70 The low tide is even more uplifting than the high tide. A world where weakness liberates unsuspected forces is announced and thus our vision is transformed. It is certainly an upside-down world but one that nonetheless points towards a world of an absolutely different kind. Such is the atmosphere of the antechambers: in dim light, suffused with clouds, but through the gaps in the clouds a new splendor peeks through.
The thought is reassuring: danger is always present. When in the lifeboats of shipwrecked sailors the last hope has been lost, these voices and images begin to play their game in the state of exhaustion; they deceive the thirsty man with the illusion that the water of the sea is delicious and they trick the dying man into thinking that salvation lies at the bottom of the ocean. Yes, mirages, but, in a certain sense, also a game of reflections: allusions to an inexhaustible wealth, but, at the same time, to something much heavier, which bends or bulges: the dark valley, the border wall, or the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef.
The volunteer who was ordered by the Emir Musa to scale the wall of the City of Brass clapped his hands when he reached the top and shouted, “Thou art beautiful!”. Then he cast himself down and broke all his bones when he hit the ground. But the Emir Musa said: “This is the action of the rational. How then will the insane act?”
The mirage also has its reality. Its deception consists only in its false location. Its location is unknown; a cheap imitation passes itself off as a masterpiece of which it is nothing but a simulacrum.
The danger increases with the altitude, it increases for the fearful and the gullible. “In order to climb up to my royal brow, the strongest ascend upon the flutings of my
bandelets as upon the steps of a stairway. Then a great lassitude comes upon them, and
they fall backward.” Such are the words of the Sphinx in The Temptations of Saint Anthony.
71 My reminiscences have led me much further afield than I had anticipated. Our first contact with ecstatic intoxication familiarizes us with its world of light and shadow. Like the flame that provides both heat and light, but which can also blind and burn. It slips past the strongholds and the borders and takes them by surprise; the intoxicated person is like Breughel’s peasants, who stare open-mouthed at the wonder of the world. On the one hand, objects and human beings are perceived more distinctly and appear to be closer, maybe too much closer, and, on the other hand, the opening up of new perspectives makes them withdraw to a great distance. Ecstatic intoxication brings us closer to the borders of time, not only to this or that ephemeral subdivision of time, but to its mystery and, in this way, we almost experience a close encounter with death. That is where the danger lies, with respect to which every physical threat is nothing but a ghostly apparition. We may agree with Calderón by defining life as a dream, but it is even more accurate to conceive it as a state of intoxication, as one of the sublime states of the decomposition of matter.
72 I shall now attempt to recall what became of the leaders of the group. The older we get, the more we are able to follow people’s biographies to the end; we see the figure of destiny and, along with it, the consummation of that which the astrologer believed he could know in advance.
Werner proved to be a disappointment to me when we met again after the war; this is often the case when we meet people we admired when we were young. We saw in them, above all, what we lacked; often, it was only a matter of two or three years of experience: they were just a couple years ahead of us in maturity. Perhaps they also seduced us because back then they were at their peak. While one yields late fruit, the other has already shot his bolt during the flower of his youth.
More than twenty years had passed since we had seen each other, but now and then I heard news about him, and he occasionally heard news about me. The old comrades of the Wandervögel were almost always quite lax when it came to keeping in touch with each other, like a net through which the current flows, even though it was not intact. When, by night, regimental columns were marching along strategic routes in foreign countries, names were shouted and greetings were exchanged. And even today, when I go to visit the house of Theo Oppermann in Wunstorf, I meet two or three comrades and they tell me their old stories. They take their guitars down from the wall and sing:
And then we went far away
from our duke at a gallop,
on horseback, on his “grenadier”.
Here we are, jolly soldiers of Hannover.
Or we sang:
And to the King of Prussia
we want to tell him four things….
and other songs of the same kind. They have survived skirmishes and civil wars since 1866; they are snapshots of times past.
The minute Werner came into my room, I knew that something had happened to him. He had hardly even sat down, when he started to tell me about his problems. According to the doctors’ diagnosis, it was a disorder of the pituitary gland. Even though this organ is hardly as big as a cherrystone, Werner had accumulate an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject; he was an inexhaustible source. His curiosity increased because his right to receive a disability pension depended on his diagnosis. In such cases, conversations assume the form of defense pleadings before an imaginary court.
To distract him a little, I asked him about our old comrades; however, he was hardly interested in talking about them at all. Only when I mentioned the name of Robby, did I notice that he was still very sensitive about this subject:
“He always found some excuse to cause trouble; such pedants are nothing but spoilsports. And you know where they end up: in the madhouse.”
I had heard other rumors of that kind. Robby insisted he was right with respect to one of our political transitions; and he undoubtedly was right. I do not remember if he refused to raise the flag or if he lowered it at an opportune moment. In any case, he was imprisoned immediately and then committed to a madhouse.
In these times, to be born with a subtle understanding of the law is a perilous gift.
Beer and Wine I 73 During my high school years, I went on other excursions like those in the mountainous regions of the Weser. I was a member of the rowing club in high school. Perhaps my romantic attachment to the idea of the goliard was not enough for me, and I was so tired of all the singing that, whenever I could get away with it, I buried my voice in the chorus. It is likely that my bunkmates, robust oarsmen all, simply “captivated” me. There were four of them; they could not so easily do without me, since I was the fifth oar. The oldest boy, “Long Heini”, was more than two meters tall. He died in Picardy. A bullet in the head; the trenches were not made for giants.
I felt little inclination for rowing, which I associated largely with military training; my activity was limited to kayak trips along the tributaries of the Weser and in the pools at the boathouse, where I spent a lot of my free time. We drank regularly and methodically; once a week we went to the Bremer Schlüssel tavern, a renowned establishment. At five, after dinner, we left the Rhedenhof, as our dormitory was called. We were back, more or less plastered, at eleven. We were not allowed on the streets after eleven; it was against school regulations.
The good cheer of our beer-drinking evenings was regulated by the traditional rites of the goliards; their observance was enforced by the President, at the head of the table, and the Chief of the Novices, at the end of the table. Both carried ceremonial daggers, which they would pound on the table to get our attention. The songs, and all kinds of ceremonies, such as the “salamander”,35 were performed after an obligatory silentium; the latter was immediately followed by a festive ritual, the fidelitas. We drank from tankards. Sometimes a large stein was also passed around the table. It was shaped like a boot; it always had to be filled and, as it was passed around, the next-to-last person who had it in his hand before it was drained had to buy the next round. When the beer was gone, we had to drink shots of liquor, or toss down a glass of liquor in one swallow. If any was spilled, the perpetrator was “bled” and also had to pay for the round. There were various fouls that were punished with having to drain a larger or smaller mug. This was called “entering the mug”.36 We often invited other students and old friends from other schools to our gatherings. They praised our immoderate passion.
These nocturnal sessions did not break the rules; not only were they benevolently tolerated by the professors, but they were viewed favorably. Almost all the professors were presumed to have been members of such student associations. In the universities those who did not join student groups of this kind, who were known as savages, were stigmatized as remnants of times when each individual, outside of the group of his fellow countrymen, was defenseless. This institution still manifested a complex of relations that not only hearkened back to the feudal era, but even to the times of the tribes, with their totems and taboos, their colors and their tattoos, brotherhoods of blood and ceremonies. But we must not stray from our theme, ecstatic intoxication. In any event, our drinking binges awakened in the older people a pleasure that was perhaps similar to that of an Indian who sees children playing with bows and arrows.
The taverns on the outskirts of town were off-limits, that is, we were forbidden to go to the neighboring villages that had bars where you could grab a bite to eat and empty a keg. Since these bars enjoyed a particularly attractive reputation, we took the risk of going to them at least once a year, but we always ended up being discovered, not because of our binge at the bar, but because of the mischief that accompanied our return to the dormitory, leaving a trail of vandalism. I still have fond memories of those two or three escapades, however. At that age, clandestine excess is more natural than the authorized student activities.
No memory is without melancholy. I am reflecting on a band of young men who were between sixteen and nineteen years old, with uniforms that were for the most part too tight; on their activities, their expressions and their Bacchic rites that adhered to the most rigid formalities. They thought that certain customs that had long been unfashionable were still valid, and even ahead of their time. Nonetheless, the Wandervögel had enjoyed greater freedom, even if their romanticism was unsatisfactory.
These incidents are only of interest to me because of their connection with my experiences of ecstatic intoxication. And I must confess that they were not very rewarding experiences. Walking from one tavern to another does not have to lead to ecstatic intoxication, but it does increase the pleasure of being with your friends. All that walking made us thirsty and then we wanted something to drink. The drink had to be light and pleasant, and we had to be able to drink a lot of it; in this respect, beer has no equal; later, you have to change course and think, for example, of tea. There is no doubt that, with respect to our theme, the enjoyment of, and the ritual associated with, tea, as described in Okakura Kakuzo, are of an incomparably more spiritual nature. If beer is associated with a lot of people shouting at the same time, tea suggests tranquil silence during the pauses in a pleasant conversation. In addition, tea is well-suited to the solitary nature of nocturnal studies and meditation, and even facilitates them. It does not constrain the spirit in any way, it introduces no strange images, but accompanies the spirit in its improvised variations, like a musical instrument and the melody. One cannot say the same thing about coffee, which can act, in a much more powerful way, like a drug.
74 A border that is not always very well defined separates the beer-drinking countries from the wine-drinking countries. It is determined by the mild climate, not too cold and not too hot, where the wine-grape thrives. Within this zone there are, in turn, countries where its cultivation has acquired an extraordinary refinement. For such refinement, there must be a perfect harmony with the elements: the situation of the river valleys and the mountain slopes, the soil, the water, sunlight, and conditions relating to cosmic and elemental forces. The spirit of the place also makes its contribution. Rocky soils are not only important because of the way they decompose and create the layer of humus, but also due to their capacity to reflect and absorb light like the slate of the Rhineland or the lava of Vesuvius. Its energy is still active in the wine cellars excavated out of the rocks. Wood also plays a somewhat similar role, in its contact with grapes and wine in the form of stakes, crates, wine presses and barrels. The knowledge, or more accurately, the wisdom of the viticulturists, carpenters and coopers has been acquired and refined as part of a very ancient tradition. We find among the vine stocks, in small wineries and among local grape growers, types that are infused with their activity. One may still confirm the existence of similar traits among hunters, fishermen and cavalrymen, that is, among those who are passionately devoted to their professions.
The wine grape grower not only serves his god by the sweat of his brow, but also communes with and incorporates his god. Marcel Jouhandeau told me about his father-in-law who, after a day’s work as a mail carrier, worked on his own small plot of wine grapes: “Working in the vineyard was his way of praying”. And I was told of another very old wine grape grower who lived exclusively on bread and wine during the last years of his life: sacramentally.
Tea and wine exhale the perfumes of ancient cultures; we do not want to give the word, perfume, the refined meaning that it has come to possess. Everything alive is, in the final analysis, indivisible and distinctive due to its effects, both by virtue of its roots and branches as well as by its flowers and fruits. Thus, in the realm of the vine, despite and beneath all its differences, equality prevails, an equality that extends from the wine grape grower of Tubingen to the greatest minds of the Tubingen Seminary, from the dwarf Perkeo37 at the banquet hall of the palace at Heidelberg to the brilliant banquet hall of the Palatine Count. This egalitarian power is sibling to that of the poet, who transfigures human beings by way of the word and turns a pauper into a prince. Baudelaire, who celebrated wine as the friend of the loner and of lovers, but also of the wino and the murderer, understood it in all of its profundity. One night the wine begins to sing in the bottles, captive in its glass prison under its scarlet wax seal: “Un chant plein de lumière et de fraternité”.38 The true magical power of the vine is manifested in recurrence, in the seasonal festivals of the wine producing countries. Festivals are held when the grapes have been harvested and when the sun bids farewell; and the celebrations are even more unbridled when the sun returns and brings an end to winter. A powerful rhythm of respiration and inspiration. Then wine is no longer available by the bottle or by the jug; it flows from the barrels, it spews from fountains, it infuses the air.
The madman takes his turn to rule the world; it is an echo, a reflection of remote epochs, when the gods came down to earth and sat at our tables. Great Pan approaches; fauns and satyrs are lying on the ground just on the other side of the wall. A terrestrial creature, with the form of a gnome, begins to frolic with great inspiration. Something that disappeared a long time ago has returned; behind the shouts and capers, behind the disguises and masks, one begins to recognize something, as fleeting as a shadow. This vortex causes one to suspect, behind the frantic activity, the presence of a third element: behind the winter one can make out more than just the spring; behind breathing something more than life; behind the mask something more than a hidden face.
In vino veritas; this does not mean that the truth is concealed within wine. Instead, according to this maxim, wine allows us to see something that is always present, although it is outside of the wine itself. Wine is a key: the present becomes something that supervenes.
75 We are aware of the fact that moderation goes hand in hand with the vine, especially in the countries where it has had its home since ancient times: in the wine grape growing countries. In these areas, no particular merit is attributed to a person who is capable of drinking a large quantity of wine, in contrast to the attitude of the dandies with their Six-bottle-men, who remain seated at the table exhibiting a stoic calm right up to the last swallow. For the fog-ridden countries, with their melancholia, strong beers are more appropriate, but especially whiskey. Whiskey is surprising because it has a stimulant effect that is apparent for a long time, while its inebriating effect builds up in secret. Stimulant and narcotic forces proceed in parallel, like the parallel lines that suddenly meet in infinity. Ethereally, the ship plows the waves of conversation; suddenly, the black-out39supervenes.
Table wine, which accompanies meals, is consumed with moderation, and is often mixed with water. It is the local wine, reliable, autochthonic; it does not come from far away. Anyone who does not grow his own grapes has his own favorite vintner whom he trusts. As for the wines of the famous producers, the grands crus, the wines made from select grapes, moderation is inherent to the pleasure of drinking them; abuse is forbidden per se in libations where the telluric powers and human art have joined forces. Here, where every drop is valuable, a good taster is indispensable to the vintner; that is, someone who can appreciate the gift, and, more importantly, someone who can officiate over the mystery. When he raises his glass, he seems to pierce it with his gaze, and when he tastes the wine, it is as if he is not only listening to a melody, but perceiving the silence behind the song.
Excesses also occur in the wine grape growing countries. These have less to do with the nature of wine than with the lack of naturalness of the human being. Even in certain Sardinian villages I met drunks who “drank away” their fields and herds, the bedraggled ubriacone, with sunken eyes, greedy, the object of scorn, compassion and ridicule.
Such drunks are the exceptions. These countries do not have the streets and neighborhoods swarming with drunks that form the backdrop in the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky and provided the models for the macabre sketches of Hogarth. There, the police and the Salvation Army have their hatcheries.
Books and Cities 76 Those drunken crowds, who stroll and prowl by night through inhospitable back streets, like those described by De Quincey and Jack London in their memoirs, make us uneasy. On every corner we see the signs of cheap taverns; one drinks standing up, and strong drinks have a powerful effect on weak bodies. Mobs of street walkers, mixed with children, drunk women and homeless women, form a confused mass. Amidst these mobs, thieves and bullies are on the prowl, who make their living off of drunks and weaklings: pimps, touts, pickpockets and miscreants of all kinds.
In these places, people do not drink to remember or to experience more intense feelings; they drink to escape, to forget, and being conscious makes everything worse. The demon is present; someone with an incomparable olfactory sense like Dostoyevsky saw it up close and in person. His travel journals are veritable treatises on demonology, the peregrinations of a visionary throughout the world. With the same certainty as Tocqueville, he apprehended political structures, he understood their basis, beyond borders; it is almost as if one studied the muscles of a living creature and the other its pneuma. In Paris, Dostoyevsky experienced tranquility within order: a respect for colossal, intimate, spiritual rules rooted in the soul. It might be a gigantic Heidelberg.
To Dostoyevsky, London seemed like a vast negative image of that humanity that, regardless of all its movement, is itself in a state of repose. During his walks around the city, he began to be overwhelmed by an “indefinable anxiety”, where, “On Saturday nights, a half million workers, male and female, together with their children, flood the entire city like a sea, flocking especially in certain sections, and celebrate the Sabbath all night until five in the morning. They stuff themselves and drink like animals. All of them bring their weekly savings, what they have earned by hard labour and amidst curses. Clusters of gas lamps burn in the butcher shops and restaurants, brightly illuminating the streets. It is as if a ball had been organized for these white negroes. The crowd pushes into the open taverns and in the street. They eat and drink. The beer halls are decorated like palaces. Everybody is drunk, but without gaiety, with a sad drunkenness, sullen, gloomy, strangely silent. Only sometimes an exchange of insults or a bloody quarrel breaks the suspicious silence, which fills one with melancholy. Everyone hurries to get dead drunk as quickly as possible, so as to lose consciousness. The wives do not lag behind their husbands but get drunk with them; the children run and crawl among them….”
He then describes his stroll through a blazing inferno of licentiousness. In Léon Bloy we find a similar aversion, which is expressed hyperbolically and is intensified until it becomes the ideal image of a cannon that brings down the capitale infame with one shot. Bloy contemplates all of these things from a different perspective: that of the Hispanic type of Catholic, opposed to Protestantism, with which he retains a relation analogous to that maintained by the cat with the dog.
As for Protestantism, without which the new world and its technology would be unimaginable, it was much harder for it to penetrate into the wine drinking countries than into the Nordic countries. The border zones often produce unexpected phenomena. Consider Geneva.
77 The perspective of Dostoyevsky, who was able to penetrate the “dead calm” of Paris, would not allow him to be disoriented by the turbulent flow of images that shocked him and filled him with anxiety in London. He could very well have entitled the chapter containing these impressions, for example, “The Splendor and Misery of the World of Machines”. He chose a different title, however: “Baal”. It was obvious that he saw something more: a reigning power amidst that swarm of people.
The human being who yearns to escape does not hurl himself into the void; every way out has something different about it. Flight as an end in itself is an ill-fated kind of motion. In this maxim, we must also include suicide, of course with the exception of its Stoic forms, which must not be considered to be a kind of escape. “In certain circumstances, to abandon life constitutes a duty for the wise man.”
78 From the perspective of drug consumption, in the scenes such as those observed by Dostoyevsky the narcotic effect alternates with the stimulant effect. We forget something, as if a veil were to be cast over an image painted in grey. Behind the grey image, however, as if a new master had been assigned to the work, appears a different world. Light becomes more illuminating, colors brighter. One’s desires are stripped naked. The embers are deeply buried in the ashes. Now the flame bursts forth again, as if it was fanned by a bellows. The heart, the lungs, respond.
The senses become more acute, and so does one’s ability to smell blood. All over the spacious streets and squares, the masses smell meat, as in the Amazon the voracious Piranhas can taste blood in the water. Just as in the Amazon, the water begins to swirl and splash; here the yeast bubbles and ferments. About twenty years before Dostoyevsky, Dickens depicted a similar scene as part of his account of the execution of the newlywed bride, Mrs. Manning, sentenced to death for a carefully planned murder and robbery. He describes his impressions in the following letter to the Times:
“Sir — I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.
“I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of ‘Mrs. Manning’ for ‘Susannah,’ and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly—as it did—it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore….”