Alexandre Dumas’ 1844-46 serial The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most popular novels in the world. Despite what you might expect from a 19th century adventure story, its dark protagonist is complex and philosophical. The Count’s intellectual mind, his fractured idealism turned jaded pessimism, and his ruthless individuality makes him an existential philosopher-of-action par excellence.
Dumas was a member of the Club des Hashischins (Hashish-Eaters Club) in Paris, which existed from 1844-49, around the time of the publication of Monte Cristo. So it isn’t surprising that the Count of Monte Cristo is a hashish eater. In fact, in the tradition of de Quincey, Coleridge and Keats, he’s also an opium-eater and quite a proponent of the two drugs. Monte Cristo pops pills he concocts himself from a 50/50 mixture of opium and hashish. Dumas borrows heavily from the Orientalism that we see associated with drug culture in earlier 19th century literature and poetry, but he does so with a flourish that is so perfected it still holds its magic after 170 years:
“There is a struggle in nature against this divine substance—in nature which is not made for joy and clings to pain. Nature subdued must yield in the combat, the dream must succeed to reality, and then the dream reign supreme, then the dream becomes life, and life becomes the dream. But what changes occur! It is only by comparing the pains of actual being with the joys of the assumed existence, that you would desire to live no longer, but to dream thus forever. When you return to this mundane sphere from your visionary world, you would seem to leave a Neapolitan spring for a Lapland winter—to quit paradise for earth—heaven for hell! Taste the hashish, guest of mine—taste the hashish.”
Dumas expounds upon the joys of hashish at some length:
That kind of green preserve is nothing less than the ambrosia which Hebe served at the table of Jupiter! …We frequently pass so near to happiness without seeing, without regarding it, or if we do see and regard it, yet without recognizing it. Are you a man for the substantials and is gold your god? Taste this and the mines of Peru, Guzerat and Golconda are open to you. Are you a man of imagination—a poet? Taste this and the boundaries of possibility disappear… Are you ambitious, and do you seek after the greatness of the earth? Taste this, and in an hour you will be a king… Is it not tempting what I offer you, and is it not an easy thing, since it is only to do thus? Look!”
At these words he uncovered the small cup which contained the substance so lauded, took a teaspoonful of the magic sweetmeat, raised it to his lips and swallowed it slowly, with his eyes half shut and his head bent backward…
“Did you ever hear…of the Old Man of the Mountain, who attempted to assassinate Philippe Augustus?”
“Of course, I have.”
“Well, you know he reigned over a rich valley, which was overhung by the mountain whence he derived his picturesque name. In this valley were magnificent gardens planted by Hassen-ben-Sabah, and in these gardens isolated pavilions. Into these pavilions he admitted the elect; and there, says Marco Polo, gave them to eat a certain herb, which transported them to paradise, in the midst of ever-blooming shrubs, ever-ripe fruit and ever-lovely virgins. But what these happy persons took for reality was but a dream; but it was a dream so soft, so voluptuous, so enthralling, that they sold themselves body and soul to him who gave it to them; and obedient to his orders as those of a deity, struck down the marked victim, died in torture without a murmur; believing that the death they underwent was but a quick transition to that life of delights of which the holy herb, now before you, had given them a slight foretaste.”
“Then,” cried Franz, “it is hashish! I know that—by name at least.”
“That is it precisely, Signor Aladdin; it is hashish—the purest and most unadulterated hashish of Alexandria—the hashish of Abou-Gor, the celebrated maker, the only man, the man to whom there should be built a palace inscribed with these words: ‘A grateful world to the dealer in happiness.’”
“Do you know,” said Franz, “I have a very great inclination to judge for myself…”
Later, the Count, impresses his wealth upon an audience of Parisians with a flourish of a large, hollowed emerald, and casually remarks that he carries it at all times. Why? Because it contains his opium.
“Oh, yes, I make no secret of it. It is a mixture of excellent opium, which I fetched myself from Canton in order to have it pure, and the best hashish which grows in the East—that is, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. These two ingredients are mixed in equal proportions, and formed into pills. Ten minutes after one is taken, the effect is produced…
“But,” said Beauchamp, who, as a journalist, was very incredulous, “you always carry this drug about you?”