115 Something undergoes a change in the structure of the world when approach takes place. Things are connected differently, because time is transformed. A strange force supervenes in measurable time, in everyday life, even in the chronology of history.
The same thing happens in the world of art, and is particularly evident in music. Time must be suspended, but it has a terrible weight. In order to lighten that weight, the human being invokes “the help of the gods”, by way of the offering: offaron, in ancient High German; operari, “to work”. The pain is present, but a pain and an effort that are intermingled with time as such: the pain of the goddess Hebe. Ascetics, penitents and flagellants must become familiarized with this pain; they behave like children who imitate reality.
Children play with wooden guns, but real guns are also playthings.
116 The visionary has a visible aura; we know similar effects in the world of physics. Certain impulses cause clouds of gas to glow, while others can cause matter to become transparent. Colors no longer radiate; they are emitted in soft waves, they overflow the borders of the things that are their receptacles.
During those occasional moments when we have an acute sense of well being, we already enjoy certain reverberations, when leaving the sauna and plunging into the snow, for example, after a long breakfast, while recovering from an illness, and also while absorbed in the contemplation of works of art. A work, and even a human being, can radiate a large amount of force; then we are obliged to close our eyes or avert our gaze.
When Moses returned from Mount Sinai he had to cover his face; the blaze of light from his face was too blinding for the people. Such illuminations are soon extinguished, but still reverberate for a long time. Existence, in the highest sense of the word, means approach that is endlessly renewed.
117 Art, if it is “important”, would have to be existence in this highest sense, and the history of art can be contemplated in the light of this fundamental question: has it achieved approach?; and, if so, to what extent? The artist knows it or rather feels it, and knows the anxiety that is connected with creation, the passion of the midwife. It is unavoidable and, like the invisible heart of the flame, is not related to its yield, but to its meaning. This explains the fever of the limelight that affects the great actors, musicians and singers, even at the peak of their glory. They sense that they have to give of themselves something more than, and at that same time something very different from, mere virtuosity.
On Vulgarity47 Although the Germans continued to hold group banquets, after the imposition of the new religion the faithful had to stop drinking beer that had been consecrated by godar. Which allows us to deduce that this blessing of the beer took place not only before the blót. So, too, right up to our time, one prays before each meal, and not only at “the table of the Lord”.
It is a different question whether, on extraordinary occasions, a certain other ingredient was added to the cauldron. Until the modern era there have been endless debates concerning the existence of such inoculations, which were often obscure and prohibited. There is mention, in particular, of Belladonna, which was also employed in the potions of sorcerers and witches. Concerning the altered states of consciousness induced by this plant, Heimann’s study, The Effects of Scopolamine: A Comparative Investigation of Electro-Encephalographic-Psychopathology [Die Scopolaminwirkung; vergleichend psychopathologisch-elektroencephalographische Untersuchungen (1952)], is instructive.Among its other effects, major distortions in the perception of time have been observed.
Whether or not such ingredients were tossed into the cauldron is of no more value than the key to a house or a desk. The door to the house might be unlocked; then you do not need the key. Huxley overestimated its role. On the other hand, every modulation of temporal consciousness has a pedagogical value: thus the abbreviation of time, which reaches its highest degree in the orgasm, as well as the expansion of time in torture.
119 In the Nordic countries they drink as they have always done. The quantity of liquid that flows from the drinking horn or from the tankard cannot be considered of minor importance. It constitutes an essential part of the act of drinking. With this method of drinking one does not quench one’s thirst, in any case not thirst in the usual meaning of the word. The slogan of a beer manufacturer that I see now and then on billboards expresses it quite well: “Thirst is pleasant only with beer.”
The image accompanying that advertisement does not seem so successful to me: a desert under a cruel sun, over which floats, like a mirage, a full glass of beer, glistening with drops of condensation. We need only observe how a herdsman drinks in the desert to grasp how little this kind of thirst has to do with dry heat. The sip he occasionally takes from his water-skin is rather hesitant, in any case, measured. Endless consumption of great quantities, even of pure water, would be dangerous. Such men are dry and shriveled like lizards. Mohammed knew what he was doing when he prohibited wine, without taking into account the fact that he did not need it himself, or needed it as little as a person sitting on a pile of treasure needs the key to the treasury. Excessive libations and Pantagruelesque feasts are characteristic of the Germanic banquets. Myth already tells us of boars and goats whose meat is ever replenished, regardless of how much is carved, and inexhaustible drinking horns.
Such intemperance has, like everything else, its obverse; thus, the lazybones has his counterpart in the hunter who kills the bear whose skin will later serve to clothe the lazybones.48 He hunted it in the grand old style, with his dogs and his spear and sword, in the snow-covered forest. More than one thing came of this, without which the world would not be what it is. Where would we be without the Vikings and the Varangians, the Goths and the Vandals, the Angles and the Saxons, the Franks and the Alemanni?
In each case one finds a spatial or temporal plunge into crude pleasure, such as is preferred by types like Trimalchio or Gargantua. Among the Germans this figure is even more accentuated insofar as excess is a trait that is inherent to their character.
Hydromel and beer are appropriate drinks for getting blind drunk, while wine, due to its intrinsic qualities, does not lend itself to such uses. In the chronicle of Zimmern we read about a visit to the palace of a Rhineland count at whose Court it was considered to be a heroic deed to pour large quantities of fine wines. When the guest wakes up with a hangover, the Majordomo is at his bedside and cures it with a large goblet of wine. The heir drank, in a short time, an ancient fortune.
As everyone knows, whole tribes of Indians were decimated by drinking excessive quantities of liquor. During a cruise in the Far North, I saw, every morning, three ghosts staring blankly at their breakfast: the captain, with the engineer and the first officer, pale, exhausted, punished by their nocturnal excesses. On the archipelago of Spitzbergen, we docked at a port where the monthly ration of strong alcoholic beverages had been distributed the day before we arrived. A sepulchral silence reigned over the houses where the inhabitants were sleeping off their drinking binges. At such latitudes, prohibition becomes a legitimate act of defense, and a reaction of the survival instinct.
120 Guilds and fraternities, traders from the commercial districts and circles of university students, reformed certain customs involving the consumption of beer, such as “passing the horn” according to the ritual order. Those were times and places when, for knights and monks, students, goliards and Landsknecht, social life was reduced to one big brawl, and crude gluttony. Already the chronicles that tell us of the preparations for weddings and other celebrations lead us to fear that there was not much room left for the more refined enjoyments. There was a rage du nombre that recalls Rabelais, in whose work, for example, about three thousand six hundred sheep were devoured for breakfast. In that book, after a siege, the people combed their hair to dispose of the cannonballs that had become entangled there; the teeth of the combs they used were made out of elephant tusks. Indeed, when it is treated by a great author, gluttony acquires a certain kind of charm. Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a classic example; not even the Puritans could deny their sympathy for this character. The author’s power transforms what it illuminates into gold; at least it confers upon it the splendor of a Flemish still-life.
In their natural setting, such types are less attractive; thus, for example, the knight Hans von Schweinichen (born in 1552), who placed himself at the service of a bankrupt Silesian prince, mostly by drinking a lot of alcohol with him. Like Falstaff, they are surrounded by dissolute followers who would thrive with particular opulence during the Baroque era.
Grimmelhausen offers in his Simplicissimus an image of the shocking disorder caused by the Thirty Years War. We have not completely recovered from those years. The 17th century snatched away from us what it granted other countries, it vulgarized what in other places was differentiated and softened. The countries of central Europe always run the risk of becoming the place where not only their own inhabitants, but also foreigners, come to thresh their grain.
The transition to global order is also recognized in the fact that the advantages and disadvantages of a country’s geographic situation are no longer of such overriding importance. Thus, England has lost its insular quality, and perhaps we will also shed our central European traits.
121 Vulgarity always finds a refuge in universities and has been preferentially camouflaged there as academic freedom. In the Middle Ages it was impossible, or at least mortally dangerous, to exclude oneself from the circles of compatriots who, although they offered protection, also made the initiates undergo tests that were in very poor taste. When the recruit was finally admitted to the student corporation, he then treated the newly admitted initiates the same way.
This collegial spirit also found a welcome soil in which it could thrive in the military and royal schools. Only in the 18th century was it eliminated in part. Even just before the First World War, the student who was not a member of such a group was considered to be, by virtue of a strange inversion, a “savage”; he was suspected of practicing secret vices.
This closed order, however, benefited the students. They could oppose the bourgeoisie and even the nobility. The bearing of arms as the hallmark of the free man was a custom that lasted right up until the Rococo period; after the Revolution, this right was restricted to military personnel. Where it was customary to drink to excess and people were quick to draw their swords, bloody fights were inevitable. Not only novels, but memoirs, too, are full of such incidents. People went out onto the street to settle their accounts. In Simplicissimus there is an account of a duel between a knight and an infantry soldier who wins the fight thanks to a ruse. Casanova also relied on an unexpected knife thrust after a feint, by way of which he dispatched, almost automatically, his rencontres. Or at least that is what he boasted, just as he bragged about punishing a journalist from Cologne with blows from his cane, after the journalist had referred to him as the “depraved” Casanova.
The use of the dagger, in which brute force is not so important, is more elegant than hitting someone with your fist. This can be observed even in nature, in the combat of the diving bird, for example, which Linnaeus named Philomachus pugnax. During its mating ritual, as in medieval jousts, ceremonial simulations of combat take place.
The German prefers to fight with a slashing sword. The pointed weapon enjoys, in his eyes, less esteem, like the cat compared to the dog, and wine compared to beer. It is true that at Jena, even during the times of Laukhard, they fought with saber and foil; the result was a grotesque game of acrobatics. A thrust that penetrates the flesh, without touching any bones, was called Anschiss.49 One can consider the student duel, as well as the bullfight—transformed into a bloodless entertainment in southern France and Portugal—as the transition from an archaic vestige to a sport, if old and new prejudices are not inextricably intertwined with it. Querelles allemandes: the comrades fought over things that have long since been extinguished.
As for what really matters, that is, as an initiation test in male associations, the duel is an antiquated institution. Without the feudal tradition it is just one sport among others, less dangerous than boxing, skiing or soccer. Or, with respect to the “test of character”, piloting an aircraft, ski jumping and other tests typical of the dynamic world. And finally, one can emerge with flying colors both from the fencing hall as well as from the space capsule and nonetheless be, “when all is said and done”, as Schleiermacher used to say, a failure.
The human being who dominates the modus operandi, but who fails in the substance, is, in general, one of the tragic figures, and maybe even the tragic figure, of the modern world. Perfect even in downfall.
122 Having mentioned Laukhard, we have once again returned to our theme, properly speaking, for we are “not done with beer yet”. This is not to say that Laukhard (1758-1822), a student of theology, composer, and vagabond, a soldier who served both Frederick as well as the French, an impoverished rector and novelist, would have been content with beer. He was a worthy disciple of Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, who taught theology in Giessen, presided as general superintendant over a Protestant Church and departed from this world as the owner of a tavern with a bad reputation in Halle. His nickname was “Iron-head Bahrdt”.
Bahrdt sympathized, at least, with Salzmann, Basedow and the philanthropic ideas that were cropping up everywhere; that softening of customs that Laukhard reviled as “the fancies of the petit-maître”. Not without reason, he saw the cities of Leipzig and Gottingen as places of petit-maîtres. Once, when he was out drinking with some students, I don’t remember in which city, he tied his shot glass to a string so that he did not swallow it accidentally while drinking, or so he told his astonished drinking companions.
In Bahrdt all the traits of crude affability were united such as they were in their origins; he would go on drinking sprees at the expense of philistines, from whom he scrounged money and whom he ridiculed, the spirit always ready for a laugh, but also for fraternity, and dissolute binges until dawn.
He could not have spent so much time drinking such large quantities of beer if that beer had been brewed with a high alcohol content. This only made the party last longer, however; it takes a long time to get good and drunk. Some beer brewing towns are famous for their particularly light varieties that are only made in the summer. With Laukhard, it was not always clear whether he was still drinking, or if he had come back again for more. He would sit, in the morning, in a bathrobe, with a long pipe, on the terrace of a tavern, on the market square, waiting to be served. It was not rare for him to deliver his lectures in that get-up.
His sense of humor was also crude; his favorite kind was the “practical joke”, usually at the expense of third parties. A poor beadle, by the name of Eulenkapper, was the target of so many pranks on the part of Laukhard and his buddies, that the unfortunate fellow almost committed suicide. The biggest such joke of all was known as the “general stabling”. This involved some twenty or more inveterate drinkers who formed a circle, if possible in front of a house where professors and their wives lived, and there, while engaging in a lot of obscene talk, they emptied their bladders of all the beer that they had so immoderately consumed.
Laukhard loved obscenity; it was one of the main topics of his conversation. In addition, he was always eagerly on the lookout for words and expressions useful for such a purpose. He boasted, among other things, of being the author of an extensive “obscenology”; the work appears to have been lost, unless it is someday rediscovered, like de Sade’s 120 Days. Now would be a good time.
Nonetheless, we should not deny Laukhard’s claim to genius; he was deeply proficient in the classical and modern languages, he had read ancient and contemporary literature and he was versed in the Holy Scripture. He formulated accurate judgments. The backwaters of history and of society would stagnate, unexplored, like the swamps at the source of the Nile, if such minds do not sometimes get lost in their depths. Reuter, with his Schelmuffsky, must also be mentioned in this regard.
Obscenity flourishes, with particular exuberance, in rarified air, amidst a lack of freedom and a suffocating atmosphere. The people drink like fish, get in fights and commit obscenities because they find nothing better to do. The quantity of genius and power that is wasted, and what this waste implies in terms of ruined lives, we can only imagine by reading examples of anthologies of obscenity like The Lahn Tavern-Keeper’s Wife.50 Here we touch upon a fundamental difference as compared to the classical lazybones; in this respect the latter were less obscene. Even Tacitus boasted about this.51 Above all, they were unfamiliar with the usages and customs of the Komment.52 They drank and fought when they felt like it; which was almost always. Compulsion would have led them to do the opposite.
When we ask ourselves why freedom is no longer common freedom in this sense, we might say that the reason for this involves, first of all, room to roam, or open spaces. But even in the past, space could be very narrowly circumscribed. Then it was necessary to seek refuge in the forests and to take your freedom with you. And this forest still exists today, even in the heart of the metropolis.
There is another, more important, prerequisite for that kind of freedom: back then they did not know the fear of death. And with this, the world is transformed. In those days, there was a lot of open space and little fear. Today, there is less and less open space, while there is more and more fear. This does not affect freedom by any means, since freedom is always equally near and available. Montherlant expressed this idea quite well in a good saying: “La liberté existe toujours. Il suffit d’en payer le prix.”
Anyone who wants to obtain freedom without paying a price for it shows that he does not deserve it.
123 “Beer and Wine”: the meditation has overflowed somewhat, it has brought us a long way. As a key, beer is rather crude, but when the cella is opened, the difference vanishes.
The more noble nature of wine harmonizes very badly with compulsory drinking. However, there were more slaves in the wine grape-growing countries. Who, undoubtedly, came from the border regions. When the waves of the festival are radiating outward, the differences dissolve. Slaves became masters in the Lupercalia.
We are approaching freedom: we have a presentment of liberation, we enjoy it in the festival. In his cycle of poems about wine, Baudelaire showed that ecstatic intoxication, not only of lovers, but also of the beggar and the murderer, contains freedom.
Forgetting does not liberate. Instead, forgetting announces the approach of freedom. The absent-mindedness of old age shows that the essence is beginning “to withdraw from the world of appearances”. Many things become irrelevant. Undoubtedly, ecstatic intoxication is not just an allegory, but in time absolves from the mere event, from the changing events.
Me voilà libre et solitaire!
Je serai ce soir ivre-mort;
Alors, sans peur et sans remord,
Je me coucherai sur la terre.53 They will always be allegories. Hölderlin was more laconic: “Once, I lived like the gods”; and nothing more.
In the Footsteps of Maupassant 124 Amidst the tedium of the trenches, like many of my comrades I entertained myself by dismantling, every now and then, the projectiles that were lying about on the ground. I only renounced this pastime after having an accident with an unexploded English rifle-grenade. A tiny capsule full of mercury fulminate exploded with greater force than I had anticipated. I was certainly not mistaken in my assessment based on its shape that it was a projectile meant to detonate rapidly, but I had nonetheless underestimated its charge. Even so, I was lucky that it did not cost me more than the tip of my thumb. Something similar happened with the piece of hashish that I took a few years later.
First, however, I want to introduce a few incidents that took place, to use a simile, on a terrain adjacent to that experience. As I have said, during the wars I read a lot, or, in any case, those who preferred books over card games and endless conversations looked forward to the opportunity to read. The spectacular part of war, the one that plays the leading role in the chronicles, is minute in extent, compared to its grey stretches, with tedium and a lot of time spent waiting. For months, I lay in wait for what had to come: in the shelter, in the bunker, in the camps and reserve battalions, in the barracks, next to the telephone. To have time for reading, it was an advantage to be a corporal or, later, a captain; in any case, a kind of police officer. On the Siegfried Line, I had spend the whole night, in full battle kit, without receiving any communications. I was, however, in good company: the complete works of Tolstoy.
But I have not yet referred to the military hospitals. In one of them, I think it was in Valenciennes, a small volume by Maupassant, along with other books, helped me to while away the time. From the short stories collected in that volume, two stand out from the rest: one was The Horla, in which the descent into madness takes on appalling forms; and the other was a study on intoxication using ether that provided some food for thought. I do not have it with me now, but I recall that Maupassant experienced the effect of this state of intoxication as an acoustic revelation. He describes it as a dialogue that can be heard by the inner sense of hearing. However, hearing cannot be separated from the participation of the hearer, who either assumes one role or the other, and in this way he splits into two interlocutors. The speaker begins to hear himself and is surprised by his inner dialectic. It is reminiscent of “automatic writing”. He has hardly even expressed his reasons, when a second voice expounds the opposed reasons. The latter are more compelling. Then the first voice returns and penetrates even more deeply. Not with words, but as the murmur of a river that flows nearby. Nor does it do so with sentences; rather like a duet that, from the shadows of the garden, penetrates into the dreams of the sleeper. With increasingly more lucidity and therefore deeper and deeper; the reasons gain in their convincingness, and finally touch bottom. It must be the primordial bottom, which does not in turn lie on any other basement layer. The synthesis dissolves.
This is how I view this descent to the sources of knowledge today. At the time, I read it simply with the eagerness with which we follow the movements of a daring acrobat or the leap of a swift creature, with steady nerves, a greyhound or a horse, as it overcomes an obstacle. The flanks tremble, the nostrils twitch with excitement. We often find ourselves with these doped types, especially among aristocrats; the race is often spellbinding, but brief.
Maupassant was a sensitive, perhaps even a hypersensitive in the way the term is used by Reichenbach. Which explains his success as well as his failure. The Germans appreciate him more than his compatriots; it is probably the case that in France his discoveries seem all too obvious, too real. Some years ago I had a conversation about this question with Friedrich Sieburg, who shared my passion for this author, and even more recently I asked Julien Gracq about the same topic; he smiled with indulgence.