Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil

Read "The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil" at The Eldritch Dark:

Note that the version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark is riddled with typos, so it's worth reading this one in print if you have access to such.

I've been immersed in multiple re-readings of this epic poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), as well as some of the critical writings about it.  A few observations have stood out for me from all of this reading:

  • It's a remarkable poem, but not one of CAS' best works of poetry.
  • It's not easy to read in a single setting, since there are weak sections that slow the reader's momentum.  With some editing to eliminate weak passages, perhaps it could have been a stronger work.
  • It's a critical work from CAS that absolutely deserves the large reputation it has earned.

The first two points above reflect the fact that "The Hashish-Eater" feels like something of a first draft, although I don't doubt that CAS edited and re-worked it over time.  But I suspect that editing was minimal, because he wanted to retain the immediacy of the work, and didn't strive to "polish" it as much as some of his other works.  This is purely speculation on my part.

That said, there is no doubt that the large ambition of "The Hashish-Eater" makes up a great part of the reward in reading it.  This poem can be considered something of a difficult masterpiece, similar to Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams, or to choose an even more remote example, Trout Mask Replica from Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.  

In the preceding paragraph, I intentionally chose to link "The Hashish-Eater" to two works from media other than poetry, since I think they reflect similar artistic paradoxes.  In The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen delivers a narrative of ecstasy and despair, and the balance between those elements sometimes feels stretched to the point of awkwardness. Nonetheless, the novel is a brilliant rumination on the creative process, and absolutely worth reading despite its faults, since it is written with passion and a masterful use of the English language.

My musical example comes from a similar place.  Trout Mask Replica is a landmark album of experimental pop music, using unconventional compositional structures that challenge the listener to really pay attention and analyze what he or she is hearing.  For pure listening pleasure, the album is largely a failure.  As a wholly innovative approach to pop song deconstruction, it's a triumph.  Whether or not it appeals to an individual music fan depends on their willingness to embrace a work of art that demands real engagement.

And so back to "The Hashish-Eater".  There is most certainly real poetry in this work; here is an example from the second stanza:

                                                  I behold
In Ombos, where the fallen Titans dwell,
With mountain-builded walls, and gulfs for moat,
The secret cleft that cunning dwarves have dug
Beneath an alp-like buttress; and I list,
Too late, the clang of adamantine gongs
Dinned by their drowsy guardians, whose feet
Have felt the wasp-like sting of little knives
Embrued With slobber of the basilisk
Or the pale juice of wounded upas.

Moreover, this poem provides an interesting reflection on CAS' own personal views, as he articulated in a 1950 letter to Samuel J. Sackett, which is also available (with typos) on The Eldritch Dark:

In that letter, CAS writes (referring to "The Hashish-Eater"):

It is my own theory that if the infinite worlds of the cosmos were opened to human vision, the visionary would be overwhelmed by horror in the end, like the hero of this poem.

This relates back to a comment I made in my post about the Argument of 'The Hashish-Eater' where I pondered the poem's potential nihilistic quality.  Now having read the poem several times, I no longer think nihilism is the correct interpretation, but rather I think this work acknowledges the overwhelming vastness and indifference of the cosmos towards human affairs and concerns, a theme that occurs elsewhere in CAS' poetry.

So in the end, "The Hashish-Eater" strikes me as an unpolished gem, a work of vast scope and harsh resolution, executed with less formal technique than was the author's wont.  In its exotic visions of monstrosities and alien worlds, it points forward to the prose fiction that CAS would create in later years.  If the reading experience of "The Hashish-Eater" is uneven, it is nonetheless full of invention and grotesque magnificence, and is a major work of imaginative literature.

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