When Napoleon Bonaparte’s French troops were occupying Egypt at the end of the 18th century they discovered cannabis, liked it and brought it back to France with them, where it’s use and effects excited both psychiatrists and artists. The war to conquer Algeria from 1830-47 brought more hashish into France. Psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau studied use of the plant extensively and produced a ground-breaking work ‘Du Hachisch et de l’aliénation mentale’ in 1845 (translated into English as ‘Hashish and Mental Illness’) – he is considered the forerunner of modern psychopharmacology. Moraeu concluded that cannabis is safe to use, while “wine and liquors are a thousand times more dangerous.” He was also a member of the Club des Hashashins, where he rubbed shoulders with such great French thinkers and writers as Charles Baudelaire, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas and Honore de Balzac.
Meeting from 1845 to 1849 once a month for a ‘séance’ at Hotel Pimodan on L’Isle Saint-Louis on the RIver Seine, members at the Club des Hashishins wore traditional Arab clothing, drank strong coffee laced with hash, and ate cannabis edibles.
Novelist and club member Theophile Gautier described his initiation into hashish: following a “convulsive gaiety of the beginning, an indefinable feeling of well-being, a boundless calm took over… I was like a sponge in the middle of the ocean. At every moment streams of happiness penetrated me, entering and leaving through my pores… I had never been so overwhelmed with bliss.”
‘While most of the club members would get high and write about their experiences being “stoned,” others like Balzac would stay sober, most of the time. In 1845, he gave in, and when he did, told his fellow club members that he heard heavenly voices and saw visions of Godly paintings.’
Not everyone liked it so much:
Baudelaire was reserved in his approach to weed. He later said he preferred alcohol instead: “Wine makes men happy and sociable; hashish isolates them. Wine exalts the will; hashish annihilates it.” Meet the Club des Hashishins, Paris’s 19th Century Stoners – Jane Street
The club only lasted four years but had much longer lasting influence, literary and social. Dumas classic novel ’The Count of Monte Cristo’ dives into cannabis use. The count offers some paste to a visitor saying “Taste this, and the boundaries of possibility disappear, the fields of infinite space open to you, you advance free in heart, free in mind… Taste the hashish, guest of mine—taste the hashish… open your wings and fly into superhuman regions.” By contrast, Baudelaire’s disappointment led to ‘Les Paradis Artificiels’ (Artificial Paradises), a much more sombre affair.
Some of its literary fans may have got tired of it: Theophile Gautier, who in 1846 wrote an article praising the “oasis of solitude in the middle of Paris, which the river, by surrounding it with its two arms, seemed to defend against the encroachments of civilization,” later reported: “After a dozen experiments we renounced forever this intoxicating drug, not that it would have hurt us physically, but the true literator needs only his natural dreams, and he does not like his thought to be influenced by any agent.”
While the JaneStreet article puts the closure of the club down to restrictive laws, it was not until France signed the Geneva Convention in 1953 that cannabis became illegal in the country. It’s seems that cannabis clubs quietly existed in certain places alongside opium dens and ether houses – I found a reference to them in a classic work of sexology from 1907 by German Iwan Bloch, called ‘The sexual life of our time in its relations to modern civilization’. (This fascinating book also lists the many gay cruising grounds of Paris and Berlin at the turn of the 19th century.)
In it we read:
‘There exist in Paris special opium houses, hashish houses and ether houses, some for men and some for women. Three opium-houses are to be found, for example, in the Avenue Hoche, the Avenue Jena and the Rue Lauriston; there is an ether-restaurant in Neuilly; one for opium, hashish and ether in Rue de Rivoli. All three means of enjoyment evoke after a time sexual ideas and fantasies of an extremely peculiar character, associated with actual voluptuous sensations. Opium gives rise to ‘ardent, brilliant pictures of an excessively stimulated imagination, frequently of a perverse character; hashish has a similar but even stronger influence; and ether gives rise to a more powerful stimulation of the sexual organs, to a ‘vibration of the flesh and of the soul.’ The interior of these unwholesome places of exotic enjoyment, in which frequently homosexual acts also occur, is vividly described…” [in novels by Rene Schwaeble and bisexual crossdresser Gisele D’Estoc]
It was through Parisian contacts that Irish poet William B Yeats came into contact with hashish, which he used in his occult experiments in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and as a member of the Rhymers’ Club. This was set up in London in the 1890s in emulation of the Club des Hashashins, as a meeting place for poets to share their work while enjoying a drink and a pipe. It met until the early 1900s.
In the 20th century cannabis became illegal in much of the world – while alienation, mental illness, social problems grow and grow, often fed by the most destructive of licit substances, alcohol, and the medical benefits of cannabis are still not fully embraced. Back in the more open-minded 19th century, the German visionary Friedrich Nietzsche bemoaned the pervasive sense of alienation in modern society and the attempt by many to overcome it through intoxication, hedonism, disembodied mysticism, and ‘the voluptuous enjoyment of eternal emptiness.’
But Nietzsche, who called alcohol and Christianity ‘the two great European narcotics,’ was not averse to the therapeutic use of cannabis: ‘To escape from unbearable pressure you need hashish.’
At the Club des Hashashins they knew that cannabis could also be used to access the higher mind and riches of the imagination, fuelling creativity as well as easing life’s burdens.