One of the more esoteric locations in Paris is the Club des Hashischins located in the Hotel de Lauzun on the Île Saint-Louis. Founded by Charles Baudelaire and his friend Théophile Gauthier in 1844, its members included Gérard de Nerval, Eugène Delcroix and Alexandre Dumas. But even devoted fans of 19th century poetry, art and prose may never have heard of it.
The elegant, architecturally distinguished Hotel de Lauzun, built in 1658, was owned by a succession of French noblemen, among them Cardinal Richelieu, and its design was used a template for the construction of the Palais de Versailles. After the French Revolution, the Hotel fell into disrepair and one of its garret rooms was rented out to Baudelaire.
Baudelaire’s Club met during the evenings in one of the grander rooms on the premier étage. There, the members set out to experience hashish and opium. Over the course of the next two years, Baudelaire took many drug trips and wrote extensively (and beautifully) about them in his book, Les Paradises Artificiels, published in 1858. By that time, he had come to believe that the drugs were detracting from his poetry rather than contributing to it and he disbanded the club. But it was great while it lasted.
Here is Baudelaire’s description of one night’s experience:
Hashish will heighten a man’s personality while at the same time acutely sharpening his senses…. At first you are seized by an irresistible, ridiculous joy. The most common words, the simplest ideas take on … new meaning …. [You find that you can] improvise interminable strings of puns, connect completely unrelated ideas and dream up such deeds as to perplex even the strongest masters of absurd art.
You delight in sensations of rapture …. Your senses become extraordinarily acute. Your eyes pierce the infinite. Your ears distinguish the slightest sounds. Then the hallucinations begin. External things swell … revealing themselves in fantastic shapes. Instantly passing through a variety of transformations, they enter your being, or you enter theirs.
The most singular ambiguities, the most inexplicable transpositions of ideas take place in your sensations. Sound holds color, color holds music. Musical notes become numbers …. Harmony and melody become linked with the objects around you. You are far above the material world [in an] intellectual paradise.
Finally, [you enter] a state of perfect bliss. No longer do storms and tempests trouble your senses; this is a calm immobile happiness. All philosophical problems are resolved. All of the secrets about which theologians have grappled and which have been the despair of human understanding, now appear transparent and clear. All contradiction is resolved. Man becomes God.
— Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels
After Baudelaire moved elsewhere, the Hotel de Lauzun sank back into anonymity. It was purchased in 2003 by the Paris Institute for Advanced Study and is almost always closed to visitors. Knocking on the door of the concierge doesn’t help. (I’ve tried!) But the Institute does permit guided tours of the building several times a year. The tours are in French, by reservation only and led by architectural historians. Given their training, the guides concentrate on the remarkable architecture and decoration of the interior of the building which has been lovingly restored. But they will point out the Club room if you ask and you may spend as much time in it as you like.
The remarkably small room overlooks the Seine. It is devoid of furniture. One doesn’t miss it. The walls and ceilings are so lavishly embellished that it is easy to imagine the intense impression that they must have had upon the hallucinating club members. In fact, drugs might not have been necessary to produce colorful and profuse visions. The experience is near-psychedelic even when straight.
Even if you do not understand French, the guided tour more than repays the time spent. The opulence and beauty of the Club room evokes Baudelaire’s
adventurous and passionate spirit in a way that no other site in Paris could possibly do.
For information, call +33 (0)1 49 52 42 63. Reservations can be made on the Interkultur website or by calling +33 (0)1 46 40 19 03.