On Hashish by Walter Benjamin

‘On Hashish’ is a selection of protocols and various writings on intoxication by Walter Benjamin. They are based on experiments that took place between 1927-1934 in Berlin, Marseille and Ibiza. Many were conducted in group conditions, which included individuals like Ernst Bloch and Jean Selz. Although Benjamin had planned a great drug-related work during his lifetime, it never came to fruition. This collection was first published posthumously in 1972 as “Über Haschisch”. I’ll be working from the English translation, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Initially inspired by 19th century writers like Charles Baudelaire and the group environment of Club Des Hashishins, Walter Benjamin began experimenting with Hashish along with various contemporaries including physician Ernst Joël and philosopher Ernst Bloch. According to the translators foreward: “The philosophical immersion that intoxicants afforded Walter Benjamin was not symbolist derangement of the senses…but transformation of reason. Which is to say: transformation of the traditional logic of noncontradiction and the traditional principle of identity”. He wanted to explore philosophically, and quite literally in his drug taking, the horizons of experience.

The “traditional logic of noncontradiction and the traditional principle of identity” are concepts explored in various ways in Western drug writing. For example, the idea of a unitary, egoless self in Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience, wherein noncontradiction, or rather the place where contradictions resolve, is in essence the goal of a drug-induced altered state. Or, for another example, the fluctuating, empathetic, sense of identity that Jane Dunlap describes in Exploring Inner Space. Benjamin however, in leaving behind the pathological ideas of the 19th century, can be read as a bridge between their “symbolist derangement” and the rise of archetypal meanings in 1950s and 60s.

In one protocol (May 11th, 1928) Ernst Joël describes a moment when Fritz Fränkel and Benjamin leave the room: “When this happened, I assumed that the two were going out into the hallway or the telephone room to discuss the experiment. This immediately grew into: They’re going to talk about me, and in particular about my character”. This instance of what we might now describe as ‘paranoia’ then seamlessly slides into an observation on candlesticks and “the powerful effect of hashish on retrospection”.

The text points toward a condition of consciousness that is realigning along spatial relationships, as opposed to simply slipping into derangement, paranoia becomes part of a new narrative. As they leave the room, they become disconnected from Joël’s sensual, spatial awareness, however in reappearing with candlesticks, he forms a historical connection, a presence that realigns this relationship between them. When they leave the room again, Joël once again feels fear but it is for them, not of them. Benjamin himself employs the concept of “aura” and it represents a historical presence or authenticity, something outside reproducible signs; the “aura” of the candlestick, not of itself, transforms the dimensions of the narrative relationships.

The transcendental themes that became central components, no doubt initially inspired by Huxley’s 1954 book Doors of Perception, in the 1960s were deeply entwined with noncontradiction and identity. However, for Benjamin there was no direct revelation, no goal as it were, the transcendental was ambiguous, laying below the surface of the experience as “aura”.  This does beg the question: Are these writers describing a generalized intoxicated state? Or rather, is it indicative of a different phenomenology and experience between hallucinogenic drugs?

The fact that the presence of ideas surrounding noncontradiction and identity in drug writing do seem to point to them as being indicative of general drug-induced states of consciousness, perhaps this doesn’t go far enough. This experiential difference is even noted by Benjamin. In one protocol (March 1930) when two people take morphine during Benjamin’s hashish experience he felt that “our ways had parted”. There is an inherent separation that becomes marked during the experience. In part, by way of explanation, Benjamin states: “The situation is quite different when the images we have before us while speaking to someone have their origins in ourselves”. Are we stimulated by an externality, which has the conceit of separation? Whilst the internality – the unconscious becoming visible – is producing the new logic of understanding? Which are, of course, very psychological notions.

A brief word on the translation should be noted. In his introduction the translator tells us the word rausch (from rauschen, to rush) is translated into either intoxication or trance. Is this a fair translation? Perhaps not when it eludes to a specific flight of intellectual clarity. As (Letcher, 2007) writes, words describing the efficacy of drugs in humans like “intoxication” fit into certain discursive discourses. If rausch had been literally translated to rush then Benjamin would have either sounded like a 60s hippy or 80s/90s raver. Although the term rush may also indicate a phenomenological aspect of the experience, in On Hashish  Benjamin does tend to use it as a general statement for the experience. In the case of this translation, using “intoxication” and “trance” the translator has chosen pathological, scientific terminology, which comes loaded with its own connotations.

There are two completed texts included in this collection titled Myslovice-Braunschwieg-Marseilles – The story if a Hashish Trance and Hashish in Marseilles. As such they dovetail the protocols somewhat and give the whole text of On Hashish a formidably engaging framework. The external world is a playground of the senses that form together in unusual narratives, slipping between the novel insights of noncontradiction and identity. This text, perhaps more than any other I’ve read to date, deserves close attention in that it raises such interesting questions about both the historical evolution of ideas in drug writing and the phenomenology of drug experience itself. Benjamin never wrote his drug masterpiece and tragically committed suicide with an overdose of morphine, however through these protocols he has explored enough to give the reader a novel and insightful look at hashish. A literary gem.

References:

Letcher, Andy: Mad Thoughts on Mushrooms – Discourse and Power in the study of Psychedelic Consciousness; Anthropology of Consciousness Journal, Vol18 Issue 2, pp.74-97;2007.

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