A Forgotten Specimen of Victorian Cannabis Writing – Gregory Stephenson

“Imagination is the dream of the Unconscious.”
—Benjamin DeCasseres

Confessions of a Hachish Eater - George Redway, publisher

During the 19th century, even as explorers journeyed to the last dark recesses and remote wastes of the world, and as archaeologists excavated fabled kingdoms and uncovered lost epochs of human history, expeditions and excavations of another order entirely were being undertaken by individuals situated in rooms in Paris, London and New York City. With the aid of opium, nitrous oxide and hashish, daring excursions were made by them into the farther reaches of the mind and “digs” conducted down into the deeper strata of consciousness. The better known accounts of these ventures include Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater (1857), and Charles Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels (1860). Less known, though equally of interest in this regard, are the writings of Humphry Davy and Benjamin Blood on nitrous oxide, and those of Théophile Gautier and Jacques-Joseph Moreau on hashish. Yet, altogether lost to sight, it would seem, is an anonymously written booklet published in London in 1884, titled Confessions of an English Hachish Eater. Although the little volume did not go entirely unnoticed at the time of its publication, this curious account of solitary inward voyages to mysterious regions of the mind and exploratory soundings of deeper layers of the self slipped quickly into oblivion. The booklet has never been reprinted, nor has it ever been excerpted or cited in any of the various anthologies of cannabis or drug writings. Copies (even in library collections) are exceedingly rare.

Confessions of an English Hachish Eater is a paperbound booklet of 114 pages. The publisher was George Redway and the booklet was issued as part of “Redway’s Shilling Series.” Other titles by the same publisher include The Handbook of Palmistry, Chirognomancy, The Anatomy of Tobacco, Theosophy, Religion and Occult Science, Phallicism, and Bibliotheca Arcana seu Catalogus Librorum Penetralium (this last a work of which I shall have something to say at a later point.) As a publisher, George Redway seems to have been inclined toward esoterica, occultism and topics outside of the mainstream of Victorian taste. The text of Confessions (the title clearly an homage to De Quincey’s classic personal narrative) consists of five sections, each titled and assigned a Roman numeral. The first two sections deal in the main with the history, nature, preparation and proper consumption of hashish, together with brief accounts of certain of the author’s experiences of hashish intoxication. Sections three to five are made up of “dream-stories,” that is to say extended narratives of the author’s hashish reveries, followed by some concluding remarks on the part of the author.

Already from the opening sentences and early paragraphs of Confessions, it is evident that the anonymous author is well-read with regard to his topic. He acknowledges the inspiration he derived from reading descriptions by (European) hashish pioneers Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier and Bayard Taylor, and makes allusions to Materia Medica, to The British Pharmacopaeia, and to scientific research on hashish carried out by medical doctors Alexander Christison and William Brooke O’Shaugnessy. With sober earnestness and barely restrained zeal, the author describes the manner in which he prepares his own hashish, using freshly imported cannabis from Persia and India, selecting only the flowering tops of the plants, and then macerating, pressing, distilling and evaporating the substance until he has produced a viscous, resinous extract which in carefully measured doses he then consumes orally.

The psychoactive effects of hashish thus administered can be dramatic, comparable to those of a psychedelic drug. The author recounts how during his first experience of hashish intoxication his mind seemed to quit his body and travel to remote locations: “It visited the strand of a calm and moonlit sea, in whose waters beautiful women bathed, laughing. Thence it was transported to the sward of a forest glade full of the music of birds that flitted hither and thither. Again, with equal suddenness, it was carried upwards through the crisp air of night to a mountain peak, whence all around was visible in the starlight; and I felt myself alone in a world of ice-fields and avalanches.” He finds that hashish seems to enhance his musical abilities, his sense of the ridiculous, and his appetite, and he is relieved to discover that (unlike alcohol) the drug has no unpleasant after-effects. In brief, he pronounces: “I have no ill word to speak of it.”

The author is, however, not unconscious of the drug’s darker potentials, admitting that at times under the influence of hashish the sense of profound calm and “sublime spiritual elevation” he enjoys can be slowly undermined by insidious unease or suddenly interrupted by sensations of hideous horror. Indeed, a common denominator among a number of the hashish reveries he recounts is that of enchantment gradually giving way to gloom or alarm. In one such reverie, the author follows “a divinely lovely sylph” down into a dark cavern where she turns into a baleful bat-like creature. In another hashish-induced trance, he partakes in imagination of passionate, ecstatic love with a woman, only to witness their romance end in madness and murder.

In parts three, four and five of Confessions, the author presents three examples of what he terms “dream stories,” that is detailed, dramatized narratives inspired by his hashish reveries. These tales, according to his account, are edited versions of what was at the time experienced by him as a succession of images, “all haze and mystery.” Two of the dream stories – “Vox Clamantis” and “Gnothi Seauton” – are melodramatic allegories, both treating themes of deception and self-deception. In both stories, male figures fall into error due to selfishness and a self-indulgence. In the former story, the young protagonist is ultimately undeceived and redeemed, while in the latter tale the faithless, rapacious antagonist ends by being forever confined in the company of an embodiment of his own “foul, hideous self.”

As literary fiction neither story can be said to possess particular distinction, but both contain intriguing elements of oneiric strangeness: imagery of mists and spectres, portentous lightning-blasted tree trunks, ominous clouds and a sinister glittering snake, a hidden paradisiacal realm, a remote cave filled with bright jewels, and sensuous descriptions of hues, fragrances, sounds and tastes and all that is luxurious, delicious and exquisite. Of greater interest and originality, though, is the story titled “A Strange Journey,” which recounts the author’s imaginary experiences during an evening excursion through London streets while under the influence of hashish. This tale would seem to have been subjected to less secondary revision by the author than the previous two texts and strikes the reader as likely to have been based on an actual experience on the part of the author.

“A Strange Journey” might be compared to a technicolor, animated film, something like a collaboration between Tex Avery and Salvador Dali. The story begins solidly and specifically anchored in the author’s visit to a surgeon friend at Hammersmith, with mundane details of their dinner and conversation. In the course of his visit, the author swallows a portion of hashish, and only as he departs the doorstep of his host does he begin to feel the effects of the drug. At this point, the narrative becomes surreal. The author becomes aware that he has been “liberated from the ordinary shackles of the body,” discovering that he possesses the ability to take flight through the air, a mode of locomotion he finds to be both agreeable and efficient. At length, he discovers that he is being pursued in his aerial travels by a thousand tiny, jolly sprites, whose antics and hilarity the author finds irresistibly amusing. He joins them in their merriment and after a time finds himself alone with one of their company whose rosy, gleeful face is crowned by “a large red, curiously forked, carrot-like proboscis, which it moved at will, just as the octopus moves its tentacles.” The author soon perceives that he has mounted to a great height in the air and can see far below him an immense, empty ocean.

At this moment, his outlandish companion begins to metamorphose, miraculously growing legs of a prodigious length that reach down into the depths of the ocean below. Simultaneously, the creature’s remarkable nose undergoes extensive modifications: “the carrot-like proboscis was growing at a wonderful rate, and shooting out new tentacles with great speed and at very frequent intervals. These tentacles were of a bright orange colour, and, in shape, much like attenuated spoons, the bowls being, however, flattened and covered on both sides with round white spots.”

Embraced and enclosed by these vivid nasal tentacles, the author finds his way to the creature’s mouth into which he enters, descending thence into the throat. His presence there causes a convulsive reaction on the part of his host and he is violently expelled. He now finds himself in pieces, his head, arms and legs pursuing each other through the air, attempting in vain to reassemble themselves. When, at last, the fragments assume their accustomed places, the author discovers that his body is now made of wax and that he is lying on a bed of cotton-wool. He fears that in this delicate condition he may break, dent or melt, then realizes that his soft bed is not composed of cotton-wool but of gun-cotton (a highly flammable, explosive agent). Fire-flies ignite the gun-cotton and the author sees himself disappear “in a cloud of ill-smelling smoke.”

The author maintains that through all of these extraordinary events, he felt no alarm but only curiosity, amusement and a kind of philosophical resignation. Even after having experienced the total dissolution of his physical body in the explosion described above, his consciousness, he relates, continues to exist in a disembodied form in which he feels himself to be “in a state of complete and absolute bliss that did not permit me to feel my loss.” Ultimately, as the influence of the drug diminishes and normal awareness returns to him, and the author discovers that he has somehow returned to his own residence, has undressed, and gone to bed, having performed all the customary night time tasks in the usual manner.

Despite their occasional disconcerting turns, the author heartily relishes and cherishes his hashish adventures, declaring that he has found the drug to be “a nepenthes, a sweet bringer of delicious oblivion, and a generous parent of delightful dreams.” He can see no evidence that his judicious, intermittent indulgence in the drug has to any degree damaged him either physically or mentally. Dismissing cautions against the consumption of hashish as mere self-righteous moralizing of the kind characteristic of prigs, prudes and puritans, the author defiantly declares that he hopes “to enjoy its effects many times again.”

Perhaps due to its rarity and obscurity, Confessions of an English Hachish Eater has been neglected by scholars of drug literature. While not a lost classic of the genre, this unusual booklet is noteworthy as an early account of recreational cannabis consumption in Victorian England, and represents a lone link between the experimental, inspirational use of drugs by the Romantics in the early 19th century and that of the Decadents in the fin-de- siècle era. In the spirit of both these cultural counter currents, the anonymous author of Confessions takes a stand on the side of the insurgent imagination as against the prevailing rationalist, materialist ethos of the age.

The critical reception of Confessions was muted and mixed. The Daily Chronicle pronounced it “a weird little book,” the Whitehall Review found “a sort of bizarre attraction” in it, while the Lincolnshire Chronicle thought it “charmingly written,” and worthy of comparison to De Quincey’s celebrated Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Other reviewers worried that the book might encourage indulgence in hashish. “Weak minds may generate a morbid curiosity if stimulated in this direction,” warned the Bradford Observer, a view in which the Edinburgh Courant concurred, writing “we would not be surprised if some foolish individuals did endeavour to procure some of the drug, with a view to experience the sensation described by the author of this clever brochure.”

William Laird ClowesWilliam Laird Clowes,
via Friends of Hastings CemeteryAnd who, indeed, might have been the author of “this clever brochure?” Considerable evidence points to the authorship of William Laird Clowes (1856-1905). The argument for considering Clowes as the anonymous writer of Confessions of an English Hachish Eater derives from an article titled “An Amateur Assassin” appearing under Clowes’ name in Belgravia magazine, vol. 31, issue 123, 1877, or about seven years before the publication of the anonymous Confesssions. The article recounts Clowes’ personal experiences in consuming homemade hashish, employing many of the same phrases and formulations later to appear in Confessions. Apart from these correspondences, “An Amateur Assassin” also makes reference to a number of the same experiences and incidents as Confessions, and puts forward many of the same observations and comments as expressed in the latter work. Comparing the two texts, it is clear that the author of both is the selfsame person.

As mentioned at a prior point in this writing, George Redway of London was also the publisher of a book titled Bibliotheca Arcana seu Catalogus Liborum Penetralium (1885), “being brief notices of Business Relationships that have been secretly printed, prohibited by law, seized, anathematised, burnt or Bowdlerised.” On the title page of the book, the author is given as “Speculator Morum,” an obvious nom-de-plume intended to avert disrepute falling upon the author of the volume, which consists of an inventory of an extensive subterranean erotic literature held in “the secret cabinets of our public or private museums or libraries.” In fact, the compilers of this indecorous volume were two venturesome scholars, one of whom is William Laird Clowes and the other the Reverend (!) John McLellan, who also wrote the preface to the book. In common with Confessions of an English Hachish Eater, this subversive endeavor suggests a penchant on the part of Clowes to dissent from certain of the prevailing attitudes of his age, in this instance sexual prudery.

In Confessions of an English Hachish Eater, the author does not suggest that the strange tales with which he has returned from his hashish adventures possess notable literary merit. He modestly (and accurately, I think) characterizes his dream-stories as “curious and not un-poetical imaginings,” and compares them to “lightning flashes upon the scenery of a dark and unknown landscape.” That dark landscape is one normally accessible only in dreams, a mysterious internal world with its own geography and geology, where the psychological structures and culturally conditioned habits of mind that regulate and sustain our everyday lives are no longer operative.

The author notes how in these remote regions and deeper substrata of the mind, a blurring or merging of identities and contraries takes place. In one of his accounts of a hashish reverie he remarks how two separate scenes, two distinct conditions somehow converge and coalesce: “The one merged into the other, I scarcely know how. They were separated and yet intimately blending, just like dissolving views.” Similarly, elsewhere, the author comments on the phenomenon of shifting, merging identities that takes place in his reveries, remarking upon the way in which in one such reverie the figure of a young man “was sometimes myself and sometimes another,” and noting how in the same reverie four other figures “were different, but yet strangely and exactly alike.” The ambiguity of personal identity is reflected in at least one instance where a passage narrated in the third person suddenly becomes one told in the first person.

The author also discerns that the mind is multi-levelled and that below the threshold of conscious awareness there are selves within the self and an autonomous poetic faculty, a hidden river of images, chronicles and conceptions. Implicitly, Confessions of an English Hachish Eater affirms the mystery of the human mind and argues for a broadening of consciousness to include those modes of being and awareness that are to be found outside the jurisdiction of the primary personality and the rational brain. These perspectives which would seem to have been regarded as utterly peripheral in the 19th century may now be seen to have been prophetic.

About Gregory Stephenson

Gregory Stephenson grew up in Colorado and Arizona but has lived in Denmark for many years. He is the author of six books, including most recently: Pilgrims to Elsewhere (Eyecorner, 2013).

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