Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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Before proceeding, we should undertake a general review. This is what many proverbs recommend, many of them venerable sayings. In this respect, the tried and true maxim, “Once burned, twice shy”, also applies. When we get a black eye, we learn something that, perhaps, can be useful for others.
While it is advisable to recommend prudence with respect to all drugs, it seems that with hashish it is necessary to recommend extra caution, for it causes unpredictable and, in part, violent, reactions. Two or three grams of the extract should suffice, in Lewin’s view, to induce a state of ecstatic intoxication; with the right preparations, even a fraction of that quantity should be enough. He explicitly mentions an infusion of moka as an antidote.
What happens when a person takes an overdose is unpredictable; in any case, we have taken the risk of engaging in an adventure that might turn out badly.
The name of the plant, cannabis, has origins and relatives in very ancient languages, such as Assyrian; the Greek word, konabos, means “ringing, clashing, din”. It refers to the throes of not only happiness but also aggression and excitation, which are often manifested in hashish intoxication. Some examples are found in The Thousand and One Nights. When the Caliph is making his rounds with the Vizier in the evening, he hears laughter, orders and threats, coming from a hut. They enter and find a hashish eater who is enjoying himself in solitude and who is himself the target of his own jibes. In a public bath, another hashish eater suffers an eruption of hallucinations, which in part horrify him, and in part amuse him.
Likewise, the story attributes other affects that are purely narcotic to the drug, mentioned under the name of bhang or benj. It is used to anesthetize victims who are targeted for elimination. Thus, in the story of the slave, Ghaním, who is bewitched by love, his female owner Zubeydeh makes a slave girl, who is a threat to become her rival, drink bhang or benj, as it is related in the translation that I have before me. It was, as the narrator says, “a round piece of benj, of such potency that if an elephant smelt it he would sleep from one night to another”.
Sudden narcosis can therefore be caused by a strong dose, and anxiety never even gets a chance to develop. Furthermore, the drug unleashes a wide range of reactions, depending on the temperaments of its users, giving rise to either exhilaration or somnolence. The two states sprout, like the thorn and the rose, from the same root, and may be observed in the behavior of any conclave of users. We must also keep in mind that the same dose might be a stimulant today and a depressant tomorrow. The result is uncertain, and the risk increases as the dose increases. This is why the kind of intoxication that, like the blót, is intended to conjure magical forces, is preceded by a stage of waiting, anxiety and worry that can intensify until the door to the sensations of annihilation is opened.
Perhaps it is an aspect of the nature of hashish that it erupts from and violently seizes upon a particular geographic region. The history of the Eastern countries is rich in chronicles that describe such eruptions, and it is also rich in accounts of the draconian punishments with which the State attempts to erect a bulwark against them. It is a notorious fact that, for some time now, in North America and Europe cannabis consumption is becoming more and more widespread, especially as a drug that is smoked. The result is a particular form of communitarian life, and also of criminality. It is not yet possible to foresee the eventual scope and meaning of this phenomenon.
Compared to this new trend, the initiations celebrated more than one hundred years ago by a handful of Parisian literati have left only sparse vestiges behind them. They did not go beyond the experimental phase and they would have fallen victim, like so many other fashions, to oblivion, if Baudelaire had not created a monument to them in his Artificial Paradises. It is true, of course, that in every fashion a deep current flows that, although it is often hard to recognize, rises as froth on the surface of everyday life. This helps to explain, by the way, the comical effect that fashions often arouse, which is not just the product of their being unusual, but also of their aspect as a herald that rises up from the depths. This is why the object of fashion, after momentary stupefaction, is eagerly adopted.
Hashish responds better to the critique of culture and to the cultural ennui of dandyism than opium. From a metaphysical perspective, it leads to a shallower stratum; nor does it separate itself from society, although it distances itself from it.
The habitués of the Hotel Pimodan were more often under the effect of stimulants than drunk from alcohol; for this purpose, all that was needed was a tiny piece of hashish paste. In this state, they could walk the streets, go to dinner or go to the theater. One may think of the effect of an intensification of the habit of smoking that, besides, did not take long to take root so deeply as to captivate the smoker—the smoker had, as Baudelaire says, the sensation of “being inhaled by the pipe”. Reversals of perspective like this, of a strange precision, which describe the growing intensity of the ecstatic state, abound in his study on hashish. Music is conceived as an mathematical operation, which is why the notes are transposed into numbers, although they retain their sensual and voluptuous character. Something similar takes place with grammar: the substantive marches solemnly through the sentence like a king, which the adjective covers with a transparent veil, while the verb enters on the scene as a winged angel.
In the theater, the stage, with its characters and its action, seems infinitely small; everything is more distant, but defined by a more distinct border, it serves at the same time as a springboard to fly towards the realm of dreams, without either the continuity or the logic of the work suffering from any alterations as a result; to the contrary, the absences introduce new subtleties.
Parisian dandyism is more cultivated than that of Brummel, who did not feel the need to possess artistic reserves or, much less, literary reserves. What they have in common is the suspension of relations with the environment, and this harmonizes with the states of mind induced by hashish. Many stimulants that modify the circulation of the blood cause a sensation of cold, which is bothersome, but Baudelaire was fascinated by the idea that he possessed the privilege of enjoying a feeling of coolness in the middle of the summer, when he attended the theater. There, he saw the actors and the spectators as Lilliputians, as if he was viewing them through a gigantic telescope, but from the wrong end.
Under the influence of hashish, perception and sensitivity become more acute in such a way as to produce anxiety. One of the guests felt, at first, enraptured by the power of beauty, but later he was horrified to think of what would become of his mind and his organs if his nerves were to continue to undergo such refinement. He could not, however, stop this process of refinement; ecstatic intoxication dragged him like a runaway horse that is heading for the cliff. In this respect, Baudelaire mentions the fact that hashish can sometimes, without any obvious cause, induce a more violent effect than usual. For all these reasons, one gets the impression that no approach has been consummated here. This form of ecstatic intoxication is merely one of the stations along the road towards the zero point, a temporary shelter, a multicolor tent that is set up just for one night.
In our surroundings a great desolation prevails, its inventions possess the inherent property of abetting the vile proposal to “limit human freedom and indispensable pain”—this observation is related to a commentary on chloroform.83
The small chunk of hashish is like the tent that Peri Banu presented as a gift to Prince Ahmed. He found that when it was folded up, it fit into a nutshell, but when it was unfolded, it could shelter an army. Its fabric was made of air. The small Parisian cliques abandoned themselves under this tent to either extravagant pleasures or to esthetic pleasures. If the ecstatic intoxication proceeded favorably, things glowed as if they were covered with fine shellac; they were impregnated with beauty. The prerequisite is a spiritual power that knows how to transmit this beauty to the environment. A breeder of oxen, so it says more or less in Artificial Paradises, only dreams of cattle destined for the slaughterhouse.
The visions induced by hashish are therefore related to an exaltation and refinement of the imagination, rather than with the supervention of something external. This is already suggested by the title of the book. Baudelaire concludes, in part from conviction, in part from prudence, with the fundamental objection that he raises against drugs: that it is a detour of the human being to trust to pharmacists and alchemists, when he wants to attain to paradise. As authentic and venerable paths to paradise, he mentions fasting, prayer and labor, and also the “noble dance”. These are the same methods that Goethe proposes in the “Treasure Digger”, after having warned against “vain magic”.84 The poem is splendid up to where it says, “dig no longer fruitlessly”; the great prophet reaches his limit at this point. Ever since I first heard these verses, which my mother recited to us in a dramatic voice, I never liked their morality at all. One never digs fruitlessly when one digs deep enough. Wherever we introduce the shovel, we touch points that are equidistant from the center. Every step leads us closer to the goal; even when it is a step backwards.
Since then a lot has changed, and not only in the visible world. The transformation of visible things follows thoughts, which are invisible. Nor do thoughts lack their antecedents: they “come from the heart”, as Vauvenargues says.85
Of the classic means recommended to attain participation in the spiritual world, all that really remains is work, while prayer retains less and less of its persuasiveness, and the “noble dance”, that is, the perfected work of art, is increasingly more rare.
According to Nietzsche’s verdict, anyone who chatters about paradise renders himself suspect as someone who is not of this world. In his view, in the 20th century the priest would occupy a rank “even lower than the pariah”. Some symptoms were already apparent even then.
The demand for faith is increasingly taking on the form of a gymnastic exercise, when it does not simply fall par terre. It consists of discussions in houses whose cornerstones have been fractured. Then it is better to descend to the basement.
When the access routes to paradise have become artificial, or have been hermetically sealed, then the expression “artificial paradises” also loses its meaning. They become more genuine than those passed down by tradition, that is: matter acquires more force than the idea. This is a logical conclusion that is not without practical consequences. Here, we are offered something more than a simple demand; even where the shovel only scrapes bedrock, it will not be unfruitful; perhaps it will even obtain some profit.
In this respect, the situation from which we start has changed since the times of Baudelaire: behind spiritual curiosity and a certain kind of boredom, which, to speak truly, is already itself a sign, a preemptory necessity is announced—a hunger that cannot be satisfied with bread alone and which is concealed behind a large number of manifestations of contemporary unrest, and also behind its excesses.
On both sides of the zero point, determined by Nietzsche’s verdict, it is advisable to redistribute the emphases. This only changes the attribution of weights, the rising and falling rhythm of their oscillations. What is lost with regard to ideas is gained with regard to material. Language can only follow this tendency. Reflection cannot engender weight; it only verifies its redistribution.
Words follow, after a certain delay, the constellations; this also applies to events. If there are no more wars, then there can be no peace, either, in the ancient sense of the term; and there cannot be any “artificial paradises” where paradise has become illusory. One of the best interpreters of our world, Aldous Huxley, recognized this, and derived both contradiction and serenity from it, as was inevitable. I do not know to what extent it would be possible for me in the following considerations to accept the validity of his thesis; this is not very important, anyway. But its value as a symptom must be emphasized. Huxley and Baudelaire devoted themselves to the same theme, but the reflections of the one and the other were situated on this side and the other side of the line, respectively. Both are artists, but the distribution of their centers of gravity, esthetic or scientific, are differentiated in a way that one can recognize in each encounter with their respective epochs. The zero point is also the point of crystallization, and despite the fact that the atoms preserve their weights, their arrangements are modified. With this, what we recognize as beautiful can also be transformed: the “heart of nature” remains intact. Beauty is only a sign of approach, a signal. This explains changes in style.
The Marriage of Figaro
Anxiety in the universal desert, alone in the glacial cold of the world. The neutralization of chromatic differences in white, extinction, monotony, necrosis. This is total abandonment.
Everything must perish, there cannot be any beginning, history or sequence of styles. The drumbeat of the shaman, our attention directed towards distant space, beyond Sirius, monotony. The surroundings must remain uniform, if they must be apprehended, all at once, in a unified whole. The journey descends towards the undifferentiated depths.
Monotony, even that of our epoch with its combination of technology and egalitarianism, conforms with the spirit of this journey, it prepares for approach. From the very start it is necessary for it to be present as distance and then as upheaval and waiting.
It is often difficult, and even impossible, to distinguish between ascending and descending forces. This difficulty becomes particularly perceptible as one nears the zero point, when one attempts to formulate a judgment on the cycles of forms, on both this side and the other side of the line traced by nihilism. To become aware of a cycle of forms does not mean to oppose some qualities to others. Values do not determine the origin: they are the end. Fate is anonymous and colorless, a grey spider web.
Stylistic transformation: that is, axiological, qualitative modification. The image undergoes metamorphoses by way of models. One master takes over from another and one school takes over from another. This leads, over the course of centuries, to a great change, but the genesis is always demonstrable.
However, just as fate pulses in history, it is necessary for art to contain a strange element that is not based on the “power to make”, but on displacements of being. This element is only comparable to itself, as is the case with volcanoes, which, although they are undoubtedly similar to other mountains, nonetheless form a category apart.
It is necessary to express this problem more precisely. A small volcano, even a solfatara, is connected with its kind through a nexus that is different than the one that connects it with other mountains and mountain ranges. This does not mean that volcanic forces are not at work in the latter, or even that they might not someday erupt. In this sense we only observe indirectly what we observe directly, even today, in volcanoes.
There are analogous differences in historical events. When Moses came from the Tabernacle and when Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, they did not participate in historic events, or even temporal ones. Nevertheless, something happened that took place on the stage of time, and continues to have its repercussions on it. Thus, just as telluric fire exists everywhere, and not only in volcanoes, so, too, is there a non-temporal element in time. It constitutes the object of a singular desire, a nostalgia, unique to our era, where everything must be transformed in time.
Art also has its own history and, consequently, its own time. However, there is something different, a volcanic force, concealed within it, a primitive matter, that works under the activity of configuration. It lives in all art, just as telluric fire, more or less present, works in mountain chains. Its immediate emanations, however, are subject to another law. As in the last days of Pompey, they supervene unexpectedly; their rhythm is not known.
Wherever such forces erupt, the generative activity of forms must suffer; it cannot be otherwise. This explains certain disputes that, in our time of transition, extend their impact and redouble their acrimony. In the usual scandals of the salon or the theater the dilemma is posed as to whether it is advisable to change the decorations or to incorporate a new wing into the building. Circumstances are different when the house is beginning to shake and tremble on its foundations. In this case, it is no longer a matter of new forms that are striving to be manifested; it is formless power itself that is clearing the way for its own advent. The restlessness that is then born far surpasses the boundaries of art. Its scope, and therefore, its penetration into the social, political and ethical fields, is as obvious as it is difficult to judge the depth of its epicenter. We approach geological strata where even the premises for the construction of judgments melt: thus, noble and base, high and low, right and left, old and new. Thus, norms are also set in motion: good and evil, righteous and unjust, beautiful and ugly, in the ecclesiastical, juridical and esthetic realms. Pretensions still preserve their legitimacy for a while, although they lack guarantees. The crust that separates us from the magma becomes thinner. Nietzsche already quite preciously perceived this: “Where I go, soon no one else will be able to go.”
Volcanism is unmistakable. Its symptoms, however, the birth pains that announce its advent, are hard to discern. How can volcanic symptoms be distinguished from normal geological movements? There are certainly transitions, borderline cases, not to speak of those phases in which time acts on its own or “the dew settles on the plant, when the night is deepest”. Similarly, things that seem normal in their time, when contemplated retrospectively, acquire prophetic significance. Only the Three Wise Men beheld the Star of Bethlehem in its true splendor.
Therefore, how do we distinguish the entry into a new decade, or even a new century, from the entry into a new constellation, a new house, in the astrological sense?86 This involves a process of dissolution of stylistic qualities and sequences. New frames of reference arise—not within the already-established systems, but as the constitutive beginnings of systems. The emperor will kiss the bishop’s feet.
All of this does not erupt, by any means, as we have said, like a volcanic eruption. Volcanic substances are concealed in the sand and in the rocks, just like radioactive isotopes; material substances that have the same aspect, but different effects. In particular, in the two kinds of light that separate the dawn from the dusk, everything takes on a twilight tone.
This is one of the reasons why the historian cannot spare himself archival work. It is necessary for him to have seen the microscopic focus, and to have examined the places where it begins to crack. This knowledge is indispensable, even when the details do not appear in the final work. The latter must comprehend the time. Thus, the geologist can infer the existence of a landslide of mountain chains on the basis of a piece of rock, evidence that he will later discard.
It seems that, if we compare them with the methods of the natural sciences, the historical sciences lack scientific instruments. Lumber that is beginning to break may emit such a cracking sound. Such splitting can herald a fire; phenomena of this kind belong to the order of the plausible. Like the sparks thrown off by a fuse, it can also precede an explosion. This corresponds with the system. What is most disturbing, however, is the crack that reveals something more than the alteration of a frame, due to old age or fire. Now the curtain that conceals the blaze is torn. It is no longer a matter of this or that particular phenomenon, nor is it about naked existence. The threat looms over a being that embraces life and death. The stars become cold; a universal anxiety looms over the cosmic desert.
On September 26, 1783, The Marriage of Figaro was performed in Gennevilliers. It was a private performance before three hundred people, the flower of the Ancien régime who, as Sainte-Beuve says, met “to applaud that which would destroy them”.
The uproar that it caused was unprecedented; Beaumarchais ran about like a madman, and, when someone complained about the heat, he broke all the windows with his walking stick. On April 27, 1784, when it was once again allowed to be performed, the fuse was lit; it was performed in Paris. Not everyone approved of it. La Harpe, who would later enthusiastically join the Revolution, until Robespierre ordered his imprisonment, criticized it: “One can easily understand the pleasure and the joy of a public that is enchanted with amusing itself at the expense of authority, which consents, in person, to our making fun of it on the stage”. And Napoleon later said concerning Figaro that “it was the Revolution in progress”.
This is an example of a theatrical scandal. The genre goes back to antiquity. It exhibits a model of society. It exhorts society to contemplate itself in the mirror. In this case it was not so much the rooster of Socrates as the birds of Aristophanes, which, covered in light feathers, stirred up a commotion. It is true that the voice of the former is still heard. The “stinging whip of satire” is attractive for only an instant. Its “barbed witticisms” do not take long to become blunted, after having blazed like a fireworks. People ask themselves where its disturbing power came from. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder. In such situations, it was enough to lift up your little finger to already seem like a genius. When all is said and done, laughter does not need any other pretext. It is contagiously intoxicating, like Saint Vitus Dance. The ancient physicians defined sardonic laughter as “a laughter not motivated by the corresponding humor”. This is correct; the humor can even be contrary, it may presage disturbing events. Unmotivated hilarity precedes, without any warning to the suitors at the banquet, the bloodbath at the home of Odysseus. This hilarity runs all throughout Cantos XX and XXI. The great adventurer who returns home dodges the bone thrown at him by one of the suitors, ducking his head:
“… smiling grimly Sardinian fashion as he did so, and it hit the wall.”
And then, as he effortlessly stretched the bow, like a lyre:
“… he took it in his right hand to prove the string, and it sang sweetly under his touch like the twittering of a swallow. The suitors were dismayed, and turned colour as they heard it; at that moment, moreover, Jove thundered loudly as a sign….”87
Almost no one reads Homer anymore, and it is even more rare for him to be subjected to an adequate interpretation. Actually, there are exceptions—I would like to believe that Marcks and Beckmann have studied him with rigor. In any event, you only have to strike this mountain that has been petrified under the work of the philologists a couple of times for the most limpid of waters to burst forth.
Like light, laughter also has its dark side; one does not laugh with impunity. Now and then, history corroborates the warning of Ecclesiastes: “Don’t be a fool! Why die before your time?” Chamfort offers an example; nor did Beaumarchais get away unscathed. He who laughs and the object of his laughter are much alike; they complement one another in an almost erotic relation, by which they are intertwined. When a monarch dies, it also constitutes a misfortune for those who have laughed at him at his expense. This only becomes visible from the vantage point of a certain distance: when the epoch as such enters into one’s field of vision. To find something comical one needs to have some relation to it. It is no coincidence that, of all the animals, the monkey is especially comical to human beings.
In these reflections we would do well to take laughter rather than ridicule as a point of departure. The monkey, separated from the human being who makes fun of him by the bars of a cage, is not in himself ridiculous. Laughter, the object of diligent study on the part of clever spirits, has to be examined in isolation. It raises its objects, as the wave raises ships and rafts, and often only just brushes against them. Like a wave in a storm, laughter can also intensify until it becomes intoxicating. Then the fun stops. The ships sink, the object is destroyed. The baker and his wife return with the little baker’s apprentice from Varennes.

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