Long ago in the Orient, there was an order of fearsome sectarians commanded by a sheik who had taken the title of Elder of the Mountain, or prince of the Assassins. The Elder of the Mountains was obeyed unquestioningly; his subjects—the assassins—worked with an absolute devotion to the execution of his orders, no matter what they were; no danger stood in their way, not even the most certain death. At the word of their chief, they would rush to the top of a tower or stab a sovereign in a palace surrounded by guards.
And by what means did the Elder of the Mountain secure such total abnegation? With a marvelous drug whose recipe he possessed, and which had the power to produce the most dazzling hallucinations. Those who took it, upon awakening from their ecstasy, found reality to be so depressing and colorless that they would happily do anything to return to the paradise of their dreamworlds. Each man killed while doing the sheik’s bidding would find his reward in heaven—but, if he should escape, he would be allowed once again to enjoy the bliss of that mysterious concoction.
The green paste which the doctor had just distributed to us was precisely the same as that which the Elder of the Mountain once administered to his unknowing fanatics, convincing them that he held in his power access to the kingdom of Muhammad and its tri-colored beauties: hashish, from which comes hashishian, or hash-eater, and root of the word assassin, whose ferocious connotation is illustrated perfectly by the bloodthirsty practices of the Elder’s devotees.
Surely, the people who had seen me leave my home at that hour when simple mortals sit down to dinner did not suspect that I was going to l’île Saint-Louis, a virtuous and stately locale if ever there was one, to consume a strange dish which, centuries ago, allowed an impostorous sheik to push the enlightened to murder. Nothing in my perfectly bourgeois manner could have betrayed this overblown Orientalism; I more closely resembled a nephew on the way to dine with his elderly aunt than a believer about to taste the heavenly joys of Muhammad in the company of twelve undeniably French Arabs.
Before this explanation, you might have been told that in Paris in 1845, that era of speculation and railroads, there existed an order of hashishians whose history Mr. von Hammer never recorded, and you would not have believed it. Yet nothing could be truer—as is so often the case with unbelievable things.
The meal was served in a bizarre manner, in all sorts of extravagant and picturesque dishes. Large Venetian tumblers, laced with milky spirals, German goblets illustrated and emblazoned with legends, Flemish jugs of enameled sandstone, and narrow-necked, reed-plaited flagons replaced traditional glasses, bottles and carafes. The opaque Louis Leboeuf porcelain and flowery English earthenware of every bourgeois table shined in conspicuous absence; no plate matched another, yet each had its own particular glamour; China, Japan, and Saxony displayed their finest clays and richest colors. Everything was a bit cracked or chipped, but in wholly exquisite taste.
The dishes were mostly Bernard Palissy pottery or Limoges porcelain, and now and then the carving knife would meet reliefs of reptiles or birds under real plates. The edible eel mingled its coils with those of the ceramic snake laid under it.
An honorable philistine should have felt a degree of fright at the sight of so many guests with long hair, bearded, mustachioed, or otherwise curiously shorn, brandishing their sixteenth century daggers, Malaysian krisses, and navajas, and bent over dishes on which the wavering lamps overhead reflected murky and suspicious figures.
The dinner was coming to an end; already some of the more fervent adepts had begun to feel the effects of the green paste. I myself had experienced a thorough transposition of taste: the water I was drinking seemed to have the flavor of the most exquisite wine; meat changed to raspberry in my mouth, and vice versa. I could not have discerned a veal chop from a peach.
My companions were beginning to appear a trifle peculiar: they opened great sets of owl eyes, their noses grew into elephant trunks, their mouths spread out like sleigh bells. Slowly their faces took on supernatural complexions: one of them, a pale visage behind a black beard, was laughing uproariously at an invisible spectacle; another was taking the most incredible pains to lift his glass to his lips, and his contortions in doing so brought about a deafening hooting. Here a man, moving skittishly, rotated his thumbs with startling agility; there another, draped over the back of his chair with empty eyes and dead limbs, let himself slip gracefully into the bottomless sea of ruination.
Leaning my elbows on the table, I considered all this with the clarity of my remaining reason, which was flickering away and back like a nightlight about to burn out. Dull sensations of heat began to course through my limbs, and madness, like a wave foaming on the rocks, withdrawing only to rush forth again, reached my brain, left, and finally invaded it completely. Delirium, that curious visitor, had seized hold of me.
“To the parlor! To the parlor!” cried one of the guests. “Do you not hear the celestial choir? The musicians have been at their stands for hours!” Indeed, through the tumult of the conversation, gusts of a delicious harmony were settling upon us.
An uninvited gentleman
The parlor was an enormous room with gilded and sculpted paneling and a ceiling painted with ornate friezes of satyrs chasing nymphs among the reeds, a vast colored marble fireplace, and brocaded curtains breathing with the luxuries of ages past. The furnishings—tapestries, sofas, easy chairs and wing chairs, wide enough to accommodate the ungainly skirts of duchesses and marchionesses—welcomed the hashishians with soft and ever-open arms. A chair by the fire winked at me; I settled into it and abandoned myself without resistance to the effects of this fantastic drug.
After a few minutes my companions disappeared, one after another, leaving no trace but their shadows on the wall, which quickly absorbed them just as the brown marks of water on sand fade as they dry. And since at that point I was no longer conscious of their activities, you will have to content yourself for now with the account of my own simple impressions.
Solitude reigned now over a darkened parlor spangled only by a few dubious lights. Then, suddenly, a red flash, as of countless candles lit on their own passed under my eyelids, and I felt bathed in a mild, blond light. The place I was in was the same as before yet somehow different, as between a sketch and a painting: everything was larger, richer, more splendid. Reality was nothing now but a point of departure for the magnificent world of hallucination.
I saw nobody, yet I felt the presence of a multitude. I heard the rustling of cloth, the crackle of dancing shoes, voices that whispered, murmured, lisped and stuttered, stifled bursts of laughter, noises of the feet of chairs and tables. The china rattled nervously, doors opened and closed again. Something unusual was happening.
A perplexing character appeared suddenly before me. Where had he come in? I had never known anything like him, yet the sight of him did not frighten me in the least. He had a bird’s beak for a nose; green eyes lined with brown circles, which he wiped frequently with an immense handkerchief; a high, starched white necktie, through the knot of which a visitor’s badge reading Daucus-Carota, from The Pot of Gold was passed, strangling his thin neck and making the skin of his cheeks poke out in reddish folds; a black suit, with clusters of trinkets hanging from its squared coattails, imprisoned his bulging capon-breasted body. As for his legs, I must concede that they were made of mandrake root—forked, black, gnarled, knotted and warty—apparently freshly picked, as small pieces of earth still clung to his filaments. His legs wriggled and squirmed with extraordinary activity, and, when the little torso they carried came face to face with me, the queer creature burst into tears and, wiping his eyes with all his might, said in the most doleful voice I had ever heard:
“Today we must die of laughter!” And his tears, fat as peas, rolled off the wings of his nose. “Of laughter… of laughter…” echoed the choir in discordant and nasal voices.
I looked now at the ceiling and found a crowd of bodiless, cherubic heads who wore such comic expressions and had such jovial and deeply joyous physiognomies that I could not help but join in the hilarity. Their eyes wrinkled, their mouths enlarged, their nostrils flared; their scornful smiles would have cheered no man’s melancholy. These buffoonish masks moved about in all directions to produce a dazzling and vertiginous sensation.
Bit by bit the parlor filled with extraordinary faces, the kind found only in Callot’s etchings or Goya’s watercolors: a jumble of finery and tatters, forms human and beastly. Perhaps under any other circumstances I would have been somewhat concerned to find myself among such company, but there was nothing menacing in these monstrosities. It was mischief, not ferocity, which made these pupils sparkle; it was only good cheer that bared those disorderly fangs and pointed incisors.
As though I were the king of the festivities, each face came in turn into the luminous circle surrounding me with an air of grotesquely grave reverence, murmuring into my ear pleasantries of which I cannot recall a single word, but which at the time struck me as wondrously witty, and inspired me to the maddest of gaiety.
With each new apparition, a laughter—Homeric, Olympian, immense, deafening, infinitely resounding—burst out in a thunderous bellow around me. Voices, alternately shrill and cavernous, cried, “No, no, it’s too funny! Enough! Lord, Lord, how wonderful! How it escalates!”
“Enough—I can no longer… Ho! ho! hoo! hoo! hee! hee! Such jokes! Such witticisms!”
“Stop! I suffocate! I choke! Don’t look at me like that… or surround me… I will burst…”
Despite these half-clownish, half-desperate protests, the tremendous hilarity heightened still; the clatter grew in intensity; the floors and walls of the house heaved and palpitated like a human diaphragm, encouraged by this frenetic, irresistible, insatiable laughter.
Soon, instead of presenting themselves to me one by one, the grotesque phantoms began to swarm and assail me, shaking their long ludicrous sleeves, stumbling on the cuffs of their magician’s cloaks, crushing in their cardboard noses with ridiculous bumps and sending the powder of their wigs into clouds in the air, singing off key extravagant songs with impossible rhymes.
Every archetype ever imagined by the sneering verve of people and artists was assembled there, but tenfold, a hundred times more powerful. It was a strange mob: the Neapolitan Pulchinella was amiably slapping the hump of the English Punch, while the harlequin of Bergamo rubbed his black starched mask on the harlot of France, who let out horrid cries; the Bolognese doctor threw tobacco in the eyes of the Father Cassandre; Tartaglia galloped on horseback over a clown and Gilles favored his don Spavento with a kick to the hindquarters; Karagheuz, armed with his obscene stick, was fighting a duel with an Osquian buffoon.
Farther off writhed further confusion: fantasies of dreams of drollery, hybrid creations, amorphous mixes of man, beast, and utensil; wheel-footed and shell-bellied monks, warriors armored in china and brandishing wooden swords in their talons; statesmen moving on the gears of spitirons and kings submerged to the waist in bulblike turrets, alchemists with heads of bellows and limbs tangled around stills, camp followers made from an aggregation of strangely bulging pumpkins—all that could be traced in feverish pencil strokes by a cynic whose elbow is pushed along by intoxication.
This swelled, that crawled, these trotted and those jumped, grumbled, whistled, just as Goethe described on the eve of Walpurgis. Removing myself from these baroque characters with exasperated haste, I took refuge in an obscure corner from which I could see them surrendering to dances the likes of which were inconceivable to the Renaissance in the time of Chicard, or to those Musardian operas and their disheveled quadrilles. With entrechats and balancés the dancers, a thousand times the better of Molière, Rabelais, Swift and Voltaire, wrote comedies so profoundly philosophical, satires of such import and piquant ribaldry, that I was forced to hold my sides from my corner.
Daucus-Carota, wiping his eyes all the while, performed pirouettes and capers of the most unthinkable grace, especially for a man with mandrake roots for legs, and repeated, in a tone of burlesque sorrow: “Today we must die of laughter!”
Oh, you who have admired the sublime stupidity of Odry, the hoarse simplicity of Alcide Tousez, the cheeky nonsense of Arnal, and the macaque grimaces of Ravel, and who believe you know the smiling mask of comedy: had you attended this Gustavian ball of hashishian fantasy, you should agree that the most side-splitting clowns of our little theatres are only worthy of adorning the solemn corners of catafalques and tombstones! Such madly contorted faces! such eyes twinkling and sparkling with sarcasm under bird’s-membrane eyelids! such grinning gaping noggins, such axe-blown mouths! such facetious dodecahedral noses and abdomens round with Pantagruelic mockeries!
Through all the swarming of this painless nightmare, irresistible resemblances appeared by sudden flashes, caricatures to make Daumier and Gavami jealous, fantastic creations to make those marvelous Chinese artists, those Phidiases of wobbly toys and figurines, swoon with joy! And still all these visions were neither monstrous nor absurd; there was a grace to be found in this carnival of shapes: near the fireplace, a small, peach-cheeked head rolled about in blond curls, showing in an interminable outburst of gaiety thirty-two little teeth, thick as grains of rice, and emitting a peal of shrill laughter, vibrant and silvery and extended, embroidered with trills and organ snatches, which danced through my eardrums and, with a nervous magnetism, drove me to a host of extravagant delusions.
The joyous frenzy was at its peak; nothing could be heard but convulsive sighs and inarticulate chuckles. The laughter had lost its ring and turned to a grumbling, as spasm chased at the heels of pleasure; Daucus-Carota’s refrain was to come true.
Already several prostrated hashishians had begun to roll on the ground with that soft heaviness of spirit which makes falling feel harmless; exclamations such as these—“Lord, how happy I am! What felicity; I swim in ecstasy! I am plunging into the depths of delight!”—intersected and intermingled and drowned each other out. Raucous cries issued forth from stifled breasts; arms reached desperately toward any fleeting vision; talons and scruffs drummed on the floor. The time had come to throw a drop of cold water on this boiling vapor, lest the heat explode. The human shell, with so little capacity for joy and so much for pain, could not have borne any greater intensity of happiness.
One member of the club, who had not partaken in these voluptuous intoxications, after surveying the fantasia and preventing those among us who fancied themselves wingèd from passing through the windows, stood up, opened the piano case, and sat down. His two hands, falling together, plunged into the ivory of the keyboard, and a glorious harmony, resonating with force, quieted the hum of the entire room and altered the direction of our euphoria.