THE HASHEESH EATER: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean

Fitz Hugh Ludlow
Theophania Publishing ($17.99)

by Gregory Stephenson

After enjoying a flourish of notoriety following its first publication 155 years ago, The Hasheesh Eater (1857) by Fitz Hugh Ludlow soon declined into obscurity and from thence descended to oblivion where it remained for a hundred years. It was summoned back from the netherworld of lost and forgotten books in 1960 by artist and filmmaker Alfred Leslie, who printed the text in its entirety (in double columns) in his “one shot” literary journal, The Hasty Papers. Since then, half-a-dozen small publishers have at various times issued reprint editions of The Hasheesh Eater and the book has gone out of print a corresponding number of times. Fortunately this remarkable classic of American visionary literature has again been rescued by a dedicated and enterprising independent publisher and is available to readers in a handsome and inexpensive edition.

The Hasheesh Eater is an autobiographical account of the author’s extensive experiences with a preparation of Cannabis Indica. It is a vivid record of visions, reveries, and dreams provoked by ingesting hashish, a record interspersed with passages of reflection and analysis, together with comments upon certain implications of the drug in terms of psychology and metaphysics. The book was written when the author was only twenty years of age, composed (he tells us) in urgent haste and without revision even while Ludlow was still enduring dire after-effects of what had become for him a devastating psychological dependence upon the drug. Yet his account is expressed in clear and careful prose, and reads as the product of a poised and mature mind.

Ludlow begins his journey “beyond all the boundaries of the ordinary life” while still a secondary school student living at his family’s home in a small town in rural New York State during the early years of the middle decade of the 19th century. Possessed of a keen intelligence and an inquiring mind, Ludlow’s intellectual interests are broad and varied. It is in consequence of his amateur fascination with pharmacology that he makes himself a fixture in the local apothecary’s shop, where he pores over medical volumes and the pharmacopoeia. Motivated by scientific curiosity, young Ludlow begins to test upon himself the various drugs within his reach: chloroform, ether, opium, and other agents. At length, he discovers a vial of hashish (employed by physicians as a specific against tetanus) and begins to experiment with the drug. Taking at first small doses, to no effect whatever, Ludlow then carefully increases his dosage until one evening when quite unexpectedly he experiences the singular power of the drug, including ravishing, transcendent visions.

After his initial hashish experiment, other such experiences soon follow. Ludlow revels in the heightened beauty that he discovers in natural scenery while inebriated by hashish, in the wondrous adventures which in his imagination he undertakes, in the mirth and high good humor provoked by the drug, and in moods of tranquillity and the sense of mental acuity that he experiences while under the influence of hashish. He feels “new born,” and compares his state to that of one “who walks in Paradise for the first time.” Later, however, darker aspects of the hashish state begin to manifest themselves. These become gradually more frequent and more forceful, and increasingly dominate his experiences.

The powerful and prolonged effects of hashish upon Ludlow’s consciousness seem closer to those produced on the mind by modern synthetic hallucinogenic drugs than to those effects commonly associated with the use of cannabis. This may be attributable to the potency of the substance itself or to the fact that it is ingested rather than inhaled into the lungs as smoke. Whatever the cause, hashish makes available to Ludlow enhanced experiences in the areas of the aesthetic and perceptual, the cognitive, and the visionary or mystical. Together with these heightened capacities, however, there is also an intensified potential for fear, depression, and a sense of isolation or alienation.

Nights of alternating agonies and raptures under the influence of hashish at length lead Ludlow to resolve to forsake all further indulgence in the drug. However, without hashish, the external, physical, material world now seems to him unbearably insipid and drab, lacking utterly in comeliness, meaning, and mystery. Ludlow soon begins to thirst desperately for “insight, adventure, strange surprises, and mystical discoveries.” He begins to use hashish again. And again, for a time, his experiences under the influence of the drug are of a pleasurable character with glimpses of supernatural beauty and celestial harmony. Then once more come dreadful apprehensions and an overwhelming sense of despair. Yet even as the visitations of terror during the state of hashish intoxication become more frequent, Ludlow indulges in the drug with increasing frequency, until, as he states: “life became with me one prolonged state of hasheesh exultation.” Finally, feeling himself on the verge of madness, he vows again to desist from what has become to him a poison.

After a grim struggle, Ludlow recovers his spirits, deriving succour and strength from nature, art, the performance of good works, and the patient cultivation of the spirit’s innate power. He learns to look upon the natural world not as a mockery of the ideal world, not as an imposture of the true and the real, but rather as a realm informed by “truthful essence” and infused with unsuspected splendours. In art, Ludlow discovers the highest expression of the human ideal, which he regards as a reflection of the divine mind. Compassion and charitable actions represent for him another source of meaning. Ludlow also learns to practice a form of contemplation of the Infinite through the medium of his own spirit, making himself attentive and receptive to those impulses of growth and glory and “a grander life” which arise within him, providing him with hope of advancement toward and ultimate union with the Supreme Reality.

Although, repeatedly throughout his account of his experiences with hashish, Ludlow places emphasis upon the baleful aspects of the drug, at the same time he vigorously defends the impulse that inspires individuals to experiment with vision-inducing substances—for that instinct, he believes, is an expression of the spirit’s appetite for the infinite. Ludlow argues that the human inclination to attain by means of drugs a visionary state of consciousness proves “man’s fitness by constitution and destiny by choice, for a higher set of circumstances,” and serves to confirm “the soul’s capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth and Good than she now gains through the chinks of her cell.”

In complement to its affirmation of the imperatives of the spirit, The Hasheesh Eater also presents a critique of the pragmatic, materialistic view of life. For Ludlow, the great adventure of human existence is the journey of the spirit. All that impedes or distracts the spirit in its passage to the Infinite is to be disdained. Consequently, the author looks with scorn upon the squalid contentment of the man of merely sensual appetites and acquisitive aspirations.

In this regard, despite its sometimes pernicious actions on the mind, hashish is seen to possess value as a vehicle of exploration, a tool of discovery, in that it can provide glimpses of “hitherto unconceived modes and uncharted fields of spiritual being,” or may reveal to the user how “things the least suspected of having any significance beyond their material agency may be perceived to be the most startling illustrations and illuminations of spiritual facts.” Yet while the drug can transport the user to a transcendent realm beyond ordinary perception and ordinary existence, the drug does not enable the user for long to remain in that state. This central problem of transcendence—how to achieve it, what it implies, and what to do about it afterwards—that Ludlow treats in The Hasheesh Eater bears a number of similarities to that encountered by the English Romantic poets who frequently describe in their poems an instant of transcendent being or vision, succeeded inevitably by a return to the ordinary, commonplace world, and a subsequent sense of loss and longing afflicting the mind of the person who has experienced such transcendence.

Certain of Ludlow’s insights into the nature of the human psyche may be seen to anticipate the theories of Abraham Maslow a century later. In particular, Ludlow’s views concerning human needs and motivations possess significant correspondences to Maslow’s later concept of the hierarchy of human needs, ranging from basic physiological needs, to the requirements of physical safety, through the fulfilment of emotional and social needs, and finally to “self-actualization,” a process that culminates in transcendent experiences and glimpses of ultimate reality.

Moreover, certain of Ludlow’s comments and speculations concerning the character of his hashish experiences prefigure theories of perception and psychology put forward only much later, in the 20th century. Based upon his own experiences of hyperaesthesia and synaesthesia while under the influence of hashish, Ludlow speculates that human perception of the phenomenal world is but partial and fragmented. Beyond the separate organs of sense and their several effects—sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell—there resides, he believes, latent in the mind an “all-comprehensive oneness of sense,” which the author argues is accessible during certain states of consciousness and which represents a mode of perception that is higher and truer, and closer to the Real. Ludlow concludes that due to habit, to lack of observation and discernment, and to lack of receptivity and awareness, human beings scarcely even begin to exercise such reduced powers of perception as they possess.

In a similar manner, certain of Ludlow’s speculations with regard to perception and the brain may be seen to prefigure ideas later put forward by the philosopher Henri Bergson in his bookMatière et Mémoire (1908), and later endorsed by the Cambridge philosopher C.D. Broad and by Aldous Huxley. Bergson’s provocative hypothesis was that the function of the human brain was chiefly eliminative, that is that it reduced potential awareness to a biologically functional level suitable to meet the needs of survival in the world. Human awareness is thus a reduced, utilitarian mode of apprehending the world, a mode which humans tend to regard as the only possible form of awareness and one that accurately and comprehensively reflects reality. Ludlow posits the notion that hashish acts in such a manner as to make available to the senses and the mind of the user wider and deeper modes of perception than those to which humans are accustomed. Ludlow further theorizes that ordinary perception consists in the main of “props, and helps, and screens,” the function of which is to protect the human mind from the unbearable infinitude of the universe as it really exists in its immeasurable, inconceivable multiplicity, its endless extension in space and duration.

Ludlow thus infers that the limitations and conventions of human perception and conceptualization serve as protective structures while hashish functions in such as way as partially and temporarily to make permeable those boundaries which confine our senses and our awareness. It is, however, this latter action of the drug that makes “the hasheesh awakening”—as Ludlow names it—so unbearable, for under the influence of hashish the sense organs are extended and expanded “until we almost perish from the inflow of perceptions.”

Ludlow records one striking instance of “the awakening of some unknown intuitional faculty” as experienced by a friend to whom the author administers the drug one evening. Listening under the influence of hashish to the performance of a piece of music previously unknown to him, Ludlow’s friend is—by means of a vision—able to identify both the specific subject matter and the composer of the piece. Similarly, an out-of-body experience that occurs while the author is under the influence of the drug serves also to suggest to him that hashish makes accessible wider areas of psychic activity.

The implications of such phenomena as these would seem to include the possibility that the human mind may possess the potential for levels of awareness beyond the limitations inherent in the existence of the individual conscious mind as a separate entity, and beyond, too, the laws and operations of the material world.

The Hasheesh Eater is a profoundly absorbing, deeply intriguing account of a bold and highly intelligent young man’s exploration of remote, uncharted regions of the mind. Ludlow’s record of his inward voyages inspires in the reader a mingled sense of wonder, mystery, awe, and alarm. Moreover, this neglected and under-appreciated book is curiously prophetic of the widespread interest in psychoactive substances that has characterized a significant segment of the population of the western world since the middle years of the 20th century. The enduring value of Ludlow’s record of his experiences resides in the author’s intense and compelling descriptions of the exquisite beauties and infernal terrors of the inner realms of the mind, in the character of the author’s speculations which raise fundamental questions concerning consciousness and perception, and in the quality of his insights which extend the frontiers of human inquiry and knowledge.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), and Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, which appeared thirty-two years after De Quincey’s extraordinary and ground-breaking volume. The latter book was definitely inspired by the former and shares certain of its traits, yet though there can be no question that The Hasheesh Eater is in the strictest sense derivative of De Quincey’s Confessions, at the same time it ought to be noted that Ludlow’s book is in no way imitative of that of De Quincey. Indeed, insofar as possible given the similar character of the subject matter, the younger American author scrupulously avoids shaping or expressing his account after the manner of De Quincey. While certainly a descendent and a lesser work, it must be conceded, Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater possesses an authority and a validity altogether its own.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012