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Essay: Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story Green Tea

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  • Published: 19 November 2022*
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The nineteenth century saw a rapid change in scientific thought and art alike. Darwin’s theory of evolution brought about both modern ways of looking at the world, but also exacerbated anxieties and superstitions regarding the old way of thought. In a time when men sought to expand their knowledge of the world there came about new artificial ways of allowing this which inadvertently opened society up to a new kind of terror.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story Green Tea explores the suffering of a clergyman, Jennings, haunted by a spectral monkey which appears after he drinks large amounts of green tea in order to stay awake late into the night and study supernatural pagan literature. Over time the monkey becomes more aggressive, intrusive, and blasphemous, until it drives Jennings to commit suicide. Indeed, these ideas of scholarly study, spiritualism, and drug use are closely tied themes that appear frequently in the socio-medical discourse of the period. This story of Jennings’ use of artificial stimulants ultimately leading to his eventual mental, moral, and physical degeneration is not an unfamiliar one in contemporary culture. Many famous names such as Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Allen Poe fell victim to drug addiction stemming from a desire to gain creative, romantic, or supernatural insight. Jennings’ tea poisoning is a tale which encompasses the obsessive desire to learn and grow during the enlightenment period, and how this desire is haunted by the dangers of their own ambition, as well as the anxieties of society itself when faced with the price that must be paid to open one’s mind through the use of drugs.

The root of Jennings problems is simple. He acquires an interest in reading pagan literature which slowly grows into an obsession. Jennings describes himself as “hippish”(310) which Corinna Wagner explains is a term for hypochondria or melancholy. Contemporary medical understanding described melancholy, or more specifically, according to studies by Richard Burton, the affliction of the “learned melancholic” as an obsession with the advancement of one’s mind, taken to such an extent that it becomes mentally harmful, leading to problems such as confusion, paranoia, distractibility and suicidal impulses. We see signs of this in Jennings, indicative in his hyper-focus on his studies, which are shown to consume him to a point where he requires tea to enable his studies to continue late into the night.

According to Jennings, the drinking of green tea “cleared and intensifies the power of thought” (313), alluding to his belief that he will be able to expand his knowledge through the consumption of artificial substances. This intense desire to study for long hours gives way to what Ivan Malada called “excessive cerebration”, or, the overworking of the mind. Malada argues that Green Tea is in fact an allegory for the pain of the creative process. Through his need to consume more reading and gain more scholarly knowledge, Jennings becomes melancholic, driving himself mad with overwork. Here, we see not only an over-consumption of tea, but of print. In Inventing the Addict, Zieger discusses how Jennings’ readings become a sort of drug, by which he becomes intoxicated by the idea of gaining an empire of knowledge. We can see this presented when he describes his interest in pagan literature as a kind of disease – “it thoroughly infected me” (313). This kind of addiction becomes a compulsion, causing him to stay up late at night and overwork himself, and ultimately inducing the monkey hallucination – a kind of false knowledge.

However, contrary to Melada’s argument, it is not only “excessive cerebration” alone which causes Jennings’ mental disintegration, rather what he is led to do in order to maintain his intense study. While he becomes obsessed with reading pagan literature, it is not the drug on which he becomes dependant, merely the gateway into stronger substances. Green tea in Le Fanu’s work is a key element to the fabric of the short story. Jennings, the learned melancholic, obsessed with the desire to expand his knowledge and learning, resorts to ingesting a form of drug in order to satisfy his need, and it is his overconsumption of this drug which marks the decline of his mental health. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was widely believed that excessive cerebration was a determinant of chemical dependency. Virgil G Eaton stated that the demands of a mentally busy lifestyle were the primary cause of insomnia, neuralgia and dyspepsia. As men began to work later and longer hours, they turned to drugs to support their mind, but in many cases, these artificial enhancers only exacerbate the mental issues that arose from excessive work. Therefore, if you were an intelligent, educated, middle to upper class man, you were thought to be more likely to become a drug user due to a higher likelihood of partaking in overwork and intense study which required artificial stimulation in order to maintain. Indeed, in C.H.F Routh’s work On Overwork and Premature Mental Decay: It’s Treatment, he describes a number of cases highly reminiscent of Le Fanu’s Jennings. For example, the report of a gifted clergyman who suffered from symptoms of nervousness, such as insomnia, and irritability due to overwork. He was treated with narcotics which only worked to worsen his symptoms and ultimately led to his suicide. Another patient is described to have consumed strong coffee in order to continue working through the night into the morning and becoming susceptible to suicidal thoughts and urges. As Hammack explains, these “educated lunatics” are particularly prone to such afflictions due to their typically heavy workloads. It is undeniable that Jennings shares many similarities with these real accounts of overwork and drug use leading to hallucinations and suicide. From these medical accounts we can infer that excessive use of green tea can cause anxiety, agitation and psychosis, and that stopping consumption of it can invoke a withdrawal period which can involve confusion, disorientation, restlessness, violence or mania.

The connection between drug use and mental deviation was a key idea in the theories promoted by many influential degenerationists, who feared that along with Darwin’s ideas of evolution, society was at risk of the horrific opposite; the devolution of man into something primitive or animal. Morel argued that drugs were environmental factors and hereditary dispositions that allowed for this kind of degeneration. Manifestation of these inherited dispositions included neurotic and psychotic mental states, as well as physical deformation. We see a suggestion of this theory in Dr Hesselius’ statement that Jennings’ “succumbed to hereditary suicidal mania” (323), suggesting that Jennings death was the result of a genetic disposition to suicide. Indeed, we are told that Jennings’ father had some ties to the spiritual – “there were ghosts about him” (307) – and that both his parents were dead, although we are never told how they died. Furthermore, Dr Hesselius appears to place much of fault of Jennings’ death on the patient himself, stating “if the patient does not array himself on the side of the disease, his cure is certain” (323). Some, such as Dickinson, play into the ideas of Morel’s emphasis on environmental factors, arguing that Jennings’ hallucinations and death were a result of repressed sexual frustration and religious doubt, brought on by his reading of blasphemous pagan literature. Jennings’ inability to reconcile his doubts and desires regarding Christian faith and changing scientific ideas supposedly result in the creation of a spectral monster. Here the apparition of the Darwinian monkey literally comes between Jennings and his parish, and prevents his rituals of faith, when it “sprang upon the [bible reading] … so that I was unable to see the page” (317).

Lombroso, inspired by Morel’s theory, argues that it is not mental illness that is hereditary as a result of drug use, but a susceptibility towards drug use. In a highly influential study in his book Man of Genius, Lombroso concluded that drug abuse and addiction was a latent form of neurosis, which were more likely to be triggered in gifted but mentally afflicted persons. Jennings’ displays this mental stress through his excessive workload and tiredness which led him to begin taking large amounts of green tea. As Morel and Lombroso theorise, this drug use leads to a degeneration of mental health.

Dr Hesselius explains through a metaphysical scientific lens how Jennings’ mental deterioration first came about. He states that the excessive drinking of green tea “disturbed the equilibrium” of the “spiritual fluids” allowing “disembodied spirits” to operate on the mind (322). The excess of caffeine in the tea strains the boundaries of the Jennings’ psyche and unsettles the distribution of his spiritual fluid, allowing the demon monkey to impose itself on his newly found vision. This vision which the clergyman gains is a kind of clairvoyance; he has inadvertently opened a kind of third eye into the spiritual realm. In his essay, Dalrymple draws attention to the nature of Dr Hesselius diagnosis and what it reveals about scientific ideas regarding the metaphysical at the time. While we read this diagnosis from the medial view of Dr Hesselius, there is a strong emphasis on the close relationship between the physical body and the unseen interior, or the spiritual. The description of the affected “fluids” is that they are “spiritual though not immaterial” … like “light or electricity” (322). Dr Hesselius draws a relationship here between the scientific and the spiritual, indicative through the relating of the unseen fluid with scientifically proven matter. From a modern perspective, this throws into question the reality of Jennings’ affliction. Dr Hesselius suggests that the drug has affected the physical body in a supernatural way, which leaves us with a question as to whether the monkey in Le Fanu’s story is a figment of an overstimulated mind, or a real spirit, introduced into Jennings vision through a breaking down of the barrier between the physical and the spiritual.

This relationship between drug use and the supernatural unseen is one which permeates the culture of these intellectual addicts. Gothic fiction, as seen in Green Tea, frequently uses the ideas of degenerationists and scientific reinforcement of these theories in sorties in which the source of horror is the mental and physical degeneration of a person. This use of gothic fiction as well as the public use of drugs by intellectuals in order to aid metaphysical and supernatural study worked to reinforce a growing cultural fear and demonisation of drug users. Due to the supernatural content they produce, these drug-fuelled intellects became supernatural figures themselves. In Phantastica, Lewis Lewin argues that the use of narcotics and stimulants was unleashing an evil in society. Long term drug users were selling their bodies and souls when subjecting themselves to addictive substances, and were not only bringing evil upon themselves, but also their having detrimental effects on the wider nation. Barabara Hodgson describes how contemporaries often depicted the addict type as “slave, fiend and ghost”. Opium was a highly prominent drug at this time, and much of the drug discourse was centred around its influence and effects on those who were dependant on it. Smokers were described as “corpses, lean and haggard as demons”. This illustrates a monstrous depiction of the opium user which permeated society and leant a supernatural force to drug use.

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