I recently finished reading a collection of essays on narcotics by Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, Hashish, Wine, Opium (trans. Maurice Stang). It was an interesting read, not only because it provided insight into the experimentations made by members of the Decadent movement with certain drugs, but also because it provided a wonderful contrast between the attitudes and literary styles of the two French masters.
In his introduction, Derek Stanford writes about how drug use heavily influenced the use of ‘synaesthesia’ – a blending of the senses – frequently used in Decadent writing. Smells are seen in colour and music has a taste. He also comments on the different ways the subject matter is approached by the two writers – Gautier as a poet, Baudelaire as a scientist. These differing attitudes become even clearer upon reading the essays.
Gautier emphasises the fantastical, spiritual elements of drug consumption in his three essays (which are really more semi-autobiographical works of fiction), ‘The Opium Pipe’, ‘The Club of Assassins’ and ‘Hashish’. He dwells on the wonderful – and sometimes terrifying – visions that the consumption of narcotics provides, and indicates that they can be a source of artistic inspiration.
“I could hear the very sounds of the colours. Sounds which were green, red, blue or yellow, reached my ears in perfectly distinct waves” (p.59).
Baudelaire, on the other hand, was clearly not an admirer of narcotic drugs, preferring the ‘consoling’ influence of wine. Gautier witnessed Baudelaire’s attendance at a couple of the drug parties he attended, but wrote that his fellow poet was often only there as an observer: “This happiness, bought at the chemists, was repugnant to him.” Indeed, Baudelaire’s essay ‘Wine and Hashish’ (which can be seen as a prelude to his book Les Paradis Artificiels), is particularly damning of the use of narcotics. Written in the acerbic style which initially attracted me to Baudelaire, the essay is often highly amusing in its criticism of aspects of humanity that the poet found especially distasteful. On the use of narcotics, he writes:
“Hashish is not favourable to action. It does not console like wine; it merely develops to an immoderate degree the human personality in the circumstances in which it finds itself at a given place and time” (p.89).
I enjoyed the book. The use of drugs in the 19th century and its influence on art and literature is a topic I find very compelling, and it’s interesting to examine the attitudes of two of the great frontrunners in the Decadent movement towards the subject.