The Hashish Club Vol.1 & 2 by Peter Haining
Originally published in two volumes in 1975 ‘The Hashish Club: An Anthology of Drug Literature’ is compiled and edited by Peter Haines. Volume one looks at the founding of the modern tradition of pharmacography, from Coleridge to Crowley, while the second looks at the psychedelic era, Huxley to Lennon. This review is written from the two 1975 hardback editions.
By 1975, the psychedelic furore had died down across most of Europe and North America: Establishment research had come to an end, the US and UK countercultures had moved on to other issues, and while a classic of trip lit, Terence and Dennis McKenna’s The Invisible Landscape, was published the same year, it would be some years before it took any hold over the popular drug imagination. However, as a result of the explosion of interest in mind-altering substances, numerous texts, historical and contemporary, came to light dealing with the subject. The Hashish Club addressed this, and brought many of them back to publication.
“Mankind’s use of certain drugs as a stimulant to artistic creativity is a tradition almost as ancient as man himself. Records of the oldest civilizations indicate that stimulants which took the user ‘out of himself’ and created new fields of experience in his mind were much valued, and some of the earliest art and literature bear strong traces of these effects” (Haining 1975, Vol.1, 17)
Until the publication of Alethea Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968) there had been only very limited attempts to address the effect of psychoactive drugs on writers. Hayter’s conclusion was that opium did not impart any universal influence on creative writing, instead “opium works on what is already there in a man’s mind and memory” (Hayter 1968, 331). Essentially, Haining follows the same line of argument in his introduction, however, he does place a lot of emphasis on the action of psychoactive drugs to stimulate the act of creation, without necessarily dictating what form that creation should take.
Volume 1 – The Founding of the Modern Tradition: Coleridge to Crowley – largely concentrates on writers using opium and hashish. Due to its date, 1898, Havelock Ellis’ article on mescaline, A New Artificial Paradise, is also included, along with two poets who had been subjects in Ellis’ research: W.B. Yeats and Ernest Dowden. The first section deals with the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe; the second deals with the so-called hashish eaters, Theophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Gerald de Nerval, and Arthur Rimbaud; the third deals with the opium-Orient connection including a beautifully objective piece (or the time) by B.L. Putnam Weale entitled Drugs and the Man about a visit to an opium den:
“In a quavering voice the old man pleaded with mercy, as he slipped one little ball of opium cunningly into his sleeve; but the master of the establishment was irate, and in the end it was only out of charity that he pushed the old man into the lower back-rooms and let hi smoke there if he willed. That was the master’s decree, and his decrees were law, for he was very rich” (Haining 1975, Vol.1, 127)
Haining had previously written The Magicians: Occult Stories and one can see an impact on the present collection from his previous work: Most notably in the articles by Algernon Blackwood and Aleister Crowley. The former’s piece A Psychical Invasion, which is taken from John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (1910), would be of special interest to parapsychologists and magicians, for it discusses synaesthesia , drug use, and of course psychical invasion. Crowley’s short story The Stratagem concludes Vol.1, which came to him after waking from an opium induced sleep.
Volume two – The Psychedelic Era: From Huxley to Lennon – is a slimmer volume, and it focuses largely on writers concerned with LSD, mescaline, and also contains sections from Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs respective accounts of their journeys to South America to try ayahuasca. While in the former period, writers tended to outline the pleasures and pains of drug use, and did not actively encourage the reader to partake in the given substances themselves, Haining notes an interesting change of tone after 1950:
“The experience the writer describes is interesting, of course, but it is so interesting that there is the implication – In Huxley’s writing, for instance – or the direct assertion – in Leary’s – that the reader should experience it himself. Suddenly it has become good to take certain drugs” (Haining 1975, Vol.2, 14)
Haining vaguely puts this change down to ‘something’ in the ‘American character’. It is worth noting, however, that there are two points that really brought about this change. Firstly, psychedelics began to be described in terms of being a ‘teacher’. They were not simply stimulating imagination or loosely changing one’s perspective, but began to be understood as informing the user with certain philosophical and spiritual lessons. Secondly, and in consequence to the first, they had become politically charged. No moral lesson stands in a vacuum and as psychedelics started to enter into popular culture, ethical clashes emerged that politicized the drugs—making them a tool or badge to be worn or evangelized with.
Volume two is similarly divided into four sections: The first contains articles by the Beats, including a very engaging stream-of-consciousness from the unfinished autobiography of Neil Cassady; the second contains ones from such luminaries as Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and Andrew Weil; while the final two includes words from musicians like Jerry Garcia and John Lennon, New Journalists Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Southern, and writers such as Henri Michaux and Alexander Trocchi. Henri Michaux’s, in particular, a consumate drug experimenter, is very engaging piece of visionary writing taken from La Nuit Remue.
There have been a number of drug anthologies published over the last forty years but, as a two volume collection, this is probably one of the best. Although it very much concentrates on the modern era, it begins to outline just what drug writing meant to those who employed certain substances in their lives and the extent to which the substances entered into their creative lives as well. It contains a number of interesting, and little seen, passages that give the anthology a well-rounded and thought-provoking feel. It’s a shame that there’s not more in the way of European writers, but this doesn’t detract from Haining’s project as a whole.