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The Hasheesh Eater

The Hasheesh Eater is an autobiographical book by Fitz Hugh Ludlow describing the author's altered states of consciousness and philosophical flights of fancy while he was using a cannabis extract.

First published in 1857, The Hasheesh Eater went through four editions in the late 1850s and early 1860s, each put out by Harper & Brothers. In 1903, another publishing house put a reprint of the original edition — and the last complete edition until 1970. As of 2006, two editions are in print, including an annotated hypertext CD-ROM version published in 2003.

The importance of “The Hasheesh Eater”

It is Ludlow’s remarkable talent to be able to put words to experiences which seem quite beyond the grasp of language. If he resorted to allegory or hyperbole to extend his verbal reach, we should not be surprised. As he said once, “the entire truth of Nature cannot be copied” so “the artist must select between the major and minor facts of the outer world; that, before he executes, he must pronounce whether he will embody the essential effect, that which steals on the soul and possesses it without painful analysis, or the separate details which belong to the geometrician and destroy the effect.” That said, many of his passages which may have seemed like fantastic mythmaking to his contemporaries ring very true today with our slightly more advanced knowledge of the psychedelic state.

For instance, Ludlow writes of one hallucination: “And now, with time, space expanded also… The whole atmosphere seemed ductile, and spun endlessly out into great spaces surrounding me on every side.”

It is precisely because Ludlow could not count on his readers having any experience with such profoundly altered states of consciousness that he goes to such incredible lengths to describe them. And it is in turn because of this lucky fact that his work is so important today. In his quest to convey the vast scope of his experiences to others, using only the fragile medium of language, he takes nothing for granted and leaves no turn unstoned.

The Hasheesh Eater is an uncomfortable book for many readers. People who have a knee-jerk reaction toward marijuana and are comfortable stereotyping its users as burnt-out hedonists will not enjoy Ludlow’s description of the cannabis user as one who is reaching for “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.” Similarly, today’s marijuana enthusiasts will be put off by Ludlow’s final warning: “Ho there! pass by; I have tried this way; it leads at last into poisonous wildernesses.”

The effects of “The Hasheesh Eater”

Predictably, the popularity of The Hasheesh Eater led to interest in the drug it described. Not long after The Hasheesh Eater hit the shelves, the Gunjah Wallah Co. in New York began advertising “Hasheesh Candy” (possibly similar to the “dawamesk” used by the Club des Hachichins):

The Arabian “Gunjh” of Enchantment confectionized. — A most pleasurable and harmless stimulant. — Cures Nervousness, Weakness, Melancholy, &c. Inspires all classes with new life and energy. A complete mental and physical invigorator.

John Hay, who would become a close confidant of President Lincoln and later U.S. Secretary of State, remembered Brown University as the place “where I used to eat Hasheesh and dream dreams.” And a classmate recalls that after reading Ludlow’s book, Hay “must needs experiment with hasheesh a little, and see if it was such a marvelous stimulant to the imagination as Fitzhugh Ludlow affirmed. ‘The night when Johnny Hay took hasheesh’ marked an epoch for the dwellers in Hope College.”

Within twenty-five years of the publication of The Hasheesh Eater, most major cities in the United States had private hashish parlors. And there was already controversy about the legality and morality of cannabis intoxication. In 1876, when tourists could stroll over to the Turkish exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and smoke hash pipes in a comfortable lounge, the Illustrated Police News would write about “The Secret Dissipation of New York Belles… a Hasheesh Hell on Fifth Avenue.”

The rediscovery of “The Hasheesh Eater”

Ludlow’s writings crop up in a couple of places in pre-marijuana-prohibition 20th century America. The occultist Aleister Crowley found The Hasheesh Eater to be “tainted by admiration of de Quincey and the sentimentalists” but admired Ludlow’s “wonderful introspection” and printed significant excerpts from the book in his journal The Equinox. Using the pseudonym Oliver Haddo, Crowley also wrote at length about his own cannabis experiences, comparing and contrasting them to those of Ludlow. He “was struck by the circumstance that [Ludlow], obviously ignorant of Vedantist and Yogic doctrines, yet approximately expressed them, though in a degraded and distorted form.”

After the prohibition of marijuana, the writings of Ludlow were interpreted by two camps. On the one hand, there were the prohibitionists, who pointed out Ludlow’s addiction to “hasheesh” and his horrifying hallucinations; on the other, those who believed that cannabis deserved a second chance and saw Ludlow as a literate chronicler of the mystical heights that could be reached using the drug.

In 1938, shortly after the federal government cracked down on marijuana, the prohibitionist warning was carried in the book Marihuana: America’s New Drug Problem. The book included several pages of excerpts from The Hasheesh Eater and noted that

It was Ludlow… who contributed the most remarkable description of the hashish effects. He not only described the acute hashish episode with great intensity and fidelity but recorded the development of an addiction and the subsequent struggle which resulted in his breaking the habit. As an autobiography of a drug addict it is, in several respects, superior to De Quincey's “Confessions”

In 1953, Union College selected the alumnus Fitz Hugh Ludlow as a “Union Worthy” and invited three academics to compose speeches for the occasion. Morris Bishop (who would later include his impressions in his book Eccentrics), criticized Ludlow’s later attempts at fiction, writing that his short stories “are today stale and meaningless… echoes of all the other magazine stories of his time, originating in literature, not in life, and conducted with no regard for truth and with little for verisimilitude.” In The Hasheesh Eater on the other hand:

is a sincerity, a reality, which he could not recapture when he tried to construct stories solely from his imagination… He finds lyric phrasing to convey the unearthly beauty of his visions, and the unearthly horror of the evil fantasia which succeeded his bliss. He is a drugged Dante in reverse, descending from the Paradiso to the Inferno. His descriptions, drawing from his subconscious a strange mingling of the sublime and the grotesque, often suggest the work of Dali and other surrealists. The writer’s passion gives his work an intensity which the reader recognizes and sympathetically feels. This is a very considerable literary achievement.

Robert DeRopp, in the 1957 book Drugs and the Mind, was perhaps the first to express skepticism at Ludlow’s “addiction” story, noting that “[n]o one seriously interested in the effects of drugs on the mind should fail to read Ludlow’s book,” but accusing Ludlow of a “hypertrophy of the imagination and an excessive dependence on the works of De Quincey” (although he also found The Hasheesh Eater to be “more lively and more colorful reading than… the grossly overrated confessions of that ‘English opium-eater.’”). DeRopp suspected that “in many places scientific impartiality has been sacrificed in the interests of literary effect.”

At this point we are at the dawn of the resurgence of marijuana in the United States and the emergence of psychedelics in the English-speaking world. Researchers, like pioneering mescaline researcher Heinrich Klüver, looked to Ludlow’s seminal writings on the psychedelic experience for insight on the new drugs that were being discovered and synthesized.

In 1960, The Hasty Papers: A One-Shot Review, a beat literature journal, devoted most of its pages to reprinting the first edition of The Hasheesh Eater in its entirety, and David Ebin’s book The Drug Experience included three chapters from The Hasheesh Eater. In 1966, excerpts were published in The Marijuana Papers edited by David Solomon. In 1970, a reprint of the 1857 edition was put out by Gregg Press, and the Berkeley Barb reprinted several chapters.

By this time Ludlow had been rediscovered, both by mainstream researchers into drugs and addiction, and by the growing drug-savvy counterculture. Oriana J. Kalant, in 1971 in The International Journal of the Addictions found The Hasheesh Eater to be a remarkable description of the effects of cannabis:

…it is evident that Ludlow recognized, with remarkable insight, most of the characteristic subjective effects of cannabis. He also noted, and interpreted essentially correctly, such pharmacological points as the relation of dose to effect, inter- and intra-individual variations in response, and the influence of set and setting. Most importantly, perhaps, he recorded the development of his dependence on cannabis more comprehensively and astutely than anyone to date. The initial motives — including features of his own personality and temperament — the constant rationalization, compulsive use despite obvious untoward effects, the progression to a state of almost continuous intoxication, the inability to reduce his dose gradually, and the intense craving and depression after abrupt withdrawal, all are clearly described. Ludlow recognized also the lack of physical symptoms during withdrawal, and the difference from opium withdrawal in this respect.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can also identify in Ludlow’s account a number of other features consistent with present knowledge, but which even scientists of his day could not possibly have known. For example, the initial change in tolerance, the continuum between euphoria and hallucinations, the differentiation between the hallucinatory process and the affective reactions to it, the relation between spontaneous and drug-induced perceptual changes, the similarity between the effects of cannabis and those of other hallucinogens, the attempts at drug substitution therapy (opium, tobacco), and the role of psychotherapy and abreactive writing, are all in keeping with contemporary thought. These points permit the modern reader to feel even greater confidence in the extraordinary accuracy and perceptiveness of Ludlow’s record.

The mid 1970s saw two new editions of The Hasheesh Eater in print, one by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, and a well-annotated and illustrated version edited by Michael Horowitz and released by Level Press. By the late 1970s, you could even find the face of Fitz Hugh Ludlow on a T-shirt, thanks to his alma mater Union College, which had thrown a “Fitzhugh Ludlow Day” celebration in 1979.

More recently, Ludlow has been introduced to a new generation of psychedelics users through Terence McKenna, who read chapters from The Hasheesh Eater for a set of tapes (“Victorian Tales of Cannabis”) put out by Sound Photosynthesis, and who regularly praised Ludlow in his books, saying that Ludlow “began a tradition of pharmo-picaresque literature that would find later practitioners in William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson.… Part genius, part madman, Ludlow lies halfway between Captain Ahab and P.T. Barnum, a kind of Mark Twain on hashish. There is a wonderful charm to his free-spirited, pseudoscientific openness as he makes his way into the shifting dunescapes of the world of hashish.”

"The Hashish Eater" remains Ludlow's most famous book. Only his 1870 work The Heart of the Continent, has seen a new edition since the 19th Century

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