What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin

It’s the year 1927 in Berlin. While some national socialist groups and Marxists already got into violent street fights with Marxists, the now legendary German-Jewish philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin sat down and experimented taking hashish with his friends Ernst Joël and Fritz Fränkel.

“During one of his first experiments with hashish he noted as a last statement of his first short experiential protocol: “Your thinking follows the same paths as usual, but they seem strewn with roses”. [1]

Walter Benjamin, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, 1892-1940

It’s a nice statement, short, picturesque and flowery, great for a quotation databank. Yet, although quoted correctly from Benjamin’s first protocol on his hashish experiences, it definitely does not summarize what Benjamin had observed about the marijuana high.

In fact, I will show in this essay that Benjamin had noted and meticulously described some of the most interesting and complex thought alterations of the cannabis high. Why, then, has his statement above been quoted so often when it comes to his thoughts about hashish?

It seems obvious to me that many interpreters of Benjamin fell prey to a biased view of the cannabis high as merely a euphoric state of consciousness with no significant useful changes in thought and cognition.

Yet, think about it: why would such an outstanding and inventive thinker with so many ground-breaking ideas be so interested in hashish, even working on a book about the hasheesh experience, if he thought of it mainly as a euphoriant?

In what follows, I will show that Benjamin’s hashish protocols may need some interpretation and analysis, but are a highly interesting source for a deeper understanding of the cannabis high. Furthermore, I’ll show that his cannabis experiences have profoundly and positively influenced Benjamin’s thinking – and with it, our thinking about media, art, and other issues.

Benjamin’s life and influence

The philosopher Ernst Bloch, 1885-1977

Walter Benjamin was born in 1892 in Berlin. He was in contact and corresponding with the influential sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and was friends with the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who participated in his hashish experiments in Paris. Ernst Bloch would in his later years befriend Rudi Dutschke and become one of the leading figures in the 68′ movement in Germany.

Benjamin originally pursued an academic career as a philosopher, but the Habilitationsschrift needed to academically qualify him – although full of brilliant insights – was rejected by his examiners, who admitted that they could not understand a single page.

He went on to work as a journalist, literary critic, and essayist, barely surviving on a small subsidy granted from the Institute of Social Research. In his later years in exile he met and corresponded in letters with philosopher Hanna Arendt, who also helped him financially.

Hanna Arendt

Benjamin was also friends with and influenced the writer Bertold Brecht. In his article “The Philosopher Stoned. What drugs taught Walter Benjamin” [2] on Benjamin’s book On Hashish, Adam Kirsch from the New Yorker called him:

one of the central figures in the history of modernism. Benjamin approached every genre as a kind of laboratory for his ongoing investigations into language, philosophy, and art, and his ideas on the subject are so original, and so radical in their implications, that they remain profoundly challenging today (…)” [3]

Only Benjamin’s most famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) left its eternal mark on our thinking about mass media and the modern art.

The influence of hashish on Benjamin’s writing

Clearly, then, Benjamin’s thoughts and ideas were eminently influential on other thinkers of his time and on generations of students, critics, artists ever since.

How much did Benjamin learn from his hashish experiments? Were they just eccentric excursions of a brilliant mind, leaving us with experiential protocols of largely unaltered thoughts, following paths “strewn with roses”? Really? Benjamin wanted to work on a book on hashish for years – only to tell us about a slightly euphoric effect?

In his article Kirsch values the importance of Benjamin’s work in general, but concludes that basically, Benjamin’s drug experiments were a failure.

”But what Benjamin called “the great hope, desire, yearning to reach—in a state of intoxication—the new, the untouched” remained elusive. When the effects of the drugs wore off, so did the feeling of “having suddenly penetrated, with their help, that most hidden, generally most inaccessible world of surfaces.” All that remained was the cryptic comments and gestures recorded in the protocols, the ludicrous corpses of what had seemed vital insights.” [4]

In the following, I’ll show that Kirsch’s conclusion is wrong – dramatically wrong. Benjamin left us incredible perceptive and important observations of the hashish high. Often, Benjamin’s language and thinking is difficult – it was already difficult when he wrote in a sober state of mind. The examiners of his “Habilitationsschrift“ (a second dissertation thesis to qualify for professorship in Germany) rejected him, admitting they could not understand a single page of his writing.

Many of Benjamin’s hashish experience protocols have been written a least partially under the strong influence of presumably high doses of hashish, which makes it harder to follow his thoughts, which are often jumpy and fragmentary, sometimes almost lyrical.

Also, Benjamin was courageous enough not to edit out some funny and almost nonsensical thoughts during his hashish experience. It is easy to pick these out and to make fun of them – as many biographers and commentators seem to have done.

The much more interesting work, however, is to analyze the deeper insights and observations in Benjamin’s protocols and writings about the hashish experience. So, let’s get down to work and look into the high mind of one of the most brilliant thinkers of modernism.

Benjamin’s experiments with hashish

Benjamin emigrated to France in 1933 to flee from the upcoming Nazi regime, never return to Germany. He translated Balzac, Proust, and Baudelaire, whom he admired, and was convinced that Baudelaires’ experiments with hashish were important, but had to be repeated – by Benjamin himself and his friends.

He had already started experimenting with hashish in the early twenties in Berlin and would in the next years go on to experiment with various friends in Spain and in France and wrote several protocols on those experiments. Benjamin wanted to research and describe the mind-altering effects of hashish in a favourable environment with friends.

Long gone memories, faces, and Rembrandt

In his essay “Hashish in Marseilles”[5], Benjamin quotes his friends Joël and Fränkel, who observed and described several effects of a hasheesh high, including enhanced episodic memory, insights, a change in space perception, the intensification of colour vision, and, also, short-term memory disruptions:

“Images and series of images, long gone memories re-appear, whole scenarios and situations become present (…) he (man) comes to experiences which come close to insights and epiphanies (…) the room can become extended (…) colours become brighter, shining; (…) often, streams of thought become difficult to follow because you forget about everything you had just though about” [6]

Benjamin himself noted how he became much more sensitive during his high “(y)ou become so sensitive: fearing a shadow falling on paper would be damaging it”, and how his sense of space and time changed: “The claims of space and time of the hashish eater now come to bear; and they are regal, as is well known. Versailles is not big enough for whom has eaten hashish, and eternity does not last too long.” [7]

He also observed that during a hashish high, he strongly focussed on faces:

It (hashish) turned me into a physiognomist, at any rate an observer of physiognomies, and I observed something quite unique in my experience: I became dead set on the faces around me, some of them of a remarkable rawness and ugliness.” [8]

Rembrandt painting „Saint Bartholomew”, 1661

These mind alterations, Benjamin writes, allowed him a deeper understanding of art: “I suddenly understood, how a painter – didn’t it happen to Rembrandt and many others? – would find ugliness appearing as a true reservoir of beauty, or better, as a treasure keeper for beauty, as the torn mountains with all of the contained gold of beauty, with beauty flashing from the wrinkles, glances, and expressions.” [9]

These observations are remarkable not only because they show that Benjamin had insights under the influence of hashish which he would later use as an art critic. They are also interesting in the face of countless other reports of marijuana users reporting in detail about how marijuana helps them to better empathically understand others – which of course includes the ability to read and understand facial expressions.

Many marijuana and hasheesh users have remarked that during a high, they are able to better understand other people, music, or art, which would normally not resonate with them. In his protocol on a hashish experiment, Benjamin also wrote:

Feeling that I understand Poe much better now. The doors to the world of the grotesque seem to be opening. (…)” [10]

Hyperfocussing, humour, and pâté de Lyon

Benjamin’s strong attentional focus on faces during one of his hashish experiments is only one of the “hyperfocus” – effects reported by him. I have argued in my High. Insights on Marijuana [11] that the hyperfocus of attention is one of the basic effects of a cannabis high.

„High. Insights on Marijuana”, 2010

This hyperfocus can be used for many purposes by skilled cannabis users; to better focus on a creative purpose, to deeper examine a painting or nature, to find more details, to discriminate colours or styles better, or to better focus on and understand the lyrics when hearing a song.

Later in his essay Benjamin reports another observation made possible by his hyperfocus : “There were times in which the intensity of acoustic impressions made them supersede everything else.” [12]

During his high, this strong attentional focus helps him to understand how strong a dialect he is hearing in conversations around him: “The most peculiar thing about this noise coming from voices was that it did sound completely like a dialect. People from Marseille so to say didn’t speak French well enough for me.” [13]

Benjamin also noted that during his high, he experienced a wonderful, inspired humour – and he proves this claim in his protocols with statements written under the influence that could come from comedy genius Groucho Marx, as for instance: “If Freud would psychoanalyze God’s creation the Fjords wouldn’t come off very well.” [14]

Another of his funny experiences during a high is about pâté de Lyon (duck liver pastry from the French city of Lyon):

“Lion pastry, I thought to myself laughing funnily, as it lay in front of me on a plate, and then, despicably: this rabbit or chicken pastry – whatever it may be. I was hungry like a lion, so it seemed not inappropriate to me to satiate my hunger with a lion.”[15]

As silly as this might seem, Benjamin’s observation about his funny association is also interesting. Under normal circumstances we would not think of “Lyon” or “pâté de Lyon” as having anything to do with a lion. The association Lyon-Lion is somewhat obvious, but usually we use many expressions and names in our discourse without thinking about their meaning or metaphorical content. Names and many expressions usually become ‘opaque’ to us in our everyday use.

Benjamin’s reflections on his associations during a high connected to the expression pâté de Lyon seem just funny, nonsensical, and not really useful at this point – but it is clear that the process, generally, of changing ones perception on language during a high in this way can help thinker to come to a deeper understanding of language and to interesting associations along the lines of its underlying metaphorical content.

Let me summarize shortly then: Benjamin and his friends experienced and described many of the cognitive enhancements of a cannabis high which I researched and discussed in my books and essays. We find wonderful descriptions of the effect of the hyperfocussing of attention, of an enhanced episodic memory, changes in the perception of space and time, insights, an enhanced pattern recognition (seeing for instance new patterns in faces or in art), to name only a few.

Clearly, even if Benjamin’s protocols are often hard to read and make use of a poetic language, there is much to find if you are interested in the ways in which a cannabis high influences cognitive processes. Benjamin’s characterizations show that his experience certainly cannot be characterized by his early statement “(…) your thinking follows the same paths as usual, but they seem strewn with roses”.

Also, I have mentioned above that Benjamin’s hasheesh experiments did not only produce insights about the effects of hasheesh, but had a lasting influence on his perception and thinking of art. In the next essay, I will show how deep Benjamin’s understanding of the marijuana high was – how insightful some of his statements really are in the light of my research – and how much these experiences during a high really informed one of the most influential thinkers of modernism.

Already in his second protocol about his hashish experiences written in 1927, Walter Benjamin explained an expression he said he took from his friend Ernst Joël [16]:

“Functional shift. I take this expression from Joël. Here is the experience that made me think of it: I was handed a book by Kafka: “Betrachtung.” I read on the title. But then, the book immediately became to me, what a book in the hand of a poet becomes to the academic sculptor, who has to make a statue of this poet. It was at once fit in the physical structure of my body (…)” [17]

In other words: Being high Benjamin at first perceives the book under its every day function, reads the cover, but then his perception shifts away from this function, and he suddenly sees it like an artist merely as an object to be chiselled out of stone.

During Benjamin’s High, this did not lead to any more interesting thoughts – but, as I will now explain, Benjamin had just described in detail a psychological mechanism fundamental to the process of insights – one of the mechanisms systematically triggered during a high, which I believe helps to explain why so many users have reported to have obtained so many valuable insights during a high.

Gestalt psychology, Karl Duncker, and the matchbox experiment

While Benjamin and his friends experimented with hashish in Berlin, a group of psychologists around Max Wertheimer – also located in Berlin – were working hard on their ground-breaking theory about human perception which would later become famous under the name gestalt psychology. One of their main goals was to explain the phenomenon of creative insights in thinking.

A few years after Benjamin’s observations, Karl Duncker, Wertheimer’s most talented student, came up with his famous candle (or, „matchbox“) problem for probands only to be solved with a creative insight. [18]

The problem setup is simple: the probands were given a matchbox with matches, a candle, and thumb tacks. The task was to somehow fix the candle to the wall. Note that the candle can’t be fixed directly to the wall – the creative insight needed was to see the matchbox container as a tray for the candle, fix it to the wall, and put the candle on it.

Karl Duncker’s famous matchbox (or, candle-) problem

Duncker showed that probands needed longer to solve the problem if he presented them the matchbox with the matches inside, instead of presenting the matches separately – thereby emphasizing the function of the box as a container for matches. His hypothesis was that the perception of probands was ‘functionally bound’ to seeing the box as a container – excluding its use as a tray. Only if the subjects would move away from this perception, they would be able to come to the insight that would solve the problem.

Duncker’s candle experiment and his concept of “functional boundness” has become famous, and modern theories of insights have clearly confirmed that Duncker’s notion was a ground-breaking step in characterizing one of the most important mechanism in the processes of insights shortly before the eureka moment.

Now, back to Benjamin. It should now be easy to see the importance of Benjamin’s description of what he and Joël called a “functional shift” in perception during a high. Years before the gestalt psychologists would come up with the notion of “functional boundness”, he had given an explicit description of one of the fundamental keys to understanding why – as he and his friends had observed themselves – a user of cannabis could experience important insights and have epiphanies during a high.

What hashish did to Walter Benjamin

Benjamin’s experiments with hashish have to be rated as a success. He may have never really succeeded in writing the book on hashish or drugs that he wanted to write, but the posthumous compilation of his essays “On Hashish” contains brilliant observations.

Benjamin not only described in detail many of the effects of the cognitive alterations of the hashish high, but he also showed us how they can be positively used: for a better sense of humour, facial recognition, for a deeper appreciation of art, nature, and other people, to revive long gone memories, to hyperfocus on certain perceptions and actions, and for insights.

But, we might ask, how much did his experiments influence his own thinking and the rest of his important work? Did hashish help Benjamin to develop new ideas? If we take a closer look at Benjamin’s work, it becomes obvious that he profited immensely from his hashish experiences. Let me just look at two examples.

In his eminent essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, Benjamin writes:

“As the age of technical reproduction stripped art of its cultic firmament, its autonomy vanished forever. The functional change, however, that came with it, disappeared from the sight of the century.” [19]

This is one of the central observations Benjamin’s for the essay, and I think it is obvious now how Benjamin’s experiments opened up this perspective for him. Hashish made him see a book undergoing a functional shift in his perception, and this might as well also helped him to see art undergoing a functional change in the age of technical reproduction – and to see how others missed perceiving that functional change.

During his hashish experiments, he started writing and defining his concept of “aura”, which also plays a central role in his famous essay on art. Obviously, then, Benjamin was thinking about themes of his later work already wile under the influence. One of the most obvious passages to me showing how much Benjamin’s thinking gained from the influence of hashish is one of his remarkable observations about the artistic possibilities coming from film technology.

Remember Benjamin’s remarks about hyperfocusing during a high; and his remarks about the change of space and time perception during a high, about feeling that time is eternally slowed down, about the hyperfocus of perception, making incredible observations in this extended space-time. In his essay on art, written in the years in which he experimented with hashish, Benjamin writes:

“In a close-up, space extends, and so does movement in slow-motion. And just as  the enlargement is not only a mere elucidation of what is already there, but much rather shows us a totally new material structure, so slow motion does not only show us know motives in movement, but is know to reveal in those movements completely unknown “motives which do not appear as slowed down motions, but as strangely gliding, hovering, supernatural.” [20]

Did Walter Benjamin produce great insights about the cannabis high? Did his observations and his insights during his cannabis highs inspire and positively influence his other work? And did this work and his cannabis inspired ideas influence thinkers of modernism on a large scale? I’d say, yes, yes, and yes. The paths of thinking during a high are special. And, sometimes, strewn with roses.

Sources:

  1. Walter Benjamin (1927/1972), “Über Haschisch”, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p.68.
    Adam Kirsch (2006), The Philosopher Stoned. What drugs taught Walter Benjamin”, The New Yorker, August 21.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. In: Walter Benjamin (1972), „Über Haschisch“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt
  5. Ibid, p. 45.
  6. Ibid, p. 46.
  7. Ibid, p. 48.
  8. Ibid, p.48.
  9. Ibid., “Hauptzüge der ersten Haschisch Impression”, p. 66.
  10. Sebastian Marincolo (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis 2010.
  11. Walter Benjamin (1972), „Über Haschisch“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 53.
  12. Walter Benjamin (1972), „Über Haschisch“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 54.
  13. Walter Benjamin (1972), „Über Haschisch“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 120.
  14. Walter Benjamin (1972), „Über Haschisch“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 49.
  15. Ernst Joël had been treated with the painkiller morphine after being wounded in the first world war. After the war,  Joël and his friend Fritz Fränkel started a clinic for addicts in Berlin. Later he would start to experiment with psychoactive substances and initiated Benjamin to participate in experiments with hashish.
  16. In: Walter Benjamin (1972), „Über Haschisch“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 75.
  17. Duncker, Karl (1935). Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens [Psychology of Productive Thinking]. Springer. OCLC 6677283.
  18. Walter Benjamin (1935/1980), in: Gesammelte Schriften, Band I, Teil 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main  http://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Das_Kunstwerk_im_Zeitalter_seiner_technischen_Reproduzierbarkeit_%28Dritte_Fassung%29
  19. Ibid. The quote in the quote comes from Rudolf Arnheim.

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  • Author_profile-Sebastian-Marincolo

    Sebastian Marincolo

    Marincolo completed his doctorate with a focus on the philosophy of mind & neurocognition and has published many essays and three books on the mind-enhancing potential of the cannabis high. He also produced the macro photo art series “The Art of Cannabis”. He worked as a writer, blogger, photographer, photo artist, creative director, as well as a Director of Communications for one of the biggest cannabis companies in the world.
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