Trauma and Intoxication: A Traumatic Intoxication

This is the second of a series of posts occasioned by my reading of Ernst Jünger’s 1970 book Approaches:  Drugs and Intoxication.

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The first time Ernst Jünger used cannabis he took a more concentrated dosage than he realized.  At first he experienced a blissful euphoria, but then suddenly everything changed, and in an instant euphoria became terror.  At that point the intoxication turned traumatic—or at least at that point the traumatic nature of his intoxication first revealed itself dramatically to Jünger himself.

The episode occurred during a trip Jünger made with is mother at the beginning of the 1920s, only a few years after he had returned from fighting on the German side in the trenches of the Western front during World War I.  He had already made a name for himself on the German literary scene by publishing Storm of Steel, his vivid memoir of his combat service.  Spending a night in transit in an inn in the west-central German town of Halle, after seeing his mother to her room he returned to his own, and took a small amount of extract of cannabis.   He had found an old packet of the stuff on the attic floor of his father’s pharmacy before he and his mother left on their trip, and had brought it along with him.  Perhaps concentrated by age, the small amount he permitted himself to take proved to be far more potent than he might have anticipated.

His experience of intoxication on that occasion began with him lying down on his bed to read the book he’d also brought along, a copy of 1,001 Arabian Nights.  He describes it himself, well along in Approaches:  Drugs and Intoxication, in section 194 of a total of 315 (in my somewhat free translation):

I stretched out and opened the book. .  .  .  Then I heard the sea roar, and strode its strand.

The images were stark and immediate:  un-reflected.  Till then they had shone like a light in a mirror–now I saw the light itself, and up close.  I had been reading the text like a good translation, now I heard it in its primordial language.  It was no longer reading.  The fairy-tale revealed a depth that I had not suspected.  It provided access to the sea itself and its murmuring monotony.  Whoever heard that, whomever it penetrated, no longer needed the text, no longer needed the letters.

I set the book aside; my breathing grew faster, more filled with relish.  Every inhalation was a pleasure; I became conscious of it myself.  I felt it as a light touch of the diaphragm.  The touch was rhythmic, that of a pendulum, that grazed, caressed and then lost itself in a wide swing.  It came back and stroked again, a little more deeply and tenderly.  I went forth, to wander the strand, and hear the sea rustling; it was delicious, a pleasure.  The pendulum swung and came again; its force grew stronger.  Now I went with it into the heights . . . .  Its swing the shape of a crescent moon . . . , it barely touched the skin, stroked by the breeze of its passage.  Sensitivity increased as the swinging continued—dizzying at the apogee.  It forced laughter, then swung whistling back down.  The motion was no longer maintainable, no longer to be controlled; it had reached such an intensity that it threatened to come unhinged.

Sheer joy followed serenity, giving way in turn to uneasiness and then anxiety, with almost no transition between.  The pendulum, once it had reached its highest point, swung back in the opposite direction.  Just like children playing with a small fire and amusing themselves with the flame, until it suddenly climbs howling and crackling into the treetops.  Then they scatter and flee.  That can happen in an instant.

Our sensitivity is limited.  When we overreach its scale, perception can become paradoxical, just as touching things frozen deeply enough can produce blisters.  Extreme pain can flip over into pleasure . . . .  In the same way, joy can become too strong.  Then it shows up as rape committed against nature; the page turns, and in an instant.

The discomfort did not come gradually; it erupted suddenly at full strength.  The reach of the pendulum remained undiminished, but it [now] moved in the opposite direction, as though uncoupled.  I jumped up, glanced in the mirror, and no longer recognized myself.  The blanched face there, distorted by laughter, was stronger than mine, and filled with hatred for me.  It plotted evil; I must not let it loose.

In his introduction to the 2008 edition of Jüngers reflections on “drugs and intoxication,” German newspaper literature critic Volker Weidermann cites this episode from the text, remarking in his opening line that the anguish Jünger felt on that occasion was of a sort that “crops up hardly anywhere else in his work.”  Weidermann observes that the anguish at issue was “ a death-anguish, pure terror, the disabling glance into another world.”  Then, after citing most of Jüngers description of the incident given above, Weidermann writes ironically:  “Jünger feared death, but even more he feared, and this gives the scene an almost grotesquely comic air:  his mother.”  He then quotes the lines of Jünger’s text that immediately follow what I cited above:  “I must have swallowed too strong a dose.  It could have been fatal.  [But] above all, quiet!  Don’t wake Mother!”

As Weidermann goes on to note, Jünger, realizing that he needs help, desperately tries to find some other solution than that very most desperate one, the one of “waking Mother.”  None of his strategies work, however.  Soon he concludes that ‘[t]here is no helping it:  I must wake Mother.”

Once Jünger finally has to resort to that most dreaded of all recourses, Mother swings into action.  A doctor is summoned, who in turn orders that some strong coffee be brought for Jünger to drink.  Drinking it, writes Weidermann, “restores Jünger in a moment.”  Weidermann then cites Jünger himself on the resultant return of his good spirits:  “It was more than well-being, it was a deep comfort of existence.  Such good fortune arrives without reason; it comes like a wave that overwhelms us.  We don’t know the cause.  Perhaps somewhere in the distance a meteor has plunged into the sea.”

In the text at issue, Jünger himself immediately adds that it could also be that  “perhaps the stars were just in the right alignment,” but Weidermann does not include that line.  Instead, after citing the remark about the possible meteor, he again interrupts the citation to remark, again with light irony:  “Yes.  Perhaps.  And, [Jünger] goes on, that’s exactly ‘the sort of luck that comes ever more rarely.’”

In his tone both here and, even more, slightly earlier, when commenting on Jünger’s fear of waking his mother being greater than his fear of the monster he saw in his mirror, Weidermann just stays at the level of a fashionable, “post-modernist” sort of irony.  By doing that he misses the truly rich ironies strongly at play in Jünger’s own text—so rich as even to overflow Jünger’s own  awareness of them, perhaps.

Those ironies begin to emerge when places Jünger’s description of his first cannabis experience, with his mother in the nearby room in Halle in the 1920s, back into the context in which it occurs.  That context is first and foremost provided by the book as a whole, Approaches:  Drugs and Intoxication, in which Jünger first publishes that description.  Context is also provided by Jünger’s entire, life-spanning string of publications over fifty years, from Storm of Steel in 1920 to Approaches itself, from fifty years later, in 1970.

I will concentrate for the most part upon the former, more limited context, that of the book as a whole.  Even there, my discussion will by no means be exhaustive, however.  It will draw upon only a few important examples.  As for the broader context, that of Jünger’s entire opus, my discussion will be even briefer—primarily dealing with two of his preceding publications, both brief themselves: one from between the two World Wars, On Pain (or Over Pain: Über den Schmerz), first published in 1934, and the other from after World War II, On the Line (Über die Linie), first published in 1950.

With regard to the context provided by the book as a whole, those who read all of Approaches will discover that mirrors and mirrorings–reflectors and reflections:  screens for imaging, and the images screened upon them–are a recurrent theme throughout the entire work.  Often intersecting with that first theme is a second recurring one–that of “the Mother.”  The book is rich with passages addressing both themes—and most especially the subtle and diverse interconnections that can emerge between the two.

Accordingly, someone who comes to Jünger’s  recounting of his first cannabis experience after first reading the whole preceding text, and who is attentive to the recurrence and interweaving of those two themse, will not let Weidermann’s presentation of that episode at the very start of his introduction freeze one’s understanding.  Instead, such a reader will realize that Jünger’s account of that episode–which doesn’t occur until about four-fifths of the way through the book, as is befitting for what can, at least with regard to the two themes I’ve mentioned, be taken as a climatic passage—resonates in complex ways with earlier passages on mirrors, images, and the Mother.

One such passage, this one on the theme of the Mother, occurs in the first chapter of the book, “Skulls and Reefs “(“Schädel und Riffe”),in ¶7.   Jünger is talking about the power that the symbol of the skull has in so many cultures.  That includes the frequent use in European cultures of a human skull as a “death’s head,” a symbol of mortality—and, it is worth noting, of toxicity, which is more than etymologically related to intoxication, as I will eventually discuss in detail (but not in today’s post).   In ¶7 he addresses how today (which for this purpose can be taken to mean either 1970 or 2012, since what he says fits both equally), when the apparent mysteries of the skull have been dissipated under the search-light of x-rays, and by the entirety of the sciences to which x-ray technology belongs, the symbol of the skull, including its use in the death’s head, has been, in effect, de-symbolized.  That is, modern science and the basic existential attitude from which the rise and dominance of that science is inseparable have shorn the skull of its symbolic power, as Delilah sheared Samson of his (my connection, not Jünger’s).

On just that score, Jünger writes “it is to be noted that we [of today] are everywhere party to a vanishing of symbols,” an atrophy of the very power of the symbol and symbolization as such.  “Only a few powers will be able to withstand” that process, he continues.  Then, after writing an em-dash to call special attention to what follows, he ends his sentence by observing that perhaps there is only one such elemental symbolic power, one that will outlive the general decay of the symbol as such:  “—perhaps only the Mother.”

No wonder, then, that the one thing of which Jünger that night in the early 1920s in Halle is even more afraid than of the demon he sees in the mirror of the room at the inn when his first dose of cannabis utters the “Sesame” that opens the door to his own horror of himself, is precisely—waking the Mother!  Above all things, even above the fear of the monster he is to himself, he must be careful not to wake thatmost powerful of all powers, the Mother!    That most ancient of all powers, the very source of all power as such, must not be awakened, whatever the cost.  For to awaken that primordial power, the Ur-power itself, would require facing at last  the terror of all terrors, the dread of all dreads:  dread of the Mother.

From that perspective–the “Open, sesame!” to which Jünger’s account of his experience in Halle, taken in context, can utter for us–the old story in accordance with which it is the Father whom mortals cannot see face-to-face and live, is nothing but a screen behind which hides the horrible truth.  That truth is that it is not the Father, but the Mother who cannot be looked at directly without dying.  The Father in the fable is nothing but a soothing inverse-projection.  It gives us mortals a security-blanket, in effect.  Like Linus in Peanuts, we can walk around with our thumbs stuck solidly in our mouths–and our whole heads themselves, perhaps, buried in even less sunny places—just so long as we have our cherished blanket of the fearsome Father to carry around with us.

The ancient Greeks already knew that.  The knowledge, even older than the Greeks themselves, is carried in the myth of the Medusa, for example.  Beholding the face of Medusa turns one into stone.   Medusa is the Mother, however, at least by the reading I am suggesting.  So understood, the myth of Medusa delivers the warning that anyone who gazes straight at the Mother is scared stiff—petrified, which is to say made rock-hard.

Thus, looking at the Mother makes one like Peter, that rock of the Church.  Or like a sort of involuntary, permanent erection, perhaps.  But that is another point– and other connections–to which I plan eventually to return.

At any rate, with those remarks on stones and petrifications, my reading of Jünger’s account of his episode with his mother in Halle, when he first used cannabis, has brought me around to the topic of—pain, and therewith to Jünger’s own essay of 1934, On Pain.

There—with On Pain on pain—I will start my next post.

Published in: on November 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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