Trauma and Intoxication: Pain and Narcosis (2)

Pain and Narcosis (2)

“No claim . . . is more certain than the one pain has on life.”  Ernst Jünger writes in On Pain (page 13 of the English translation), just a few pages after observing that in sensing the inescapability of pain, “the uncertainty and vulnerability of life as a whole,” we immediately try “to turn [our] sights to a space removed from the unlimited rule and prevailing power of pain.”  When we find no such space already carved out for us—no readily accessible womb of bliss and security to which we might return at will–we continue to try to delude ourselves about the very possibility of eluding pain.  Whence come not only flights into purely imaginary paradises where there is no more pain, but also the turn to medicinal and pharmacological means, all the various narcotic substances both natural and artificially synthesized, to numb or narcotize ourselves.  No less narcotizing—indeed, it may well be the most universally and easily accessible narcotic of them all—is “the biased belief that reason can conquer pain” (page 10), if only we can fund the relevant research well and long enough to discover the “cure.”   This blind faith in reason’s capacity eventually to free us from pain is a faith that itself alone already serves to blind us to that same pain, numbing us to it.  It is a faith, writes Jünger (still page 10), that is “not only a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightenment,” but “has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the past century” (written in the early 1930s, which means that it is drawing toward two centuries, now, in 2013).  Jünger then gives some examples.  One is “the abolition of torture and the slave trade,” or at least what we even today would still like to believe to be their abolition–if not everywhere then at least in some privileged places (such as the United States, if not Guantanamo), and at least for some privileged persons.  Other examples include:  “the discovery of electricity,”or, more recently, of gene-codes, perhaps;  “vaccination against measles,” or against polio, or even the flu; “narcosis,” in the sense of modern pharmacological opioid analgesics; “the system of insurance,” that is, today, financial insurance against everything but insurance itself (unless that too is covered now, and I am just ignorant of the fact); “and a whole world of technical and political conveniences”–today, from airplanes to the Web, balloting to the Sequester to the UN Security Council.

Today no less than eighty years ago, when Jünger wrote On Pain, we—at least those of us such as myself, who are among those segments of global population that most directly participate in, and benefit from, such institutionalizations of the avoidance of pain—are “[b]orn in full enjoyment of all these blessings,” which are for us “now taken for granted.”  However, as Jüger immediately adds, the reality remains that “all this is thoroughly fairytale-like and reflects a sordid world in which the semblance of security is preserved in a string of hotel foyers,” while simultaneously everywhere “barbarity” is lurking just beneath the surface, or just around the corner.  Thus, he writes, our world today “resemble[s] an archipelago where an isle of vegetarians exists right next to an island of cannibals.  An extreme pacifism side by side with an enormous intensification of war preparations, luxurious prisons next to squalid quarters for the unemployed, the abolition of capital punishment by day whilst the Whites and the Reds cut each others throats by night,” as Nazis and Communists did in the streets of Germany during the inter-war period when Jünger first wrote those words.

Such public, officially endorsed illusions of “security” are purchased at the price of marginalizing pain “in favor of a run-of-the-mill complacency,” as J ünger says in a passage I quoted near the close of my preceding post.”  It is in that same passage that Jünger calls the system generating such illusory security a “spatial economy,” insofar as it marks out what it proffers as places of supposed safety from otherwise ubiquitous pain.  “Alongside this spatial economy,” as he adds in that passage, “there is a temporal one, consisting of the sum of pain that remains unclaimed and amasses as hidden capital accruing compound interest.”  Thus, the pain we seek to avoid through recourse to such illusions of security does not go away; it just keeps growing.  Far from diminishing in its threatening quality, he concludes the passage, “[t]he threat grows with every artificial increase in the barrier separating [us] from the elemental forces,” as Jünger calls them, those forces to which our ineradicable vulnerability—literally, our capacity for being wounded—always continue to expose us, despite all our efforts to bar their way to us.

Such illusions will not last forever.  Eventually they will all fail.  Then all the compounded pain we have so long been avoiding finally bursts through the bounds within which we have sought to contain it, floods into and over us.  When that happens, as it inevitably will—then what are we to do, as I asked at the end of my preceding post?

Well, what can we do, then? At that point, there is no longer anything we can do.  All we can do is—nothing!  At last, when we are at that last point of all, then that is precisely the only thing we have left to do:  Nothing.

There is nothing, however, harder to do than that–nothing.  Accordingly, we try time and again not to do nothing, but instead to do something–anything, other than that (than nothing).  Each time, of course, we fail again.  Regardless of just what we may choose to do, we just make things worse, since doing anything is doing the wrong thing, when all that remains to be done is nothing.  If we are to avoid that, avoid just making things worse, then we have to stop avoiding what all our doing itself is designed to avoid.  That means we have to stop avoiding the inevitable, which is to say unavoidable (“inevitable”:  from Latin in-, as indicating negation, and evitablilis, from evitare, “avoid”), pain that comes our way–and always will come our way, despite all our efforts to avoid it.

At that point, where we stop doing anything and start doing nothing, we stop running from pain and, in effect, start simply staying with it.  Accordingly, at that point everything shifts.  “Henceforth,” to borrow a way of putting it from Jünger himself (page 16), “all measures are designed . . . not to avoid” pain by “marginalizing pain and sheltering life from it,” but, rather, “incessantly to stay in contact with pain.”

That does not mean to aggravate the pain, to add to it.  That, after all, is precisely what all the endeavors to secure ourselves against pain have ended up doing.  What counts, rather, is to acquire, and then to keep on exercising, a capacity to remain calmly with our pain, remain in it.   In a word, what we need is a proper detachment toward our own pain—a detachment that is itself what allows us not to lapse back into trying to insulate ourselves against pain, to isolate ourselves from it.

During the period of the early 1930s when Jünger wrote On Pain, his own thought was still moving within the circuit of Nietzsche’s, and most especially of what the latter called “active nihilism,” and proposed as the only viable response to nihilism itself, which Nietzsche saw as the problem that contemporary humanity had to face.  Accordingly, in On Pain itself Jünger interpreted the notion of cultivating the attitude of detachment that ceases trying to avoid pain, and instead seeks constantly to stay in contact with it, in “heroic” terms.  Thus, he writes that, once one bottoms out, as it were, on the attempt to avoid pain, and finds one’s way to an alternative, fruitful response to pain’s inevitability, all the efforts one had been expending to secure oneself against pain come to be directed instead toward mastering pain.  Then the point is no longer (page 16) “marginalizing pain and sheltering life from it.”  Rather, he goes on (pages 16-17),

the point is to integrate pain and organize life in such a way that one is always armed against it.  .  .  .  Indeed, [now] discipline means nothing other than this, whether it is of the priestly-ascetic kind directed toward abnegation or of the warlike-heroic kind directed toward hardening oneself like steel.  In both cases, it is a matter of maintaining complete control over life, so that any hour of the day it can serve a higher calling.

However, by the end of the 1960s, when he wrote Approaches:  Drugs and Intoxication, basing that work on his own lifelong experimentation with various narcotic and hallucinogenic drugs, Jünger had at least arguably grown into seeing his own earlier “active nihilism” as itself part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  After World War II–which in his novel Eumeswil, published even later (1977) than Approaches (1970), Jünger himself characterized as embodying “the final triumph of the technician over the warrior”—he dropped the imagery and terminology of “heroism” and “mastery.”  In fact, even in On Pain, immediately after the remark about the goal being to maintain “complete control,” he already went on to observe (page 17) that, when it came to such matters of detachment “[e]xertions of the will are in particular insufficient,” because “[o]ne cannot just artificially cultivate a ‘heroic worldview’ or proclaim it ex cathedra.”  Then, in a remark anticipating by thirty-five years Heidegger’s posthumously published interview with Der Spiegel magazine entitled “Only a God Can Save Us,” Jünger notes (page 18) that “the advent of a god is independent of human effort.”

Be that as it may, and regardless of whether it is articulated in terms of “active nihilism” or in less “heroic” terms, the key contrast remains.  That is the contrast between two different sorts of “numbness” or “narcosis,” as it were.  The first is narcosis in the service of an ultimately fruitless and counterproductive attempt to attain immunity against pain.  The second is narcosis in service to a very different end, that of ceasing to flee pain, and instead remaining with it.  To borrow an expression the popular Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh has used in speaking of anger (a rather painful, or at least agitating, emotion after all, as Aristotle already taught millennia ago), this second sort of narcosis aims to “cherish” pain, “like a baby.”  It is that second sort of narcosis that I have called “the narcosis of recovery,” in contrast to “the narcosis of avoidance.”

In both forms of narcosis, pain remains.  However, it is only in the first form, that of the narcosis of avoidance, that pain remains the master.  In what I read as the greater wisdom Jünger displays in his later works than in his earlier ones, in the second form of narcosis, that of recovery, there is no longer any master, or further need of mastery.

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This completes my two-post sequence on “Pain and Narcosis,” which is itself the last of my longer series entitled “Trauma and Intoxication.”

Trauma and Intoxication: Pain and Narcosis (1)

Pain and Narcosis (1)

Pain hurts.  So we try to avoid it.  If we can’t avoid it altogether, as none of us can forever, then when it inevitably does come our way we try to numb ourselves against feeling it.  Narcotics are good for that, which is why we call them “narcotics,” from narkosis, Greek for “numbness.”

It is worth noting that numbness is also one side of the definitive, two-sided psychic “effect” of trauma, according to Freud, on the psyche—the other side being the compulsion to repeat the traumatic event.  The traumatized need take no drugs to achieve narcosis.  The numbness comes right along with the trauma, no additional drug taking required.

However, there is narcosis–and then there is narcosis.  Trauma-induced numbness is one kind.  Sometimes, drug-induced numbness can also be of that same kind.  However, the narcosis induced by taking narcotics or their equivalents can also be numbness of a sort very different from that induced by trauma.

The difference at issue is less a matter of the felt quality of the numbness as such than it is of the end to which the numbing is dedicated within the total context of its occurrence –the underlying purpose it serves, the telos or end toward which it is directed and which “animates” it:  its intention, in the phenomenological sense.  There is, on the one hand, the narcosis that belongs to the flight from pain.  On the other hand, there is the narcosis that continues to hold the pain close, at the very heart of the numbness itself, as it were.  Instead of belonging to the endeavor to avoid pain, as is the first sort of narcosis just mentioned, this second sort of narcosis belongs to the enterprise of engaging with the pain, in effect, in an ongoing effort to recover in the face of it.  Accordingly, I will call the first sort of narcosis the narcosis of avoidance, and the second, the narcosis of recovery.

The narcosis of avoidance invariably worsens the pain, most dramatically and visibly in exponentially increasing the violence and devastation with which pain lays waste to whatever it touches, making it into ever more wasting pain, as we say.  “The wasteland grows,” to borrow Nietzsche’s famous line–and the narcosis of avoidance both sows the seed and harvests the bounty of that growth.

Many others besides Nietzsche have written about the underlying phenomenon at issue.  That includes Ernst Jünger, who wrote about it in several places, one of them being his essay “Vom Schmerz,” originally published in 1934 in German and available in English as On Pain (New York:  Telos Press Publishing, 2008–translated by Peter C. Durst).

Early in the essay Jünger indirectly approaches the all too natural, universally human tendency to try to draw back from pain and avoid it, by beginning with a remark about our experience when we find ourselves in places or situations which, despite our efforts, remind us of the inescapability of pain in our lives.  Thus, he begins by making an unexpected remark about archaeology, of all things.  “Archaeology,” he writes (p. 7 in the English translation), “is actually a science dedicated to pain; in the layers of the earth, it uncovers empire after empire, of which we no longer even know the names.”  Etymologically, the word archaeology means the science (in Greek, logos) of beginnings (plural from the Greek arche); and Jünger’s remark resonates with an at least double sense, which emerges when we go on to read his immediately following remark, which unexpectedly calls our attention to the sense of sadness and loss that can affect us when we find ourselves—physically or only mentally, it makes no difference—at the site of an archaeological “dig” unearthing the buried remains from some long ago forgotten human community.  “The mourning that takes hold of us at such sites,” as he writes of such sadness, “is extraordinary.”  In thus forcefully reminding us of how transitory are all human endeavors, even those that once established empires, the sense of mourning that can strike us at such archaeological sites confronts us with an even deeper arche or source of human habitation than that revealed in even the most ancient strata of physical remains.  It reminds us, with a reminder that is itself all too painful, of how for all of us, regardless of how privileged and fortunate, our life itself begins in pain—and ends there, too.

Our mourning at such sites ultimately above all testifies, perhaps most painfully of all, to the futility of every endeavor to build ourselves some lasting place of safety, secure against the pain that loss inevitably brings us all.  As Jünger writes a bit later in the same early section of On Pain (p. 9), the human eye “naturally searches for spaces of shelter and safety at the sight of pain so inescapable and antithetical to [human] values.  In sensing the uncertainty and vulnerability of life as a whole, [one] increasingly needs to turn [one’s] sights to a space removed from the unlimited rule and power of pain.”

That all such searching is doomed to be in vain is what the mourning we can come all too easily to feel in such situations as that of visiting an archaeological dig insistently reminds us, revealing yet again to us the illusory nature of all our endeavors to find a place secure from pain.  What we feel in such situations puts the lie, as Jünger goes on to note in his very next section (on p. 10), to “the biased belief that reason can conquer pain.”

The belief that, somehow, somewhere, there is a place secure from pain, if only we can find our way there, is nothing new.  It, too, has been there almost from the very beginning.  It is almost as archaic as pain itself—the pain against which the belief in safety itself first arose as a reaction.  It is, as Jünger himself observes right after noting its bias, “a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightment,” at the start of the modern epoch.  Not only that, “but it has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the past century”—which means, given when Jünger first wrote that line, for going on two centuries now, back to the middle of the nineteenth.  Jünger then gives as examples “—to name just a few—the abolition of torture and the slave trade, the discovery of electricity, vaccination against measles, narcosis [my emphasis—at issue is the discovery of the narcotic drugs that ever since their discovery have remained at the center of the modern medical techniques of “pain management,” as we’ve long ago grown accustomed to calling it:  what I have above labeled “the narcosis of avoidance”], the system of insurance, and a whole world of technical and political conveniences.”

Lest his intent be misunderstood, Jünger hastens to add that, of course,  “[w]e still appreciate all these celebrated dates of progress.”  He even goes on to remark that “whenever one, let’s say, mocks them, it is due to a romantic dandyism, which flatters itself haughtily as a finer spirit amidst a boundlessly democratic lifestyle”—a sort of John Galt or other Ayn Rand hero come to haunt us before his time, perhaps.

Nevertheless, Jünger goes on to observe, although we who were “[b]orn in full enjoyment of all these blessings,” and for whom they are “now taken for granted,” many things give us pause.  At a time when “the War” meant what we have since come to think of as the First World War, the butchery of which is itself second to that of the far more deadly Second World War, Jünger writes (still on p. 10), in words that, if anything, fit better today than they did back then, in the 1930s:

Since the War’s end, the denial of pain as a necessary facet of life has experienced a later revival.  These years display a strange mix of barbarity and humanity; they resemble an archipelago where an isle of vegetarians exists right next to an island of cannibals.  An extreme pacifism side by side with an enormous intensification of war preparations, luxurious prisons next to squalid quarters for the unemployed, the abolition of capital punishment by day whilst the Whites [read, right-wingers] and the Reds [left-wingers] cut each other’s throats by night—all this is thoroughly fairytale-like and reflects a sordid world in which the semblance of security is preserved in a string of hotel foyers.

No matter how hard we try to avoid it, and struggle to convince ourselves that we still share the Enlightenment’s faith in progress, we never truly manage to escape the deep, unarguable claim that pain has on all of us.  “No claim,” as Jünger bluntly reminds us a few pages later (p. 13), “is more certain than the one that pain has on life.”  He immediately continues:

Where people are spared pain, social stability is produced according to the laws of a very specific economy, and, by a turn of phrase, one can speak of a ‘cunning of pain’ [against Hegel’s celebration, itself often celebrated, of what Hegel calls ‘the cunning of reason’—which cunning becomes sheer stupidity in comparison to that of pain] that never fails to reach its aim.  At the sight of this state of widespread comfort [we might think, for example, of the not-to-be-disturbed comforts of homeland Americans during the still-ongoing wars unleashed under President Bush after September 11, 2001], one is prompted to ask immediately where the burden is borne.  As a rule, one will not have to go far to uncover the pain.  Indeed, even the individual is not free from pain in this joyful state of security.  The artificial check on the elementary forces might be able to prevent violent clashes and to ward off shadows, but it cannot stop the dispersed light with which pain permeates life.

In short, pain will out.

For Americans such as myself, who continue to experience the comforts of home, not struck personally, at least not directly, by the violence of America’s current and recent wars–nor even, in my own and similar cases, by the even more pervasively wasting violence unleashed by the economic collapse of 2008 –it can be sobering to read a remark Jünger goes on to make just a few pages later (on p. 15).  There, he writes that those who possess “a mind incapable of differentiating between war and murder or crime and disease will definitely select in territorial struggles the safest and most pitiful method of killing.”  (Readers like me might think today of drones, for example.)  Shameful as such mental incapacity may be, it certainly has its appeal!  After all, such blindness fosters a most comforting sense of security in those who “suffer” from it.

However, as Jünger goes on to write:

The nature of this security . . . lies in the fact that pain is marginalized in favor of a run-of-the-mill complacency.  Alongside the spatial economy, there is a temporal one, consisting of the sum of pain that remains unclaimed and amasses as hidden capital accruing compound interest.  The threat grows with every artificial increase in the barrier separating man from the elementary forces.

Unfortunately for all of us so far blissfully blind folk, there is no force more elementary than pain, and, as I remarked just a moment ago, pain will out.  Inevitably, the scales will eventually be ripped even from our eyes–and, as Jünger’s ominous last, just-quoted sentence warns us, the longer the blindness lasts, the greater grows the pain that will come to us all, eventually, when our vision clears.

Then what are we to do?

*     *     *     *     *     *

 I will try to address—or at least to begin to address—that question in the next post in this series on “Trauma and Intoxication.”

Published in: on February 12, 2013 at 11:52 pm  Comments (3)  
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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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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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