In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:
That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.
The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, […] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.
Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form “literature of substance” — “substance” being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.
As a young student, De Quincy was a prodigy. He had such a mastery of Greek that one of his masters, quoted in the Confessions, said to another teacher: “that boy [De Quincey] could harangue an Athenian mob better than you and I could address an English one.” De Quincy passed through many schools in his youth, learned many of the Latin and particularly the Greek classics, and developed a life-long love of Wordsworth’s poetry. Unfortunately, his academic career was marred by constant moves from school to school, and especially by falling prey to some particularly inept masters and bishops who were charged with his education. At one point, young De Quincey ran away from school and led a vagabond life, wandering through Wales before ending up in London.
This itinerate existence forms the first part of Confessions – as a sort of explanation for the sources of pain that first drove him to the use of opium. He then holds forth first on the Joys, and then on the Pains, of opium.
De Quincey wrote the Confessions in London, while hiding from his creditors, a situation that was to be a constant in his life. He published the essay in serial form in the London Magazine; the piece received immediate acclaim, kicking off a lifetime career of magazine writing. Over the years, De Quincey revised and edited The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and it remains his most important and most continuously read piece.
Thomas De Quincey writes in a rambling, digressive style, peppered with quotes from poets such as Wordsworth and Milton, to lend gravitas to his pronouncements as well as to show off his considerable erudition. Once you get into the rhythm of this style, it becomes quite enjoyable, and his digressions are often quiet charming.
But what about the substances? The book is after all Confessions of an English Opium Eater, not Confessions of a Country Squire.
De Quincy is a master at describing the joys and states of mind induced by opium. He took the drug in the form of laudanum, a commonly used remedy in the 19th century. Laudanum is also known as tincture of opium. It’s opium in a solution of alcohol, and it contains all of the alkaloids found in raw opium, including codeine and morphine.
Opium has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes as far back as prehistoric times. The Sumerians cultivated opium in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. The use of opium, along with the invention of writing, then passed from Mesopotamia to Egypt, where the ancient city of Thebes became noted for its poppy fields, and the yield from the ripe pods was known Thebic opium. The Greeks used opium widely in medicine, and passed their knowledge on to the Romans. The Roman legions spread the use of the drug to Western Europe.
Opium consumption continued through the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, a medical man and alchemist named Paracelsus wrote of the benefits of opium, and created his own elixir known as arcanum which he used to cure intestinal ulcers and other disorders. It was also thought to have magical powers. Arcanum was a mixture of 25% opium mixed with henbane, crushed pearls, coral, certain oils, and a “bone from the heart of a stag”.Paracelsus also carried little pellets of opium which he called laudanum, and which he boasted could wake the dead.
An English physician named Thomas Sydenham took Paracelsus’ term laudanum, and applied it to a tincture of opium that he produced by dissolving the opium pellets in alcohol. Laudanum could also be made by dissolving opium in strong red wine or port, thus disguising the bitter taste and forming a potent liquid that could only be taken by adding drops of it to a glass of water or tea. A large draught of laudanum would result in immediate overdose and death.
De Quincey’s first encounter with laudanum came in the autumn of 1804. He was still a very young man, a year into his studies at Oxford. While visiting in London, he came down with “excruciating pains of the head and face”. The pain continued on for twenty days, and on the twenty-first, an acquaintance of his from college recommended laudanum. De Quincey sets the scene of his first encounter with the drug: “It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London”. Heading home through Oxford Street, he passed a druggist’s shop and stepped inside. The druggist offers up the tincture of opium, and De Quincey pays and repairs to his lodgings, still in dire pain. He takes the required dose of laudanum, measured out in drops. An hour passes. Suddenly, not only is his pain gone, but he is unexpectedly shown “the abyss of divine enjoyment”. He continues: “Here was a panacea […] for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be had for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle.”
From this first experience, De Quincy becomes a casual user of laudanum. At the time, the popular contralto Josephina Grassini sang at the London Opera, and it was De Quincey’s habit to imbibe some laudanum and then sit in the gallery, listening to the music of the opera, in particular to the singing of Grassini. Of his opera experience he notes “I question whether any Turk, of all that have entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had”. He would also take a dose of opium and ramble through the teeming market streets of London on Saturday night, observing the poor, and in his opium-induced euphoria, feeling a great solidarity with the common man.
Unfortunately, those halcyon days of early drug use didn’t go on forever. De Quincy remained a casual user of opium for eight years, up until 1813. At this time, he was brought low by an acute stomach ailment, one that he first experienced in his vagabond youth. The pain was so intense that he began to take laudanum every day. And here he discovers the law of opium: the more opium you take, the more you need to take, as the body builds up a tolerance that requires greater and greater amounts of the drug to attain the same pleasure. Accompanying this is the sickness you experience when the drug wears off. It is here that you enter the hell of addiction. Your primary purpose in taking the drug is not for the euphoric feeling it once gave, but to avoid the dreadful drug sickness.
De Quincey enters a period in which he rarely leaves the house, and his sleep is tormented by strange and terrible dreams. He seems to be living in a half-waking half sleeping hell. He is unable to read, unable to work, and unable to reduce his dependency on opium.
He begins to stockpile opium and manufacture his own laudanum by dissolving the narcotic substance in port or Madeira wine. He notes that “I […] have taken happiness both in a solid and liquid shape, both boiled and unboiled, both East India and Turkey.” Opium is typically boiled and strained to remove impurities, and De Quincey’s preference for boiled opium becomes clear in a philosophical discussion on philosophers that he regards as inhuman moralists: “An inhuman moralist I can no more endure in my nervous state than opium that has not been boiled”.
Finally a crisis enters his life — what it is he doesn’t say — that leads him to the realization that he will die if he continues on with opium as he has, He begins to reduce his dosage, slowly at first, but enough over time that he is able to keep his consumption of the drug to manageable amounts.
De Quincey remained an opium-eater until the end of his days. He produced a vast amount of writing during his life and died at the age of 74, which was a fairly ripe old age for the times. Other than his severe addictive period, the opium did not seem to slow his literary output. And he left us an essay that shows us both the pleasures and pitfalls of opium use, as well as adding some wonderful description of the drug state to our literature, our substance books. He provides us with this paean to his drug of choice:
Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; […] thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles – beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos: […] Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle and mighty opium!
The poet Charles Baudelaire was also interested in the effect of various drugs on human consciousness. In Artificial Paradises, he treats the effects of wine and hashish, and then offers up a summary of De Quincy’s Opium Eater. For Baudelaire, wine is the substance most convivial, most humane, that which inspires everyone from the lowliest worker to the noblest aristocrat:
Who has not known the profound joys of wine? Everyone who has ever had remorse to appease, a memory to evoke, a grief to drown, a castle in Spain to build – in short everyone – has invoked the mysterious god hidden in the fibers of the vine. How great is the spectacle of the wine, lit by an inner sun! How real and ardent is the second youth that man sips out of it.
Baudelaire’s assessment of hashish is more tempered. He describes the phases of hashish intoxication – an initial phase of uncontrollable hilarity, followed by the intensification of the senses and hallucinations, leading to a state he calls by the Oriental word kef:
It is a calm and placid beatitude. Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians and brings despair to thoughtful men becomes clear and transparent. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods.
The poet also notes the effect of hashish on the sense of time: “One lives several lifetimes in the space of an hour”, and comments on the fact that certain people experience a feeling of dread or paranoia while under its influence. But his overall assessment is that hashish is a substance that wastes too much nervous energy. His ultimate verdict: “Hashish belongs to the class of solitary pleasures; it is made for the pitiful creatures with time on their hands. Wine is useful, it yields fruitful results. Hashish is useless and dangerous.”
Baudelaire did not smoke hashish. Rather, he took it in a form developed by the Arabs, a form which was brought back from Egypt by Napoleon’s soldiers returning from the disastrous Egyptian campaign. The Arabs prepare a hashish concentrate by boiling the flowering tops of Indian hemp, that is, the cannabis plant imported from India, or grown in Algeria, in a combination of butter and water. This creates a greenish substance with a powerful odor of cannabis that is often masked with vanilla, cinnamon or other aromatic spices. It can be rolled in a ball and swallowed, or dissolved in a cup of coffee. Baudelaire mentions that doses range from 15 to even 30 grams, which would be a powerful jolt of hashish, especially when ingested.
Baudelaire lived in a bohemian milieu in Paris, and he was introduced to hashish through his friend, the writer Théophile Gautier, to whom Baudlaire dedicated his masterpiece Les Fleurs du Mal. Gautier and Baudelaire were members of “Le Club des Hachichins” — the Hashish Eaters Club. This was a group of artists, musicians and writers who met on a monthly basis to ingest hashish and revel in its effects.
The Club des Hashichins met in rooms in what was known at the time as the Hotel Pimodan, currently the Hotel Lauzan, located on the Quai D’Anjou on the Ile-Saint-Louis, one of the oldest sections of Paris, and one of only two islands in the middle of the Parisian Seine.
Let’s follow Gautier to a “meeting” of the club, as he described it in his essay Le Club Des Hashichins.
He arrives on the Ile-Saint-Louis on a dreary December night. Although it is only six o’clock, it already completely dark. A thick fog rises up from the Seine, and he gropes his way along the wet paving stones until he finds the entrance to the Hotel Pimodan. It is the mid 1800s, but even at this date the hotel is ancient. He climbs the ornate staircase and arrives at the designated floor. He rings the bell, and enters a room that has not changed since the 17th century.
His fellow members are gathered around a table, and each takes a measure of the green potion, followed by a coffee. They then sit down to a light repast, while the drug takes affect and general hilarity spreads among the guests. They repair to the salon, where Gautier begins to experience hallucinations and is fascinated by the ornate decoration of the room, which takes on an enhanced brilliance and life under the influence of the drug. He enters the kef (or, kief) stage, a state of trance-like calm in which he can no longer feel his body, and in which his mind sails along on rolling waves of hallucinations and reveries.
After a period of intense joy, he suddenly experiences what William S. Burroughs calls “the fear”: a moment of paranoia and panic. He attempts to flee the hotel. His feet are like lead, and he struggles to the door. The stairway which he ascended earlier is now an endless passage descending into bottomless chasms. After what seems like hours he exits into the courtyard of the building. The tiny courtyard has taken on gigantic proportions and the surrounding buildings resemble structures from ancient Rome and Babylon. He decides to return to the salon, re-climbs the stairs he had with so much difficulty descended, and loses consciousness.
When he revives, he sees that is it is still 9:15 — it appears that time has stood still. Finally the spell is broken, the hashish wears off a bit, and it is now 11:00. Gautier’s coach is awaiting him, and he again descends the stairs and makes his way home.
Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived as an expatriate in Morocco for most of his life, adds another dimension to the literature of substance. Instead of describing his own experiences with kif, he created a character, a young kif smoker, allowing us to enter his world and his consciousness.
The story is called “He of the Assembly”, which is the name (translated into English from the Arabic) of the young kif smoker. The story is in a City Lights collection of four stories called A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.
“He of the Assembly” on first reading seems like nonsense. There are two characters, each on separate plot trajectories, whose paths intersect at the end to the detriment of one of the two. On close examination, however, we see something quite different. Bowles has carefully constructed a tale that begins with a man named Ben Tajah. Ben Tajah has just returned from a journey. While walking through the market square, he finds an envelope lying on the ground, which he picks up and takes to the Café of the Two Bridges. At the café he opens the envelope. It contains a paper that says “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers”. He is instantly terrified, thinking that this is the work of Satan.
Immediately we enter the consciousness of He of the Assembly, who is also at the Café of the Two Bridges. He is listening to the wind in the telephone wires. He also has a thought concerning the eye: “the eye wants to sleep, but the head is no mattress”. We discover in further reading that He of the Assembly has been smoking kif all day. We also discover that he is quite young compared to Ben Tajah. But first we enter his cannabis induced waking dream. Initially the boy thinks about escaping from a policeman. He imagines the policeman chasing him, and he imagines running into a house where an old woman is stirring a big kettle of soup. Then he enters his own thought: the old woman becomes real, she tells him to climb down into the kettle of soup to escape from the policeman. She unfurls a rope ladder and hangs it over the side of the kettle. He of the Assembly climbs down the ladder, and at the bottom is a rowboat. The policeman, joined by two others, rushes into the house. The old woman throws the rope ladder down into the kettle. Now the boy is afraid for the old woman, who he knows the policeman will take to the commissariat. The boy comes out of this dream and notices Ben Tajah, who is leaving the café.
Now we get a brief sketch of Ben Tajah. He is a poor man living in a one room apartment. He has a stall in the market where he sells coathangers and chests. He is alone. He had a wife, but had to turn her out because she was a wild girl from the mountains who broke everything in his room. He has a sexually transmitted disease which he tries to cure by putting the vials of penicillin from the doctor around his neck in a necklace. He is an uneducated and superstitious man.
When Ben Tajah arrives at his room, he searches for the envelope, but he cannot find it. He imagines that someone took it while he was walking home. Then he thinks that he never had the envelope. He wants to go back to the Café of the Two Bridges to see if the proprietor remembers seeing him with the letter.
Meanwhile, He of the Assembly has re-entered the kif world where he had escaped from the police through the soup kettle. He decides to go looking everywhere for the old woman who helped him escape. Then he is chased by a real policeman, and in running away he encounters Ben Tajah, who has been standing in his doorway, trying to decide if he should go back to the Café of the Two Bridges. He takes the boy up to his room. The two of them smoke some kif. The boy goes in and out of various kif dreams. Ben Tajah worries about the letter.
The two of them decide to go back to the Café of the Two Bridges to take a glass of tea. At the café, it occurs to Ben Tajah that the boy may have been there earlier, and had seen him with the letter. He asks the boy if he remembers him. The boy says he did see Ben Tajah, but no letter. They sit and talk, and eventually Ben Tajah tells the boy the words in the letter: “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers”. The boy has never heard these words before, but he tells Ben Tajah that he has, and will try to remember where he heard them. They leave the café and return to Ben Tajah’s room. All along the way the boy says he is trying to remember where he heard the words. Finally, he makes up a song to go with the words. Ben Tajah is relieved. He thinks he must have heard the song on the radio somewhere. They both go to sleep.
Except He of the Assembly does not sleep. He waits until he is sure that Ben Tajah is sleeping. Then he gets up, and takes Ben Tajah’s money out of his pockets. In among the bills is the envelope. The boy holds it to a candle and reads the fateful words. He holds the letter and then the envelope to the candle and burns them, scattering the ashes across the floor. Then he leaves with the money in his pocket, and goes home to his aunt’s house, where he lives. He has a bit of kif hidden under his pillow, and he smokes it. Before going to sleep he thinks: “a pipe of kif before breakfast gives a man the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard”. Thus the story ends (and thus the story collection gets its title).
Rather than directly describing the effects of kif, Bowles puts us in the mind of He of the Assembly, so that we experience the dreamy, surreal world of the boy as if we are the ones smoking. The contrast with the sober but superstitious Ben Tajah heightens the sense of unreality that we experience through the boy’s eyes. Bowles also shows us that the reveries of the boy are those of someone raised in the Muslim world, and thus reflect his culture and experience. De Quincey observed that “If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen’ should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen. “ Baudelaire also observed that the effects of hashish vary based on the personality and background of the person using the drug. Bowles makes no such pronouncements. He merely puts us into the mind of the kif smoking boy, and we experience his cultural background as well as the way that it colors his kif world.
At the end of his autobiographical novel Junky, William S. Burroughs writes:
Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.
Burroughs is echoing Huxley’s idea of transcendence and escape. He continues: “Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix”. In a previous paragraph he states: “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage”.
In 1963, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published a book called The Yage Letters. This is correspondence between the two on their trips to South America, describing their search for and experiences with yage (pronounced ya-hay). The Yage Letters is substance book as travelogue.
The first part of the book recounts, in letters to Ginsberg, Burroughs’ trip to South America in 1953, in search of yage. His first stop is Colombia. Here Burroughs casts a jaundiced eye on the local population, and searches for the substance yage, which is reputed to induce visions and bring spiritual enlightenment. According to Burroughs, it also increases telepathic powers in the user.
Yage is also known as Ayahuasca. It is made from the vine of the banisteriopsis caapi plant, and mixed with leaves from shrubs of the Psychotria genus of plants, and boiled into a liquid concoction. The leaves contain dimethyltriptamine, the powerful psychedelic agent known as DMT. Mixing the DMT with the banisteriopsis caapi vine allows the DMT to pass through the stomach and activate centers in the brain that cause hallucinations and visions.
Burroughs’ first encounter with this concoction is in the jungles of Colombia. He visits a Brujo — a sort of shaman who mixes and administers the yage. The Brujo hands him a black liquid in a dirty red glass. Burroughs downs the mixture, and hands the glass back to the Brujo. The Brujo and his assistant both partake of the brew, which Burroughs describes as a “bitter foretaste of nausea.”
Burroughs narrates what happens next:
In two minutes a wave of dizziness swept over me and the hut began spinning. It was like going under ether, or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins. Blue flashes passed in front of my eyes. The hut took on an archaic far-Pacific look with Easter Island heads carved in the support posts. The assistant was outside lurking there with the obvious intent to kill me. I was hit by a violent, sudden nausea and rushed for the door hitting my shoulder against the door post. I felt the shock but no pain. I could hardly walk. No coordination. My feet were like blocks of wood. I vomited violently leaning against a tree and fell down on the ground of cotton. I kept trying to break out of this numb dizziness. I was saying over and over, ‘All I want is out of here. ‘ An uncontrollable mechanical silliness took possession of me. Hebephrenic meaningless repetitions. Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk. (I later identified this squawking as the croaking of frogs). I must have vomited six times. I was on all fours retching and groaning as if I were someone else. I was lying by a rock. Hours must have passed […]
My arms and legs began to twitch uncontrollably. I reached for my nembutals with numb wooden fingers. I must have taken me ten minutes to open the bottle and pour out five capsules. Mouth was dry and I chewed the nembutals down somehow. The twitching spasms subsided slowly and I felt a little better and went into the hut. The blue flashes still in front of my eyes. Lay down and covered myself with a blanket. I had a chill like malaria. Suddenly very drowsy. Next morning I was all right except for a feeling of lassitude and slight back-log nausea. I paid off the Brujo and walked back to town.
Undaunted by his first yage experience, Burroughs decides to try some Yage prepared in the fashion of the Vaupes region. This yage is a cold water infusion with a light red color. That night Burroughs drinks a quart of this liquid over the span of an hour. He again experienced the blue flashes and a slight nausea ( but no vomiting). He says: “the effect was similar to weed. Vividness of mental imagery, aphrodisiac results, silliness and giggling. In this dosage there was no fear, no hallucinations or loss of control. I figure this is about one third of the dose that Brujo gave me”.
Seven years later, Ginsberg travels to Peru to experience Yage and to recount his experiences in letters to Burroughs. After some initial pleasant experience with Yage, or Ayahuasca as he refers to it, Ginsberg attended a formal yage session led by a main he calls the Maestro. He sat in huts with the others who were to try the concoction. This time the brew is prepared fresh. Ginsburg takes a dose of the Ayahuasca or Yage and lays down, expecting pleasant visions, when he begins to get high, “and then the whole fucking Cosmos broke loose around me, I think the strongest and worst I’ve ever had […]. I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard [..] got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered in snakes like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe. Ginsberg experiences an intense fear of Death and Madness.”
Eventually the fear subsides and Allen can sleep. He later writes about the bad trip to Burroughs, who replies, “there is nothing to fear.” Then Burroughs lays on his Hasan Ibn Sabbah riff. Hasan Ibn Sabbah, the old man of the mountain in a tale going back as far as Marco Polo, who created the Hashasseens , who took hashish before battle to give them extraordinary courage and strength. The motto of Hasan Ibn Sabban is “noting is true, everything is permitted”. Bouroughs will explore this idea and interweave into his cut up books, notably The Nova Express. What solace this brought to Ginsberg is anyone’s guess.
So in the Yage letters we get some local scenery, albeit twisted and contorted by Burroughs’ cynical world view. We get some visions, and much retching and vomiting in the jungle night, filled with mosquitos and snakes. A travelogue on the dark side of the hallucinogenic drug experience.
Let’s return to Aldous Huxley, whose quotes on man’s desire to find escape and transcend we encountered at the beginning. On a spring day in California, 1953, he took a dose of mescaline, and proceeded to see the world in a new way. The play of light in his garden, the color of the books in his study. He experiences the transcendence that he wrote about earlier.
‘This is how one ought to see,’ I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers, or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more that Van-Goghian chair. ‘This is how one ought to see, how things really are.’
Huxley observed the hallucinatory effect of mescaline and then wrote about in in a thin volume titled The Doors Of Perception. The title comes from a line in William Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
We have thus taken a brief tour of some of the “canon”, if you will, of the literature of substance. We have seen that fascination in, reliance on and reverence for transcendent or escapist substances goes back centuries, and is reported by English Gentlemen, French Poets, American Expatriates, Beat Writers and British Intellectuals. The common thread is the writer’s attempt to feel or see something outside of normal human experience – to feel pleasure greater than that given to us through normal means, to see visions, to experience that sense that we are one with the universe, that we can truly see the world and the beauty of nature.
Some may see this as wrong, or depraved, to rely on substances to reach an epiphany, or merely to escape the tedium of everyday life. Others may say “why not?” – echoing Burroughs’ Hasn Ibn Sabbah – “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Whatever your position on this, we have these books that describe various adventurous writers and their experience with substances. Think of the texts as guidebooks to our unconscious self, where the writer facilitates the route to the unconscious through the ingestion of a powerful substance. For most of us, the desire to escape or transcend is ever present.