Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

XI. The Philosophy and Spirituality of Fitz Hugh Ludlow

On his death bed, according to his sister Helen, Fitz Hugh Ludlow's last words were a request to "[t]ell all my friends that dear Jesus is all I ever thought him; my only savior, my Lord and my God." Ludlow believed strongly in Christianity, even in the depths of his worst suffering and withdrawal, when doubt was inevitable:

I sometimes lose all faith in the existence of any being who takes the slightest interest in at least our earthly welfare, and sink down into a darkness of heart like that of Egypt. Where is the right hand - the outstretched arm - where He who clothes the lillies, and will much more clothe us - where any merciful, loving Lord at all? My only sheet-anchor - all that keeps me, when I think of the terrible suffering of mind and body that has been heaped upon me for the last few years, from drifting away into blank atheism - from acknowledging that the materialistic school is right - that I have all along been led away by a romantic, loving heart into believing that what was so dear to me must be, and that there is no personal God at all - nothing but a grim, stern Nature, whose laws crush out the worm and man's tortured heart alike, inexorably - all that holds me, I say, is the gospel of John. When I read of the life Christ lived, and the death he died for me, I say, "He must love me," though I have to wait in the terrible gloom to have the mystery why he lets me so suffer be explained.
But his Christianity was iconoclastic, and he was ever testing his faith on his own terms, never willing to accept the dogma of others. He would return to the importance of this ever-questioning, never blindly accepting spirituality and philosophy, often using the protagonists of his short stories to speak for him:
"Regular Habits" (1859): If there is any pitiable, hopeless order of mind, for which nothing great or useful can ever be foretold, it is the order which my friend the German Professor used to call... "Struthiokamelopsychists." ... "The ostrich-souls." Yes, the ostrich-souls, who go about gobbling up this man's rag of rhyme - this one's clenching-nail of argument - so-and-so's crackling fragment of tin-eloquence - such another's pine-splinter of theology - then stick their silly heads into the laurel bush from which ought not only the garlands of the truly great to be outplucked? and flapping their wings, cry hoarsely, "Am I not verily accomplished?" But is not their tail the mean while evident to the observing?

I agree with my friend the Deutsch Professor. From ostrich-souls nothing worthy can ever be expected...

"Thrown Together" (1861): The mind of a man is not a sponge but a crucible. He who merely draws knowledge in and pours it out unaltered does his neighbor a wrong - cheats him of the additional value which he should have impressed upon it by reflection. The true and honest intellect receives facts, melts them in the proportions of its favorite alloy, then crystalizes them into new systems and theories...

"The Battle and Triumph of Dr. Susan" (1865): ...I am quite sick of one thing... which I have seen a great deal of in my life. To speak in general terms, it is the practice of sending our belief, like our washing, to be done out of the house for us by some individual school-man, doctor, parson, or some collective body - some Faith-Factory carried on by combination within the bosom of an Ism or an Ology.... [U]p at that Tribunal of All-Souls - where every honorable man wishes to be judged, and every man, honorable or caitiff, must be - there is no such word as "proxy" ever uttered.... [I]t is criminal folly and dishonesty for me to pretend to accept in this life any one else's opnion unproved by myself - be it æsthetic, ethical, theological, any thing - knowing, as I do, that in a higher life it will fail me, and I shall be brought miserably to shame!

A friend remembered that Ludlow "sometimes carried a Greek Testament in his pocket, and he was fond of reading from it and translating for those of his friends who did not read Greek. The second verse of the seventeenth chapter of St. John's Gospel he would often dwell upon, pouring out his indignation against King James' translators for interpolating there, as in other places, ideas that he affirmed had no place in the original Greek. The verse reads: "Thou hast given Him power over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him." Ludlow, rising from his chair and gesticulating as was his wont, would say: "How dared those translators to insert 'as many' there when there is no limit or qualification in the words spoken by Christ? He claims authority over all that he may give to them eternal life."

Challenging and reaffirming his faith would be a life-long project for Ludlow, and starting from a very early age, thanks to the religious tutilege of his father, who wrote, when Fitz Hugh was five, "I wish you could have heard him pray last eve. with me in my study. I had been talking to him of the love of Christ, and his heart evidently felt the strong pressure of its obligations to love him. I told him he might if he wished kneel and consecrate himself to God, and he did it with a fulness and appropriateness of expression, and an apparent sincerity of feeling, that would have surprized you and put to shame many an old professor in my church."

And as "yet a mere boy" Ludlow overheard a couple of amateur metaphysicians discussing the idea that we only perceive appearances and not actual objects. Illustrating his early propensity for demanding first-hand evidence for any philosophical assertion, we see in a chapter of The Hasheesh Eater the young Fitz Hugh confronting a tree with the various ways in which his senses can perceive it:

But hold! I said to myself; what do I find out in leaning here, which makes me think that I have found a thing? Why, resistance, hardness, to be sure. And it is a fact, these are qualities only. But this is nothing but feeling; let me try the senses of smell and taste. By applying nose and tongue to the tree, I perceived a fresh woody savor - quality still! I put my ear to the tree and struck it: still nothing but quality resulted, the capability to beget sound. I began to be alarmed for the dignity of the Sense, as I saw her chance of proving herself worthy of my past consideration narrowed down to one single organ - the eye. Alas for her! Quality still - a brown tint, a faculty of transmitting certain rays of light, and absorbing others. It seems strange now, but it is true that, with my knife, I began blazing the side of the tree, with a sort of fond flattery of the Sense that, though the qualities lay in the bark, "the thing" was to be detected lurking underneath. In a moment, however, I laughed perplexedly, realizing that I could make the matter no better if I hacked the tree through.
But the inquisitiveness of childhood which drove him into profounder and more baffling subtleties of philosophy would ironically drive him further away from a childlike innocence and freedom from philosophical abstractions which he would later try to recapture with hashish and other intoxicants:
[T]he whole glory of the world to come will consist in a return to our Childhood's gifts in this very respect - a resumption of the power which we once had of substituting Life for Abstractions - and that glorious capability each of us now grown up, save the extremest Genius, has parted with for the present...
In fact, he would say near the close of his life:
Oh, if those eyes could only be spared to us for our lifetime, who would ever seek in stimulants the sense of pleasure and well-being? The child is forever in that state of elasticity, ecstasy, and brightness which our potent liquors but feebly imitate - a state of healthy intoxication, to which our feverish adult joys answer only as Anteros to Eros. Whatever temptation exists in the condition whose pluperfect and grosser tense men call 'drunk' is due to its simulation of the feeling which, when we see our children, we remember was once our own.... why can't we look forever out of your eyes? Show us how to keep them after we get the down on our cheeks, and there'll be no more need of Temperance meetings - we will thank no man for the most exhilirating nectar that was ever brewed of hemp or poppies, grapes or grain.
The journey from childhood to responsible adulthood was, to Ludlow, in part a sad journey away from genuine self: "[I]n society, a man's true self is such a deep down substratum, so overlain by successive layers of constitutional caution, educational reserve, handosme physique, elegant manners, tailor skill, and innmuerable deceptive conventional circumstances, that it is hard for any one, however world-sharpened, to penetrate the crust and get at the basis of the human geological system."

Breaking through this crust could not be anything but a profound release. "The ceasing to seem to be what he is not must always be an untold relief to any one who has not, by long training in the necessary caution of a responsible place, utterly ceased to be what he was."

Just out of college, he was introduced to the writings of Swedenborg, whose speculations about the seat of the soul in the brain and the existence of a spiritual world as real and phenomenal as the world around us in our daily existence (of which Ludlow did certainly have first-hand experience), and whose "conception of the Divine Humanity, or glorification of Jesus," according to a friend, "...he did not think simply to be true, or believe it merely to be true; he knew it to be true, for it solved the entire problem of theology, life and death!"

God was not something unknowable and invisible, by Ludlow's understanding, but was evident everywhere. "[S]pirit itself is in its very essence imperceptible to senses," he wrote, but the communion between the spirit of man and that of God "makes itself perceptible by appearances. These appearances, whose cause we call 'matter,' are therefore, in reality, but the effects of spirit's action upon spirit. In no sense, then, does any such thing as dead matter exist. It is God's thinking felt by us."

The bulk of Ludlow's published philosophical and metaphysical speculations were asides summoned forth by hashish-musings and provide some of the most intriguing and memorable sections of The Hasheesh Eater.

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