Saturday, 19 September 2015

On Wine And Hashish - Charles Baudelaire


Charles Baudelaire is a bit of a firm favourite down here in Exmouth and his books are always flying off the shelves as soon as they appear. Along with Thomas De Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium Eater, Baudelaire's On Wine And Hashish is constantly being asked for at the public library and in the charity shops. There was a period not so long ago when demand for them was being eclipsed by everyone wanting to read Fifty Shades Of Grey but that particular fad has now passed and so it's back to business as usual.

There was talk at one point of erecting in town some kind of monument to Baudelaire but it's all gone a bit quiet on that front of late. Cut-backs on public spending, austerity measures and all that would be the reason. Still, it would be nice if something could be done in the future to acknowledge just how much Baudelaire (and Rimbaud as well, actually) is revered in these parts.

He liked his wine did Baudelaire and in On Wine And Hashish he sings its praises. Being a poet, he does it most eloquently, weaving his words to convince the most hardened of teetotallers that a glass of wine is practically a communion with God. And so it can be.
A year or so ago there was a particular piece of graffiti on a wall near to the beach in Exmouth that in large letters read 'Bacchus in delirium', this being a line from On Wine And Hashish. The local Council - cultural aficionados that they are - had it removed. I wish I'd taken a photograph of it. It certainly gave Banksy a run for his money, I can assure you. Bacchus, of course, is the god of wine and it got me to thinking: is there a god of cider? If so, might that god be Greek? Norse? West Country? Might it be Adge Cutler perchance?
But I digress.

Everyone knows the leisure-time drugs of choice in neighbouring Budleigh Salterton are gin, cocaine and heroin which might explain the penchant there for the Queen Mother, mountain trekking holidays in Peru, and the writings of William Burroughs. In Exmouth, however, the preferred choice is definitely wine (or cider), hashish and opium which would explain the great affection for The Wurzels, dub reggae and the writings of Charles Baudelaire.
A paradox in this, however, is that whilst the denizens of Exmouth relish the grape, glorify the apple, adore their hash and savour their opium; Baudelaire himself - though loving his wine and being a very good friend of opium - appeared to be ambivalent about his hash. If you read On Wine And Hashish, it would seem Baudelaire was almost scared of it, referring to hash constantly as 'the poison'. He denigrates it.

His descriptions of the effects of the drug are amusingly accurate but his opinions of it have dated somewhat. At the time of his writing, hashish was fairly new to France and hadn't been fully explored so whilst the plebeians and aristocrats alike drank to their hearts content, those indulging in hashish was limited to the artists and intellectuals of the day. Every week a group of them going under the name 'Le Club de hachichins' would meet at a mansion house in Paris and mong out together and it was from these sessions that Baudelaire formed his opinions.

Nowadays, hash has been completely democratized in the same way that wine was in Baudelaire's time. At one point in his book Baudelaire writes: 'In Egypt, the government bans the buying and trafficking of hashish, at least inside the country. The Egyptian government is quite right. Never could a reasonable state subsist if hashish could be freely used. It produces neither warriors nor citizens'. This was obviously written long before it being semi-legalised in the Netherlands to no earth-shattering consequence, and long before people everywhere else in the West where it's not been legalised (including Britain) began taking hash anyway in the same way as they would eat food. As in a completely normal thing to do.

For all that, On Wine And Hashish is an interesting if not curious book that paved the way for a thousand other works of art in all mediums to bloom. Seminal is the word.
As for Baudelaire himself, he was yet another great artist who died in poverty but who should and shall be remembered, honoured, and celebrated for ever more. In his homeland, of course, but also in Exmouth.
John Serpico

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