Approaches: Drugs and Ecstatic Intoxication – Ernst Jünger
Skulls and reefs
"Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?" This is more or less what Cardinal Hippolytus of Este said to his protégé, Ariosto, after having read Orlando Furioso.
Along with Byron's poetry, Orlando Furioso was among the favorites of my youth. My first encounter with this book took place when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, specifically the impressive edition illustrated by Doré. It was translated by Hermann Kurz. I was not so pleased with the later translation by Gries that was published by Reclam. I read it in the spring of 1917 at the Siegfried Line and I came home with both volumes. I think that during the two wars I read more than at other times; many others have had the same experience.
Reading Ariosto is dangerous, as Cervantes already knew. In general, literary culture lays down rules that should not really be obeyed; the playing field is far too large. The sceptical question posed by Hippolytus is not just the kind of question a Cardinal would ask; it is also a question of cardinal importance. I have often reflected on it, even while I was writing this book. Endless questions arise about why I do this or that, or why I did this or that—and about what kind of answer should be given to such questions. And we ask ourselves these questions out of a sense of responsibility.
We hardly need to fear that the swine of Epicurus, as they used to say, will break into the poppy and hemp gardens. The Epicurean is not inclined to excess: it would interfere with pleasure. He enjoys time and things and therefore represents instead the opposite of the addict who suffers from the passage of time. He has nothing in common with the chain-smoker; he is more like the sybarite who concludes a good meal with a Cuban cigar. He is the master of pleasure and knows how to moderate it, not so much from subjection to discipline as from the love of pleasure itself.
There have been old Chinamen who similarly allowed themselves to smoke a bowl of opium now and then, and such people still exist today. It is as if, after a hearty banquet, one were not only to take a stroll on the terrace or a walk in the park, but were to extend the circle of time and space and therefore the field of the possible. This yields more than food and drink, and even more than wine and good cigars; it leads much further.
In this sense, after a certain age, perhaps when you retire, you are supposed to refuse to be restricted to certain boundaries. Those who are approaching the boundless must set very distant frontiers. At that age, not everyone can do what the elderly Faust did; however, each person is clearly in charge of drafting plans for the vastness.
This applies, above all, to the period that is closest to the ultima linea rerum, when the latter presents itself with the greatest insistence. There are old vintners who live for months and even years on nothing but bread and wine. Konrad Weis has paid homage to their lives.
It is natural to alleviate the pain of the dying person whose time is running out, but that is not enough. It is our duty to approach; for the last time, the bed-ridden man, alone, the wealth of the world.
During those last moments, it is not enough to administer narcotics; rather, what we need are gifts that expand consciousness and make it more acute. If one harbors even the slightest suspicion that such gifts might hasten the passage of the stricken person—and there are reasons to believe that this might be the case—then one must be wary. It is this possibility that necessarily gives rise to the conjecture that there are certain qualities that are inherent to this kind of passage.
On the borders of this assumption, the experience of individual death possesses for many people enough value for them not to allow themselves to be deceived: for the captain it is a question of honor to be the last man to abandon ship. In fact, it is possible that with the administration of painkillers one not only eliminates the pain that accompanies death, but also its euphoria. Perhaps, in one's last conscious thoughts as one is extinguished, important messages are concealed; transmissions, receptions. Death masks reveal a reflection of these messages.
The plumage of the rooster of Aesculapius is many-colored.
We must contemplate, beyond pleasure, the spiritual adventure, whose enchantments are imposed on the consciousness of the highest and most refined culture. Basically, all enjoyment is spiritual; that is where the inexhaustible wellsprings emerge that give rise to every kind of unrest and anxiety, so that no satisfaction is ever really good enough.
Every advertiser is familiar with this connection. When we receive our seed catalogues in the winter, their images trigger a more intense pleasure than the flowers that will bloom in the summer flowerbeds. So, too, in nature, more cleverness and more artifice is wasted on seduction than on the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose. This is demonstrated by the designs on the wings of a butterfly or the plumage of a Bird of Paradise.
Spiritual hunger is insatiable; physical gain has narrow limits. If a Roman glutton like Vitellius devoured three large meals each day and rid himself of excess food by vomiting, this is because he suffered from having eyes that were bigger than his stomach, even if in a primitive way. The relation of disproportionality has its own scale: and so, too, does the faculty of sight that summons the spirit to its aid when it is not satisfied by the visible world.
Saint Anthony was more capable of enjoyment than Vitellius and his kind; he was capable of enjoying not so much a more solid physis or more wealth, as a higher kind of spirituality. In Flaubert's Temptations, imaginary banquets are depicted, full of the most alluring delicacies resplendent with the most striking colors, as if they had been created by gardeners or master chefs, or even artists. In his hut in the desert, Anthony beheld the source of all abundance; there it took direct shape as a phenomenon. That is why the ascetic is richer than Caesar, the master of the visible world, who consumes himself in pleasure.
I tried to depict the type of the spiritual adventurer in the character of Antonio Peri:
"At first sight, Antonio was hardly to be distinguished from the other artisans that one often saw busy at work throughout Heliopolis. Behind this surface appearance, however, something different was concealed: he was a hunter of dreams. He hunted dreams the way others caught butterflies in nets. On Sundays and holidays he did not go to the islands, nor did he frequent the taverns on the waterfront at Pagos. He closed himself off in his studio and withdrew to the land of dreams. He said that all the unknown countries and undiscovered islands were woven into the tapestry there. He used drugs as a key to enter the chambers and grottoes of that world.
"He also drank wine, but it was never pleasure that he was after. He was essentially driven to do so by a mixture of a thirst for adventure and a thirst for knowledge. He did not travel to settle in unknown regions, but as a geographer. Wine was merely one key among many others, one of the main doors to the labyrinth.
"Perhaps it was only his method that allowed him to navigate waters sown with catastrophes and nightmares. He had many run-ins with such obstacles. He was of the conviction that every drug contained a formula that granted access to certain enigmas of the universe. He also thought that it was possible to decipher the hierarchy of these formulas. The highest keys must reveal the secrets of the universe.
"He was looking for the master key. However, isn't the supreme mystery necessarily lethal?"
That the constant quest for adventure, for remote and unusual places, meant something very different would not be revealed until the end of his path. Antonio fell into a radioactive net, and was mortally injured, and suffered serious burns. In the throes of his agonies he refused morphine. It was not pleasure that led him to undertake his journeys, nor was it adventure. Yes, he felt curiosity, but it was a sublimated curiosity, one that was waiting to arrive at just the right door. Once upon that threshold one does not need any key: it opens by itself.
Every enjoyment lives thanks to the spirit. And every adventure lives thanks to the proximity of death, around which the adventurer revolves.
I am reminded of a painting that I saw when I had just learned to read, a painting entitled, The Adventurer: a sailor, a lone conquistador, had just come ashore on an unknown island. Before him, a terrible mountain arose, and his ship had foundered. He is alone.
That is more or less how the painting depicted the scene. "The Adventurer" was, at the time, one of those famous paintings that was always surrounded by a knot of admirers at expositions. A model of the pictorial art of a literary inspiration, which culminated in Böcklin's Isle of the Dead (1882).
The taste for this kind of work has been lost; today, this painting would lie in some dusty corner, if it has even been preserved. It was of a symbolic character: the ship from which the man had disembarked, the beach with his footprints, the colors that inspired fear and hope. Böcklin was more profound; in the meantime, however, Munch has treated the same theme from a different perspective. Now, an entirely different solution is once again offered. Now we possess masterpieces where the proximity of death is not the object of description, but instead impregnates the whole atmosphere.
I can only clearly recall a few details about that adventurer: the sand was strewn with the bones and skulls of those who had failed in their attempt to perform the same mission. I understood this and also drew the lesson that the painter had sought to convey: that rising up to this level was undoubtedly seductive, but also dangerous. They are nothing less than the bones of his predecessors, of his ancestors and, when all is said and done, they are his own bones, too. They are the shroud on the beach of time. When we are washed up on this beach by the waves, when we come ashore, we walk on these bones. Adventure is a concentrated form of life; we hyperventilate, we are brushed by the wind of death.
The skull and crossbones was a legitimate symbol for many years, not only in crypts and cemeteries, but also in art. Particularly in Baroque Art, it constituted, along with the hourglass and the sickle, a favorite theme. Today it would be primitive to employ it in this sense; its import has been reduced to that of a traffic sign. Even when the painter of The Adventurer embodied it in an image, he succumbed to the temptation of indulging in a literary allusion.
This poses the following question: how is it possible that an object such as the skull and crossbones was employed in the past as a theme of high art and, as such, it is nonetheless clear to us today that this same object, in the eyes of our contemporaries, no longer moves us, and is even comical?
It must be pointed out that any object can acquire symbolic power, and also lose it. It plays a role analogous to that of the point of view from which the eye grasps its object. If this point of view is characterized by sound judgment, the radiance of the object will be communicated to the point of view. And this radiance persists, as in the images of old, "its light shines regardless of the passage of time". Not only has the beauty of the object in question been transferred, but so, too, has a reflection of the imperishable. Aphrodite was not just an allegorical theme in the figure of the lover, but was also represented in the embrace and became anonymous.
Today, we are still deeply moved by the death's head depicted by the old masters. In it, in its empty eye sockets, one can behold death. It was something that was communicated to the atoms.
On the other hand, the skull and crossbones of the "adventurer" is purely accessory. Here a symbol, there an ornament; here a myth, there an allegory. On one hand an approach, on the other a distancing.
Furthermore, it must be noted that the contemporary painter, even from the purely pictorial perspective, does not achieve the mastery of the classics, regardless of how much renown he may have in his field as an artistic technician. The concordance and the sense of well-being that is created between the spectator and the work of art, for whose glory the artist lives, is rapidly dissipated. The poor artist was, without even knowing it, a counterfeiter. The bogus banknote is confidently accepted, but sooner or later everyone finds out that it is worthless. The check is drawn on insufficient funds: on the one hand the outward claim of the piece of paper, on the other, the gold that backs it up; on the one hand, the appearance, on the other, the reality.
Banknotes can often deceive us; few are the experts who can instantly perceive a fake by holding the note up to the light. "Holding it up to the light" means, in certain cases, that one recognizes that there is nothing hidden behind it.
The idea that we might be impressed by a skull became absurd when x-rays became routine facts of life. This is not so much an observation about physics or optics, as it is about the fundamental point of view, that is, a new mode of human sight, an almost instinctive mode, corresponding to the genesis of man. X-rays arise as an empirical consequence, conditioned by the change of the form.
This fundamental change that can be noted in physics and its instruments not only possesses a higher level, at which the air becomes rarified, but also deeper layers where matter becomes more dense and suggestive. Physics explores both levels.
What is more important, however, is the fact that in this way the relation to death also changes, and this change calls for expression not only in faith and thought, but also in art. This is, furthermore, one of the reasons why the skull and crossbones has lost, like so many other things, its symbolic "credibility".
These questions pertain to perspective rather than substance. The power of the skull is "in itself" intact, but it no longer serves any purpose to look through it. Apart from that, one must bear in mind that we are participating in a global process of erosion of symbols. Very few powers will offer any resistance: perhaps only Mothers.
Art must take this into account and it is in fact doing so: above all, ex negativo, with sensitive antennae. The devaluation of the classic symbols is a trait that is inherent to every change in style. In the meantime, in the Great Transition, not only are isolated symbols at stake, but so is the symbolic world in general. This point was emphasized in the discussion of the process of whitening in At the Wall of Time. Ultimately, it must not be interpreted as a nihilist act, but as a retour offensif. White is not colorless, but the refuge from the chromatic world.
Returning to our example, let us imagine one of those impressive limestone cliffs that loom over the French Riviera or the verdant grasslands of the valley of the Danube. Or we could think of the cliffs composed of Cretaceous rock on the coast of Rügen or the coral reefs in the Pacific ocean.
In these places, death no longer stands out as the pallor of an isolated skull, but by virtue of its incredible sedimentation. In the past all of this was the structural skeleton of life: snails and clams, the shells of diatoms, corals that had been deposited for thousands of years before reaching the highest degrees of fossilization. Forms incubated in the seas of the primordial world, forged even more distinctly by geological pressure or destroyed when that pressure became a little too great. Then the process of dissolution begins again with the impact of the ocean surf and the rock is distilled into the molecules that once again fall prey to life and once again come alive in circles, spirals and symmetries.
A game played in the limestone mirror, but one with many possible players. The carboniferous forest accumulated, shot through with mineral deposits, and the energy it absorbed from the sun is exhaled in the fires of the technological world. These changes took place over eons, like the ice crystals formed at the verge of the freezing point, which, whether they melt or crystallize, are like images in a mirror.
All of this lies dormant in the limestone cliffs, waiting for art to instill it with life.
Access to a new relation to death is in the process of being achieved. This is more important than all the feats of the world of technology. A Great Transition.
Not only is the limestone cliff alive, but so is the desert. Moses knew this. It was proven by the incident where he struck the rock with his staff and caused a spring of water to burst forth, and his staff turned into a serpent. There is a thirst for this water in our deserts, too. Those who thirst are legion. And this thirst increases when the human being is overwhelmed.
One will soon get the impression that the State, the "dragon with a thousand scales", is the only creature that lives in the desert, and populates it with its illusions. Dreams possess the most exclusive monopoly; priests have known this since time immemorial.
It is considered to be the privilege of the gods to dwell in the world of images and to descend to the world of phenomena only on exceptional occasions. Then, they shine like rainbows.
As for us, we have been conceded a lesser share of this gift. We get a glimpse of the richness of the world from the images with their refracted colors and, on the rarest occasions, it happens the way it does in dreams, we escape from the visible world of phenomena in order to penetrate into the universe of the imagination.
As a native of a landlocked country, I knew the sea only by hearsay and, upon seeing it for the first time, I was not impressed by its waves. Only when I almost drowned in the undertow, did it overawe me like a giant; you could say that up until then, whether it was choppy or calm, everything was just a stage backdrop and only then did the show really begin. Hokusai painted waves like these. That is how you must look at the limestone cliff.
When the "black", concerning whom I will provide more information below, deflowered his girlfriend and asked her how she liked it, she responded: "I had imagined it would be more beautiful". This must be the rule, even if you do not like it.
Crime, too, has imaginary attractions. A bank robbery, like the ones that are depicted in novels or the movies, can seduce intellects with a taste for clever decoys and bold decisions in which a plan must be executed precisely to the second. In practice, unforeseen events and annoying setbacks supervene. After Raskolnikov used an axe to dispatch the old usurer who, according to him, was worth less than a bedbug, in the hallway he ran into her devoted sister, to whom he meted out the same fate, for lack of a better idea.
There can be no doubt that one of the more alluring aspects of the novel consists in abstracting the imaginary part of the crime from the blame for committing it. The sentence was merciful if one reflects on the fact that the crime consisted of a double murder, carried out, furthermore, in the most vicious manner, "with an axe". It seemed scandalous to the other prisoners; they thought that the "young master" had been treated with kid gloves.