Do we shake our heads, draw down our brows, purse our mouths, and say, “Ah! dissatisfied with your circumstances, I see. Restless where Providence has placed you; grasping after visionary happiness; morbidly craving for what you have not; depraved taste!” and all that sort of thing?

I had really flattered myself that I was going to make a pretty cogent combination out of this, of the à fortiori and reductio ad absurdum arguments, but I am afraid I have failed. I fear that there are some people who would say exactly this.

Yet I will restrict the “we” to you and to myself, my reader, since I know that you have not the ability nor I the will to be guilty of so gross a speech. We, then, certainly shall not say it.

Let us finish the analogy. A man who, during his childish (not his childlike) years, was growing up into all that compacts, rounds out, and confirms the animal, has in that time attended solely to those claims of nature which have a reference to assimilation and secretion. With meat, drink, and raiment he was satisfied. Practical men cherished him as a sort of typical fact of that other broader fact, the respectable community.

Just at the moment that hopes of his “making something of himself” are at their widest (I will not say “highest,” since there is no height to hopes of this kind, as ordinarily understood), he discovers that he has some other need hitherto unsuspected, and not coming under any caption in the catalogue of bodily well-being. His soul wants beauty; its yearning will not be repressed. For a while he is content with the discovery of that which springs up between his feet in this really very beautiful world. Absorbed in other aims, he had never noticed it before, and now it breaks upon him as from a new heaven and a new earth.

By-and-by he thinks that, since all this loveliness is transitory, liable to be obscured by clouds and bedraggled by storms, uprooted utterly or made distasteful by the presence of a bad association which will not be exiled, his soul, as immortal and expansive, may find grander views in another region.

This other is the region of stimulus. What shall we say to this man? “You are morbid; you are depraved; your yearnings are unnatural and sinful; you must contract your wishes, or, at least, extend your arms sideways farther into the dark, not upward higher into the light?”

No; a thousand times no! Let us rather say thus: “Man, in this your longing, you have the noblest testimony to the endless capacity for growth of that germ, your soul. You can not believe more of her than she is, for you can not believe more of her than God believes, and He was assured that He had made her in His own image. You do not, therefore, flatter yourself with the privilege of looking into things too high for you; there is nothing which you can conceive of as possible to your view which shall not be actual. Your wish is approved by Heaven, for from Heaven came the constitution which made you capable of such a wish. Your Creator does not condemn you, neither do we condemn you.”

If that man therefore departs, and becomes addicted to the indulgence in opium, hasheesh, or whatever other spell may in his case possess the power of prying open for him the gates to more wondrous glories, shall not the blood of the man and the tears of ruined or bitterly sympathizing friends be upon our skirts?

Nay, most just and noble-hearted reader, for that which we have said to him should be only the exordium to another, a longer address. It is not the author’s will more than his province to be dictative, yet be indulgent if he shortly sketches it here.

“You sin not in your yearnings. Yet may you sin grievously, even against the grand aim of those yearnings, by a certain suicidal gratification of them. Were hasheesh, or opium, or aught else of kindred nature between the poles the only alternative to your former gross life in mere meat and drink, the only alternative even to remaining within the limits of your first acquired beauty, it were better indeed to use them than to dishonor your soul by following mere material aims, or by crippling her energies of expansion.

“Yet this is not the alternative. In Nature there is yet undiscovered glory, a spirit which gradually will interpenetrate you as you commune with her. She is not a mockery, a sham, for a truthful essence indwells, informs her. Be this communing one stimulus to you!

“In Art there is also a spirit which you have not yet read. As the spirit of Nature is the ideal of God, so is the spirit of Art the ideal of man, the mind which God has made. With this also commune. In your actions upon it, in its reactions upon you, you will rejoice in perceptions of a meaning in life which you never felt; you will have one more stimulus.

Around you are the starving to be fed, the naked to be clothed, the captive to be set free, the persecuted to be overshadowed by your wing, the benighted to be enlightened, the vile to be cleansed. Do good as you have opportunity, and find one more stimulus in that.

“The Infinite One is communing with this illimitable soul of yours to lift it higher. At a hundred doors he comes in to you continually. There are breathings within you which are not of yourself. Do you find yourself lower than you would be? Straightway the standard of true height is shown to you, held in a hand which can help you up to it. Are you obscured by the shadow of a misused past? To you, when you muse in the twilight, come angels, like the two who came even to Sodom at evening. There is hope of a better growth, a grander life; the light of a resurrection which shoots in from the time to come through the chinks of that sepulchre, your body. Wait patiently — ah! for how few moments, and that sepulchre shall be a cenotaph. Let that hope of an advancing future, with all its unveiling of mysteries, its impulse along the path of an ever more and more glorious career, its exhaustless Beauty, and Truth, and Good, be your last, your noblest, your unfailing stimulus, until the Ideal and the Actual become the same, and it be needed no longer.

“But of the stimulus of drugs, of potions, beware. For the sake of that very majesty with which you justly wish to aggrandize your soul, beware. Their fountains will be presently exhausted, and then you shall helplessly beat your breast, as without possibility of arising from the brink you draw in their foul, their maddening lees, and curse yourself for slaying those noble powers which it was your longing to strengthen, to nourish, and to clarify.”

Let this illustration be pardoned if, in spite of other intentions, it has become a sermon. The hasheesh-eater knows full well that not only in the world, but in our own country, shamelessly vilified as it is by the ignorant of other lands with the opprobrium of an all-absorbing aim at gain, there are many of those spirits who can not steep themselves in oblivion of all but physical ends, who can not rest in the mere knowledge that they are getting so many houses, so many acres of land, so much respectable consideration, to be possessed while a wind is passing by, while a twilight is fading. There are men who pine restlessly for riches which shall satisfy higher obligations of their being, shall endure longer, shall in themselves possess a nobler and more expansive essence. They are right in this pining. Yet if there be one voice which can speak from the gateway of a dangerous avenue to its satisfaction, that can say, “Ho there! pass by; I have tried this way; it leads at last into poisonous wildernesses,” in the name of Heaven let it be raised.

And thus I excuse my sermon.

There are those, no doubt, who in reading it will say, “Is it not inconsistent to advise this possible hasheesh-eater to ‘feed the hungry and clothe the naked’ after inveighing so much against practical aims just before?” With a desire to anticipate this objection, I would here say that it is not against practical aims, but the making them the chief, the controlling ones. Or, rather, even more boldly, not against practical aims at all, but against pseudo-practical. Paradoxical as it may be, there is no man more thoroughly, more purely practical than he who is most truly ideal. It is needless to suggest that the word “practical” is a derivative from the Greek verb “to do,” and is therefore most properly applied to the man who “does” the best for himself. Now which of two beings thus does the best for himself, he who does it particularly for that part of him which, in a few days, he is to abandon forever, or he who does it to the part which is eternally to abide by him? O practical men, judge ye.

The most perfect spirituality of aim, moreover, is not violated by any decent and orderly attention to the claims of the body. Only let the house be not more beautified than the tenant, the servant fed and adorned above his master, and then no one in his senses can quarrel because either the servant or the house is well sustained for the master’s highest good.

It is, no doubt, the perversion of this principle which has caused the word “visionary,” most righteously belonging, by its first title, to souls of the grandest insight, to be held, together with the idea which it conveys, in contempt even by serious and thoughtful men. Shallow persons, urging that claim to notoriety through extravagance, which they were aware they could not press to celebrity by greatness, have been disgusting humanity with their absurdities from the time that Diogenes coiled himself in his tub down to the era of the last apostle who blew his trumpet through Broadway. They have all glorified themselves with the name “visionary;” when the radiant mantle fell from the shoulders of the last ascending prophet who had worn it in reverence, it was snatched by the ancestor of all the unseemly clan — it cloaked the rags of his spiritual beggary during his lifetime, and at his decession it was handed down through every succeeding generation of impostors. No better proof could be adduced for its primeval authentic dignity than the fact that there has never, within the memory of man, been a pseudo-poet, pseudo-philanthropist, or a pseudo- with any other termination, who has not tenaciously clung to the epithet as his birthright, his mark of the elect, his cross of the Legion of Honor.

We can not wonder at the astonishment expressed by Rogers, that most substantial banker of a most substantial country, when, after Byron had dined with him, for the sake of the spiritual man, upon one potato and a glass of water, refusing all the English cheer set prodigally before him, the moneyed man finds that, within the next hour, his brother bard has dispatched a steak and a bottle of Port at his club-house!

Yet this assumption of the spiritual where it does not exist — this counterfeit presentment of the true visionary, certainly ought not, among thinking men at least, to discredit the real fact.

There are, doubtless, more than one who, when they have heard this fine word rung mournfully from some old watch-tower of conventional respectability, as the knell of all confidence, all position, all esteem among men, or echoing portentously from the tripod of Sir Oracle, big with evil omen to an unendorsed theory, have sighed for the ancient days when it beautified the threnody over a dead seer, or pealed from the lips of harpers as they sang the forecast of a living sage.

To its old place the “visionary” will never be restored until knaves cease to make it their claim to spurious reverence, or good men refrain from looking at every theory as unsafe which does not base its request for their attention upon some tendency to promote a bodily good or explain a bodily fact. If the former can not, is it possible that the latter may not be?

For him who shall reinstate that word there is a noble meed waiting in the future. The man who leaps into a stream and brings his drowning brother safe to shore is rewarded by the Humane Society with a medal, which he is proud to hand down to his children as their best inheritance. If we are true men, Truth is brother to us all, and the representative of a great and good idea is Truth. Help! then, help! until some one comes who shall place in the reverence of just thinkers. Verily he shall not lose his reward. But he must be a man of calm nerve as well as bold stroke; as able to take full in his face the outrageous pelting of the spray, as to wear the medal when he has wiped off the drops.

Then shall the soul be held worthier than the body, not only in-, but outside of the pale of speculative theology, and

“Then comes the statelier Eden back to man;
 Then springs the crowning race of human kind.
 May these things be!”

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