Trauma and Intoxication: First Post in a New Series

This is the first in what will be a series of posts under the general title of “Trauma and Intoxication.”

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Today, November 11, the day on which I am posting this, has come to be known as Veterans Day.  However, it is only since 1947 that it has been known by that name.  Prior to that, it was known as Armistice Day.  The first celebration of Armistice Day as an officially proclaimed holiday—literally a holy day–took place on November 11, 1919.  In his proclamation of that first Armistice Day, President Woodrow Wilson said:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.


Wilson proclaimed that first Armistice Day holiday for November 11, 1919, precisely because one year before that, November 11, 1918, was “armistice day” itself:  the day when, at the 11th hour of that 11th month of the year, the defeated Germany was made to sign the armistice that marked the official end of the formal hostilities that constitute what today is ordinarily called “World War I.”

We call the formal hostilities at issue, which took place from August of 1914 till November 1918, by that name because we’ve grown accustomed to calling the formal hostilities that broke out again in Europe in 1939 and continued until 1945, “World War II.”  Before the latter set of formal hostilities came around, the earlier set was referred to differently:  as the World War, or just “the war,” period.

The same Woodrow Wilson who proclaimed the first American Armistice Day also helped label that war whose end the armistice at issue supposedly marked “the war to end all wars,” which proved, of course, to be at best a wildly optimistic identification.  Far from ending war as such, what has now long been called World War I can easily be seen in retrospect to have just been the beginning of the terrible warfare that characterized the whole 20th century, which may itself not yet be at an end (just as it has often been said that the 20th century did not really begin, and the 19th end, until the firing of “the guns of August” in 1914).

In a very important, real sense, what we call World War I has yet to be concluded, even if at 11:00 a.m. in France on the 11th day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns fell silent in Europe, and remained silent until September of 1939.  In that same sense, when we celebrate Armistice Day, long ago become Veterans Day, on November 11, we are celebrating something yet to come, something for which we can still hope and pray, rather than something that happened and ended long ago.

The Wikipedia entry for Veterans  Day is one place Wilson’s words proclaiming the first Armistice day can be found.  In that same article we can also read that Veterans Day is “not to be confused with Memorial Day.”  That is because “Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving.”

Yet just as it is debatable, to use a mild formulation, that what is now called World War I has even yet ended, so is it equally debatable that anyone who served in the armed forces of the warring parties during that war did not die in the process of so serving.  It may well be the case that in a crucially important sense there were no survivors among those who so served during World War I.

Such examples as Primo Levi and Jean Améry, who, respectively, probably and certainly committed suicide only years after the Second World War was “officially” ended, raise the question of whether anyone who was imprisoned at Auschwitz under the Nazis in the 1940s, as both were, ever truly managed to “surive” Auschwitz at all.  There is an important, legitimate sense in which Levi’s and Améry’s deaths years after 1945 belong to the aftershocks, as it were, of their Auschwitz imprisonment.  In the same way, in an important, legitimate way it can be asked whether any of those who “served” in World War I, on either side, managed to “survive” the experience at all, even if the dates of death on their death-certificates do not occur until years–even many, many years—after November 11, 1918.

One such person, someone who served in the military forces of one of the combatants during World War I, and whose official date of death did not occur till many years after November 1918—indeed, almost eighty years after that, in February 1998, just a month or so shy of his 103rd birthday—was the author of a book I have been reading recently.  That author was a frontline combat soldier in the trenches of the hostilities in Europe of 1914-1918, and that experience indelibly stamped the entirety of his long, long life, as it did everything he wrote in a long and illustrious career as a writer.  Indeed, there is definitely a crucial sense in which that was all he ever wrote about, from his journals of those war years themselves, down through the extensive list of books and articles he was to write and publish between 1920, when his first book, an account of his combat experience, was published, until his death in 1998—and even beyond that, since a considerable portion of what he wrote was first published only posthumously.

As I’ve already mentioned, it was reading one of that author’s books—a relatively late one, not published until 1970–that has occasioned me to write a series of posts on “Trauma and Intoxication,” beginning with this one.  Given the definitive importance that his combat experience during World War I had in that author’s life and all his writing, I decided it would be fitting to post this first entry in that series today, on Veterans Day—a holiday name beneath which is buried that of Armistice Day, even deeper than which lies the original armistice day itself, the day that brought the formal hostilities of the World War we may still be fighting today to a close, at least for a while, namely, November 11, 1918.

What follows, then, is the first of my planned series of posts on trauma and intoxication.

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For a long while already, it has been no news to anyone at all familiar with such matters, that there is a correlation between trauma and “substance abuse.”  Rates of incidence of what are often called substance addictions—that is, addictive usage of alcohol, heroin or other narcotics, tranquillizers, sedatives, diet pills, or the like, including even food—are significantly higher among those who are classified as having undergone traumatic experience, such as sexual abuse, frontline combat, or torture, than for the general population as a whole.  The same applies just as well to what are often called process addictions, which involve the addictive repetition of certain behaviors, such as acting out one’s sexual fantasies, cutting oneself, or getting into abusive relationships, without that behavior necessarily including the addictively repetitive consumption of such things as alcohol, heroin, or even potato chips.

It’s also old news–so no news–that intoxication, in turn, can lead to potentially traumatic results–results occurring as a consequence of the path chosen to bring on the intoxication.  So, for instance, practicing for a long enough time such intoxicating non-substance-ingesting behaviors as sexual acting-out may result in the practitioner eventually contracting AIDs.  Similarly, recurrently drinking alcohol shortly before driving one’s car can end one up in a hospital after one drunkenly causes an accident.  Or the same behavior can lead to being sentenced to a penitentiary term for committing vehicular homicide by causing such a crash.  Or it may just be a matter of being stopped by the police as one crash-less-ly weaves one’s car home, and then being arrested on a drunk-driving charge—which is trauma enough for most drinkers, even if it’s just another irritating interruption in the long career of a truly devoted drunk.

In all such cases of trauma consequent to intoxication, whether a case of “substance abuse” or one of what we might call “process abuse,” the traumatic results at issue might be said to be only indirect and circumstantial consequences of the intoxication, rather than belonging directly from the intoxication experience itself as such.  That is, they all have to do with the circumstances under whichone gets intoxicated.

As indirect or circumstantial in relation to intoxication, such traumatic consequences of intoxication could theoretically be avoided by simply choosing wisely the means by which, and circumstances under which, intoxication is induced.  For instance, if one celebrates some event by drinking to drunkenness with one’s co-celebrants, but is careful to bring along some intentionally abstaining “designated driver” to drive one home afterward, then one can escape risking the consequences all too often attendant upon driving drunk.

But in addition to such circumstantial, indirect traumatic consequences of intoxication, there are those that belong to the intoxication itself, constituting all or at least an essential part of the intoxication as such.  It is that latter class of cases that interest me most.

I will take my example of what I have in mind from the account that one cannabis user once wrote of one of his first experiences with taking that drug.

The account at issue comes from the widely read and highly influential German writer Ernst Jünger.  Jünger was born at the end of the 19th century, near the end of March, 1895.   At least as such matters are usually conceived, he managed to survive almost all of the 20thcentury, living three years longer than100 years himself.  Jünger did not manage to survive most of the 20th century thanks to being a bystander to the massively traumatic events that punctuated that century.  Rather, he was a participant in more than one of them.  Most significantly he was an active participant in what was perhaps the definitive trauma not only for him personally but also for the entire 20th century as a whole, in that he was a frontline soldier in the First World War, serving as a youth in the trenches on the German side.

The armistice of November 11, 1918, brought the troops on both sides out of those trenches—though in the most important sense it left the war raging on, as it still does to this day, almost a century after it was declared in August 1914, and though many even still today have yet truly to hear the report of the guns of that only apparently long ago August.  At any rate, not many months on the calendar after the first Armistice Day, Jünger self-published In Stahlgewittern (English translation, Storm of Steel), the memoir of his experience as a soldier at the front in “the war to end all wars” (which perhaps it did, in the strange form of never-end-ing them, so to speak:  the judgment on that is still pending, a “perfect” storm of its own that is still gathering its strength).

Many years after the guns fell silent in 1918, Jünger, already old, in 1970 published Annäherungen:  Drogen und RauschApproaches or Approximations or, more literally, Drawings-Near:  Drugs and Intoxication.  Well along into that book, he gives the example I will use as definitive for what we might call not just indirectly or circumstantially traumatic, but “essentially” so.

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I will give my example from Jünger,  of an  “essentially traumatic” intoxication, at the start of my next post.

Published in: on November 11, 2012 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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