102 Thanks to his profession, Popert had acquired a profound knowledge of the connections between intoxication, illness and transgression, for he was a judge in Hamburg. He edited a magazine called Der Vortrupp [The Vanguard] whose purpose was the reform of everyday life. In Helmut Harringa that luminous figure makes his appearance, who would return later under various names, and finally under that of the Aryan.
At that time, the word had yet to acquire its dramatic meaning; such concepts are consumed like sparks in a candle, until they are extinguished or burn the candle holder. Words are not dangerous in themselves, except when we use them as weapons. Then they are transformed into slogans. Popert died in 1932, that is, just in time to avoid having to see how certain terms that he had coined would become fashionable. In any event, he was spared official honors, for the specialized encyclopedias branded him as a “half Jew”. “There is nothing they won’t do”, was what people said in such cases.
103 I did not see Walter again until after the war; it was a Sunday morning in Hannover and he was sitting in the sun on the terrace of the Kröpcke café. He shouted my name as I was walking by his table and I recognized him immediately, despite his thinning hair. His face also displayed some odd features. I sat down next to him and he told me that he had come from Hamburg on business. He worked there for an import-export firm and he was just getting ready to go to Brazil. After we chatted a little about this and that, I asked him: “Walter, you look very pale. How is your health? Are you in pain?”
He looked at me: “Don’t pretend you don’t know. From that moment I have not spent a single hour of my life without it giving me something to think about.”
After he dissipated most of his inheritance, in part due to the inflation, in part at various doctors’ offices, the last of these doctors declared that he was totally cured: Restitutio ad integrum. “Go forth and sin no more.”
The office where he worked was poorly heated. His desk was next to a window, looking out over the Alster; a draft blew through the casements of the window. He came down with one cold after another: chest colds, coughs, flus and rheumatic pains of every type. They affected his arms, or the back of his neck, or the right side of his face would freeze up when he laughed. Ever since the Battle of Flanders, Walter had a certain tendency to suffer from rheumatism.
“You know what? We have a real comedian in the office. One day when I came to work he said to me in a loud voice: ‘Peterson, my God! You don’t have syphilis, do you?’ Everyone broke into laughter, and I felt as if a knife blade was slicing through my flesh.”
He even ordered a cognac; I was surprised to see Walter, so sober in the past, drinking before dinner. Then he said to me, scrupulously pronouncing every syllable, as if he was trying to open a lock with a complicated key: “Phenomenology.”
He did not appear to be talking to himself, but it did not seem that he was talking to me, either. I asked him:
“Do you want to devote yourself to philosophy in the virgin jungle?”
“The word has as little to do with philosophy as the phrase ‘horse artillery brigade’ has to do with military affairs.”
“So, then, what else does it have to do with, for the love of heaven?”
“They are only words, difficult words.”
“You’re going to have to explain all of this to me in detail.”
“But it’s quite simple: my doctor predicted it. ‘If there is anyone who might suffer from paralysis, it would be someone like you, in whom the disease has reached the nervous system.’ And how is it diagnosed? What are the first symptoms? Speech disorders. The first sign is when you articulate words that way. Even a horse, when he is lame, at first only stumbles over serious obstacles. With words, just imagine it, something similar happens. And I examine my pupils with a flashlight every morning.”
“Walter, you must get these ideas out of your head.”
“You’re right. But I already told you back then that I was done for.”
A nightmare: a comrade who deployed his words, like antennae, towards the threatening darkness. This was horrible to behold for someone who had known him before. It was obvious that the fear of the disease tormented him more than the disease itself.
“I would have thought that someone like you, who was capable of enduring the test of the Battle of the Somme, was already cured of fear.”
“Maybe so. But when I went up to the line, I felt fear then, too. Now I am marching into the interior. And there, too, I want to drink (yellow fever, malaria, swamps). And then everything will be clear once and for all.”
104 Walter felt called to border zones. In his aspiration to disappear without a trace, he reminded me of Zerbino; this desire has deep roots and is probably instinctive. One seldom comes across a dead animal. When one of my cats was sick, it looked for a place to die in a quiet corner in the stable or the barn. This restlessness can be interpreted in a symbolic key; the Great Transition already casts its shadow. Many men make their travel plans shortly before they die.
The type of anxiety my friend suffered from when I met him is called, in medical jargon, paralysisphobia. It constitutes its own separate illness, and some of its victims, who did not even have the least chance of suffering from paralysis, committed suicide out of the fear that was generated by the disorder. It is true that Walter had reasons to be concerned. Above all, he had an incompetent doctor.
This phobia is a subsidiary disease of the fear of going crazy, which preferentially attacks intelligent men. Such fears have little or nothing to do with the illnesses around which they hover like ghosts. The imaginary disease, however, due to the intervention of the imagination, can affect the patient more seriously than the real disease itself. Fear is experienced, above all, when one is going up to the line. Walter was right. After that, you don’t have time to feel fear: reality erupts and takes the place of the imagination. In this way, the “fear of going crazy” is instead a sign of sanity. Between fantasy and madness a deep abyss yawns. Only when we have leapt across it, can the spirit enter into a new landscape. It is possible that then one feels liberated from fear; in any case, there are famous euphorias of this kind. One can also fear the road of return. In the works of Hölderlin one finds passages that suggest this possibility. Nietzsche assumed a hostile attitude towards Doctor Langbehn, “the German Rembrandt”, who wanted to “make him see reason”.
105 We may consider euphoria as the letter of safe-conduct with which the spirit frees itself from nature. Is it the spirit that expands or is it nature that frees it from its torment? When the torturers had exhausted their science on the body of Damiens, he began to laugh. Here one encounters a limit to the power of tyrants.
Dying is hard, but everyone does it. Here, everyone reaches the level of a genius.
Beer and Wine II 106 Excess is not a question of substance, but of character; alcoholism can have recourse not only to wine but also to drinks of the most various kinds.
Even in ancient Greece there were commentators who deplored the custom of engaging in drinking bouts at symposia. It was prohibited in Sparta, and at other times it was viewed with disdain. Since the guests spent a long time seated at the table, some of them went home drunk if they began to drink during the “second table”, that is, after eating. And this, despite the fact that the wine was watered down at the ratio of three or four parts water to one part wine. The real meaning of the symposium consisted in the free and tranquil exercise of one’s personality, especially in conversations, such as the priceless examples that have been passed down to us and which have been part of our cultural heritage for more than two thousand years. Even music was considered to be a hindrance. Thus, in the Protagoras it is claimed that only in the homes of uneducated people was it thought necessary to have young girls playing the flute at every dinner party, because in such homes the conversations and characters of the guests themselves were not adequate company.43 Therefore, in such homes money was squandered on exotic music, in total disregard of the fact that the presence of women, lute players, dancers and actresses only interfered with the dialogue carried out between educated persons. The flute player was sent away after the paean for which she provided the musical accompaniment, that is, as soon as the real drinking began. Burckhardt thought that they preferred old women to young and beautiful women. The fact that there were at least some exceptions is proven by the image of the enchanting slave girl who played the flute at the Court of Ludovico. The symposium also became more crude under the Romans: the two extremes are represented by the Banquet of the Seven Sages or Plato’s Symposia, and Trimalchio’s Dinner Party. Trimalchio, an enormously wealthy libertine and war profiteer, treated his guests and parasites to a program that was even more excessive than the programs we can now watch on television.
Unmixed wine was consumed in ritual libations and Dionysian festivals; in the latter case, solemn ecstatic intoxication formed part of the rite. Everywhere we look, we touch upon the distinction between the human and the religious approach, between mere social amusement and something different that supervenes to deepen or exalt, between the ordinary drinking party and the sacred ceremony, whose borders are gradually being erased. Wine, too, possesses its vulgate scriptures and its hieratic scriptures, its cheerfulness that is accessible to all and its hieroglyphic style with surprises before which one’s smile freezes on one’s face. We often encounter this expression in our primitive paintings, as if a great light was shining on a dark mirror. It illuminates the saints and their torturers and disappears with the advent of the Gothic world. Faces then acquire a personal dignity, and then an individuality that disappears again, in a kind of crystallization, while it becomes at the same time more concrete and more abstract. Van Eyck and Mabuse, Holbein and Frans Hals, Renoir and Manet, and finally photographs.
This depletion or whitening44 creates the backdrop for new images; land is graded to make landing fields. We ask ourselves: is there really anything new, or are there new forms of return? The smile freezes on your face; it is, of course, followed by another, different smile, a knowing smile. If we want to seek its plastic representation, we must refer to archaic sculpture, and we find it there; such as, for example, the smile of the Apollo of Tenea. We may also encounter it in the most unlikely places, like Mexico. There are forms of ecstatic intoxication into which the spirit descends as if into Etruscan burial chambers.
107 The poet gives testimonial of his freedom with his poetry, just as a cat does with his whole being. That is why we cannot be surprised that both of them should be so often united by bonds of friendship. The poet conquers freedom in the word; no necessity, no coercion can break him or harm him. When he wields the word, even his silence becomes eloquent.
The cat does not obey orders. Or he either obeys them voluntarily, or he does not. He will not allow himself to be degraded to the level of a circus animal, like the dog, the monkey or the pig. From this point of view, our domestic cat represents the type of his family more purely than the lion or the tiger, whose domestication undoubtedly also poses some risks.
The cat does not fool around, he does not allow himself to be dressed up. He does not allow himself to be tamed, this would be contrary to his dignity, for which he possesses a kind of sense and which he also holds in great esteem. Nor is he inclined to bark or bite for no reason, but rather tends to avoid such situations. If he is cornered and has no way out, then he fights to the death.
Baudelaire is a friend of cats; he understood them, like other animals, in their profound nature. In this trait, we recognize the poet; he does not allow himself to be impressed only by the superficial charm of the game of impressionist colors. It is not surprising that he also venerates wine, to which he dedicated a cycle of splendid poems.
A higher freedom also inheres in wine; it has its own particular measure. It is a gift of the gods that demands to be treated in accordance with its rank. It does not adapt to cloudy countries and does not lend itself to frenzied bacchanals. Only once, as far as I can recall, have I witnessed in a wine producing country, that is, in Geneva, the spectacle of mass drunkenness, such as Dostoyevsky described in London, and the kind of thing that was not rare, until quite recently, on paydays in Northern Europe.
I assume that if Baudelaire had been asked which country was the homeland of Gambrinus, he would have mentioned, without any hesitation at all, Belgium; although he was undoubtedly unaware of the fact that this Gambrinus, to whom the invention of beer is attributed, was a Flemish king. Belgium was the target of Baudelaire’s barbs, a stronghold of crude ignorance, the country of Percherons, giant dogs and beer. He defined the dog as the creature that felt nauseous when he smelled fine perfumes, but who panted with pleasure when he smelled excrement, and would even eat it. He loves dirt (Kot); the word, Köter (“puppy”), in German, is derived from this observation.
108 One prefers the beer in countries,
Where the wheat ripens noble and golden
Compared to wine, quantity is more important for beer; as is already demonstrated by the way it is consumed and the size of the containers in which it is served. The exceptions to the rule are the dark, strong, bitter beers that come with a layer of brown foam; they are served in silver mugs, after breakfast, while we converse about our troubles, for which we are the object of envy.
You do not sip beer. With a one-and-a-half-liter tankard of beer we could fill many wine glasses. Drinking, even if we consider it to be a mechanical action, must harbor a special pleasure; corpulent drinkers who could have come right out of a Jordaens painting give the impression, when they drink, of breathing a liquid element. We are reminded of times when one did not drink beer from mugs, but hydromel from horns.
Patience is one of the divine virtues. It is true that the high god Odin drinks in moderation, and only consumes special nectars with a magical power: the hydromel of the bards. He cleverly stole it from the daughter of the giant Suttung, who guarded the nectar. Thus, he became the king of the bards, but for having drunk from the spring of Mimir, which confers wisdom, he had to lose an eye. This strange spring is the equivalent for the Far North of the Tree of Knowledge; myths and legends endlessly and with diverse imagery describe the price that we must pay for knowledge. It confers immense power, but it is native to creatures with only one eye, the Cyclops. We do not stray even one inch from nature without losing something.
109 Thor, the second in command after Odin and ultimately the prince of the gods whom the Germans never easily renounced and to whom they remained faithful for many years, was famous as a wild drinker. He provided evidence for this in the castle of the giant Utgard-Loki, where he spent the night with his retinue and his he-goats. In the courtyard the giant challenged him to single combat and to eating and drinking contests, to jousts and weightlifting contests. Although Thor exhibited all his divine power, he was not quite at the level of his challenger, since it was the mother of the Titans, Earth herself, who was striving against him. She fought like an old nanny, like Madame Elle who embodied old age; she metamorphosed into a cat, behind which was concealed the Serpent of Midgard. Thor was able to lift her high enough to bow her back, while her head and her tail were still touching the earth. Finally, it was his turn to undergo the test of the drinking horn that had to be completely drained. Thor brought it to his lips three times; however, when he looked into the horn, it seemed as if he had only taken a sip. The giant, however, confessed to him that he had not even reduced the quantity of the drink by an inch, since the end of the horn was at the bottom of the ocean, so that the incredible swallow he took was refilled by the water far from the deep. As they saw it, the tide was the repetition of this miracle in time.
110 Odin’s hydromel, which conferred the gift of eloquence, recalls the nectar—“nine times sweeter than honey”—that conferred immortality on the Olympians. In their general features, the Aesir are more completely depicted than the Olympian gods, despite the fact that they share the same origins, they are of equal nobility in many cases, and in others they are superior.
In connection with the question of their origins I cannot resist engaging in a digression with reference to my reading of Suetonius. In Suetonius, as in other authors, one finds that the Tyrrhenians, too, as well as the Etruscans more generally, had bestowed upon their gods the name of Ases and Aeser (Icelandic: Aesir). The lightning oracle is also of Etruscan origin. In his biography of Augustus, Suetonius mentions among the omens that heralded the emperor’s death the following sign: lightning struck a column erected in the emperor’s honor and obliterated the C from the name, CAESAR AUGUSTUS, so that all that remained was the word, AESAR. It was therefore inferred that Augustus would undergo his apotheosis after one hundred (C) days had passed.
Like any oracle subsequently confirmed by events, this one, too, can be attributed to a chance event that, as rare as it may be, is no more unusual than a winning ticket in a lottery. This does not have the least effect on the profundity of the prophetic vision, thanks to which one can perceive such an event.
111 In Valhalla, in the golden palace of the Aesir, when a banquet was celebrated it was not nectar that was served, but hydromel. This is where the fallen warriors go, the Einherier who stand by Odin on the day of the Apocalypse, in the battle against the Giants. The leader of the Giants is Surtur, who marches to battle with the wolf Fenris and the serpent of Midgard and whose sword glitters “with more light than a thousand suns”. Without human beings, neither the Aesir nor the Olympians could exist.
Valhalla borders on the enchanted glade of Glasor. It is towards this wood that the Einherier ride, after the morning libation of hydromel, and prepare for the final battle. The Einherier, “the lone warriors”, sit at the banquet table as guests of Odin, friend and foe together, regardless of the cause for which they fell on the field of battle. This recalls Nietzsche’s maxim: what counts is not a good cause, but a good war.
In the glade of Glasor a terrible battle takes place; no quarter is asked or given. But at nightfall the wounds are healed; the Einherier meet at the banquet table of Odin; there they are served hydromel in golden goblets.
112 Valhalla belongs to the same category as the Christian purgatory; it is its equivalent in an intact world, free and without fear. Valhalla is also a place of testing, an antechamber. It is temporary, just as the gods and the Einherier are mortal. From a Christian perspective, we would call these dead heroes “souls”, or perhaps “poor souls”; they, too, perish in the flames of the cosmic conflagration. Not even Odin will survive the cosmic conflagration, but only Alfadur, about whom nothing is known.
The gods and the Einherier live in more spacious homes and have a much longer lifespan than humans; and they are also invulnerable. It is a relation that is similar to that which prevails between Ideas and phenomena or between the species and individuals. But Ideas and species also have their time. Waves come and go; but someday, the ocean will cease to exist, too.
113 Valhalla is a reflection of the dwellings of the clan chiefs and wealthiest Nordic farmers. One may also reverse the relation: the dwellings of the clan chiefs are sublimated in Valhalla. The master of the house reigned from his seat of honor, in Odin’s place. In Iceland the throne was cast up from the sea, rather than taking possession of the land; the people settled where they landed. That was how Reykjavik was founded. It might happen that the homestead would host a large number of men, of children and kinfolk, of fellow warriors and thralls, especially during turbulent times. Many of them also had to be maintained during the winter. It was a major windfall when a whale was beached in the fall. In the feuds that followed the death of Thorkel Blund-Ketil's son, some seven hundred men met in the assembly, the Althing, which was presided over by the two godar45 who were responsible for resolving conflicts.
What they spoke about and debated in the hall, how they celebrated the deeds of their ancestors as well as their own, the songs they sang and the poems they improvised, how they fought among themselves and even how they descended into states of bloodthirsty fury, all these details we know from the sagas, whose compilation, at least by Snorri, constitutes a priceless gift.
Long are the nights, and long is winter in the North, which is concentrated into a single night. It gives the impression that something is gestating, as if between labor pains, which will lead to a great deed. A field laborer who only possesses a sword and a woolen jacket departs for the Court of the King of Norway, where, as so often happened during that era, he was overcome by a sense of apathy, a feeling that something was missing. He lounged about in the palace and abandoned himself to indolence, while the other guests hardly noticed him, and if they did they only made fun of him. This is how he spent the winter, until the visionary began to resent the ridicule to which he was subjected. He left the king’s hall and won the respect of the court by killing the most dangerous of the berserkers. 114 In the evocation of these nights, we must only emphasize one circumstance that pertains to the essence of our theme: supervention. Banquets had their hierarchical order. Their highest form, the blót, was especially sacred and was dedicated to the gods. The beer, too, served in immense bowls, was consecrated according to special rituals. Later, this custom scandalized the Christians. Just as the latter preserved the use of the horse, although only for riding and not for sacrificing, they also continued to be voracious drinkers of beer, but only on the condition that no godi participated in the making of the beer. Otherwise, the devil would insinuate himself into the malt. Among other miracles that have passed down to us concerning Saint Columba, we are told that he caused a bowl of beer to shatter by making the sign of the cross over it. This beer had been consecrated to Wodan, and the Swabians were gathered around the bowl; we are told that in their language the bowl was known as the cupa. This must be a Latinized version of Kump or Kumpf, which is the term that is used even today among Swabians to refer to a “trough”.
Thus, they sat at their table awaiting the arrival of Wod or Wodan, who was later transformed along with his horses, dogs and wild boars into the “wild hunters”, although his power outlasted the era of Charlemagne. Until quite recently, the peasants of Holstein even reserved the last sheaf of wheat “for Wod’s horse”:
Here is the forage for your horse! This religious form of ecstatic intoxication must have favored a relative silence. It lacked the enthusiasm of the feasts, with their songs, poetic recitals, combats, toasts and emptied horns.
The drinking horn was still “the heart of the banquet”. Like the sword, it was a man’s prized possession. Drinking had a more profound purpose than the mere evocation of the deeds of the ancestors, even more profound than the invocation of the mythical world. All of these things had to be kept separate, they had to be kept out along with the benevolent and the malevolent, salvation and accursedness, as long as the guests sat at the table and were getting drunk, as in the heart of a wooden ship, where silence gradually began to reign, and calm, at the same time that internal agitation grew.
Now the external world also became prophetic, it overflowed with portents. The sounds that came from the outside world seemed to be beckonings, warnings. The listener heard what lay behind the sounds: the howling of dogs, and the calls of birds, acquired an oracular power. Perception was altered; it pierced walls, including the wall of present reality, in order to penetrate into the distant future.46 The fire flickers; now and then, the mistress of the house casts a glance at the hearth. Some women were famous for their skill in managing the blót; the efficacy of the sacrifice not only depended on the preparation of the beer, but also on the strict purification of the house and its furniture. We know from one of the first sagas that men who had decided to attack a farm would do so at a gallop, for if the mother of the house had enough time to prepare a blót, her sons would be invincible.
The drinking horn “is passed around the fire”; the men absorb this force, but not that other force that instills an indomitable fury in the berserker. The flame does not burn from the inside out, nor does it enter their swords, nor does it assume a noisy or violent form. It is rather silent and peaceful, but also oppressive. Time stretches out to unbearable limits. This does not mean that its duration is prolonged, but that it spreads and expands until it shatters into pieces. It loses its duration and gains weight. It becomes cutting and oppressive: the time of fate and the time of the Norns.
This explains the silence that is sometimes interrupted by a sigh, or by a moan. Here, something even stronger than armies and weapons, and even stronger than the flames of Surtur, is approaching: it is the breaking of the dawn of active fate. They are birth pains.
They do not surrender right away. The external voices weaken and almost extinguish them. The fire, around which the drinking horn was passed from hand to hand, burns without flickering, with a peaceful light that lies concealed within the heart of the scorching flame. Now they have entered; each feels it, each knows it, and it hardly matters that he perceives it in its form or in the radiance they all emanate. Now, time has been abolished.
This aspect is still apparent for hours in its effect on faces, hair, weapons and clothing. And also on the eyes that see the future from afar.
This explains their bravery. Anyone who has banqueted with them even once remains calm even while the great hall is burning down. It guides you through the flames. Thus, one can understand the terror that paralyzed populous cities when a handful of Vikings landed.