Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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In Hannover, gambling encountered propitious soil in various epochs. So it has been since olden times; in any case, ever since the horse was adopted and honored in Lower Saxony. Until the death of Widukind, in this region not only was the horse honored, but it was also worshipped. Woden originally had an equine form. Like many other creatures, the horse passed from totem status to heraldry: one of the transitions with which its final reduction begins. In the Kingdom of Hannover the horse still appeared on flags and postage stamps. The equestrian statue of the king Ernst August in front of the Hannover train station withstood not only the year 1866, but also the firestorm on the great night of the bombing.
Whenever I leave the station from its main gate, his statue offers me a kind of consolation. This must come from the steed, rather than the horseman; it is not a royalist sentiment, but a tribal one. Guelphs, like the dynasty of the Hohenzollern of the Mark of Brandenburg, are hardly native to these lands.
Even when the Kingdom became the Prussian State of Hannover, the horse still played an important role; the army preserved its cavalry school in the capital, which also survived in the Republic. This was not by chance; in the changes of history and governments, places preserve their own force. The fact that meanwhile the era of horsemen and horses had already become obsolete was a fact that could not have gone unnoticed at the time.
Horses and horsemen, however, were still capable of causing some aftereffects, in connection with the races in autumn. The passion for the horse and for gambling are closely related; they are united in the bets on horse racing that cannot be as ruinous as the pure game of chance because, on the one hand, they are limited to one result and, on the other hand, they leave time for reflection. It is true that the races create an atmosphere that is generally favorable to gambling. This is also true with reference to our narrative; throughout that entire era, Bodo gambled with some comrades in small back rooms or at the Herrenhausen Castle, where a bookmaker [in English in the original] occasionally passed through with a roulette wheel and a baccarat pallet.
The gamblers never finished and hated any interruptions; Lord Sandwich became famous for his indefatigable sedentary behavior that did not even tolerate a pause for eating, but he made his servants serve him those slices of bread that, bearing his name, have since become indispensable.
One will understand perfectly that the nights were very brief, and that is why the rooms where they played were furnished with thick black curtains. These curtains were usually closed; simply because the game of chance is the object of persecution, but also because no noise, no outside presence, must disturb it. The air is thick; the gamblers also smoke endlessly. The light is dazzling, the service silent and suspicious.
These are places that one enters in a state of tension and, at the same time, with the feeling that one is under surveillance. It is likely that there are secret back rooms, hidden from sight, but even if there are not, the demon lies in wait.
I was only in Herrenhausen once and I did not stay long; the atmosphere was unpleasant.
Like all activity that requires concentration, gambling is also undermined by drink. The narcotic effect weakens attentiveness, and the stimulant effect makes one take the curves too fast: one lets one’s guard down. On the other hand, the tension of the white nights leads to exhaustion; the gambler is forced to depart or to snort powder.
Attention directed towards a limited field must remain alert, without either excitatory acceleration or fantastic influences. The desirable state is, more or less, that of a hot air balloon that must be kept at the same altitude. Towards this end, chemistry offers excellent means, among which, to speak truly, it is hard to discern where stimulation becomes doping. An enhancement of performance can also be manifested as greater endurance. Undoubtedly, the resort to outside substances has to be made increasingly more often, since energy does not decline in a constant way, but following an abrupt curve. Suddenly, the balloon touches down, no matter how much was done to prevent it. The ascending force is exhausted.
Bodo and his friends, among them a young doctor, had discovered that small doses of cocaine were more effective than coffee and tobacco for staying awake. In addition, the effect still persists on the next day, until the end of the game. They would thus appear to be as fresh as roses; at most, one noticed the fact that their teeth were clenched and they were constantly sniffling. None of them became addicts. To the extent that I have been able to follow their careers, all of them attained high ranks in the military hierarchy. It was harder for Bodo to quit smoking; he even departed ad patres with a cigarette in his hand.
Cocaine became fashionable during the First World War; Zurich, that two-faced Janus, was one of the heartlands from which its rule emanated. Serner’s collection of novels, Zum Blauen Affen (At the Blue Monkey), provides an idea of the habitat in which the drug spread. It is also said that fighter pilots with “weak nerves” used it to instill themselves with courage. Which could not last very long.
In his classic work on poisons, Lewin classifies cocaine as a member of the “Euphorica”, and tobacco under the category of “Excitantia”. Such classifications possess, like those applied to mental illnesses, very blurry contours: they denote states and products that not only have very different repercussions on an individual level, but which also harbor divergent and even opposed powers. In this connection it is helpful to once again cite the saying of Paracelsus: Solo dosis facit venenum.
In this case, too, one can reverse the classification and include tobacco among the euphoric drugs and cocaine among the excitant drugs. In medicine it is used as an anesthetic and coagulating agent. Gamblers and pilots take it to stay awake and also as a kind of fuel, as a source of energy.
Cocaine does not exist in a pure state in nature. It is contained, along with other alkaloids, in the coca leaf, which in the Inca Empire was counted among the gifts of the gods. For this reason it also played a role in ceremonies. By chewing it, the Indians dispelled fatigue, hunger and pain; they therefore valued it for its energizing and euphoric power and also, as we would say today, as an “appetite suppressant”. In fact, during their long excursions in the high mountains and while working on the plantations, it favored levels of production that Humboldt had already admired in his native guides in the Andes. Tschudi, who traveled through South America fifty years later, observed in situ Indians who chewed ten times the usual amount and who looked prematurely aged.59
Once again we touch upon the connection between ecstatic intoxication and time. And here we also note the curious fact that the Indians used the quid of cocaine, the “cocada”, as a unit for measuring distance and time. In the mountains, time does not last as long as in the plains. It is also surprising that the Indian prefers to enjoy his first quid immediately after waking up, while he is still resting, rather than at work. Thus, this first cocada, like our morning cigarette, is consecrated to pure pleasure.
They “snort” cocaine while they are playing, and undoubtedly with moderation; perhaps the way one smokes a black Brazilian cigar or drinks a cup of café moka. Their journey is made at a galloping pace. Later, they resume their previous pace. It seems that the moderate consumption of coca can hardly be more harmful than the compulsive use of tobacco. At various times the Jesuits prohibited the use of this stimulant, above all for theological reasons: “Because the plant only seems to make you stronger by means of a deceit of the Evil One.” Then, the Indians planted the bush everywhere in the jungle thickets. Similarly, marijuana smokers now cultivate cannabis indoors or in the more remote parts of public parks.
Just as we distinguish the “drinker” from those who abide by the customs that regulate drinking, likewise the Indians distinguish the “coquero”—someone who consumes coca in inordinate amounts—from the person who peacefully chews his quid with a contemplative air. The coquero only knows one pace, the gallop. This rapidly leads to ruin.
With regard to artificially synthesized substances, this dangerous possibility becomes the rule: the dose is too strong. That is why I assumed that Bodo took the drug without abusing it, almost with a grain of salt, so to speak; which is all the more likely if one considers that, despite his great skill as a gambler, he did not bet with abandon and he usually won.
I felt little inclination to play, nor did I have gifts of the gambler. The “good hand” is among the gifts of nature and sometimes it is unmistakable; just as in the lottery there is a series of prizes that one is ridiculously unlikely to win.
I forgot to mention that, as I was leaving the gamblers’ conclave, I found myself face-to-face in the dark hallway with a high ranking cavalry officer, a successor of the “universal marshal” who had also been a major in Hannover. I was wearing a grey coat from 1912 that I had found in my closet. He saw my image in the mirror, turned and said: “If I ever see you here again, you’ll see what will happen”.
Even today I attempt in vain to decipher what this blunt insult meant; gamblers are touchy; they think that certain kinds of faces will bring them bad luck. It is also possible that he had pedagogical intentions, that he was admonishing me in that particularly dangerous den. Obviously, the kind of people with whom Bodo associated did not bother him. In that case, there would have been a big difference, not with respect to the game, but with respect to the drug. Immediately afterwards I headed straight for the border.
Bodo praised the lucidity that this substance confers. It was conducive to a fair and general view of things, and to clear decisions. He said I would have to try it; my pen would fly over the paper. He did not have to ask me twice; his friend, the doctor who was also an adept, gave me a blue pillbox about the size of a five mark note, and a little spoon. One night I locked myself in my room with these accoutrements.
I had come from the gate of Saint Aegidius, by way of Friedrichswall; the first leaves were already falling. After making myself comfortable in a chair, I opened the box; it was filled with bright powder. The substance was white as snow, but intermixed with more elongated crystals, so that it formed a kind of cottony substance with a silky finish. I touched it with my finger; the sensation was not exactly pleasant. It produced a feeling of numbness, as if talc had been rubbed on my fingertips, and as if there was something unnatural in its cottony glossiness, like synthetic silk. Many products of organic chemistry have this sterile glossiness. They potentiate by way of reduction. There is nothing left of the green of the coca leaf, as I later saw it in the jungle. Similarly, morphine is pallid in comparison with the black weight of opium. There, the purple dream slumbers.
I tasted a small dose on my fingertip: a concentrated bitterness. Later, with the little spoon, I snorted a little in each nostril. The effect was almost instantaneous; my nose seemed to freeze and became numb, my breathing became deep and slow. An optimistic state of mind supervened upon me, as if the energies that I had previously dissipated in images, books and objects were now concentrated within me. Perception withdrew to the interior, with a smooth but sure motion, the way the horn of the snail retracts when something brushes against it or when a shadow falls across it. Its body becomes more solid, at the same time that it contracts. There are molluscoid forces that work not in the manner of the lever, like those of mammals and creatures with jointed appendages, but on the basis of an undifferentiated mass. It recalls the handshake of certain comrades who smoothly take hold of your hand, as if by enclosing it they wanted to absorb it, producing a pleasantly dangerous effect.
I picked up my pen and I tried to describe the leaves that I had seen on the cobblestones during my walk along Friedrichswall. They were still fresh before my eyes, with their metallic green, “over which the colored rust of autumn is superimposed”. I thought that was a good phrase that I must have remembered from somewhere. A pair of impressions then followed, the first written in shaky characters, and the second in a series of illegible scrawls like the readout of a seismograph.
I soon gave up trying to write; it was unnecessary. I felt as if my capacity for representation had increased and as if, to the same degree that it intensified, I became incapable of all representation. A paradox exemplified everywhere in animate and inanimate nature. A dam must have an emergency spillway that corresponds to its capacity. If the amount of water held by the dam is too large, the floodgates will be opened to let out some of the water that cannot be drained through the power generation conduits. Similarly, a surge of electric power that is too great will trip the fuses, instead of letting the current follow its course through the circuit. My brain was then in a state similar to that of a dam with a water level that is too high or a tripped circuit breaker. I could no longer deliver energy in small quantities. With energy like that it would be easier to illuminate a city than a desk lamp.
Incapable of working: not due to a lack, but due to excess. Incapable of procreation: not due to impotence, but due to unbridled vitality. Here, the reef is nearby and the danger of shipwreck is great. It is necessary to grasp this contradiction, not only in the study of ecstatic intoxication, but also in the study of adolescence and the period of life that follows adolescence. This contradiction recurs in history and is typical of the changes in which Titanism is reiterated. It also heralds the dawn of the worker. The greatest risk resides in our own power.
I began to feel a more pronounced sense of cold. Not only had my nose gone numb, but so had my mouth and palate. At times I ground my teeth, like a horse chewing its feed. I went up to the mirror; my pupils had become big, like the eyes of a moth; darkened and dilated by the alkaloid. My face muscles were rigid, frozen, as happened to me once when I was on a voyage beyond the Arctic Circle. And, at the same time, my face was glowing.
The cold became more intense. If De Quincey imagined having lived in a coma for thousands of years, mummified, inside the pyramids, this was due to the consuming and desiccating effect of opium, such as may be studied in old Chinese men and as one may observe in Benoit and other Legionnaires. The brown paste mummifies. The “snow” freezes. It also entails a dilation of duration or at least of the consciousness of duration, for what is time but the consciousness of duration?
When the brain congeals and is transformed into a block of ice, it is just as impossible to form thoughts as it is to empty the North Pole with a bucket of water or to make it spray out of a fountain. The great central power plant goes into standby mode. In the absence of thoughts, the consciousness of spiritual presence and of power grows. The brain no longer thinks about this or that; it senses itself in its unlimited plenitude; the small change that once circulated has been deposited in subterranean vaults. Along with this, disillusion increases, as well as indifference towards the pretensions of the world. The block of ice becomes an ingot of gold, the human being turns into his own Harpagon. Now everything becomes possible for him; just as the miser could acquire everything if he did not prefer the sublime power of gold to spending it. Here, too, tragedy is concealed just below the surface of comedy.
This state of mind is not easy to understand; in any case, one cannot just trivialize it as a sterile variant of the imagination. The spirit believes itself to be omnipotent and considers that the effort that had previously absorbed its attention was not worth the trouble, nor was it enough. The settling of accounts in the world of the imagination and, when it comes right down to it, an instructive one: this is what can happen when the brain finally begins to exempt itself from service and uses its reserves for itself. A power that is not diminished, but stockpiled. Of course, this is only a transition, a trajectory.
I had seen those ghostly faces with dull, deadly nightshade eyes60 in the cafes, not only on the Alexanderplatz, but also on the Kurfürstendamm. A repugnant spectacle, although in those days not a rare one. If there was one thing alien to the dynamic world, it was that total rigidity and lack of expression. It was not encountered among the opium or the cannabis smokers. Among them, their outward aspects ran the gamut of every kind of happiness and passion. With the cocaine addicts, however, ecstatic intoxication turned them into statues.
Everyone knows that “snow” encountered an especially warm welcome in the underworld. This cannot be the result of chance. In such environments, any difference between the vocation of the human being and his action is destructive. The human being sees his portrait corrupted by crime and vice, as Wilde has shown in Dorian Gray. Against this, artificial paradises are not enough. The spirit wants, at least for a few hours, to return to its unlimited plenitude, to its immaculate whiteness, even if it is a glacial whiteness.
The fact that the human being opposes his intelligible character to his empirical character cannot be interpreted from a moral perspective. He does not want to recognize himself in his virtue, but in his own individuality that has been bestowed upon him. When Raskolnikov wants to plumb the depths of his dreams, he does not take Christ as his model, but Napoleon. The streetwalker does not want to see herself as Mary, or even as Mary Magdalene, but as a courtesan, like Madame de Pompadour.
For a few hours, the spirit erects its statue. It cannot, however, put up any resistance at this altitude; it has to constantly inject itself with new forces. Ecstatic intoxication can approach closer to the absolute, but only in image: for an instant, we recognize what is possible. A glance is enough to pass through the door.
The faces of the night are like ghostly masks, with dark visages engraved in the material. My outward appearance was similar; I got up, now and then, to look at myself in the mirror. This was part of the experiment. Otherwise, I remained seated, my hands on the arms of the chair, while the hours passed by one after another.
In ancient China it was said that the kingdom was ruled by peace when the emperor was seated upon his throne in a just position. I understood the meaning of this rite later when I examined many temples of the Far East; a sublime repose emanated from the idols. Flow, illumination, and the impregnation of cosmic energies take place without effort. There is no cross, no Grünewald, no clock, no anxiety, no constant musings concerning the perpetuum mobile.
Reliable chronicles speak of Tibetan monks who spend the night, naked, nestled up against rock-studded walls of ice, and there they dry, one after another, soaking wet cloths, which they spread over their shoulders. This cannot be achieved by virtue of their own body heat, as motionless as they may be, but only by another thermal flow, that is: a heat that the cosmos instills directly into the bios. By way of a circuit, through “fuses” which protect us against short circuits, all of us feed on this radiation.
Facts of this kind, such as Huc observed in his travels in Mongolia, often shock us because they do not fit into the system of our dynamic world. But why do they also make us feel uneasy? If we were to be told that these monks were connected to a network of electrical current we would feel relieved. This current has existed since time immemorial, long before it became visible to us and then usable by way of a series of phenomena. It is one current among others, known and unknown, just as our world is one among others.
Anyway, I needed reinforcement, and I obtained it with the little spoon. The amount I took was only a pinch of powder, but its effect was immediate. Not only had my nose, face and cheeks become cold and numb, but my entire organism was frozen, as if I was immersed in liquid oxygen; a plant with filamentary roots and feathered branches, crystallized even at the cellular level.
A flow of a pure and clear mass welled up so quickly, that I seemed to be as motionless as a mirror. Then, creases and blemishes appeared on its surface; phenomena that are also manifested in soap bubbles just before they burst. It was not a pleasant sensation, since it introduced time into my ecstatic contemplation. When we perceive velocity and gravity, the fall has already begun.
My state of mind began to deteriorate; I resorted more frequently to the little spoon. Although the nights were getting longer, the light filtered through the curtain. My body felt like a racehorse that is always getting noticeably weaker, no matter how frequently and insistently we apply the spur. At this threshold the drug ceased to be effective, even though I increased the dose to absurd levels. All that remained was the toxic effect. It makes you lethargic, it paralyzes, it destroys, it allows the demons to enter unopposed. These are the twilight states of mind, in which Dmitri Karamazov heard the sleigh-bells ringing. It might also be the ambulance siren.
Cocaine has in common with morphine and chloroform the property of killing pain. It is distinguished from them by the fact that it does not quell, but maintains attentiveness, and even increases it.
“Snow”, in the case where it encounters an intact organism, transports the spirit to a state of attentive frigidity and abandons it, by suppressing the perception of the body, to the solitary pleasure of the self. It can blossom like a water lily in a pond at night, bathed in the rays of the moon.
With addiction, serious disturbances supervene, such as, for example, hallucinations involving horrible insects that swarm on and under one’s skin. You cannot get rid of them, even if you try to kill them with knives and scissors. If they were real, the threat would be easier to deal with.
Serious abuse harbors other dangers; the paralysis of the muscles of the breathing apparatus, for example. This danger looms in the hours before dawn when, to maintain your high, you increase the dose more and more. It is as if a gambler were to double his bet, but without hope. After the cannons, you have to throw the anchor overboard, too. The ship, however, sinks quickly, the water is already up to your neck that almost does not feel the cold. Icebergs within and without: the brain, the tip of the iceberg, is all that is visible. Your ears perceive the rhythm of the ship’s orchestra; it interprets the melody of life.
Our nights are too short for such long journeys. Dawn is breaking; the bugle call has sounded. One can hear the measured steps of the changing of the guards outside; mounted troopers are also passing by; they want to give their horses some exercise while the square is still deserted. It was Sunday, and it was still some time before church services. Attendance was voluntary, and for the lower ranking officers the service was reduced to leading the detachments to the church and then back again. The interim was spent in one of the nearby taverns. Even the conversations held in these taverns were marked by that melancholy aura of Puritanical Sundays.
The house also began to come to life; the regiment’s tailor, like most of the veteran soldiers, was an early bird, and the men under his command imitated his example. Before the war, he had already sewn numbers on many jackets, starting before breakfast, piece by piece, at thirty cents each. On the other side of the building, the lights were also already turned on. That is where Lieutenant Von Einem lived, who was by no means overpaid; he transcribed addresses, for ten marks a thousand.
When the dawn breaks after a night like that, we feel threatened by an atmosphere of being on trial. The little sounds that usually accompany the beginning of the day, the light and tentative movements in rooms and floors, on stairs and in hallways, acquire an associated moral tone, they become accusers. We want to deny them, extinguish them. Nonetheless, they become increasingly louder, like an orchestra, which, after an overture, soft as a whisper, floods space, and not just space. At this moment, no resistance is of any help.
Then we begin to become aware of the theft we have perpetrated against society by engaging in such excess. “I exceed”: I went too far, I thus removed myself from my own proper boundaries as well as from those of society. Excessus is excess. As a result, sooner or later, one runs the risk of exclusio, exclusion.
The solitary nature of the pleasure is added as an aggravating circumstance. It becomes an all the more urgent necessity the more adversely the drug could affect one’s reputation. The student who returns to his room just before dawn scandalously drunk gets a good scolding from his landlady. He has transgressed against order; the neighbors are partly indignant, partly amused. The circumstances are different when the same landlady, upon entering his room with the breakfast tray at the usual hour, finds the student sitting in the chair, with an ashen face, absently staring off into space. This man is weird.
For the student, however, it is no less disturbing to see the landlady, who comes into the room fresh and in a good mood after a night of restful sleep. His state is the kind that we find so repulsive that we are shocked. He shows some predilection for crime, but only crime of the highest rank, the kind that is committed in solitude. Nietzsche must have had this in mind in his passages devoted to the question of evil. The petty criminal, the small-time crook, the accomplice and the thug are economically dependent on society and psychologically dependent on the social relations between human beings. Getting intoxicated in solitude is a replacement for action, a substitute.
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