In the cold morning air my breath is a cloud that might turn to ice.
Tonight we will be watching the opening of the London Olympics with friends and eating a large pot of vegetable and chicken curry, helping ourselves to poppadums, naan breads, mounds of basmati rice, chutney, raitas with yoghurt and fresh coriander. Such fun — what would life be without friends?
And I have been relishing an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled For Future Friends of Walter Benjamin, the gifted Jewish thinker whose short life was so marked by poverty, illness, internment. He crossed the border into Spain as a refugee in 1942 and was told he would be sent back into Nazi-occupied France, a death sentence. He committed suicide that night, but his friend the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem created a safe archive of Benjamin’s writings, for the sake of ‘the future friends of Walter’.
Among many other things, Benjamin wrote metaphysical treatises, literary-critical monographs, philosophical dialogues, media-theoretical essays, book reviews, travel pieces, drug memoirs, whimsical feuilletons, diaries and aphorisms, modernist miniatures, radio plays for children, reflections on law, technology, theology and the philosophy of history, analyses of authors, artists, schools and epochs. His intense, precise, enlightening intellectual engagement grasped miniscule events and tiny details — a motto on a stained-glass window, 17 types of Ibizan fig — while at the same time, in the same movement, retaining a sense for history’s longitudinal waves and metaphysics’ worlds behind the world. Although he often lamented his own indolence, as both a writer and a person Benjamin was mobile, endlessly inquisitive and engaging, and exceptionally productive.
Ah yes, the drug memoirs of Walter Benjamin. Like many of his fellow writers, scientists and thinkers, he experimented with hashish, opium, mescalin. Freud preferred cocaine. There was of course none of the climate of disapproval or moral opprobrium we would attach now in terms of addiction or recklessness — young men experimented with drugs quite guiltlessly in a society where most who afford to do so smoked cigarettes and pipes all through their lives, drank far more than we would consider healthy. Some of them became addicts, some did not. Although Benjamin took drugs with friends and published his impressions of the ‘illuminations’ experienced under the influence of hashish, he was never addicted.
Are drugs a gateway to mystical or heightened spiritual experience? The question that preoccupied Jung and many psychologists and religious thinkers after him. That possibility of drug-enhanced enlightenment was the appeal mentioned quite openly by Benjamin and would continue to be regarded as a valid scientific exploration up to the time of Aldous Huxley: It wasn’t a kind of cheap mysticism or ‘cheating’ back then. Drugs might offer an authentic path into the complexities of the unconscious, might open up the imagination, might be a doorway openeing on the beatific vision. It was a more naive age, even as tyrannies engulfed that optimistic and innocent Europe.
By the time Benjamin tried drugs, he had been reading and wondering about them for years, and when the moment finally came it proved to be a letdown, at least in the philosophical sense. This is not to say that Benjamin did not experience, and enjoy, all the usual effects. He felt mellow. “Boundless goodwill. Falling away of neurotic-obsessive anxiety complexes,” he noted during his first attempt. He saw weird visions, such as “a long gallery of suits of armor with no one in them. No heads, but only flames playing around the neck openings.” He even got the munchies: “I had been suddenly unable to still the pangs of hunger that overwhelmed me late one night in my room. It seemed advisable to buy a bar of chocolate.”
But what Benjamin called “the great hope, desire, yearning to reach—in a state of intoxication—the new, the untouched” remained elusive. When the effects of the drugs wore off, so did the feeling of “having suddenly penetrated, with their help, that most hidden, generally most inaccessible world of surfaces.” All that remained was the cryptic comments and gestures recorded in the protocols, the ludicrous corpses of what had seemed vital insights.