I’m currently taking a slow dive deep into the history of cannabis via Martin A. Lee’s excellent Smoke Signals, published in 2012. Although not current with the rapidly developing legal recreational industry, the history is rock solid and rich in detail. I was intrigued and not a little bemused today when reading about marijuana’s route into Romantic-era France (via colonial Egypt) and its use by those enfant terribles, the original socialist revolutionary punks, the French Romantic poets. What struck me as notable was learning about Baudelaire, the “debauchee’s debauchee“, who became a bit of a marijuana alarmist late in life.
In truth, according to Lee, Baudelaire was a sordid “syphilis-infected figure who botched a suicide attempt, an opium-addicted alcoholic whose overbearing mother, a devout Christian, was obsessed with Original Sin” (p.30). The French poet indulged in drugs, alcohol and sex like a 1970s Hollywood swinger, and yet harbored a Puritan-like fear of self-discovery (probably because he didn’t like what he saw) and a reactionary rubric of bourgeois morality. Although Baudelaire’s poetry was often inspired by opium, alcohol and later hashish, he expressed a strong ambivalence about the upsides and downsides he experienced when intoxicated, saving his most severe judgement for hashish.
At first introduction to the herb, he praised it as “like living some fantastic novel instead of reading it” (p.29). This is the rebellious, adventurous Baudelaire, an original “punk” as he was arrogated by his 20th century devotees. But Baudelaire embraced intoxicants as a means to escape his own “self-hatred” (p.30), not to unleash his rebellion upon the world. In fact, the poet recoiled from hashish with consternation over the “moral and social implications” (p. 30) of its consumption. He expressed middle-class angst about the “psychological risks” (p. 30), and “concluded that hashish is ‘nothing miraculous, absolutely nothing but an exaggeration of the natural'” (p. 30). The Poet sought escape from self, not magnification of self-perception, and he ultimately denounced cannabis as a “chaotic devil” (p. 30).
In short, the French Romantic poet, Baudelaire, feared any catalyst that might magnify his perception of his own flaws. He was terribly insecure, it seems, rather than bold and courageous. Not much of a revolutionary. His literary contemporary, Gustave Flaubert, was direct and succinct in his reaction to Baudelaire’s denigration of cannabis, writing, “I would have thought it better if you hadn’t blamed hashish and opium, but only excess” (p. 30). And yet, blaming “excess” would clearly undermine his revolutionary identity, revealing him to be a coward. Baudelaire was quite fearful, it seems, literally afraid of his own shadow.