“Fringes blown by the wind”: High Hopes for Expanded Consciousness in Benjamin and Brecht
by Lauren Hawley
Published April 2016
Intoxication and Revolution
As Marcus Boon demonstrates in his book The Road of Excess, individuals from premodern times to the contemporary moment have sought to alter their states of consciousness through psychoactive agents, whether or not moral or legal sanctions existed to control the use of such substances (14). As contemporary attitudes toward drugs and intoxication shift, scholars can unburden themselves from the stigmas surrounding the topic of drugs and intoxication and ask new questions about the ubiquity of this “legitimate desire to be high” (Boon 13). Revisiting questions about the value of the altered state is no simple task, however, because it involves sifting through the tenacious biases, including the enthusiasms, that have led us to associate intoxication primarily with addiction, escapism, or, on the other hand, as a route to creative inspiration. Boon sums up his model for analyzing the relative values of intoxication by referring to Timothy Leary’s suggestion that the “set and setting,” or the cognitive and environmental conditions, largely determine the quality of a psychedelic experience. For Boon, evaluating the significance that individuals may have found through altered states of consciousness involves attending to the “set and setting,” or the specific contexts that influence, motivate, condemn, and control the pursuit of altered states (4).
Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin are two figures, as well as friends and associates, from the modernist era who were interested in the potential for altered states of consciousness to transform creative and critical thinking. Their thoughts on the limits and potentials of altered states significantly complicate the relatively simplistic views of intoxication that are bequeathed to us. Brecht and Benjamin’s views on altered states of consciousness and intoxication are shaped, in part, by a “set and setting” that consists of an array of theoretical and critical impulses, such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and a belief in the transformative powers of art and aesthetic practices. Brecht the playwright and Benjamin the philosopher and cultural critic shared the view that art, aesthetic practices, and intoxication, together, could revolutionize mass consciousness. Brecht’s innovations for epic theater and Benjamin’s documents on hashish experimentation, all composed between the world wars, represent attempts to put into practice a theory that intoxicating, euphoric experiences could transform the complacent bourgeois individual into an historically conscious subject. Yet, the same writings suggest, and history of course shows, that no such revolution in mass consciousness took place. In this paper, I suggest that one of potentially several factors inhibiting an awakening to historical consciousness through intoxication is the difficulty of achieving a disinterested attitude toward the uncomfortable physical and emotional sensations that intoxication instigates. The requisite for intoxication to be transformative, a requisite that remains implicit for both Brecht and Benjamin, is that the disconcerting effects of intoxication must be mediated as objects of aesthetic interest so that it becomes possible to overcome the ego’s impulsive rejection of uncomfortable intensities and so that, as Freud puts it, “what is itself unpleasurable [becomes] a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind” (Freud 5, 17). As Benjamin’s hashish protocols and essay on Surrealism most poignantly demonstrate, the formalization and styling of intoxication’s effects make it possible to trace the body’s responses back to environmental and social conditions, thereby abetting the expansion of historical consciousness.
Hermann Herlinghaus is one critic who treats Walter Benjamin’s interest in intoxication as more central to Benjamin’s thinking than major studies of Benjamin have in the past. Seminal works, such as Richard Wolin’s 1982 book Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption or Susan Buck-Morss’s 1989 study The Dialectics of Seeing, indicate that intoxication is an important figure in Benjamin’s work, but by and large allow the term to exist primarily as a way to describe an effect of Benjamin’s several strategies to obtain material for thought: in these texts, flânerie, the surrealist encounter, and Proustian involuntary memory are intoxicating experiences because they allowed Benjamin to expand his usual frame of perceptual reference. However, in his essay “In/Comparable Intoxications” Herlinghaus demonstrates how Benjamin’s interest in intoxication is more theoretically rigorous than it has appeared to the work of earlier commentators. He elaborates on Benjamin’s complex treatment of the term “intoxication” by examining some of the documents that Benjamin produced while experimenting with hashish and mescaline to investigate the value of intoxication for philosophical and critical thought. Herlinghaus discusses how actual experiences of intoxication enabled Benjamin to transform the term “intoxication” into a “multidimensional” critical category (21). Herlinghaus suggests that intoxication provided Benjamin with a shift in perspective that augmented his investigation into the conditions of mass consciousness and the political unconscious of Western subjectivity. He formulates the condition of mass consciousness and its relation to the political unconsciousness in capitalist society through the lens of intoxication by suggesting that Benjamin reveals how the visible discourses of permission and exclusion regarding psychoactive agents, such as hashish, had distracted attention from the existence of multifarious and widespread forms of intoxicated consciousness. It was by experimenting with stigmatized substances, such as hashish, that Benjamin could induce or enhance a perspective through which pleasure-seeking behaviors, such as consumerism and entertainment, appear to operate according to patterns of stimulation and satiety that characterize narcotic addiction. By experimenting with his own state of consciousness, Benjamin was able to step outside of, and thus identify, how an everyday state of narcotized consciousness correlated to the performance of everyday cultural practices that become normal by virtue of mass participation. This correlation explains, to Benjamin, how an ideological structure that elevates the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of discomfort into principles may be sustained on the level of conscious experience, through the ebb and flow of addiction.
For both Benjamin and Brecht, this condition of mass narcosis or enchantment, described by the critic Max Pensky as an “ideology of endless newness and guaranteed progress” in which repressed desires for political redemption are unconsciously invested in the consumption of commodities, represented a distraction and crisis of perception for a continent poised on the edge of a second world war (182). An urgent need to understand and to change the conditions of mass consciousness to a state of heightened political awareness complicates an ordinary binaristic understanding of intoxication, which is that one is either intoxicated or sober. We could see through the work of Benjamin and Brecht an application of a key inference that can be gleaned from Derrida, that the designation of a drug as either poison or antidote does not describe the essential characteristic of that substance, but reflects a claim to power (“Plato’s Pharmacy” 133). Benjamin and Brecht counter the poisoned, enchanted mass consciousness with an intoxication that clarifies the social conditions that the poison of consumption obscures, thereby allowing individuals to regain a sense of political identity. This is achieved by both writers through a concept of intoxication that surpasses its simple association with drugs. First, for both writers intoxication may refer either to a passive, narcotized haze, or to a euphoric, stimulating experience. Second, neither form of intoxication necessarily needs to be drug-induced. Anything that induces the narcotized passivity of ordinary mass consciousness is considered a drug. On the other hand, euphoric states of intoxication may include responses to aesthetic effects, powerful emotional states, a sharpened mental acuity that Brecht calls “sobriety,” and the effects instigated by drugs. For both figures, euphoric states of intoxication could dispel the effects of ordinary narcosis by instantiating experiences that enabled one to temporarily exit the feedback loop of ordinary consciousness and its associated activities and ideologies, thus defamiliarizing habits that had come to appear natural through repetition and mass participation. Defamiliarizing mass consciousness could thereby make it available for analysis.
Bertolt Brecht sought to intervene in the loop in the sphere of entertainment by presenting his audiences with formally innovative plays that could stop the narcotic cycle of expectation and fulfillment. While Brecht aimed to transform passive spectators into conscious analysts of social conditions, Benjamin’s essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929) declares the surrealist practice of activating contents of the subconscious mind to be a form of intoxication that enables the subject to recognize the repressed desires for collective identification within his or her individual psyche. The same essay names several other modalities of intoxication, including hashish and opium, as well as dreams, love, and evil, that can give rise to illuminated insight. These many intoxications can be distinguished according to their efficacy for instigating insight into cultural conditions. Whatever modality prompts it, an experience of intoxication, which Benjamin refers to as a “fruitful, living experience,” and which I refer to as “euphoric expansion,” can enhance one’s receptivity to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and objects that regimented patterns of consciousness tend to repress. Euphoric expansion transcends the confined boundaries of narcotized consciousness by creating conditions of enhanced receptivity to elements and experiences that the fictions, fantasies, and logics sustaining narcotized consciousness cannot easily comprehend. From the perspective of euphoric expansion, states of ordinary consciousness appear to be tied up in habit, and restricted to effects of stimulation and satiety.
Benjamin: Inviting the Unknown
The distinction between euphoria and narcosis clarifies Benjamin’s “dialectic of intoxication,” which he introduces in the essay on surrealism. In the dialectic, a “loosening of the self by intoxication is, precisely, the fruitful, living experience that allowed people to step outside the domain of intoxication” (Benjamin, “Surrealism” 208). This formulation encapsulates how certain states of intoxication supplant habitual patterns of thought and perception. The dialectic also entails that contrasting experiences of intoxication can become a basis for insight into the structures and conditions, or the “domain,” that organize those supplanted habitual patterns. Brecht echoes Benjamin’s view that changes can be instigated on the level of conscious experience for the purposes of generating new insight into the world-at-large when he writes, “thinking across the flow is almost more important than thinking in the flow” (72). Here we see Brecht implying that the “flow” should remain in sight, even as one steps beyond it. This entails that stepping outside of the usual domain of intoxication is not an escape from the conditions of mass consciousness, but is a method of finding new grounds upon which analysis of that flow can take place. Some have taken this dialectic as bestowing intoxication with an exceptional critical power. Richard Wolin affirms that for Benjamin, intoxication is tied to the cultivation of revolutionary consciousness, and Herlinghaus describes intoxication as a “passage to active historical knowledge,” thus serving as a methodological strategy for an “anthropological materialism” (Wolin xxvii; Herlinghaus 22). To think of intoxication as a transformative critical tool in these terms, it seems necessary that the intoxicated subject hold in suspense both the subjective experience of intoxication, and the state of consciousness that has been left behind in order to discover that something new and different has taken place.
For Herlinghaus, discovery plays an important role in the critical work that intoxicated consciousness may achieve. For instance, he finds that Benjamin’s narrative essay “Myslowice—Braunschweig—Marseilles” (1930) exhibits how intoxication permits the (temporary) occupation of a peripheral zone of experience within a climate of consciousness that is “amassed” by the powers of industrial capitalism (Herlinghaus 19, 30). He sees Benjamin as discovering states of consciousness that have been marginalized as a consequence of prohibiting or stigmatizing specific substances like hashish. In this peripheral zone, one may encounter, for example, the coexistence of nominally antithetical terms that modern rationality has conventionally opposed, such as “ecstatic sobriety.” Or, one may transgress the boundaries of the self by directly identifying with society’s marginalized figures (Herlinghaus 32). Benjamin’s discoveries on hashish thus offer profound examples of what it means to de-center the “Platonist rational subject” on the level of direct experience (Herlinghaus 19). When Benjamin inhabits marginalized states of consciousness, forms of knowledge that have been marginalized by ordinary rationality acquire profound credibility. Intoxication therefore gains its critical capacity by illuminating how a subject position conditioned by the structures of industrial capitalism may be maintained in part by condemning the value of certain other states of consciousness.
Herlinghaus convincingly establishes that Benjamin’s experiences with intoxication demonstrate how the destabilizing effects of intoxication permit discovery of new critical grounds. Yet the dynamics of euphoric expansion and narcotic intoxication, which involve increased exposure to elements that seem unfamiliar from the perspective of narcotized consciousness, necessitate that illumination, insight, and productive self-displacement may only be secondarily predicated upon carefully handling the disconcerting effects of encountering these unfamiliar dimensions of experience. If intoxication is to revolutionize mass consciousness, the resistance to unfamiliar sensations and situations that seem impossible must be carefully handled. These kinds of discomfort involved in euphoric expansion only remain implicit in Benjamin and Brecht’s writings, when they assume that the disarming effects of intoxication will be immediately taken up by the superior pleasures of intellection. For instance, in “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction” (1935), Brecht distinguishes between tedious learning and the love of learning. He observes that the commodification of knowledge has made learning tedious, and he acknowledges that epic theater must work against this insidious belief pattern (“Theatre for Pleasure” 109-17). However, it is not entirely clear how Brecht intends to transform this ingrained reaction against learning. In what follows, I will attempt to answer this question by focusing on the role that discomfort plays in Benjamin’s and Brecht’s view of intoxication. I suggest that the discomfort that arises upon upsetting the familiar flows of habit through intoxication is actually fundamental to moving beyond the “domain of intoxication,” and toward enhanced critical consciousness. To illustrate, Benjamin’s essay “Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1940) considers the role of discomfort for Baudelaire, a figure whom Benjamin considers to have been positioned outside the domain of regimented conscious experience. Benjamin asks how Baudelaire managed to overcome the ego’s function to “protect […] [itself] against stimuli” so that he could gain access to material which consciousness ordinarily filters out (“Baudelaire” 156, 161). Benjamin asks not only about Baudelaire’s means of access to these materials; he also wonders how Baudelaire navigated the twisted shapes of surfacing unconscious material without plunging into madness. From here, an additional question may be inferred: how can such discomfort can be negotiated, mediated, or even ignored so that new critical understanding might usurp ideological structures of mass consciousness and avoid regressing into habitual patterns of consciousness? It would appear that intoxication alone does not necessarily produce revolutionary insight, but rather, such insights may be achieved provided that these areas of discomfort are themselves treated as the bases of critical examination.
Brecht: “To Make the World Burst In”
Fig. 1: Finale, Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928. From actual production photograph.
This relationship between exposure to the disconcertingly unfamiliar and the development of critical insight may be clarified through Benjamin’s and Brecht’s respective interests in aesthetic forms and practices. Both writers exhibit how the discomfort that arises in response to euphoric expansion may be marshaled into insight when aesthetic forms and practices transform these responses into contemplatable objects. Specifically, aesthetic forms can intervene in an impulsive tendency to repress, through rationalization, the discomfort that is generated by the euphoric epistemological rupture—a rupture that impedes efforts to make sense of the pleasures and pains of euphoria through pre-existing structures of meaning. Brechtian epic theater achieves this effect by leaving audiences no other option but to autonomously seek and construct the causes for the feelings of discomfort that theatrical techniques instigate. The protocol of surrealist practice, as demonstrated by Benjamin, is to seek situations that provoke feelings of unsettlement, and then to treat those feelings of unsettlement as signifying the presence of unconscious beliefs. Finally, Benjamin’s experimental hashish protocols demonstrate how the intervention of a quasi-aesthetic form can allay the loss of self that may be experienced under the influence of a powerful drug, because the protocol can record precisely those lapses of self-control that highlight what a loss of self presumably entails. The relationships among intoxication and aesthetic forms that may be extrapolated from these examples suggest that intoxication may yield critical insight into structures of self and society when the effects of euphoric expansion are not merely experienced, but further, when they are creatively comprehended. Benjamin’s and Brecht’s discussions of hashish intoxication, epic theater, and surrealism demonstrate how aesthetic forms and techniques may transform the discomforts of euphoric expansion into contemplatable objects which serve as new grounds for insight that is simultaneously creative and critical.
Brecht’s intentions for theorizing and enacting formal innovations in epic theater were to inspire a cognitive evolution in audiences that would better equip them to meaningfully engage with the complex realities presented by the growth of mass culture in pre-WWII Europe. The formal innovations of epic theater, a mode of performance intended to provoke audiences to critically assess the world beyond the stage, arose from the need to present distinctly modern scenarios without merely representing them, to evict anachronistic ideas about the value of emotional response, and to enhance historical consciousness. For instance, Brecht’s criticisms of bourgeois theatergoers highlight what he saw as the irony of maintaining the un-historical view that theater is a venue for cathartic release. At one time, theater may have served the ritual purpose of generating a collectivizing emotional experience, but in the modern age “when fate is no longer a coherent power” and theater is not a communal ritual but a form of entertainment, the notion of catharsis degenerates into a mere feeling experience: “What is the point, people may wonder, of all this running on the spot? Why this dogged clinging to hedonistic enjoyment, to intoxication? Why do they have so little interest in their own affairs once they step outside their own four walls?” (Brecht, “Subject” 49, “Notes on the Opera” 69). Brecht identifies the narcotic pursuit of the enjoyment of feeling one’s feelings with political apathy—opposite to the collectivizing function cathartic release supposedly promotes.
Epic theater displaces the habit of narcotic emotional stimulation by “dragg[ing] masses of material on to the stage,” to “make the world burst in” (“Experiments” 119). The use of film, newsreels, footnotes, and acting techniques such as gestus (acting choices that highlight allegorical or figural meaning) and breaking the fourth wall all constitute a “discontinuous, segmented and interrupted” form of theater where actions would “be multilayered and multifaceted” (Silberman 15). These techniques draw attention to the strangeness of what otherwise appears ordinary, what Brecht terms the verfremdung effect. Epic theater, in other words, confronts audiences with a maelstrom of situations and effects whose causes apparently lie in the physical and conceptual worlds beyond the stage, necessitating that causal relations and figural meanings be actively constructed by spectators. Benjamin, who commented extensively on Brecht’s work, sees the verfremdung effect as producing a sense of astonishment so that audiences “should be educated to be astonished at the circumstances under which [characters] function,” as Benjamin writes in the essay, “What is Epic Theater? (1969) (150). This means that the verfremdung effect was thought capable of evoking in audiences a curiosity about the social and historical conditions that give rise to staged material, as Brecht describes in “On Experimental Theatre” (1939) (143). Epic theater highlights the contemporaneity of the concerns it raises, which stops it from appearing as if it exists in an untouchable aesthetic sphere, and repositions it within a complex of present historical realities. The audience’s attention, summoned to activity through formal effects, is denied its habit of being “absorbed within an artificial reality” and forced to seek resolution in the world beyond the stage (“Verfremdung” 151). For Brecht, there is intellectual pleasure, a disinterested “wonder and curiosity” in the questioning and investigation that the verfremdung effect is meant to elicit (“Experimental” 143). Yet this intellectual pleasure appears to compensate for the discomfort involved in forcing questions into being, which takes place when audiences are denied passive escape in entertainment in a way that exiles their attention to the streets.
Fig. 2: Finale scene of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928. From posed publicity photograph.
Although Brecht held that the expansion of historical consciousness via rational self-reflection would produce forms of intellectual pleasure superior to the baser pleasures of emotional intoxication, his intention to make audiences feel uncomfortable should not be downplayed. I suggest that this discomfort is essential in producing the self-consciousness that precedes historical awareness. Spectators accustomed to comfort and satiety, Brecht believed, would have to be exposed to unfamiliar, hence uncomfortable feelings in order to see themselves implicated as historical subjects. To do this, his plays showed audiences “plenty of things they do not wish to see—they see their wishes not only fulfilled, therefore, but also criticized,” he writes in “Notes on The Threepenny Opera (1931) (71). Brecht’s plays not only confronted audiences with criticisms of their beliefs and behaviors; the formal constitution of epic theater also means that audiences were to discover and project these criticisms on to themselves. The annoyance of being denied the usual forms of entertainment is further compounded by vulnerability and indignation involved in self-exposure. These negative responses altogether culminate in a self-exposure that could catalyze the development of historical consciousness. Negative emotional reactions arise when boundaries are transgressed; by eliciting discomfort in audiences, the habitual thought patterns, belief systems, conditions, and expectations which constitute the conventional comforts of the theatergoing class could become visible. Highlighting these boundaries by violating them therefore makes heretofore unconscious boundaries available as objects for contemplation. The hoped-for outcome of Brechtian drama, as Wolin puts it, to “spur the viewer to rational, independent judgment,” may be gained from acknowledging and detachedly examining the discomfort that arises from being positioned within an expanded vision of the world that theater presents (151). Brecht must have presumed that the negative reaction to a work of art could be transmuted into greater self-consciousness (that is, self-awareness), provided that the grounds of a negative emotional response could be objectively examined.
Benjamin: Experimental Controls
Fig. 3: “Veritable sorceresses” repeated four times. From Benjamin’s hashish experiments.
Brecht’s intent to “activate the spectator” and provoke an evolution in consciousness that would manifest itself in a theater “full of experts” who could “understand the social surroundings and master them both rationally and emotionally” motivated the creation of innovations for performance that would give theatre a didactic function (Brecht, “Notes on Threepenny” 72, “Experimental” 139). Yet this didactic theater relies upon individual spectators to subject their felt senses of alienation and discomfort to detached critical assessment. Popular responses to Brechtian theater, perhaps not surprisingly, exhibit attitudes of misunderstanding and displeasure perhaps more often than they take the step of detachedly examining the habits and unconscious beliefs that such displeasure may reveal (Apgar 23-9). Benjamin’s writings on intoxication and surrealism address the tension between detached observation and inspired intellection that Brecht’s hopes for epic theater bring to the fore. Benjamin’s experimentation with surrealism and hashish exhibits how the immersive qualities of euphoric expansion may inspire the worldly engagement that Brecht’s plays may struggle to generate in audiences. Second, the essays and protocols themselves can be understood as aesthetic objects that, because they formalize experiences of intoxication, may be capable of interrupting automatic aversions toward the effects of intoxication. This formalization and interruption makes it possible to analyze the experiences with a critical eye. Yet, at the same time, Benjamin’s euphoria-enhanced thinking raises an additional question about the extent to which inspired intellection of historical conditions may possess any direct practical utility, as Brecht surmised.
The works collected in the volume On Hashish, written between 1927-1934, exist in various states of completion. They include experimental protocols, which Benjamin and his colleagues produced while under the influence of psychoactive substances such as hashish and mescaline; disjunctive prose pieces reflecting on concluded sessions; excerpts from longer essays such as “Surrealism” (1929) and “One Way Street” (1928) addressing the topic of intoxication; drawings; and completed narratives such as “Hashish in Marseilles” (1930) that reconstruct experiences of wandering around cities while under the influence. The experimental protocol uniquely accommodates the euphoric effects of intoxication through a hybridized form of theoretical and aesthetic expression. The mock-scientific genre of the “protocol” additionally emphasizes how a stance of open curiosity can contain the disruptive effects of euphoria while simultaneously refraining from submitting these disturbances to moralizing evaluation. In spite of their formal differences and various states of completion, these writings share a common theme of having to negotiate the physical, emotional, and intellectual discomforts that take on an unusually burdensome aspect in a state of hashish intoxication. For example, in an experimental protocol from 1928, Benjamin recounts: “On my return home, when the chain on the bathroom door proved hard to fasten, the suspicion: an experiment was being set up” (“Main Features” 26). This short line encapsulates the dynamics of defamiliarization, vulnerability, self-consciousness, and rationalization. When the ordinarily simple task of locking the bathroom door becomes difficult, and, one presumes, temporally extended, frustration rises to the surface. It is safe to speculate that a sense of aggravated self-consciousness is wrapped up in the cause Benjamin determines as being the reason for his difficulty: a colleague is performing an “experiment” on him without his knowledge. While paranoia is a form of distorted thinking, this example nevertheless demonstrates how rationalization steps in to account for a felt sense of disruption. Yet, the problem of paranoia is neutralized in the context of the protocol, which allows it to exist as a point of anthropological interest.
What paranoiac reasoning excludes is genuine acknowledgement of the vulnerability that arises when one’s own limitations are made evident. In a personal anecdote in the surrealism essay, Benjamin illustrates how treating a feeling of disturbance as an object of “wonder and curiosity” with the assistance of surrealist practice can transform vulnerability into greater self-consciousness:
(In Moscow I lived in a hotel in which almost all the rooms were occupied by Tibetan lamas who had come to Moscow for a congress of Buddhist churches. I was struck by the number of doors in the corridors that were always left ajar. What had at first seemed accidental began to be disturbing. I found out that in these rooms lived members of a sect who had sworn never to occupy closed rooms. The shock I had then must be felt by the reader of Nadja.) To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence. It is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need. Discretion concerning one’s own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an affair of petit-bourgeois parvenus. (“Surrealism” 209)
When presented with a scenario (le hasard objectif) that exceeds his usual frame of reference, a gap in understanding is felt as a disturbance. Surrealist practice, which understands unsettlement as the opening of a pathway between conscious and unconscious territories of the mind, gives Benjamin a lens to observe his own unsettlement as the lurking presence of an unconscious region in himself. This unsettlement is not merely a response to his ignorance about a fact regarding the practices of Tibetan lamas; its depth is perhaps proportionate to the degree to which keeping one’s door closed is considered normal behavior. Here is an instance in which the vulnerability of disturbance signifies the violation of an unconsciously held principle, which allows that principle to become visible as a vestige of an antiquated culture of privacy. The open door becomes a symbol for Benjamin’s openness toward an unsettled feeling that he reinterprets as heralding the arrival of new insight, thereby transcending the automaticity of aversion and repression.
While Benjamin and Brecht both look for ways to cultivate an investigative attitude toward the world, Benjamin sometimes speaks of the seductions, as well as the solitude, of contemplation. In contrast to Brecht, who intends epic theater to sever the emotional entanglements between spectators and stage that so that a purposeful pleasure of investigation supplants the self-exhausting, narcotic enjoyment of mere emotional stimulation, Benjamin sometimes veers into the territory of fascination and immersion, and plays with the notion of self-extinguishment in the hashish trance. It is true that Benjamin elsewhere contrasts the work of intellection to the hazards of self-abandonment, most evidently in the famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) in which he surmises that self-abandonment is a key element in the regimentation of amassed consciousness. But the self-abandonment that occurs when the mind wanders in thought is experienced in such solitude that it does not seem capable of summoning revolutionary energies, for better or worse. His concluding remarks in the finished essay “Hashish in Marseilles” (1932) raise questions about the degree to which intellection and self-extinguishment may be considered as separate in the context of intoxication:
It was not far from the first café of the evening, in which, suddenly, the amorous joy dispensed by the contemplation of some fringes blown by the wind had convinced me that the hashish had begun its work. And when I recall this state, I would like to believe that hashish persuades Nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love. For if, when we love, our existence runs through Nature’s fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall so they can thus purchase new birth, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls toward existence. (“Hashish in Marseilles” 125-6)
Representing Benjamin’s perhaps most developed statement on the intellectual value of hashish intoxication, these lines most evidently suggest that its value lies precisely in freeing one from the necessity for intellection to achieve practical utility. The state of euphoric expansion that makes “fringes blown by the wind” available for contemplation, seduces the attention in an encounter which absorbs and exhausts intellectual energy. Benjamin perhaps leads us to wonder whether or not contemplation may be as exhausting as narcosis, which, in Brecht’s terms, “dissipat[es] large amounts of energy that could be used to improve the human lot” (Brecht, “Notes” 69). Benjamin finds through intoxication a kind of intimacy with intellectual work that feels like an end in itself, which implies a still less reassuring notion that critical insight itself does not necessarily have to be productive, and perhaps amounts to little more than subjectively experienced moments of illumination. Embedded in this statement, perhaps, is a deeper lament that so much emphasis be placed on producing knowledge that is practical or useful when contemplation, likened to love, seemingly takes place outside of the system of means and ends.
Intoxication and Its Limits
Together, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht complicate intoxication by extending the category to encompass states of consciousness ranging far beyond drug-induced experiences, and by considering its efficacy for augmenting critical acuity. Neither associates euphoric expansion with transport out of this world, or as simple creative inspiration, but rather understand intoxication as a strategy for interrupting habits of mind that limit our access to the world. While they both suggest that euphoria can renew the sense of connection to surroundings that is lost in conditions of political complacency, their work also suggests that such an outcome relies upon a strategic response to the unpredictable dimensions of experience that euphoria reveals. Brecht relies on his spectators to detachedly observe the sensations of strangeness and defamiliarization as welcome intrusions into a limited world-view in dire need of expansion. Benjamin welcomed these intrusions at the risk of feeling himself as the lone individual who could take on the limitless pleasures of thinking that he associated with historical consciousness. This is all to say that the illuminated insight to be gained through intoxication is not as spontaneous or generative of a collective sensibility as one may hope. Its development depends upon ceding tendencies to resist discomfort or to judge the experience according to conventional moral and rational standards. Moreover, the growth of knowledge through intoxication depends upon turning the lens of scrutiny inward, to assess how responses to euphoric expansion reveal one’s personal complicity in upholding the very same cultural fantasies and fictions that condition mass consciousness at large. If intoxication is to produce knowledge, as it may be inferred from these writers, highly disconcerting, potentially overpowering realizations that occur in states of euphoric expansion must be carefully managed. For this reason, the intervention of an aesthetic form or practice is crucial; formal mediation can bypass the potential for intoxication to extinguish the self on the one hand, or to be naturalized via familiar forms of reasoning on the other. The surrealist ethos or the mock-scientific protocol, among so many other forms, may be considered as media through which the effects of euphoric expansion may be crucially distanced and objectified, so that the boundaries one transgresses in a state of intoxication are made visible, and thus thinkable.
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Pensky, Max. “Method and time: Benjamin’s dialectical images.” The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin. Ed. David Ferris. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 177-98. Print.
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Fig. 1: Finale, Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928. From actual production photograph. Brecht on Theatre. Eds. Marc Silberman, Steve Giles, and Tom Kuhn. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. 100. JPEG.
Fig. 2: Finale scene of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928. From posed publicity photograph. Brecht on Theatre. Eds. Marc Silberman, Steve Giles, and Tom Kuhn. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. 100. JPEG.
Fig. 3: “Veritable sorceresses” repeated four times. From Benjamin’s hashish experiments. On Hashish. Ed. Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Belknap P, 2006. 92. JPEG.
Lauren Hawley is a PhD candidate in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her dissertation explores performances of altered states of consciousness in modernist poetic texts in relation to the destabilization of mind/body dualism in early twentieth century European thought.