Walter Benjamin and Profane Illumination

This article (composed by Freya and posted as a comment to an article on the Rigorous Intuition blog) consists mainly of extracts from Scott J. Thompson's From 'Rausch' to Rebellion: Walter Benjamin's On Hashish and the Aesthetic Dimensions of Prohibitionist Realism.

When Thomas Mann and Georg Lukács reprimanded Aldous Huxley for "glorifying" his mescaline experiences to the world they were convinced that their position represented reason and the responsibility of intellectuals in the face of neo-fascist mind-control and late capitalist chemical escapism. What they failed to consider was that they were playing into the hands of a propaganda machine, one which had also functioned quite well under the Nazis, when it was called die Rauschgiftbekämpfung (the Combatting of Drugs). That was a true precursor to the U.S. War on Drugs, a ‘war’ which has mobilized the entire U.S. armed forces to root out the demonized forces of irrationalism threatening the performance principle of Late Capital's global sweat shop.

Mann and Lukács, who have no doubt made very valuable contributions to western literature, represent an academic attitude toward the irrational that would appear to be based on certain aesthetic biases. We can locate the germs of their anti-inebriant bigotry in the debates on Expressionism, particularly those between Lukács and Bloch. Mann and Lukács represent that "grandeur in repose" of neo-classicism, which is always so predictably horrified by displays of passion. Visionary inebriants evidently threatened their "masks of composure".

It was precisely to jar the post-industrial self loose from its de-humanized and well-adjusted mask that Walter Benjamin advocated rescuing the energies of the cosmic-rausch of the ancient world for the proletarian revolution. While Benjamin's concept of Profane Erleuchtung (Profane Illumination) stands in marked contrast to Huxley's semi-theosophical "Mind-at-Large" (see his Doors of Perception), there are indeed some striking similarities in their observations while under the influence of psychopharmaka.

Had Benjamin been successful in his flight to the U.S. he would no doubt have joined Salka Viertel's salon in Los Angeles along with his associates Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, and there he would also have come into contact with Thomas Mann (who was consulting Adorno on musical questions related to Doctor Faustus) and with Aldous Huxley, to whom he could have communicated his own mescaline experience of May 22, 1934 — almost two decades before Huxley's mescaline experience. To add the finishing touch to the intricate irony, he would have discovered, had he not already known, that writer-actress Salka Viertel's personal physician in Berlin had been none other than Dr. Ernst Joël, the psychopathologist who initiated Benjamin into the world of hashish on December 18, 1927.

If one compares Huxley's comments on the folds in draperies depicted in classical western artworks ("draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being") with Benjamin's comments on the delicate dance of fringe hanging from an awning ("Hashish in Marseilles") or "the ornamental" in his Crocknotizen (Crock Notes), one discovers enough similarity and correspondence to make for an interesting and constructive dialogue:

Es ist höchst eigentümlich, daß die Phantasie dem Raucher Objekte und zumal besonders kleine — gern serienweise vorstellt. Die endlosen Reihen, in denen da vor ihm immer wieder die gleichen Utensilien, Tierchen oder Pflanzenformen auftauchen, stellen gewissermaßen ungestalte, kaum geformte Entwürfe eines primitiven Ornaments dar.
Translation: It is highly characteristic of the reverie that it tends to present before the smoker [i.e. opium-smoker] objects — particularly small ones — in series. The endless successions, in which the same contrivances, little animals or plant forms suddenly surface in front of the person over and over again, depict, so to speak, misshapen, barely formed sketches of a primitive ornament.

Both Huxley and Benjamin were attempting to recover a concept of experience which had become entirely alien to the neo-classicist thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Benjamin's early treatise "On the Program of the Coming Philosophy" (1917/1918) was an attempt to rework the concept of experience from within the Kantian system. While praising Kant for his insistence that knowledge justify itself in quest for certainty and lasting knowledge within an ephemeral world, Benjamin called the reality of Newtonian physics upon which Kant based his certainty "a low, perhaps the lowest order." Benjamin perceived the metaphysical and religious presuppositions underlying the moral imperative to justify knowledge, but as a metaphysics he considered the Kantian "mythology" of a "pure epistemological (transcendental) consciousness" "different in kind from any empirical consciousness" to be "only a modern and, religiously, a particularly infertile one."

In contrast to the clockwork-metaphysics of nascent Protestant capital, Benjamin sought "the intoxication of cosmic experience" (Scholem, "Walter Benjamin and his Angel"). True experience would have to account for other mythologies as well, and those Benjamin names betray his reading of Ludwig Klages: "We know of primitive peoples of the so-called pre-animistic stage who identify themselves with sacred animals and plants and name themselves after them; we know of insane people who likewise identify themselves in part with objects of their perception, which are thus no longer objects, ‘placed before’ them; we know of sick people who relate the sensations of their bodies not to themselves but rather to other creatures, and clairvoyants who at least claim to be able to feel the sensations of others as their own. The commonly shared notion of sensuous (and intellectual) knowledge in our epoch, as well as in the Kantian and the pre-Kantian epochs, is very much a mythology like those mentioned."

Benjamin's critique of the Kantian concept of experience finds its parallel in Dr. Ernst Joël's critique of Kraepelinian psychopharmacology. Emil Kraepelin (1855-1926), father of modern psychopharmacology and "discoverer" of "dementia praecox" (later called "schizophrenia" by Jung's teacher, Bleuler) had advanced the technical capabilities of psychology by treating it as a physical science.

Rather than treating a human personality, the Kraepelinian method artificially severed partial functions of psychic life, altered them with psychopharmaka and subjected them to testing. A cursory scan of German monographs on mescaline written during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich reveals this method in a great number of monograph titles, e.g., "Meskalinwirkung auf das Phantomglied" (Mescaline-effect upon the phantom limb) or "Meskalinwirkung bei Störungen des optischen Systems" (Mescaline-effect in disturbances of the optic system). It is not at all surprising that such titles predominate in this field of research during the Third Reich, for the humanity lacking in the Kraepelinian paradigm was easily steered in the direction of mind-control and chemical-biological warfare.

Under the Nazis mescaline research continued, but laboratories like the Dachau concentration camp were the preferred setting. Humanistic and therapeutic research with psychopharmaka was forbidden under the pretext of die Rauschgiftbekämpfung, a component of the racist ideology which perceived a threat to the "performance principle" in the exotic inebriants coming into Germany from the "racially inferior" peoples of Asia and Latin America (the Introduction to Reko's Magische Gifte, written in 1938, spells it out quite clearly).

Ernst Joël proposed the alternative of "experimental psychopathology". Substances which were thought to be "psychotomimetic" would be used to arbitrarily engender "rausch-states" in specially selected test subjects outside the clinical laboratory setting. It was under this very loose "supervision" that Walter Benjamin, whose philosophical intentions were, according to Adorno ("Benjamin, the Letter-Writer"), "to render accessible by rational means that range of experience that announces itself in schizophrenia," agreed to participate as "Versuchsperson" (test subject) in Ernst Joël and Fritz Fränkel's hashish experiments in Berlin.

Of the hundreds of books, articles, essays, monographs and dissertations on Benjamin (supposedly over 3000 exist), only a handful discuss the writings on hashish and opium and the Drogenversuchen (drug experiments), and none of them situate them within a historical context. When Benjamin became a "test subject" he also became part of a long-forgotten community, the Weimar Republic's psychonautic avant-garde, which included Benjamin's friend, Ernst Bloch, his cousin Egon Wissing and Egon's wife, Gert.

With the extraction of mescaline from peyote by Arthur Heffter in 1897 Germany became the leader in psychopharmacological research. In the year in which Benjamin began his hashish experiments (1927) Louis Lewin published in Berlin the second edition of his Phantastica, which appears on the list of books which Benjamin read from cover to cover. This book alone would have supplied Benjamin with a library of information about psychopharmaka. Hermann Schweppenhäuser's claim that Benjamin's writings on hashish, opium and mescaline are among the most genuine ever put to paper can only be evaluated against the context of Weimar experimentation with psychopharmaka.

Kurt Beringer's amazing monograph on mescaline, Der Meskalin-Rausch, was also published in 1927, and remains the greatest work ever written on the subject. Beringer's book contains over 200 pages of protocols from 60 experiments in Heidelberg among doctors, medical students, natural scientists and philosophers, all of whom demonstrate remarkable articulateness. Only within the full context of this research, which produced literally hundreds of monographs on peyote, mescaline, cannabis, opiates, ayahuasca and cocaine, can we really begin to evaluate Benjamin's writings and experiments, in which he participated not merely as test subject, but at times as supervisor.

What makes Benjamin's contribution to this research unique is summarized quite concisely by Scholem in his essay, "Walter Benjamin and his Angel": to rescue the intoxication of cosmic experience that the human being of antiquity possessed for the proletariat in their coming seizure of power. This attempt to wed "rausch" and "rebellion" in a "profane illumination" should come as no surprise to anyone who came into majority during the late 1960s. It is hard to imagine the anti-war demonstrations becoming as large as they did if they had not been partially fueled by marijuana and LSD, and this is precisely what the moribund left in the U.S. seems to have forgotten.

Benjamin scholars have more often than not misinterpreted "profane illumination" as an awakening "from" rausch. Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Peter Demetz, Richard Sieburth, John McCole, Margaret Cohen, Susan Buck-Morss and others continually repeat the refrain that Benjamin considered the most important aspect of his experiments to be the crystallized intellectual yield gleaned after the rausch had subsided. In Schweppenhäuser's depiction, it is as if Benjamin were heroically running some painful gauntlet in order to capture the pearl from the rausch-dragons of obscurantism. But "profane illumination" can take place within the inebriated voyage itself. If rausch is analogous to being adrift in a turbulent sea, then "profane illumination" is like suddenly awakening in the midst of a dream and seizing the helm, becoming the pilot of one's inner voyage.

Norbert Bolz understood this perfectly well in his essay "Vorschule der profanen Erleuchtung," and he has prefaced his essay with a quote: ‘Man kann nicht immer im Rausch leben.’ Kann man es nicht? Man muß ihn nur richtig orientieren. (‘One can't always be high.’ Oh no? One only has to properly orient oneself.) The auto workers who smoked pot (‘turned on’), dropped acid (‘tuned in’) and, instead of ‘dropping out’, shut down auto factories in wildcat strikes, understand Walter Benjamin perfectly well whether they have read him or not.

Herbert Marcuse seemed to be coming to a similar idea in his Essay on Liberation when he postulated a "new sensibility" as a biological necessity for revolution. Discussing this new sensibility in 1969, Marcuse wrote:

Today's rebels want to see, hear, feel new things in a new way: they link liberation with the dissolution of ordinary and orderly perception. The 'trip' involves the dissolution of the ego shaped by the established society — an artificial and short-lived duration. But the artificial and "private" liberation anticipates, in a distorted manner, an exigency of the social liberation: the revolution must be at the same time a revolution in perception which will accompany the material and intellectual reconstruction of society, creating the new aesthetic environment. Awareness of the need for such a revolution in perception, for a new sensorium, is perhaps the kernel of truth in the psychedelic search.

The drawback to this search, according to Marcuse, was the "narcotic character" of the artificial paradise, which all-too-often tended to free one from concern for the social liberation. For Marcuse, like Benjamin, the voyage into the secret garden must be a messianic voyage, and the psychonaut is duty-bound to articulate his perceptions and discoveries to the entire community.

Little did Marcuse realize that the late capitalist state would mobilize its entire army and police forces in an all-out effort to eradicate self-induced euphoria once and for all.

At the end of his book One-Dimensional Man Marcuse quotes Benjamin's famous dictum: "It is for those without hope that hope is given to us." Those of us who are fortunate to have hope owe it to our fellows to become articulate in our ecstasy.

The copyright of passages reproduced from Scott J. Thompson's article belongs to the author of that article.

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