Monday, February 10, 2014

This 1898 Lost Gem Of Oriental Romanticism Is Intoxicating

by Stephen J. Gertz

The following is my Historical Note to a new translation of Haschisch by Fritz Lemmermayer, originally issued in 1898 and now published for the first time in English by Process Media in association with RKS Library Editions. The black and white illustrations here (as well as the original cover art in color) are by Gottfried Sieben and are taken from the first German edition. All of the striking and plentiful original illustrations are present (and faithfully reproduced) in this exciting new edition along with many supplemental illustrations that illuminate the history of the book. - SJG.

Some novels die and justifiably remain dead. A few are resurrected by bookish saviors and, re-examined, rise to deserved new life. Haschisch by Fritz Lemmermayer is one such literary Lazarus. 

During the nineteenth century Europe was infatuated with the Orient in general and the Muslim world in particular. The Ottoman Empire, which in the late 17th century beseiged Vienna and put all of Christian Europe at risk, had receded as a threat. Translations of The Arabian Nights appeared in French (1704) and English (1706), kindling popular interest in the Orient. Diplomatic and commercial ties with Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, increased during the 18th century and Turquerie, an Orientalist style imitative of Turkish culture and art, had developed into a popular fashion by century’s end. By the beginning of the 19th century literary Romanticism had established itself. Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley, amongst others, lured by the exotic East, indulged, to popular success, their fascination for the foreign in their work. Oriental Romanticism, which captured their fantasies, was the result.

By mid-century the European craze for all things Oriental was at its height. The paintings and color-plate albums of Amadeo Preziosi, a Maltese count and artist who had become a resident of Istanbul, provided a lush feast for Europeans hungry for visual representations of this strange world of unusual costume, customs, and, let us not mince words, alluring women, mysterious with titillating possibility behind the veil. And, too, the use of opium and hashish in the East had captured the Romantic imagination as a gateway to the Oriental mind and fantastic visions not otherwise available to Western man. The exotic East possessed a strong sensuous undercurrent and it will come as no surprise that a genre of erotic literature arose in parallel to Oriental Romanticism to satisfy the European male’s desire, The Lustful Turk (1828) being an early example. The region was perceived to be an erogenous zone.

In Germany, Romanticism tended to look inward to Teutonic myth rather than outward to the East. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a small group of Neo-Romantics, led by litterateur Fritz Lemmermayer in protest to modern realism, turned their eyes toward the Orient. Haschisch, Lemmermayer’s 1898 novel, is not only Oriental Romanticism’s last gasp, but its acme, the literary culmination of two centuries of feverish thought and interest in the exoticism of the East.

We would not know this, however, without the scholarship of Dr. R.K. Siegel who rescued from obscurity this novel, a book lost in the wake of literary modernism and forgotten almost as soon as it was published. It’s a book that, as an antiquarian bookseller, I first became aware of in the mid-1980s through its 1911 translation into, of all languages, Yiddish. The cover art was sensational. A few of us in the trade who had a special interest in the literature of psychotropic drugs were riveted but, preoccupied with quotidian needs, did not have the necessary time to study and determine just what this book was. Enter Dr. Siegel, a dedicated collector-scholar, a breed of book lover that has so often (and to no financial gain whatsoever) devoted precious time to perform the bibliographical spadework for books in general and orphaned literature in particular. It was he who uncovered the first edition in German and then made the study of the novel’s history a personal mission. The results are here and marvelous.

Amadeo Preziosi, Odalisque.

A word on the novel’s illustrations by Sieben. He was unquestionably influenced by Preziosi’s artwork. Stamboul: Souvenirs d’Orient, Preziosi’s widely and wildly popular color-plate masterpiece first appeared in 1858, its fourth and final issue published in 1883 (as Stamboul: Meours et Costumes) to satisfy unabated demand. When Europeans imagined the Orient it was Preziosi’s imagery that they referenced, particularly his women of Istanbul. The faces of the women in Haschisch are directly those of Preziosi’s women. Preziosi’s image of a harem woman, languid and alluring as she is attended by her servants, tempts us with come-hither eyes as she smokes a hookah. Is she enraptured by hashish, or merely smoking tobacco? It is left to the observer to decide.

I think it safe to say, however, that readers will not have to make a decision regarding the novel’s vivid and operatic narrative. Haschisch is a literary cloud of intoxicating smoke, a phantasmagoria in print, once forgotten but now unforgettable.

•  •  •

N.B. The politics of Oriental Romanticism are not germane to this post beyond that almost every 19th century stereotype of the exotic East is found in Haschisch. Romanticism's preoccupation with love, sex, and death gets full play here. Throw in exotic drugs and Muslims and Edward Said would have had a field day with it had he lived to see this publication, which is quite something with production values that belie its cost, and a degree of scholarship that is remarkable. Dr. Siegel is a model literary detective; his informative introduction and notes cover the waterfront. It appears he hasn't missed a thing, which would be a bad thing if the story behind the book wasn't so interesting.

LEMMERMAYER, Fritz. Hashish: The Lost Legend. The First English Translation of a Great Oriental Romance. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Ronald K. Siegel, PH.D. Translations by Hermann Schibli (German); Mindle Crystal Gross (Yiddish). Historical Note by Stephen J. Gertz. Port Townsend, WA: Process Media in association with RKS Library Editions, 2013 [i.e. Feb. 2014].

First edition in English, limited to 418 copies numbered and signed by Ronald K. Siegel, PH.D. Quarto (10 x 6 1/2 inches). xx, 118 pp. on heavy glossy paper. Illustrated throughout in black & white and color. Full blue suede cloth with color illustration laid-on. Gilt lettered spine. Housed in a red suede cloth slipcase. $65.

Full Disclosure: I sit on the Editorial Board of RKS Library Editions, along with William Dailey, Michael Horowitz, and Steven B. Karch, M.D., FFFLM.


  1. My copies arrived last week. It's stunning.


  2. A breathtaking production - I've ordered an additional copy because it is so beautiful. Now, perhaps, a translation of Bonnetain's "L'opium" or Fersen's "Hei- Hsiang"?


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