Phantastica: The Chemically Inspired Intellectual in Occult Fiction

By Hammack, Brenda Mann | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2004 | Go to article overview

Phantastica: The Chemically Inspired Intellectual in Occult Fiction


Hammack, Brenda Mann, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay examines the representation of chemically altered intellectuals in works of occult fiction in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Horrific dissolution was believed to afflict brain workers who resorted to psychoactive agents in order to boost productivity or to offset the symptoms of exhaustion.

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The idle man has taxed his ingenuity to introduce artificially the
supernatural into his life and into his thought; but after all, and
despite the accidental energy of his experiences, he is nothing but the
same man magnified, the same number raised to a very high power. He is
brought into subjection, but unhappily for him, it is not by himself;
that is to say, by the part of himself which is already dominant. "He
would be angel; he becomes a beast."--Baudelaire, "The Poem of Hashish"

In the supernatural short story entitled "Green Tea," Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu dramatizes a supposed correspondence between scholarly activity, spiritual afflication, and drug use that became a significant theme of the socio-medical discourses, as well as the occult literature, of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Consulting an expert in transcendental medicine, Le Fanu's Reverend Jennings explains that he has lately been consumed with an ambitious intellectual project involving extensive research into the metaphysical beliefs of ancient pagans. His exhaustive efforts, which resemble those of George Eliot's Casaubon, would have been considered unhealthy even if his material were not potentially subversive. Indeed, the Reverend admits to being immoderate in his cerebral activities. "I wrote a great deal; I wrote late at night," he tells Dr. Martin Hesselius. "I was always thinking on the subject, walking about, wherever I was, everywhere. It thoroughly infected me" ("Green" 21). In Jennings's case, overwork is exacerbated by a form of intoxication. Because the Reverend believes that prolonged mental work can lead one to etherealize oneself so that one might "grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body," he has attempted to offset this risk by consuming two or three pots of green tea between the hours of eleven at night and three in the morning, as did his creator, Le Fanu. "[A] material waste [...] must be hourly supplied in such occupations," Jennings tells his doctor (22).

By insisting that his tactics are not uncommon since most writers rely on chemical inspiration in the form of "tea, or coffee, or tobacco" in order to boost productivity, Le Fanu's character identifies himself as an average brain worker seeking to amplify his mental capacities via artificial means (22). Although caffeine is not commonly believed to be as destructive as certain other drugs, like cocaine, or even alcohol, Jennings does find that long-term recourse to artificial stimulants leads eventually to mental, moral, and material ruination. In this respect, he resembles any one of a number of creative personalities mentioned in popular anthologies and scholarly monographs that survey the history of drugs and intellectuality, including Alethea Hayter's Opium and the Romantic Imagination, John Miller and Randall Koral's White Rabbit: A Psychedelic Reader, Mike Jay's Artificial Paradises: A Drugs Reader, Sadie Plant's Writing on Drugs, Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield's High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction, and Marcus Boon's The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Among the nineteenth-century illuminati cited most frequently in these texts are Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier, Wilkie Collins, Aleister Crowley, and Thomas De Quincey.

Significantly, De Quincey explicitly positions himself as "a scholar" in the subtitle to his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (first published in 1821); he also describes himself as one of a "whole class of opium-eaters [...] distinguished for [their analytic and poetic] talents" (2-3). …

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