LITerature: an Exploration into Cannabis in Western Literature

Written by BlackbirdGo November 14, 2018
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Dating all the way back to 440 BC, The Histories of Herodotus, considered one of the founding works of history, is thought to be the first example of cannabis mentioned in Western literature. Herodotus recounts, “...the Scythians take kannabis seed, creep in under the felts, and throw it on the red-hot stones. It smolders and sends up such billows of steam-smoke that no Greek vapor bath can surpass it. The Scythians howl with joy in these vapor-baths, which serve them instead of bathing, for they never wash their bodies with water.” In addition to spiritual and medicinal use, cannabis has been widely considered to be a creative and artistic catalyst. Even Shakespeare, who’s estate contained eight pipes with traces of cannabis, wrote “like as, to make our appetites more keen, with eager compounds we our palate urge.” Exploration of cannabis as an innovational tool has continued to develop as time has progressed, inspiring artists to expand language and cognition in relation to the human condition. Two literary movements in particular were widely influenced by this reconnaissance and affected the culture at large.

Charles Baudelaire and The French Decadent Movement
In 1840, Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau teamed up with Théophile Gautier to send invitations to the leading writers and artists in Paris. This collective of minds came to be known as Club des Hashischins (Hashish Club) and included many luminaries such as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Charles Baudelaire. The concept of the club was simple: to explore the varying physical and psychoactive effects of cannabis consumption and its relation to euphoria, coherence, and flow of ideas. While Baudelaire never became a pothead, his experiences at Club des Hashischins ultimately lead to one of his most famous works, The Artificial Paradises (1860), a collection of his own experiences in getting high and his various observations of others.

“...The brain and the organism upon which hashish operates will only give their ordinary and individual phenomena, magnified, it is true, both in quantity and quality, but always faithful to their origin. Man cannot escape the fatality of his moral and physical temperament. Hashish will be, indeed, for the impressions and familiar thoughts of the man, a mirror which magnifies, yet no more than a mirror... Here is the drug before your eyes: a little green sweetmeat, about as big as a nut, with a strange smell… There! There is happiness; heaven in a teaspoon; happiness, with all its intoxication, all its folly, all its childishness. You can swallow it without fear; it is not fatal; it will in nowise injure your physical organs. Perhaps (later on) too frequent an employment of the sorcery will diminish the strength of your will; perhaps you will be less a man than you are today; but retribution is so far off, and the nature of the eventual disaster so difficult to define! What is it that you risk? A little nervous fatigue to-morrow—no more. Do you not every day risk greater punishments for less reward?”

Gautier, writing an essay on Baudelaire, distinguished that, "It is possible and even probable that Baudelaire did try hasheesh once or twice by way of physiological experiment, but he never made continuous use of it. Besides, he felt much repugnance for that sort of happiness, bought at the chemist's and taken away in the vest-pocket, and he compared the ecstasy it induces to that of a maniac for whom painted canvas and rough drop-scenes take the place of real furniture and gardens balmy with the scent of genuine flowers. He came but seldom, and merely as an observer, to the meetings… where our club met..." Baudelaire preferred wine and opium, conclusively. Nevertheless, Baudelaire’s contribution to the understandings of the creative mind in conjunction with cannabis use were prominent. Moreau would continue to experiment on himself during their time together in Club des Hashischins, and publish a book entitled Hashish and Mental Alienation. He established “an equivalence between dream, hallucination and hashish delirium.” This book is widely considered the first written by a scientist about a drug. Though the Decadent movement was essentially viewed as a transitional phase between Traditionalism and Modernism, Charles Baudelaire would go on to heavily influence the Symbolist movement.

Mezz Mezzrow and The Beat Generation
Mezz Mezzrow, born Milton Mesirow to Russian-Jewish immigrants, became the principal source of Mexican cannabis to Harlem in the 1930s. Cannabis became the nexus of New York’s underground scene; it was the string that bound the vocabulary, interpersonal networks, and social environment together. Mesirow’s cannabis network was legal until 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, making cannabis illegal across the United States. Soon after, in 1940, Mesirow was arrested.
Mesirow’s autobiography, Really the Blues, written jointly with Bernard Wolfe, chronicles his life as a musician, cannabis smoker, and dealer. Mesirow, according to Wolfe, came to believe he had actually physically turned black, married a black woman, and adopted a “jazz jive” lingo in order to be a “legitimate” jazz musician. Really the Blues features a long glossary of “jive,” including most of the slang terms for cannabis—grass, hemp, muggles, reefer, tea, and weed—that would become the core of Beat vocabulary. The book, which went through several printings and was read by a vast majority of the Beats, reveals how crucial cannabis use was to this movement. Many of the Beats read this book as a “success story”, and it deeply shaped their cultural and aesthetic iconography. Allen Ginsberg considered it, “the first signal into white culture of the underground black, hip culture that pre-existed before my own generation.” His generation would pass these appropriated mannerisms and terminologies down to the counterculture that would, inevitably, spread to mainstream America through their counterculture movement.
While recounting various cannabis experiences during their lifetimes textually and adopting the prose style from Really the Blues, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs were also well known for writing while stoned. Kerouac’s On the Road is often credited as being a biblical Beat text and a core example of the generation’s ideals, Ginsberg’s HOWL would shape how we view poetry and marginalization, and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch would bring book banning and censorship to the national forefront. The Beats would go on to influence hippies/anti-war movements, postmodern and cyberpunk literature, and slam poetry.

L’art Por L’art
Although their published career might not contain works that are fully cannabis focused, there’s been plenty of great minds that have utilized the plant. Carl Sagan, who was best known for co-writing and narrating the show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was a casual smoker and an advocate for legalization. He penned an essay, under a pseudonym, in which he credited smoking for providing him with inspiration for his works, along with a myriad of sensual, spiritual, and intellectual experiences. Hunter S. Thompson was a fearless spokesman for normalizing usage, saying, “I have always loved marijuana. It has been a source of joy and comfort to me for many years. And I still think of it as a basic staple of life, along with beer and ice and grapefruits – and millions of Americans agree with me.” In an interview for High Times Magazine, author Stephen King recounted his interactions with weed and said, "I think that marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry." These are just a few examples of numerous creators that have been impacted by cannabis throughout its lengthy recorded history, but its instrumentality will continue to be prominent.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.

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