134 We are talking about afterthoughts: clarifications. Ether is a light and flammable substance; anyone who chooses it as a vehicle has no other remedy than to take precautions to avoid the fate of Phaeton. Like many stimulants, it acts on men like a spiritual fluid and on women like an aphrodisiac. In certain Belgian cellulose factories, where the air is thick with vapors of ether, female workers possessed by states of nymphomaniacal excitation had to be sent home. We have heard something similar about certain textile workers in glove factories, who use gasoline for cleaning the product. Close to the fabric, concepts and sentiments are interwoven in an ineffable unity. The thread is spun, colorless, almost immaterial.
Ether has often been praised as a remedy for alcoholism and has been used as a substitute for liquor. Thus, in Ireland, after 1840, when a determined preacher of abstinence, Father Matthew, prohibited peasants from drinking liquor.
The idea is plausible, for there is no doubt that ether has a “more spiritual” effect than alcohol. And a spiritual need lies at the root of all ecstatic intoxication, including the drunkenness of the beggar.
You pour out for him hope, and youth, and life
— And pride, the treasure of all beggary,
Which makes us triumphant and equal to the gods!55 The intention would therefore be more or less comparable to that of the teachers who propose to replace “potboilers” with “good books”; and it leads to equally unsatisfactory results. In both, the measure does not reside in the material, but in the human being who enjoys it. Otherwise, it would not even enter into anyone’s head to drink ether, instead of inhaling it; in Memel alone thousands of liters were consumed in 1897. When a carriage passes by at a gallop, it leaves in its wake the odor of ether.
This presupposes a decline in quantity. At the same time, perceptions become more vulgar. Thus, an orthopedist who had become intoxicated with an ether-based liquid heard “disagreeable music of an organ grinder”, that is, the melody of Maupassant in its cheaper version.
135 We may imagine that fumes and vapors liberate forces more subtle and spiritual than solid and liquid foods; this would naturally also be true of scents. They are subtle emanations of the material, often signs, above all in the night. Many of them only emerge when the sun sets. Since time immemorial, they have been considered to be vehicles that were suitable for the supreme approach and supervention. They are used in exorcisms, invocations, as incense for rituals, and in sacrifices.
To smell perfumes we need moist membranes; remnants of remote eras of marine life, but now, the sea of air has to replace the ocean, even for the most subtle forms of transport. Back then, the entire body was covered with hypersensitive membranes and was capable of receiving impressions of a kind that would now be unimaginable. Then, the kinds of messages transported by the breeze from flower to flower were, and are, the rule.
They are recollections of a single wave and a single sea.
Narcosis 136 The war was lost. Although such retrospective judgments are pointless, it was a mistake for me to have remained in the army for a few more years. Werner von Fritsch, who visited me once in Hannover, also thought that the army was not the place for me. He said this to a comrade, after a conversation the three of us had about Rimbaud. I only found out about this twenty years later, after Fritsch had been killed in Poland. It is true that it hardly helped him to have risen, so easily, through the entire hierarchy to the highest level. What he said was more or less applicable to a whole generation. Back then, Fritsch was serving in the riding school; the epoch of horses and cavalrymen, however, not to speak of knights, had already concluded. It is possible to save oneself from the burning cinders, but not from the mud and ashes, when Krakatoa erupts.
At the time, I had discovered Rimbaud and was fascinated by him. Even today, I consider him to be one of the fathers of modernity and I can imagine how meeting the adolescent poet made such an impression on Verlaine.
Tu mérites la prime place en ce mien livre. Fritsch firmly believed that this kind of literary enthusiasm was prejudicial to service in the military and therefore to one’s career. He was right; passion is always a sign of something that must be done, but also of something that must be omitted. “Reader” is not a favorable qualification on one’s service record.
We should also note the restlessness caused by devoting oneself day and night to a dozen things that have nothing in common with each other. If most of them are nevertheless successfully concluded, this can be explained, among other reasons, by the fact that, unlike my father, I was very faithful to my passion. I always returned to pick up the thread. “It is not loyalty, but affection”, as Martin said once to a girlfriend.
This interruption and resumption of the threads is necessarily associated with a change in judgment. We approach the core. Something similar happened to me with ecstatic intoxication, which interested me first of all as a vital impulse, then as a spiritual impulse, and finally, as a catapult at the wall of time.
I can consider Maupassant to be my guide to initiation in the second degree. His influence brought me intellectually to the fabric itself. He praised ecstatic intoxication as a mediation of absolute knowledge: “It was as if I had eaten of the tree of knowledge”. Soon, one no longer even recognizes oneself in the mirror.
The mirror is, of course, a touchstone; if we successfully project the ego into it, we will have achieved a significant release. Thus, after various brushes with death the mirror image becomes stronger.
137 My experiments with ether were infrequent; months would pass without applying myself to this study or resorting to it as a means of escape, when the real world was not enough or required some heat. All things considered, a raised temperature, in a sauna, for example, could bring about an analogous clarification of vision.
Experiments with narcotic substances necessarily had to be rare, for the simple reason that they could hardly be fitted into my busy daily schedule. Nor could I plan ahead for such experiments, since the desire to conduct them would arise unexpectedly. Therefore, a miserable outcome would have been predictable, and that is what happened, in fact, when the turn of chloroform came.
Chloroform is abused like ether and other similar substances, but it is more dangerous. Lewin tells us about some patients that he had himself treated for this addiction, and also about an apprentice who was found in a state of deep narcosis, with a handkerchief wrapped over his mouth, and could not be revived.
The evening was grey, and a cold drizzle was falling, when I began the experiment; the city was inhospitable. Before inhaling the drug, I set a reliable alarm clock, which was all the more indispensable to me insofar as I always came to feeling lousy, and, usually, walked until late at night or read or worked. Often, later, a certain restlessness would make me leave the house, as if I would otherwise miss a chance to have an adventure.
Then I closed the door. The ecstatic intoxication of the solitary man always displays features in common with the practice of magic; in both, precautions are taken to avoid surprises. This also applies to the act of procreation and suicide, which constitute respective experiences that harmonize with ecstatic intoxication in its deepest layer.
There is a hypersensitivity, and a hyposensitivity, to poisons; chloroform is no exception. It affected me like heavy artillery, like an axe blow that extinguishes consciousness. It was different with ether; then, the string of the bow had vibrated, not provoking unease, but sonorous waves.
There is probably also a homeopathy of dying, in the thicket of the forest glade; Hypnos illuminates the path with his twin brother, Thanatos.
138 The alarm clock must have been ringing for quite a while, when I jumped out of bed. My awakening was disordered, like that of a passenger who is dizzy after a stormy crossing. My pillow was stained with vomit.
It was a Monday morning; the worst time, according to an unwritten law, to call in sick. Fortunately, I did not have to teach class that day, as I usually did, but was scheduled to attend morning gymnastics. I therefore dragged myself to Waterloo Square and threaded my way through the detachments that were being drilled, absent, deaf to the words that were directed at me. Knote, in command of a company that would depart for Russia the next day, where Seeckt was secretly training airplane pilots, remembered that morning, even years later. It seemed to him that I had come directly from a night from which I still heard the echo of excess, as if I had drunk all the beer in the fountains of the garden of Tivoli. I let him think so; when it came right down to it, that explanation was more normal, more natural. There are cases where it pays to feign vices. That way, one still stays within the rules of the game.
Otherwise, the feeling of not having satisfied the demands of institutions always made me feel anxious. It is just on the border of the measureless where you recognize your value.56 It soon becomes disturbing. How could coral resist the waves without its protective skeleton? In the long run, this made me a friend to the Prussians; their instinct for order, not their desire for war, has given them a bad reputation. And with regard to this point, I am a Bonapartist.
In any event, Stirner did not give a free pass for high rank. Of course, sovereignty is innate to the ego and his own. He can only affirm this, if he is ready to sacrifice something in exchange. Freedom has its price.
Besides the fact that deep narcosis is very dangerous and that I might have shared the fate of the apprentice, the ether experience described by Lewin left me with a disagreeable memory. It was, as I said, an abuse that was better concealed behind the appearance of normal excess. Excesses like that abounded, undoubtedly, in that era that was designated with a term that was already in common use, the “post-war” era. Despoiled nature had re-established its equilibrium.
The bad experience I had in a hotel in Halle must have taken place around that time. I will discuss it later, since I am not proceeding in the world of ecstatic intoxication according to historical method, but by degrees of approach. Experience and effect coincide only approximately here.
Anyway, I was led to engage in an unavoidable moral withdrawal, which necessarily entailed a conscientious spiritual housecleaning. The topos around the column of Waterloo, with the barracks, arsenals, mess halls, and military prisons, made me feel uneasy, as well as the adjacent neighborhood of Calabutz: old houses, with their landlords and tenants, shops and taverns, where instructors would toss back a glass now and then. Although, during that period of the inflation crisis, we paid with millions of marks, corporals were still known as “liquor drinkers”; and that because of the five cents by which the Prussians had increased their pay and which, at that time, was enough for a shot of liquor.
Compared to the 19th century, this consumption was in decline. Moltke had already seen to it that canteens were filled with coffee, instead of liquor, as was previously the custom. When it was time to harvest the potatoes and turnips, the peasants still brought to the fields Köhm, a strong, yet watered down, alcoholic beverage that was nonetheless consumed in large quantities. It would therefore appear that certain forms of heavy labor require such supplements; thus, thanks to Rainer Brambach, to whom we owe some good verses, and who for a while had earned his living as a stonecutter at a granite quarry, I became aware of the fact that a day of work like that, with such a heavy hammer, was only bearable with the help of vast quantities of strong red wine. In Cerdeña I saw something similar.
The liquor monopoly kills two birds with one stone: it increases both profits and productivity. Most likely, such monopolies were based on the fact that it costs more to renounce these agreeable things than it does to renounce necessities: salt, tobacco, and alcohol. As for the connubium, it is only valid if State and Church “have granted their permission”: “We’ll strew chopped straw before her door”.57 Liquor also serves as a sign within the social hierarchy. “Back off, my good man, you stink of liquor”. There were types who were always drunk and who played a role in popular jokes as comical figures: idlers, coachmen, porters, “old Swedes”; low level officers from Potsdam who had even served under the Great Elector of Brandenburg and who obviously had attained an incredible longevity, preserved thanks to alcohol.
Industrial society cannot allow this to continue, and when Hölderlin says, “Bacchus is the spirit of the community”, it is something that has less and less value for this society. Undoubtedly, it cannot renounce euphoria, but it must not allow this factor take refuge behind the individual’s right to control his consciousness, either. Stabilizing and harmonizing elements must be introduced, but only within the limits of the playing field, that is, they must not partake of the Dionysian quality. There must be no trespassing in zones of epiphany. The blood alcohol level establishes the limits.
This is where the work of the pharmacologists begins; the modern world, with its efficiency and its records, but also with its comforts and its whole atmosphere, is unthinkable without them. Furthermore, it is possible that tobacco will also be dealt a setback and that the era of the smoker, properly speaking, will someday come to an end.
Ecstatic intoxication as approach must be limited to certain places and certain times, to reservations outside the technological world.
140 From my window I could still observe figures from an already eclipsed era. Across the street, there was a store that sold military equipment, where business went from bad to worse and whose owner, Papa Lüdemann, also served alcoholic beverages. These people often went into the store for only a minute. Carters and guards also went there, who did not have much to do, but who knew all the regular customers. It did not take them long to disappear, along with their horses, and their the blue uniforms with the long tails and the sabers they dragged behind them.
In this world there is little movement and a lethargic contentment reigns, as is the case with carp and crayfish in lakes and ponds. Since Antiquity, the authors of comedies have found their best fishing grounds in such waters. There is also tragedy, and Büchner saw this quite well. It is most unfortunate that Grabbe, who since childhood “would not let go of the bottle”, would prefer to focus his interest on Hannibal and Napoleon instead of the criminal underworld with which he was so familiar. He wanted to become “a German Shakespeare”. This is already a handicap. It was not necessary for this to be a proclaimed goal. The pearl grows not only in the sea, but also in artificial nurseries, and around small grains of sand.
Although the neighborhood where I used to live was consumed by flames in one horrible night, I still often visit my old house in dreams: Mittelstrasse 7, ground floor. In Hannover I lived in many different houses; my nocturnal visits, however, are limited to that one residence and another one on the Krausenstrasse, where my grandmother spent the last few years of her life.
It cannot be merely the force of memory that causes us to return to such places. They must be realities of a much more dense substance; how else could I explain that I return continually to an apartment in the suburbs of Berlin, concerning which I only know that I wanted to rent an apartment that was already occupied? It is obvious that we also move about by day through an oneiric world, parallel to our everyday concerns, that lends itself to things of a different kind, almost imperceptible. If something important happens, it seems rather as if it arose from that stratum and realized itself.
I look around these desolate spaces; for many years, lower ranking officers from the nearby barracks stayed here. The furniture was seldom replaced; it was always cheap and impersonal, and was already over fifty years old.
Too many books: that is what almost everyone thought who ever came to visit me. I had installed a bookshelf, with iron brackets, over the sofa; one fine day it collapsed. Which did not at all surprise me when I came home. Hume’s History of England was too heavy; later I gave it to Valeriu Marcu. There is a monograph on the deaths of bibliophiles where this kind of accident, together with falls from ladders, plays a leading role. The expression, “end up crushed by books”, acquires a concrete meaning in this case. Even today I feel threatened when I look around my house.
I had to move out of that house; I no longer liked it. It was never particularly hard for me to walk up or down a few flights of stairs; certainly, one must take society seriously, but not too seriously. In the Foreign Legion, it did not take me long to get to know the mess hall and the brig; as for the basse-pègre, only in the punishment battalions and in French Guyana was there a minority of the most select.
The fact that I nonetheless made something of a career in the Prussian army was all the more curious if one takes into account that my record noted my desertion from the Foreign Legion. Once again, I benefited from the generous spirit of that army, for the Legionnaire, as I learned afterwards thanks to Benoit, was considered to be a suspicious person and, as such, was subjected to close scrutiny. Much later, while on garrison duty with the security service during the occupation of Paris, I attended a conference convened by an official on the arrest and registration of suspicious elements; along with Spanish reds and Russian immigrants, he mentioned Legionnaires. Compared to the Jews and the Communists, the suspects that this flunky specialized in on the Avenue Foch were not big fish, but one thing is certain: anyone who enlisted in the Foreign Legion was considered to be capable of anything.
Nevertheless: it is rare for excesses to rain down from the sky. In their majority they are symptoms of discontent about a certain situation, with the advantage that the thing ends abruptly and does not allow for delay.
White Nights 142 Just as I was getting ready to move on from that intermediate category to the East I discovered a gap that had almost escaped my notice: cocaine. I am not so much interested in classifying drugs—something that I will leave to the pharmacists—as I am in depicting in their rough outlines those states that drugs provoke and which should be taken into account.
Cocaine calls to mind Bodo, a comrade from my conscription age-group whom I got to know after the First World War and for whom I felt a certain admiration. The type of person who made a good impression on us during our school years, and even during the 1920s, the kind of person who is dear to us, whom we meet everywhere that humans gather for work or for pleasure. He occupied a central place there: that good looking young man, with a good physique, with an alert intelligence, with whom everyone wanted to be friends. He was a good gymnast, dancer, fencer, horseman, and motorist, and even an eloquent speaker, always quick with a response. Without exaggeration, the world was his oyster; everything went his way. At the university he obtained the position of teaching assistant and in the military he was a junior officer. The comrades chose him as their spokesman. Born under a good star, it could only augur for him an ascent to a position of authority. Then, however, disappointments can arise that are comparable to those caused by the passage through adolescence. The model is something more light and subtle; I find it strange that it should have been encountered above all among aviators. In fact, all of them had a predisposition to that job, an elemental kinship with the symbols of the air. I am thinking of Udet, whom I heard say at breakfast that “you fly better with your ass than with your head”, which seemed convincing to me. That was when a flyer could still distinguish himself with his aerial acrobatics. His fate is typical; politics only contributed the circumstances.
During those years, there was something else that made an impression: one’s first literary conversation. This does not necessarily involve the world of books in the strict sense, but rather the encounter with the “reflective” man. His lot is isolation from the group, long hours spent walking with a friend, discussions that lasted long into the night. And even when the conversation turned to the history of crime one would often look back on such conversations as the root of complicity. This is no less true of good influences: if, instead of carrying on with his monologue, Raskolnikov had opened the door to Razumikhin, the crime never would have taken place.
Both qualities were united in Bodo: he was enchanting both in society gatherings as well as in intimate conversation. A fortunate case that has been repeated in my life and which has accompanied me over the course of time, whose desert stretches, which have been getting increasingly longer, could not otherwise have been traversed without great suffering.
When I moved to Berlin, that is, already quite early, we lost touch and only occasionally heard news from each other. We met again for a second time, much later, at the “round table” of the Hotel Georges V, in Paris. To evoke him I have had to take out the file with his letters. It seems that the good fortune that he enjoyed never abandoned him over his entire life, not even during the worst moments, because almost no one in our epoch has managed to escape unscathed: it remained faithful to him, in his final journey.
143 Among the characters whose outlines I have just depicted, there was no lack of obstacles: one of them was gambling. It is true that here, too, generally, they have a lucky hand.
With the final dissolution of the world of the Estates System and its values after the First World War, here, too, there was, as in other domains, a transformation. On such a landscape, after a felling of trees, if something still survives, it does not take long for it to become absurd, strange or simply boring. This is what happened to the duel, fencing with sabers, the word of honor, hand-kissing, the old customs of courtesy and the knightly virtues. Perhaps here or there an Ekeby58 survives. In such places the conditions for the game in its noble version are still fulfilled.
Naturally, the game of chance will never be extinguished; but its forms will change. They are adopting the rhythm and automatism of the world of labor. In a description of Las Vegas (Thomas Wolfe: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1968), I find that place described as “the Versailles of America”: an extraordinarily apt comparison. As a link in the chain leading to Las Vegas we should cite Monte Carlo, which flourished during the 19th century and with the end of that century lost its attractive power. Furthermore, roulette, compared to dice and card games, already represents a transition towards automatism.
144 A restriction is imposed that affects the relation between style and motif. The motif can attain a greater profundity and depend less on time than the collective spirit of an epoch and its style. Motifs are not only universal and recurrent (leitmotifs), but can sometimes be grasped in a particularly apt and valid way. Thus, the motif, “fortune and bad luck”, in the form of roulette.
In the face of such a correct assertion, some motifs are concentrated in simple and eloquent models, as in this case in the wheel and the ball, in the red and black chips, in the odd and even numbers and in the zero that only benefits the house. The old idea of the wheel of fortune has been brought to its perfect formula.
Today Monte Carlo has been transformed into a kind of museum, and the casinos, conceived all over the world for the purpose of separating fools from their money, have become as superfluous as the national borders near which they are constructed. The game of chance has adopted other forms, it makes use of other means and founds industries and monopolies within the automated world.