Drugs and Literature
For thousands of years artists and writers have turned to intoxicants in the belief that these substances enhance their artistic abilities and output. Illicit drugs, including laudanum, opium, heroin, marijuana, mescaline, and LSD have held special appeal for certain writers wishing to expand the boundaries of their perception and of their work. Widely used as pain killers throughout Asia, Egypt, and South America, drugs such as opium and hashish were staples of early medical practice, and continued to play an important part in medicine around the world through the early twentieth century. Drugs were also commonly used in religious ceremonies because of their alleged ability to intensify the visionary experiences sought by the devout. Portrayals of drug use in literature can be traced back to the earliest examples of written stories; the classical Greek poet Homer depicts Helen of Troy using the opium derivative nepenthe as an antidote to her overwhelming grief. Opium and hashish became known to western Europe when medieval Christian Crusaders brought poppies and hemp plants back from the Middle East, Greece and Turkey. Western writers including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare mention drugs in their works. In the Romantic period of the early nineteenth century, a virtual explosion of drug use erupted among writers, a phenomenon perhaps most famously recorded by Thomas De Quincey in his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and John Keats all produced what many critics consider their best works while under the influence of opium and laudanum (a liquid form of opium commonly prescribed as a pain killer in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Nineteenth-century French writers such as Théophile Gautier, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire became known collectively as the Hashish Club because of their drug experiments, and the American poet and horror writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote of drug-induced hallucinations in some of his short stories. Although laudanum and morphine were frequently prescribed to women during this period for a variety of physical and perceived emotional ailments, and many women are known to have become addicts as a result of their medical treatment, women writers-with the notable exceptions of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all of whom were familiar with drugs and wrote of them-rarely wrote about drug use except in nonfiction criticizing the so-called cures then used to treat women's "illnesses." Such treatments were usually designed to keep the patient in a constant stupor. In the twentieth century, as debates raged in the United States and Europe over possible causes of and treatments for widespread drug addiction, writers sought new means of exploring what they considered different planes of reality, mostly through hallucinogenic drugs. Aldous Huxley maintained that religious ecstasy could be reached using hallucinogens, and he recorded his attempts to prove it in his book The Doors of Perception, which became an important inspiration for other writers trying to attain euphoria or conversion. Writers of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, influenced by Huxley and wishing to explore what they believed were untapped areas of the human mind, wrote of their own drug experimentation in Beat outposts in San Francisco and Mexico. Among the best-known writers of this era were William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe, and Ken Kesey, all of whom employed their drug use as a starting point for some of their best works. Timothy Leary, perhaps the most famous proponent of the use of LSD, also published accounts of some of his experiments with psychedelic substances. The hope that drug use can stimulate creativity and open new vistas for the imagination continues among many writers and artists; however, late twentieth-century literature also includes a number of cautionary tales about the dangers of addiction, which often end in destitution and death.
Les Fleurs du mal (poetry) 1857
Les Paradis artificiels [contains "Le Poème du haschisch" and "Un Mangeur d'opium"] (poetry) 1860
Entretiens, 1913-1952, avec André Parinaud (interviews) 1952
Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Christabel" (poetry) 1816
"Kubla Khan" (poetry) 1816
"The Pains of Sleep" (poetry) 1816
Thomas de Quincey
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (autobiography) 1822
Laughing Gas (drama) 1915
Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural (drama) 1916
"Club des Haschischins" (essay) 1846
Antic Hay (novel) 1923
The Doors of Perception (nonfiction) 1954
The Will to Believe (essays) 1897
Under the Volcano (novel) 1947
Cain's Book (novel) 1960
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (nonfiction) 1968
Meditations in Green (novel) 1983
SOURCE: "Drugs and Ecstacy," in Myth and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H. Long, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp. 327-42.
[In the following essay, Jünger examines the influence of drugs on personality and the portrayal of this influence in literature over several centuries.]
Qu'elle soit ramassée pour "le bien" ou pour "le mal," la mandragore est crainte et respectée comme une plante miraculeuse—En elle sont renfermées des forces extraordinaires, qui peuvent multiplier la vie ou donner la mort. En une certaine mesure donc, la mandragore est "l'herbe de la vie et de la mort."
Mircea Eliade, "Le culte de la mandragore en
Roumanie," Xalmoxis, 1938
The influence of drugs is ambivalent; they affect both action and contemplation, will and intuition. These two forces, which seemingly exclude each other, are often produced by the same means, as everyone knows who has ever observed a drinking party.
It is, however, questionable whether wine can be considered a drug in the strict sense of the word. Perhaps its original power has become domesticated in the course of millennia of use. We hear of its greater power, but also of its greater mystery, from myths in which Dionysus appears as the lord and host of feasts with his entourage of Satyrs, Sileni, Maenads, and beasts of prey.
The triumphant conquest of Dionysus took place in a reverse order from Alexander's—from India across the Near East to Europe—and his conquests were of a more lasting nature. Dionysus is considered, like Adonis, to be the founder of orgiastic festivals, whose periodic recurrences are deeply interwoven with historical event. An exuberant phallic worship was connected with these festivals. Phallacism was not the content of the Dionysia but one of the revelations which confirmed the mystery and its binding power. In contrast to the Dionysia, according to an ancient author, "the festivals of Aphrodite in Cythera might be called the pious games of children."
This original power of wine has vanished; we see it return, in a milder form, in the autumn and spring festivals of the wine countries. In rare instances only the intensification of the lust for life, colors, melodies, and grotesque pictures reveals a trace of the ancient mystic world with its uncanny, contagious power. Archaic features then appear in the faces, leaps, and dances. More than anything else, the mask is essential in this as a symbol of the "reversed world."
If we compare the triumphs of Alexander and Dionysus, we touch upon the difference between historical and elemental power. Success in history, as the conquest of Babylon, for example, shows, is fleeting and tied to names. The moment does not return in the same form; it becomes a link in the chain of historical time. But if we consider changes in the elemental world, neither names nor dates are important and yet changes take place time and again, not only below historical time but also within it. They burst forth like magma from its crust.
But let us stay with wine. Alexander was forced to retreat from India, while Dionysus even today reigns as a nameless host. Wine has changed Europe more forcefully than has the sword: even today it is considered to be a medium of cultic transformation. The exchange of new poisons and ecstasies, and also of new vices, fevers, and diseases, lacks the kind of definite dating by which coronations or decisive battles are remembered. Such exchanges remain in the dark, in the entanglement of the roots. We can surmise the events, but we can neither know their extent nor penetrate their depth.
For Europeans, Cortez' landing in Mexico in 1519 belonged to the historical order; for the Aztecs, this event belonged to the magical order of the world. In the latter world order dream is more powerful than consciousness; the presentiment has greater binding force than the word. In those contacts there is an oscillating element which is understood sometimes as booty and sometimes as a gift, then again as guilt or expiation—for example, in the sacrifice: on the one hand Montezuma, on the other Maximilian, both emperors of Mexico. Below the surface seeds, images, and dreams are given and received in an alternation which destroys some tribes and strengthens others. Yet its effect cannot be exactly described or dated.
Statistics, even if they are precise, can only extract figures from a problem. The problem in its depth is not touched by them; it remains in the strict sense of the word "a matter in disguise." This applies especially to domains that border on the psyche, as well as to any "behavior," including animal behavior, and no less to our subject of drugs and induced ecstasy.
To mention in this connection one of America's great gifts to Europe, tobacco, we have rather precise figures concerning the relation between nicotine and a number of diseases. These findings belong to the field of statistics. If we are to acknowledge them, however, we must first accept the idea of "utility" under which they were established.
Usefulness, in this case, is of a hygienic nature. Yet, from a different point of view, smoking could also imply something beneficial—the word "enjoyment" itself indicates this possibility. One might think of the easing of conversation, of the shortening of a tedious hour or the rapid passage of a gloomy one, of some association that may be prompted in this way, or simply of any moment of happiness. Any concentration, but any relaxation, too, must be paid for. Is the enjoyment worth the price? Here lies the problem for which statistics can only supply data. It arises for the smoker every time he thinks of lighting a cigarette.
Statistics merely confirm a fact which has always been known: drugs are dangerous. He who becomes involved with them takes a risk which becomes greater the less he calculates. In this respect, however, in comparing loss and gain, statistics are of value.
We include wine and tobacco in our consideration because it is advisable to start from rather well-known factors. Both are only marginals of our subject proper. They will be touched less the more exactly we define the word "drug." For Baudelaire wine opens, along with hashish and opium, the gate to artificial paradises. Justifiably, the friend of wine is disinclined to consider wine as a drug. He prefers wine growers and coopers rather than chemists and manufacturers to be occupied with wine. Still, from the growing of the wine to the resurrection of the grapes from the cellar, the care and skill of wine growers and craftsmen are devoted to wine; it is still regarded as a divine gift of miraculous, transforming power. It is blood of the earth and blood of gods.
To consider wine as a drug would mean no more than one comment among others—for instance, that wine contains alcohol. Tobacco seems to fit better in this category. Nicotine gives us an idea of what is possible in the sphere of alkaloids. In the smoke offerings which are made daily on our planet, there is an indication of the lightness, the spiritual liberation of the great dreams of flight. But compared with the magic power of opium, nicotine gives only a slight uplift, a mild euphoria.
Like many other etymological explanations, the one for the word "drug" is unsatisfactory. Its origin is obscure. As in the case of the word "alcohol" there are derivations from the Spanish-Arabic and also from medieval Latin. The origin from the Dutch drog, dry, is more likely. Drugs were materials obtained from many countries; they were traded through herb lofts and pharmacies and used by physicians, cooks, and perfumery and grocery dealers. From the beginning the word had a tinge of mystery, of magical manipulation, especially if the materials were of oriental origin.
In our definition a drug is a substance which produces a state of ecstacy. It is true, however, that something specific must be added to distinguish these substances from others used as medicine or simply for enjoyment. This specific factor should not be sought in the substance itself, but rather in the purpose of its use, because medicine too, as well as other stuffs taken for the sake of pleasure, may be used, in this restricted sense, as intoxicating drugs.
In a passage of his Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare speaks of the "common" sleep, which he distinguishes from stronger, magical states. The former brings dreams, the latter visions and prophecies. In a similar way the ecstasy produced by a drug shows particular effects which are difficult to describe. He who seeks this type of intoxication does so with specific intentions. And he who uses the word "drug" in this sense presupposes an understanding on the part of his listener or reader which cannot be defined more exactly. He sets fact on a border line.
Infusions and concentrations, decoctions and elixirs, powders and pills, ointments, pastes and resinous substances, all these can be used as drugs in this specific sense. The substance may be solid, liquid, gaseous, or smoke-like; it may be eaten, drunk, inhaled, smoked, sniffed, or injected. To attain a state of ecstasy not only a certain kind of substance is required, but also a certain quantity and concentration thereof. The dosage may be too low or too high; in the former case it will not lead beyond soberness, and in the latter it will cause unconsciousness. It is well known that in the case of drug addiction it becomes more and more difficult to adhere to the golden mean—on the one hand lies depression, and on the other the dosage becomes ever more threatening. The price that must be paid for pleasure rises ever higher. Then, the only choice is to reform or to perish.
As the effect of the drug diminishes, either quantity or concentration can be increased. That is the case with the smoker or drinker who first increases his usual consumption and then reaches for stronger kinds. This indicates at the same time that mere pleasure no longer suffices. A third possibility lies in a change in periodicity—in the transition from daily habit to rare, festive excess. In the third case, not the dosage but the receptivity is increased. The smoker who can muster up the discipline to be content with one cigarette in the morning will none the less be satisfied, because he achieves an intensity of pleasure hitherto unknown to him despite his greater former consumption. However, this again adds to temptation.
The sensitivity may become very great and, correspondingly, the dosage very slight, even minimal. We have known ever since Hahnemann that even the slightest traces of substances may become effective, and modern chemistry confirms this fact. In every case, however, the prescription must be supported by a special receptivity. For this reason homeopathic medicines do not help everyone. They presuppose homeopathic behavior. For the sensitive person a hint is enough. That is a universal law, not only in the field of hygiene but also in the general conduct of life. In the opposite case, there is an applicable proverb: "a rough log needs a rough wedge."
Thus the dosage may become minimal. Under certain circumstances, some substances which are commonly believed to be neutral may even become intoxicating, such as the air we breathe. Jules Verne's "Idea of Doctor Ox" is based on this principle. Under the false pretense of planning to build a gasworks, Doctor Ox induces an intoxicated state in the inhabitants of a small town by adding pure oxygen to the air. Thus, through concentration, a substance which we inhale with every breath of air we take becomes "poisonous." Paracelsus: "Sola dosis facit venenum."
Doctor Ox distilled the air. From this it can be assumed that for sensitive people it may become intoxicating in itself. And so it is indeed. There are probably few people for whom Goethe's words "youth is intoxication without wine" have not become reality, at least for some moments. Certainly this requires untouched receptivity, one of the signs of youth. In any case, however, external factors will also contribute to that effect, either through "higher potencies" of known or unknown substances or atmospheric influences. In novels we find flowerly phrases such as "the air was like wine"; the inexplicable gaiety arises from almost immaterial sources.
Yet the "happy hour" may bring melancholy as well. It may have an exhorting, warning power, and this quality makes it no less beneficial, because threatening dangers often announce themselves in this manner. Apart from perceptions, which are equally difficult to explain or deny, there are many experiences for which refined receptivity suffices as an explanation. Alexander von Humbold, in his "Reise in die Äquinoktialgegenden" ("Journey to the Equinoctial Areas"), deals extensively with the phenomena which preceded volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In this connection he discusses the agitation of men and animals that may justly be called premonition as well as perception.
Up to the present day man has tried time and again to extract substances or psychogenic forces out of the atmosphere, so to speak. Mesmer, for example, taking magnetism as his starting point, believed he recognized a "fluid" which emanated from the human body and could be conserved in certain objects, such as storage batteries. In medicine, Mesmerism became hardly more than a fashion; its influence, however, survived in literature. E. Th. A. Hoffmann was especially fascinated by it. Mesmer's dissertation had already caused a sensation: "De planetarum influxu" could as easily have been the title of a piece of writing by Novalis or a contribution to the Athenäum.
More significant, although less well-known than Mesmer, is Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach; he excelled not only as a natural philosopher but also as a geologist, chemist, and industrialist. Reichenbach claimed he had found in "Od" a substance whose force or emanation may be compared to Mesmer's fluid. This Od, though present everywhere in nature, is more easily perceived by delicately organized beings, whom Reichenbach called "sensitive," or, in case of special sensitivity, "highly sensitive" creatures. Reichenbach, in whom a gift for natural philosophy was united with the exactness of the natural scientist, attempted to prove the existence of Od experimentally. For this purpose he employed sensitive persons in the same way as a nearsighted person uses spectacles. He developed methods which we would call "tests" today. Although he used no instruments, he nevertheless made very fine differentiations. A person who could not detect a difference in temperature between the small and large ends of a chicken egg held in two fingers did not qualify as a sensitive person. Reichenbach ventures to penetrate into regions which, though neither remote nor closed, are inaccessible to dull senses.
Physicists, however, were just as unwilling to take notice of Od as psychiatrists and neurologists were to give consideration to sensitive persons. As a natural scientist Reichenbach grieved about this; as a philosopher he could disregard it. He came up with his idea at a most unfavorable time. This is even more true of Fechner, who considered the mathematical-physical view of the world as the "night side" of the universe, and drew from Reichenbach's writings the greatest benefit for his "psychophysics."
Fechner's thoughts about the animation of celestial bodies and of plants faded away without an echo in an era in which mechanistic theories forced their way with unprecedented force. In medicine, a massive positivism was in preparation, and out of its hybris a surgeon boasted that he had never seen a soul in his work.
Such opposing views give rise to the impression that the mind of the age was busy in two wings of a building without any doors between the two. One might also think of a double mirror whose two sides are separated by an opaque layer. Nonetheless, there have been and will be periods which approximate a oneness of view. It can never be fully attained because both the mathematicalphysical view of the world and the natural-philosophical view of Reichenbach and Fechner are only aspects of the "inner self of nature" (Inneren der Natur).
Thus, the dosage which leads to intoxication can be minimal if the receptivity is great enough. In this respect, too, some sensitive persons are especially susceptible. The norms which the legislator feels must be established—in traffic laws, for instance—can only give an approximate standard. It will become ever stricter because the empirical world daily proves anew that intoxication and technology are clashing powers which exclude each other. Truly, this does not apply to drugs as such. On the contrary, their number and the extent of their use increase steadily. There are a growing number of achievements in which the proper use of drugs is not only indicated but indispensable. This becomes a science in itself.
The receptivity which leads to ecstasy can become so strong that mere ways of behavior suffice and drugs become superfluous. This is a prerogative of ascetics; their close relationship to ecstasy has always been known. Added to temperance, staying awake, and fasting is solitude, which the artist and the scholar also need, temporarily at least. The flow of images in the Thebais were "tele-visions" which were not dependent on drugs, let alone on equipment.
The thinker, the artist who is in good form, knows phases in which new light flows toward him. The world begins to speak and responds to the mind with swelling force. Objects seem to charge themselves; their beauty, their meaningful order come out in a new way. This being-in-good-form is independent of physical well-being; it is often in contrast to the latter, almost as if images had easier access in a condition of weakness than at other times. It is true, however, that Reichenbach has already warned against confusing sensitivity and illness—after all, it is not easy to avoid error here. The difficulty becomes especially obvious in disputes in which conclusions are drawn about the psyche of the artist on the basis of his work. It is no coincidence that our own time is so rich in controversies of this kind. Probably states of heightened sensitivity precede not only the productive phases in the life of the individual but also changes of style within a culture. These developments are connected with an almost Babylonian confusion, not only of forms of artistic expression but of language in general.
Jung-Stilling calls this receptivity a "faculty of clairvoyance" and means by this a heightened susceptibility which can be gained by a certain way of life: "finally, however, a pure, devout man may also achieve ecstacies and a state of magnetic sleep through prolonged exercises and a godly way of living." According to him "the soul works in the natural state through the brain and the nerves, in the magnetic state without either." Only after death does man gain the full power of clairvoyant sleep, because he has been completely separated from the body; this capacity is far more perfect after death than it can be in life.
Jung-Stilling's clairvoyants correspond roughly to Reichenbach's highly sensitive men; in the language of the present day they might be understood as extremely rare but recurring mutants. Clairvoyance can be developed, yet it must be inborn. Thereby Jung-Stilling explains, among other things, those cases in which warning dreams or apparitions are perceived not by the person in danger but by a third person who plays the role of the receiver. This faculty need not be coupled with ethical or intellectual endowment; it may appear in a dull existence as well as in a person full of genius. In the figure of Prince Myshkin Dostoevsky describes someone with a highly developed faculty of clairvoyance who seems to be an idiot in the eyes of the people around him. In old and new biographies one comes again and again upon the figure of the highly sensitive person who, before a fire, a stroke of lightning, or some other accident, is seized by indomitable unrest or oppression in breathing and leaves the room where he had been with others who remained unconcerned.
States of excitation or meditation, similar to those of intoxication, may also occur without the use of toxic drugs. This points to the possibility that drugs awaken faculties which are more comprehensive than those produced by a specific intoxication. They are a key—though not the only one—to realms that are closed to normal perception. For that with which one strives to achieve the idea of intoxication is hardly adequate unless it is broadened to comprise manifold and even contradictory phenomena. We started from the observation that drugs influence the will as well as contemplation. Within this ambivalence there is a large scale of variability which leads on either side to unconsciousness and finally to death. Drugs may be wanted as excitants and stimulants, as somnifacients, narcotics, and hallucinogens; they serve both narcotization and stimulation. Hassen Sabah, the old man from the mountain, was familiar with this scale to its full extent. He led the Fedavis, the votaries who were later also called the Assassins, from the peace of artificial paradises to the frenzy of running amok against princes and satraps. Not the same thing but something closely related can be found within the entanglement of our technological world. Its tendencies include both the flight into insensitivity and the intensification of the mechanism of motion through the use of stimulants.
The legislator must simplify this abundance. He considers intoxication "to be the state brought about by the use of drugs, especially the state of acute alcoholic poisoning." It is up to him to decide in every individual case whether or not intoxication had to do with a particular act, which might also be an act of omission. To judge in what state of consciousness the punishable deviation begins is especially difficult because there are drugs which, at least temporarily, further technical achievement. Champion fighters have always known such drugs, but the borderline which separates doping from permitted stimulation is fluid.
Every year there appear in the market new drugs whose dangerous effects are often not recognized until the damage has been done. With others the damage is minimal but accumulates in decades of use to an often disastrous degree. This applies both to stimulating drugs such as tobacco and to narcotics such as mild sleeping pills. Added to this is the fact that stimulants and narcotics are often used in addition to one another, or rather against one another. The saw moves to and fro. One might also think of weights on a scale: for every weight a counterweight is put on the scale. Thus an artificial equilibrium is maintained until one day the scale beam breaks.
The outsider, the sober person, notices above all in the spectrum of inebriation the side on which motion takes place. There the state of being different cannot be ignored; it announces itself far and wide to eyes and ears. The words for this condition refer, at least in the beer and wine consuming countries, to excessive drinking or heightened activity. They are mostly derived from the Latin bibo and ebrius, or the old high German trinkan and the Gothic drigkan. On the other hand, Rauschen denotes a lively movement, like that of wings, which becomes, also acoustically, noticeable as Geräusch. The movement may become violent—the Anglo-Saxon rush implying stürzen (onrush) should be mentioned here. One should further think of heightened, vibrant vitality. Rauschzeit is mating time. It is said of the wild boar that he becomes rauschig. Some animals gather in swarms; immediately following the mating flight termites drop their wings.
Rauschzeit is swarming time; men and animals congregate. For this very reason the active, will-determined side of inebriation is best known. The inebriated person does not shy away from society. He feels happy in the festive excitement and does not seek solitude; he often behaves conspicuously, but he enjoys greater license in his behavior than the sober person. One prefers seeing a laughing person to seeing a sad one; the slightly tipsy person is regarded with benevolence, frequently as the one who drives away boredom and cheers up everyone. A messenger of Dionysus enters and opens the gate to a mad world. This is contagious even for the sober individual.
This heightened activity that cannot be overlooked has given the word Rausch an important connotation. Generally speaking, in language also the visible side of things claims a greater share than the hidden side. An example of this is the word "day." When we pronounce it we also include the night in it. So the bright side also comprises the shadow. Generally we hardly think about that. Similarly, the word Rausch, though it stresses the apparent heightening of the vital, includes also its lessening: the lethargic and motionless states which closely resemble sleep and dream.
Inebriation manifests itself in various, often contrary phenomena; drugs produce the same varying effects. Nevertheless, they both complement each other to create a complex of wide range. It is said of Hassan Sabah that he led his Assassins into a world of blissful dreams or into that of murder through the use of the same drug, hashish.
He who seeks a state of insensibility behaves differently from the person who, in the manner of enthusiasts, intends to attain ecstasy. The former does not seek society but solitude. He is closer to addiction; for this reason he generally seeks to conceal his actions, which are also devoid of any festive element. The "secret drinker" is considered to be a questionable type.
He who takes drugs heavily and habitually must do this secretly for the simple reason that drugs, in most cases, come from dubious sources. Their use leads into a zone of illegality. Therefore it is one of the signs of anarchy if such heavily intoxicated individuals no longer shy away from the public. After World War I, for example, one could watch drugged persons in coffee houses "staring holes into the air."
However, the drugged person avoids society not only because he has to fear it for various reasons. By his very nature he is dependent on solitude; his disposition is not communicative, but receptive, passive. He sits as if he were facing a magic mirror, motionless, absorbed in himself, and it is always his own self that he enjoys, be it as pure euphoria or as a world of visions created by his innermost being and flowing back to him. There are lamps whose fluorescent light can change a gray stone into a piece of gold ore. Baudelaire, who calls hashish "a weapon for suicide," mentions, among other effects, the extraordinary chill following the use of the drug, which he includes in the "category of the lonely joys." This feeling of chill, also produced by other narcotics, is not only of a physical nature. It is also a sign of loneliness.
Narcissus was the son of a river god and the nymph Liriope. His mother was just as much enchanted with his beauty as she was frightened by his coldness. Worried about his fate, she asked the seer Tiresias for advice and heard from him the oracle: her son would be endowed with longevity unless he should recognize himself. The enigmatic prophecy was fulfilled when Narcissus, returning one day from the hunt, thirstily bent over a spring and saw his reflected image. The youth fell in love with the phantom and consumed himself in unrequited longing for his own image until he perished. The gods changed him into a flower of intoxicating scent, the narcissus, which has carried his name to the present day and whose blooms like to bend over quiet waters.
Probably the Narcissus myth, like many others, has only been preserved in its rudiments; its great theme seems to have been his longing. The nymph Echo also became a victim of this feeling; she longed in vain for the embrace of Narcissus and consumed herself in her sorrow until nothing remained of her but her voice.
Narcissus "became acquainted with himself," but he did not know himself. "Know yourself!" was written above the temple of Apollo in Delphi; Narcissus failed in this most difficult task like so many before and after him. The word "to know" has a double meaning; Narcissus entered into an erotic venture, while Faust chose an intellectual one. Faust wanted, according to Mephistopheles, "Helen in all women"; Narcissus, turned inward, vainly sought his self in his reflected image.
Exactly this consuming longing is also a mark of drugs and their use; the desire again and again remains behind the fulfillment. The images are enticing, like a Fata Morgana; the thirst becomes more burning. We might also think of entering a grotto which branches out into a labyrinth of increasingly narrow and impracticable passages. There threatens the fate of Elias Froböm, the hero of Hoffmann's "The Mines of Falun" ("Die Bergwerke zu Falun"). He does not return, he is lost to the world; a similar thing happened to the monk of Heisterbach who lost his way in the forest and did not come back to his monastery until three hundred years later. This forest is time.
We believe that the substances which produce narcotic intoxication are finer, more ethereal than those which exert the will. Faust, after the great conjuration in his nocturnal study, is first led to the coarse drinkers in Auerbach's cellar and only then into the witch's kitchen.
We speak of "narcotic scent." The word is derived from the Greek νακόω, "to dull the senses." In southern Europe there are some kinds of narcissi whose scent is considered to be dangerous. Euphoria and painlessness follow the inhalation of volatile substances such as laughing gas or ether. At the turn of the century, the latter was in fashion as a drug, and Maupassant devoted a special study to it. In classical magic, smoke is frequently mentioned, not only as a narcotic but also as an excellent medium for the visions that follow narcotization. We find such scenes in "A Thousand and One Nights" and also in the works of authors like Cazotte, Hoffmann, Poe, Kubin, and others.
The conjecture suggests itself that the aspect of intoxication that is turned toward visions is also more significant with regard to quality. If we want to form an opinion on this, we must go back to the common root from which forms of imagination of such variety arise. The risk that we take in using drugs consists in our shaking a fundamental pillar of existence, namely time. This of course is done in different ways: depending on whether we narcotize or stimulate ourselves, we stretch or compress time. In turn, the traversing of space is connected with this factor: on the one hand, the endeavor to increase the motion, on the other the rigidity, of the magic world.
If we compare time to a stream, as has always been done, to the stimulated person the stream seems to narrow, to flow more rapidly downward in whirlpools and cascades. Thoughts, miming, and gestures adjust to this pace; the stimulated person thinks and acts faster and more impulsively than the sober one, and his actions become less calculable. Under the influence of narcotic drugs, however, time slows down. The stream flows more quietly; the banks recede. As narcotization begins, consciousness floats as in a boat on a lake whose shores it no longer sees. Time appears boundless; it becomes an ocean.
This leads to the endless opium dreams as described by de Quincey. He fancies "to be buried for millennia in the bowels of eternal pyramids." In Suspiria de Profundis, a collection of essays that appeared a quarter of a century after the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he looks back on this tremendous expansion of time and says that to describe it astronomical standards would not be sufficient. "Indeed, it would be ridiculous to measure the span of time one lives through in a dream by generations—or even by thousands of years."
The feeling of being distant altogether from the human consciousness of time is confirmed by others, for instance, Cocteau: "Tout ce qu'on fait dans la vie, même l'amour, on le fait dans le train express qui roule vers la mort. Fumer l'opium, c'est quitter le train en marche; c'est s'occuper d'autre chose que de la vie, de la mort."
Time runs faster at the animal pole, more slowly at the vegetative pole. This fact sheds also some light on the relation between narcotics and pain. Most people become acquainted with narcotics because of their anesthetic properties. The feeling of bliss, of euphoria, connected with their use leads to addiction. The fact that it is especially the depressed who so easily fall victim to morphine is explained by their existence as such being already painful to them. Many narcotics are at the same time hallucinogens. In isolating morphine in 1803, Sertürner separated the pain-stilling potency of opium from the eidetic power. Thereby he helped countless suffering people, but at the same time he robbed of its colors the poppy juice praised by Novalis.
He who strives for visions wishes neither to escape pain nor to enjoy euphoria by means of a narcoticum; he seeks a phantasticum. He is not motivated by the fear of suffering but by curiosity, perhaps also by presumption. In the magic and witchery of the Middle Ages, the world of the alkaloids came in again and again: conjuration with the aid of potions, ointments, and fumes of mandrake, thorn apple, and henbane.
Conjuration was counted among the capital crimes in those days. The phenomena were more credible at the time than today. For Faust the realm of ghosts, though it has largely become a spiritual world, is still "not closed," yet he is only concerned with the success of his conjuration. Religious or moral scruples no longer worry him. Likewise, in our time, the intellectual devoted to the Muses is confronted with the question of what the drug can impart. His final aim cannot be the kinetic intensification of powers, happiness, or even freedom from pain. He is not even interested in the sharpening or refinement of insight but, as in Faust's cabinet, in "that which enters."
This "entering" does not mean that new facts become known. The enrichment of the empirical world is not meant. Faust strives to get out of his study, while a man like Wagner will remain there and feel happy the rest of his life. "It is true, I know much, but I want to know all"—there is no end to that, and in this sense the discovery of America also belongs to facts; no spaceship can lead out of that world. No acceleration, even if it carried us to the stars, can annul the primary dictum, "From yourself you cannot flee." This also applies to the intensification of the vital force. Multiplication, even involution, does not change the cardinal number. More is expected from that which enters than intensification of a dynamic or vital kind. At all times it was hoped that it would bring an increase, a complement, an apposition. That does not imply involution but addition.
In conjuration, be it with the aid of asceticism or by other means, formerly no one doubted that something strange would join in. Since then the intellect has gained such superior power that this conviction is only defended by a rearguard. Ultimately, however, it is of mere topographical significance whether an addition comes from outside or from within, whether its origin is the universe or the depth of one's self. Not the point at which the probe is started, but the one that it reaches is decisive. Here the vision is so strongly convincing that there is neither room nor need to question its reality, much less its origin. Where reasons, authorities, or even means of force are necessary to ensure its reality, the vision has already lost its power; it lives on, but henceforth its effect is merely that of a shadow or an echo. Yet, "the readiness is all."
R. A. Durr
SOURCE: "Imagination, the Unifying Power," in Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience, Syracuse University Press, 1970, pp. 3-30.
[In the following essay, Durr discusses the way psychedelic drugs affect one's focus of attention and the way writers and artists have used this phenomenon to unleash their imaginative abilities.]
One of the most emphasized fundamentals in the total complex of the psychedelic or imaginative experience is its quality of absolute absorption: attention. To whatever the subject turns, his whole being is given. "Under the influence of the mushroom, one's power of concentration is far more pronounced than normally. You become deeply absorbed in whatever you may be thinking. There is no external distraction."1 Huxley cites a passage from The Tibetan Book of the Dead: "'O nobly born, let not thy mind be distracted.' That was the problem—to remain 'undistracted.' Undistracted by the memory of past sins, by imagined pleasures, by the bitter aftertaste of old wrongs and humiliations, by all the fears and hates and cravings that ordinarily eclipse the Light."2 The mind thoroughly awakened but undistracted, free of its habitual fixations, is able—being empty—wholly to receive, or what amounts to the same thing, being unbiased, balanced, is able wholly to act. One recalls a Zen anecdote of how, when...
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Anuradha Dingwaney and Lawrence Needham
SOURCE: "A Sort of Previous Lubrication: DeQuincey's Preface to 'Confessions of An English Opium-Eater'," in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 71, No. 4, November, 1985, pp. 457-69.
[In the following essay, Dingwaney and Needham examine the "rhetorical strategies" of Thomas de Quincey's preface to his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.]
We shall endeavour to bring up our reader to the fence, and persuade him, if possible, to take a leap which still remains to be taken in this field of style. But, as we have reason to fear that he will "refuse" it, we shall wheel him round and bring...
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A. Carl Bredahl
SOURCE: "An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's Acid Test," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter 1981-82, pp. 67-84.
[In the following essay, Bredahl evaluates the differences between Tom Wolfe and the Merry Pranksters he wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, noting that the Pranksters's rejection of the physical world as a hindrance to the development of perception, rather than a tool to aid in reaching a higher level of perception, was their downfall.]
Tom Wolfe's writing is the most vivid instance of the role of the journalist in American literature, a role that has played a major...
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Haining, Peter, ed. The Hashish Club: An Anthology of Drug Literature. 2 vols. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1975, 406 p.
Includes excerpts from works of drug literature. Volume One covers "The Founding of the Modern Tradition: From Coleridge to Crowley," while Volume Two covers "The Psychedelic Era: From Huxley to Lennon."
Abrams, Meyer Howard. The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson, and Coleridge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934, 86 p.
Discusses the opium addiction of four major...
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