Walter Benjamin's posthumously published collection of writings on hashish is a detailed blueprint for a book that was never written--a "truly exceptional book about hashish," as Benjamin describes it in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem. A series of "protocols of drug experiments," written by himself and his co-participants between 1927 and 1934, together with short prose pieces that he published during his lifetime, On Hashish provides a peculiarly intimate portrait of Benjamin, venturesome as ever at the end of the Weimar Republic, and of his unique form of thought.
Consciously placing himself in a tradition of literary drug-connoisseurs from Baudelaire to Hermann Hesse, Benjamin looked to hashish and other drugs for an initiation into what he called "profane illumination." At issue here, as everywhere in Benjamin's work, is a new way of seeing, a new connection to the ordinary world. Under the influence of hashish, as time and space become inseparable, experiences become subtly stratified and resonant: we inhabit more than one plane in time. What Benjamin, in his contemporaneous study of Surrealism, calls "image space" comes vividly to life in this philosophical immersion in the sensuous.
This English-language edition of On Hashish features a section of supplementary materials--drawn from Benjamin's essays, letters, and sketches--relating to hashish use, as well as a reminiscence by his friend Jean Selz, which concerns a night of opium-smoking in Ibiza. A preface by Howard Eiland discusses the leading motifs of Benjamin's reflections on intoxication.
The essays and notes that Benjamin devoted to the characteristics of narcotic intoxication...are, despite their fragmentary nature, among the most authentic ever put to paper .... Benjamin's experiments correspond quite precisely to the specific cognitive intentions articulated in his most developed philosophical texts.... Like the micrological explorations that typify his philosophizing as a whole, his experiences of intoxication bring to light surprising finds.
Fascinating...On Hashish gives the reader a sense of Benjamin's philosophical method and a tour through the library (and the staggering erudition) that supported it, but also provides some insight into the man himself--his drives, his fears, and his creative process.
In search of heightened awareness, Benjamin would eat hashish, smoke opium and get injected with mescaline...Some of his notes (such as the part about giggling) will be familiar to any contemporary stoner, but even when dealing with drugs he surprises his readers...Everything Benjamin wrote, even when the subject is less than pleasant, exudes an almost euphoric spirit. It was as if he wrote as a form of worship, out of gratitude for the chance to live and discover.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the radical thinker and cultural critic Walter Benjamin made a series of experiments with hashish, mescaline and opium...This very welcome collection is the first in English to round up his better-known drug pieces, such as his elliptical account of a hashish-intoxicated evening stroll around the port of Marseilles, and to place them in the context of the related notes, drafts and marginalia that track the course of his elusive and constantly evolving project. This is a very worthwhile venture, and one that produces a book much greater than the sum of its parts. Benjamin's scattershot approach to recording his drug experiences means that there are as many nuggets of brilliance (and as many incomprehensible rambles) in his notes and journal entries as in his finished prose.
[On Hashish is] a miscellany, gathering the protocols of [Benjamin's] drug experiments, two accounts of his experiences, and a handful of references to drugs culled from his other works. It can only begin to suggest the true importance of drug experiences for the development of Benjamin's thought. Yet for this very reason On Hashish stands in the same relation to a more conventional essay on drugs as Benjamin's literary essays do to conventional criticism...What makes On Hashish an important book is that Benjamin's drug experiments not only were a failure in themselves but also shifted the ground beneath his other work in a way that he never fully acknowledged.
[Benjamin's] drug experiences show once again how singularly committed he was to the program of the avant-garde: overcoming the limitations of the self by subjecting it to an array of pulverizing, Dionysian, ego-transcending influences.
Drugs did, mostly, make Benjamin smile, and what could bring smiles to the lips of this proud, gifted and doomed man can't but bring smiles to the reader. There is wonderful writing in this book, much of which illuminates Benjamin's better known, equally suggestive, and no less enigmatic texts. Plus, here, we catch him tapping his foot. And smiling.
Harvard's pocket-sized On Hashish, edited by Howard Eiland, brings together everything that Benjamin ever wrote on the subject. It includes notes by him and his friends about the drug protocols and two essays. One of Benjamin's solitary experiments ended up as the basis for 'Hashish in Marseilles,' an essay that begins with him sitting in his hotel waiting for the drug to hit and then follows him around the streets. At points along the way, he giggles at his own jokes, has paranoid thoughts, feels the immensity of his solitude, and gets hungry. A piece of ice brings enormous pleasure; Pâté de Lyon reminds him of the words 'Lion paste'; the name of a boat in the harbor makes him think of aerial warfare; and he passes two men on the street who remind him of Dante and Petrarch.
Benjamin's work continues to fascinate and delight because it has something for everyone: the literary critic, art historian, philosopher, urban theorist and architect. Whether he is talking about children's toys, Mickey Mouse, Surrealism, photography, or Kafka, Benjamin has a knack for figuring out what they can tell us about the wider world that produced them.
- 208 pages
- 0-9/16 x 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 inches
- Belknap Press
- Introduction by Marcus Boon
From this author
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