Saturday, November 28, 2009

Benjamin's Writings on Hashish

I've been trying to work up an abstract on Walter Benjamin for the CPA meeting in June for a panel on German philosophy with two friends. With all that has been going on lately, I haven't really had a chance to do so, which is complicated by the nature of Benjamin's work, being quite diverse and yet singular. So I've posted this piece for some motivation (it's due on Monday), and for all of those who have been nice enough to visit the site on the recommendation of The Tao of Stieb. This review was originally published in De Philosophia, Volume 19, number 2, page 124.

The recent interest in this translation of Walter Benjamin’s texts on hashish seems to indicate that the general reading public maintains a greater interest in drug-literature than philosophy. Or, perhaps, this book forms the comical obverse of the proliferation of volumes such as On Belief, On Authenticity, et cetera. Typically, one’s journals never face the scrutiny of broad readership, but apparently hashish should not be left to specialists. As such, On Hashish takes the form of a light-hearted chapter in what is often considered as Benjamin’s pensive, and terminally tragic, biography.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is composed of Benjamin’s protocols of drug experimentation. Some are written by him, while others are composed by either the doctors administering the dose, or Benjamin’s friends. The second part of the book compiles several completed texts, along with excerpts from other texts and letters with passages on intoxication. Despite Benjamin’s repeated complaints concerning dosage, the protocols are nothing like the libertarian hedonism of say William S. Burroughs. Benjamin’s interest in hashish and opium had a basis in both literature– especially Baudelaire’s Paradis artificiels (144)– and his philosophical-political preoccupations, which fall somewhere between the Frankfurt School and Bataille’s Collège de Sociologie.

What is notable in Benjamin’s texts is the refusal to give intoxicated experience a mystical status. Instead, as in the excerpts from his essay “Surrealism,” intoxication provides the possibility of what he calls “profane illumination,” a materialist anthropology. However, in a properly dialectical twist, the immediate experience of intoxication is overtaken by the concepts which allow us to find the surprises of intoxication in the everyday world. Thus, “the most passionate investigation of hashish intoxication will not teach us half so much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic) as the profane illumination of thinking will teach us about hashish intoxication (133-134).” This dialectical approach is much more apparent in the finished texts, while the protocols record the brief hallucinations, non sequiturs, erratic behaviors (for instance, Benjamin– apparently sober– “offers a light when J picks up a wafer”) and fleeting lucidity.

The bulk of the finished texts are comprised of two stories: “Myslovice–Braunschweig–Marseilles” and “Hashish in Marseilles.” Both draw heavily on the fourth protocol, dated Saturday, September 29, 1928. A Freudian knows that the true story is in repetition: first, we encounter a rather literary set of notes (the protocol); second, a version published in 1930 which Benjamin ascribes to a fictional character; and finally, a ‘memoir’ version published in 1932. Between the slips and displacements, the reader is left to reflect upon questions of narrative, intoxication, and identity; if, of course, these reflections have not been interrupted with bursts of laughter…

No comments: