Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?



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Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph, Liriope. His mother was fascinated by his beauty but also shocked by his cold attitude towards others. Concerned about the fate of her son, she sought the advice of Tiresias, the prophet, and received from his lips the following oracle: as long as he does not know himself, her son will enjoy a long life. This enigmatic prediction was fulfilled one day when, as he was returning home after hunting, Narcissus stopped to bend down to drink at a spring and saw his image reflected on the water. The adolescent was enamored with what he saw and was consumed with an insatiable desire for his own image, which led to his death. The gods transformed him into a flower with a soporific scent, the narcissus that still bears his name and which blooms over calm waters.
It is most likely the case that, like so many other myths, only a few rudiments have been preserved from the myth of Narcissus; its major theme appears to have been longing. This was the bane of the nymph, Echo, who yearned in vain to be embraced by Narcissus and was so wasted by melancholia that in the end there was nothing left of her but her voice.
Narcissus saw his image, but he did not recognize it. Over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi it was written: “Know thyself!”; like many others before and after him, Narcissus failed before the most difficult of all tasks; he sought his ego in vain in his reflected image. The verb “to know” has a double meaning; Narcissus plunged into an erotic adventure just as Faust plunged into a spiritual one.
It is precisely this all-consuming longing that also constitutes a distinctive sign of the drug and its pleasures; desire always remains a step behind satisfaction. Images excite us like a mirage in the desert; thirst becomes a burning. We can also imagine it as a descent into a cave that divides into an increasingly more narrow and impassible labyrinth of galleries. There, we are threatened with the fate of Elis Fröbom, the hero of Hoffmann’s tale, The Mines of Falun”. He never returned, he was lost to the world; this also happened to the monk of Heisterbach, who got lost in the forest and only returned to his monastery three hundred years later. This forest is time.
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The substances that engender states of narcotic intoxication seem more subtle and more ethereal to us than those that stimulate the will. After the great spell cast in his nocturnal studio, Faust is led, first of all, to Auerbach’s Cellar, with its dissolute drinkers, and only later to the witches’ den.
We speak of a “narcotic perfume”. The word comes from the Greek ναρκόω, “narcotize”. In southern regions there are species of narcissus whose scent is thought to be dangerous. Euphoria and analgesia ensue from the inhalation of volatile substances, such as laughing gas and ether, which was, in the last years of the 19th century, the fashionable recreational vehicle, and Maupassant devoted an essay to it. In the magic of the classical era there are many references to the smoke that not only induces lethargy but also serves as a subtle vehicle for the visions that ensue upon lethargy. We find such scenes in The Thousand and One Nights, but also in authors like Cazotte, Hoffmann, Poe, Kubin and others.
There are reasons to assume that the visionary aspect of intoxication is also the more meaningful aspect from a qualitative point of view. If we want to form a judgment about this question, we must consider the common root from which the varied forms of the imagination grow. The risk we take when we use drugs consists in the fact that we are undermining one of the fundamental powers of existence: time. This can of course happen in various ways: depending on whether we narcotize ourselves or stimulate ourselves, we expand or contract time. This is, once again, related to the way we travel through and explore space: in one case, the effort to increase movement within it; in the other, the rigidity of the magic world.
If we compare time, as has been customary since antiquity, with the current of a river, it seems that under the effect of stimulants the channel of the river becomes narrow, the current accelerates, as if it was descending a valley by way of seething whirlpools and waterfalls. Thoughts, mimicry and gestures follow this current; this type of intoxicated person thinks and works more quickly and impulsively than the sober person, and also less predictably.
Under the influence of narcotics, on the other hand, time slows down and forms a pool. The current flows more calmly; the banks recede from view. When the lethargic state begins to take effect, consciousness drifts like a ship on a lake whose shores cannot even be glimpsed. Time becomes limitless, oceanic.
That is how the boundless opium dreams came that Thomas de Quincey described. He imagines that he “was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of the eternal pyramids”. In Suspiria de Profundis, a collection of essays that was published a quarter of a century after the Confessions, he evokes that disproportionate expansion of time and says that astronomical numbers are incapable of describing it. “ … in valuing the virtual time lived during some dreams, the measurement by generations is ridiculous—by millennia is ridiculous….”
Other authors, such as Cocteau, have corroborated this feeling of distance involved in the human consciousness of time: “Tout ce qu’on fait dans la vie, même l’amour, on le fait dans le train express qui roule vers la mort. Fumer l’opium, c’est quitter le train en marche; c’est s’occuper d’autre chose que de la vie, de la mort.”15
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Time passes more quickly at the animal pole, more slowly at the plant pole. This perspective also sheds light on the relation of the narcotica to pain. Most human beings become familiarized with narcotics thanks to their anesthetic properties. The feeling of happiness, the euphoria connected with their use, leads to addiction. The fact that depressive subjects succumb with particular pleasure to morphine is explained by the fact that they experience existence as such as pain.
Many narcotica are also at the same time phantastica. When Sertürner isolated the alkaloid of morphine in 1803, he separated opium’s analgesic power from its eidetic power. By doing so he performed a great service for countless sufferers, but at the same time he robbed the juice of the poppy, as Novalis sings, of its light.16
Someone who yearns for the world of images does not use narcotics either to escape from his pain or to feel euphoria; he seeks the fantastic. He is not motivated by a fear of suffering, but by a sublime curiosity, even audacity. In the magic and the witchcraft of the Middle Ages the world of the alkaloids constantly intervenes: the incantation is accompanied by potions, salves and vapors, and often involves mandrake, stramonium and belladonna.
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In those days, witchcraft was treated as a capital offense. Apparitions were more worthy of faith than reality. For Faust, the “realm of the spirits”, although largely reduced to the “spiritual world”, is “never barred”, but he is only concerned with the success of the spell. He is no longer tormented by religious or moral scruples.
Similarly, in our time, the spiritual man who is a friend of the Muses asks what drugs have to offer him. By virtue of his nature, he cannot be interested in the dynamic accentuation of his vital forces, or happiness, or the absence of pain. For him, it is not even a matter of enhancing or refining the visionary faculty; like Faust in his study, what he is looking for is something that “supervenes”.17 This supervention does not presuppose knowledge of new information. Nor does it imply making the empirical world a better place. Faust sought to escape from his study, where a Wagner would remain for his whole life, feeling happy. “I know very much indeed; but I want to know everything”: it is an infinite desire and, in this sense, the discovery of America also belongs to the world of facts; no spaceship can take him out of his world.
No form of propulsion, even if it is capable of reaching the stars, can nullify that ancient saying: “From self there is no remission.”18 This is also true for the accentuation of the vital force. Neither multiplication nor raising it to another power changes the cardinal number. One expects something different from that which supervenes, rather than an accentuation of a dynamic or vital type. In every era it was expected to bring an amplification, a complement, an addition. Which does not imply a strengthening, but a sum.
In the past, there was no doubt that in the spell, whether thanks to ascetic practice or to other means, something strange supervened. In the meantime, reason has since acquired a power, against which this conviction is only defensible in a rearguard action. But to decide if that which supervenes comes from without or from within, if, therefore, it has its origin in the universe or in the deepest depths of the ego, only poses a pseudo-problem.
The decisive point is not where the plumb line first enters the water, but how far down it goes. There, the vision is so compelling that there is neither the space nor the need to ask about its reality, not to speak of its origin. When canonical texts, authorities or even coercive means are necessary to legitimize a vision, this faculty has already lost all its power; it then acts as a shadow or an echo. But the disposition for such experiences must always remain intact.
The Plant as Autonomous Power19
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Whenever certain animal and plant juices intermingle, new molecules come into being, and many different kinds of chains and rings are formed. Only recently have we been able to direct our gaze towards these microscopic structures; if we were incapable of doing so, basically not much would have changed. As some suspect and many guess, it is likely that this new perspective is a distraction from more important questions.
The fact that some of these molecules nourish the body, while others pass through it while remaining neutral, is as incontestable as the fact that other molecules trigger mental effects. It is on this perception that the American Indian distinction between everyday food and divine food is based, as is the difference established by the more advanced cultures between natural substances and sacred substances.
The question of whether these effects are triggered or “supervene” transcends the knowledge of psychologists and chemists. If we recognize the plant as an autonomous power that supervenes to take root and flower within us, then we distance ourselves by several degrees from the skewed perspective that holds that spirit [Geist] is the monopoly of human beings and consequently is something that does not exist outside them. The planetary leveling process must clear the way to a new worldview; this is the task that the new century will assume. The nihilist and materialist theories are called upon to prepare the way for it; thus, their persuasive power, so incomprehensible to its opponents. In the midst of the hurricane that uproots trees and strips the roofs off houses, of course, we do not perceive the attraction of a distant windless zone: the same is true of time.
Here we touch upon the borders of the disputes concerning the Last Supper that, for thousands of years, have exercised people’s minds and that, in their time, occasionally blazed with heated passion. It is about bread and wine, about the differences between presence and approach. When something really takes place, the crude and subtle differences vanish. For neither penetrates into the “interior of nature”. We can attribute the widest possible scope to both “that is” and “that means”. Basically, they both coincide at one point. On the very night of the celebration of the Eucharist, the Supper “meant”, beyond its present reality, something more, although at a high stage of approach.
Today, we have other problems. Above all, this one: that on this path, gods no longer insinuate themselves.
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The isolation of cocaine was first carried out in 1860 at the famous Wöhler Institute in Gottingen, one of the Pandora’s Boxes for our world. This precipitation and concentration of psychoactive principles, obtained from organic substances, is characteristic of the whole 19th century; it began with the extraction of morphine from the juice of the poppy, achieved by a twenty-year-old man, Sertürner, who thus developed [entwickelte] or, more accurately, unwrapped [auswickelte] the first alkaloid.
Like every approach to the world of the Titans, here, too, concentration and radiation are increased. In this world, forces and substances appear which are certainly obtained from nature, but are too strong and too vehement for our natural powers of comprehension, so that if he does not want to destroy himself, the human being is obliged to maintain a greater and greater distance from this world and to exercise more and more caution. These forces and substances are visible modifications of the entry into a new spiritual world.
Fermentation, distillation, precipitation and finally production of radioactive matter from an organic substance. That is how the 20th century began: 1903, discovery of radium and polonium; 1911, Nobel Prize awarded to the Curies for having extracted pure radium from enormous quantities of Joachimsthal pitchblende. In 1945, the Americans handed over this zone to the Russians, who extracted vast quantities of fissile material there.
Every transition is also a break, every profit also a loss. The pain is particularly bitter when, even if you do not understand it, you suffer intensely; above all if you still suffer from the retreat of the gods from the Titans. Views on this question therefore differ like night and day. Pierre Curie was among the first victims of motor vehicle traffic, killed in 1906. Léon Bloy gloated over the news about “the crushing of the famous brain”.
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Just as Goethe considered colors to be one of the adventures of light, we should contemplate ecstatic intoxication as a triumphal march of the plants in their passage through our minds. Thus, the immense family of the nightshades not only provides us with physical nourishment, but also nourishes our dreams. In the monographs devoted to these alkaloids one must reconcile the systematic spirit with the visionary power of a Novalis or a Fechner. The name Solanaceae is allegedly derived from the Latin solamen, consolation.
Just as the plant seduces us not only physically, but also spiritually, it had long cohabited erotically with the animals. To understand this we must recognize them as our equals, even as stronger brethren. The mystery of the bees, which is at the same time the mystery of flowers, embodies one of the most marvelous phenomena and one of the true miracles of nature. The amorous duet of two creatures so incredibly different in form and degree of evolution must have once been attested, as if by magic, thanks to countless acts of solicitude. The blossoms assume the form of sexual organs that adapt themselves in a wondrous fashion to completely alien creatures: flies, hawk moths and butterflies, and also sunbirds and hummingbirds. Before that, they were pollinated by the wind.
This was one of the short-circuits that interlace the chain of ancestors and their systems of protection. A Great Transition. In such images the veil of Isis becomes transparent. Cosmogonic Eros breaks through the classifications of the civilized world. It would never have occurred to us that such things were possible, if we did not see it confirmed a thousand times with each walk through a spring meadow or a flower-covered mountainside. Nonetheless, it was not until our times that a human being revealed the secret. Once again it was a rector: Christian Konrad Sprengel, in The Mystery of Nature Revealed (1793). What we call mysteries are, of course, nothing but manifestations; we approach them in the sound of the bell-like buzzing that we hear under the blossoming linden tree. Knowledge is correspondence.
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Plants, although they hardly have any capacities for movement, cast their spells over things that move. Novalis had seen this in his Hymns. Without plants there would be no life on the planet. All the creatures that eat and breathe depend on them. We do not know for sure just how far their spiritual power reaches. It is not without reason that the parable is based on them, above all.
The effect provoked by tea, tobacco, and opium, but also often by the mere scent of certain flowers—that is, that scale of delights that extend from a vague dreaminess to anesthesia—represents something more than a pallet of different states of consciousness. There must be something else, something new which supervenes.
Just as the plant forms sexual organs to mate with the bees, it also celebrates its nuptials with human beings; and this bond gives us the gift of access to worlds that would otherwise have remained closed to us. Here is also concealed the mystery of all addictions; anyone who wants to cure them must offer a spiritual equivalent.
Ecstatic Intoxication: Homeland and Pilgrimage
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It is often observed that drugs are divided up into zones that delimit certain domains of influence. The dreams of the lotus-eaters flourish in the East. The spirit wanders while the body lies on the bed. The visions are not always beautiful and serene; they can also be horrible and cruel. Drugs play the role of Scheherazade, who, during the night, “alleviated the hours of the Sultan’s insomnia”.
Western man prefers the effects of stimulants that favor activity. This difference may also be noted when the same substance is used in both the East and the West. On the one hand, the man in Chelabya, who, before he was served his coffee, smoked the hookah; on the other hand, the type who, during a break at work, compulsively chain smokes one cigarette after another.
In such a landscape, it is necessary to increase the consumption of means that produce an exaltation of the vital force without any imaginative virtues, a vital well-being with an accelerated pulse. As the smoker chain-smokes one cigarette after another, the pauses between cigarettes become more brief; the drug is degraded to a mere fuel. Now and then, one needs oil for the gummed-up engine: colorless tranquilizers and soporifics. The festive aspect of ecstatic intoxication, the approach to new worlds and the risk it entailed, has been forgotten.
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The introduction of pure phantastica in the western world only entailed a minor risk as long as, as was the case with opium, they were not deprived of their visionary effects by way of chemical procedures. Their enjoyment presupposes the serene pleasure of the world of images and therefore an inclination that is contrary to the style of our time. DeQuincey and Baudelaire represent the two most illustrious cases of knowledge of the arcane mysteries of opium. In this context, we must not forget to mention Novalis. The romantics were highly sensitive to the unusual. Some verses of Annete von Droste lead us to assume that the poppy, at least, wreathed her soul. I am thinking of “Sleepless Night”, in particular. De Quincey had also availed himself to an immense degree of the power and the sumptuousness of the poppy, as well as its horrors, as is testified to by the well-known passage in his Confessions dedicated to the Consul Romanus. That is how the gods see the world.
The dreamer prefers solitude; he does not want any unexpected interruptions. The real world is full of dangers for him; he is at the very least exposed to the curse of ridicule. Baudelaire expressed this in the symbol of the albatross as portent. Even if only this poem is considered, it can be said that his journey to the East was worth the trouble for him, and even more so for us. There, the gods persevered more in the dream-state than in heroic passion or martyrdom. Meditation is a form of the spirit that reconciles reason and fantasy; where both states are completely mingled, new worlds can arise.
In the West, the phantastica cannot become a mass threat like the pharmacological stimulants and tranquilizers; such as tobacco and alcohol, on the one hand, and sleeping pills and morphine, on the other.
Hashish is situated on the border, because it not only stimulates the eidetic powers, but also physical mobility. The collective enjoyment of opium is rare; it presupposes a community of esthetic and meditative inclinations or a shared taste for adventure. In this respect, the works of Farrère, Mirbeau and Loti contain abundant references to the literati of the Hôtel Pimodan and the naval officers; but only because it is hard to find a comparable environment, that is, because it is so rare.
We must imagine the atmosphere of such sessions as that of a cultivated and concentrated sympathy, also associated with diffuse sensations of presence, as are manifested among spiritualists. The images are seen with the inner eye; they are indivisible and of a different kind from the ones that are offered by our dream factory, or even by our high-brow cultural spectacles. Baudelaire went to the theater not as a spectator, but to use the performance as a raw material that he inserted into his oneiric world and which he submitted to the style of that world. Confronted by ecstatic intoxication, art is transformed into a collage, an elementary school for approach. We should also imagine it as a reversal of the relation between desert and oasis: the oasis still has its emerald color, but the sands of the desert glitter like diamonds. Wherever one looks, the earth is refulgent with such precious stones; the difference between the jewel and its setting disappears.
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The phantastica encountered an esoteric reception in the West. Around their trunk a whole new literature grew like a vine, which took root in the early romanticism and underwent further ramifications during the fin de siècle. The initiate radiated a dreary, arcane and disturbing atmosphere. It was not exactly a vice to which he surrendered, nor was it an irresistible crime. It was rather a theft committed against society, for which the latter reproached him: a theft whose most extreme form is suicide. We are bored with society; we thus leave the dull routine of the port behind us as we set sail aboard a small sailboat. Soon enough the wind fills the sails, and it will no longer be necessary to steer in search of lost isles; the latter emerge from the depths to the rhythm of desire. Of course, solitude itself already generates a feeling akin to ecstatic intoxication: the Argonauts who sailed alone across the ocean were not seeking so much the other shore as they were in search of this unknown “unity of the whole”.20
Such inclinations are innate, like other social deviations, political and erotic ones, for example. In the past, they were considered to be a distinctive trait of outcasts, the wicked people who lurked beyond the city walls, and who frequented mills, tanneries and houses of ill-repute. These were the places frequented by wandering bards and musicians, gypsies and fortune-tellers, alchemists and treasure-hunters. In their environs, they cultivated datura stramonium and belladonna, and dug up the mandrake that grew under the gallows.
Two strangers meet on a train or on a park bench; one mentions the name of an author, the title of a book, and they exchange information that they already know. Most people would undoubtedly recognize this as a depiction of the enlightened petit bourgeois, like Bouvard and Pécuchet at the beginning of the novel.
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The centuries weave a coarsely-woven screen that does not entirely cover up changes in style. They often only attain their typical aspect in the heart of an era. This is also the case with the aspect of our own century. It is true that there are seeds and hints already at the beginning of the century, but they did not leave their mark on the landscape. Radio, wireless telegraphy, the transition from steam power to the combustion engine, from impressionism to cubism, the visions of Nietzsche, Lilienthal’s wings: all of these things appear one by one, as if a virus was spreading. The roar of gigantic demolition operations covered up and smothered the details. Above all, the two world wars brought planning on a planetary scale in their wake. Nonetheless, now the world style has also become visible as if the outer shell that covered the avalanche of still-glowing metal has broken open: at first in isolated sectors, like the network of airports. There, other clocks are ticking, a new time prevails. Thus did Brobdingnag come to dwell among the Lilliputians—with the brutal ambitions of titanic power.
The new world style also embraces drugs and ecstatic intoxication. The great current of pharmaceutical stimulants and narcotics flows endlessly, and even swells and accelerates. The border between their medical and recreational uses is blurred, until pharmaceutical drugs become indispensable. In the whirlwind of the world of work and its stress many of these drugs have become food for the nerves. We can get some idea of just how massive the consumption of drugs is by looking at the machinery of the pharmaceutical industry that incessantly spits out an endless series of pills. All of these pills converge in multicolor rivers that once again diverge until they reach the most remote villages and huts. With regard to this point, too, one feels ambivalent, since chemistry is on the verge of breaking through this frontier, beyond which the remedy unleashes euphoric effects. Here the threat of abuse looms large. The taboos imposed by the law are left behind in its wake.
However, with the progress of culture, the serene joy of the outlying districts of the cannabis and poppy gardens is lost. On the one hand, everything is moving faster, while on the other hand, within the setting as a whole, images produced and reproduced by mechanical means satisfy—or appear to satisfy—and which, like stage scenery, surround and constrain the field of vision. Collective dreams displace individual dreams, the inner world of images is overwhelmed by the external world.
It is true that there is a hunger, an admonitory feeling of emptiness, that is never completely satiated: the suspicion that one is spending one’s days fruitlessly.

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