After Walter Benjamin's "Hashish in Marseille"
Walter Benjamin took hashish for the first time at three-thirty in the morning on December 18, 1927, probably in Berlin—he was a setting savant, but his notes don’t specify a location, although they do go into luxuriant detail about rooms.
Nor do his notes explain why Benjamin—a critic, philosopher, and essayist, among other things, although none of those exactly fits—would suddenly start doing drugs at the age of thirty-five. The book in which his notes were published, On Hashish, offers some possible explanations. He was inspired by Les Paradis artificiels, Charles Baudelaire’s pioneering account of opium and hashish intoxication, and after reading it told a friend, “It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book.” His translator writes that he wanted to broaden the concept of experience, more or less the same reason everyone does drugs. His experiments were also material, a kind of research. Benjamin was planning to write a book about hashish, a project that never materialized; instead his drug writings would be published as individual essays and stories, and parts would appear verbatim in his (also incomplete) opus, The Arcades Project.
But Benjamin waited eight years after reading Baudelaire to get around to getting high, and when he did, it wasn’t his idea. Doctor friends of his had connections at German pharmaceutical companies, which meant access to a whole cornucopia of psychoactive compounds. They set up a series of drug experiments they called protocols, and convinced Benjamin to join them. In most ways, he wasn’t so different from your average teenager presented with free drugs for the first time. How many would say no? Lots, probably, but I’m not one of them, and neither was Walter Benjamin.
As his first high unfolded, Benjamin recorded his experience in twenty-five numbered items. He hallucinates the room stretching and filling with phantoms, a desk transforming into a fruit stand; he becomes “fixated on the intellectual sphere,” experiences “boundless goodwill” and “extraordinary mental vacillation,” sees “the gates to a world of grotesquerie” opening. His friends become strangers, and he wants to laugh. But his notes remain calm, analytical, clinical, observant. The world’s smartest stoner.
His last note: “One traverses the same paths of thought as before. Only they seem strewn with roses.”
The first time I got high was late on a Friday night in the summer of 1995 in Tombstone, Arizona. I was thirteen, with my friend Frank—not his real name, obviously, this is going on the internet—at his older brother’s studio apartment on the west side of town, out by T Hill and the cemetery. Frank's brother was known around town exclusively by an iambic mammalian nickname. Let's call him Wombat. He'd bought us a pint of Cuervo at Circle K, and we’d just finished drinking it straight, chased with Sunny Delight. It wasn’t my first experience with alcohol, but it was the first time I’d gotten properly drunk.
Soon Wombat’s girlfriend—I don’t recall her name for reasons that will soon become apparent, but let’s say Cindy—arrived with a dime bag, broke out a pipe, and asked if we wanted to get stoned. The tequila was taking over, and I felt as if I finally understood that song about straight-tequila nights that had recently been so popular in my hometown. Besides, a few things worth celebrating had occurred that summer: the county had dropped some charges against me after a year of juvie nightmares; my third stepdad, who’d been ritually abusing my mom for the last three years, had finally moved out of our trailer; and mine and Frank’s classmate Charlie, our third amigo, had just escaped to Tucson. It was because his mom died, and we missed him, but still, he’d made it out. High school was starting soon, a new beginning, a chance to become a cooler version of myself who drank tequila and smoked weed. When Cindy and Wombat proffered the pipe, I thought, what the hell.
Our situation was less formal; Tombstone wasn’t big on protocols. We smoked in Wombat’s bathroom. After her first hit, Cindy grabbed my face and put her mouth against mine, inflating me with secondhand smoke. It was the first time I’d ever kissed a woman without some middle-school premise, a spun bottle or a dare, and I don’t know if it was the weed or the tequila or the notion of sex, but I felt like I’d finally escaped myself and was seeing my world clearly for the first time. (Benjamin called this phenomenon “profane illumination.”) I didn’t have much time to meditate on the experience. Soon Wombat head-butted me and I passed out. He wasn’t mad or jealous. It was just a thing he did.
Needless to say, I didn’t take notes. But I remembered the bliss of detachment, and wanted to get high again. I did most days for the next year.
Benjamin took hash again a month later, with his friend, protocol wingman, and fellow philosopher Ernst Bloch, who wasn’t there the first time. This time they both took notes. They were written in various hands and sometimes repeat one another, so the authorship and methods of their taking aren’t clear. This would become a pattern of the protocols, a rotating cast of participants leaving notes in various forms—handwritten, typed, dictated—with no regard for authorship. Fragmentary, allusive, digressive, collaborative essays.
Benjamin wrote a sober account the following afternoon. Both the notes and the account describe a much different hashish experience from the first. He describes a “Satanic phase,” the red room he’s in velvety and aflame, the conviction that great historical events could be occurring in the next room, coronations and executions. He laments the “basically depressive nature” of the trance, which he attributes to taking a higher dose. It is no longer, as it was the first time, a friendly, sociable lingering in a room. Rather, it is like being enclosed in a dense spider’s web. It sounds like he was having a bad trip, which makes sense. He was eating the hash, not smoking it, and ingesting high doses of cannabis can be unpredictable, as anyone who’s taken too many edibles can attest.
At one point, Bloch reaches toward his knee, and Benjamin feels it as “a highly repugnant violation of my aura.” Certain words and phrases recur, including my personal favorite, when the philosophers describe their high as “an ambiguous wink from nirvana.” (Capitalize the last word and they sound just like me and Frank seventy years later.) The account, which Benjamin seems to have thought of as an essay, engages with the experience theoretically, not descriptively; in it he’s a critic, not a pilgrim, and his writing assumes the density characteristic of his criticism. He meditates on the “colportage phenomenon of space,” references Kafka and Greek myth, employs and tortures critical metaphors.
The essay is less interesting, at least to me, than the notes from the experience, which are raw, bizarre, self-aware, sometimes lapsing into the second person, as if he’s speaking to his sober self or a future reader: I intentionally say something flowery—you must be suspicious. He compares this high to the last, as Calvin to Shakespeare: this is a Calvinist intoxication. His descriptive metaphors are vivid and surreal: he’s on a ship at sea; the room is a stage lit by tiny, hidden levers; his friend descending the stairs becomes a spider lady, a skirt of webs around her feet.
The whole room is woven in hashish.
I keep bumping against the ceiling, which is exceedingly thin.
Near the end of his notes, he has a breakthrough. He sees a zone surrounding the intoxication, a zone he recognizes as death. Dying has an imperative character.
The essay he wrote afterwards hardly mentions death, and blames the depressive nature of the experience on a higher dose. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that his perceptions on hashish were real or true, revelations rather than hallucinations. Are we not surrounded by death?
I think of my first stoned year as one long protocol. Weed was everywhere in Tombstone, practically free so close to the border, and that was the year meth arrived, or at least the year I first saw it. Normal weed, dusted weed, the occasional grandma’s pill, little baggies of peanut butter crank; I swallowed, smoked, or snorted whatever was in front of me. It culminated in a surprise drug test courtesy of my mom’s short-lived doctor boyfriend and threats of military school.
But I didn’t really quit until I saw death. Near the end of my freshman year, a friend—who in a rare exception for that reckless year was driving sober—rolled his parents’ Blazer with six of us inside. I walked away physically intact, but an old friend died in front of me, and the rest of us were transformed. I couldn’t get high after that. I couldn’t handle the visions.
It’s not like I went sober. I just switched to a worse and more accepted drug, alcohol, the marrow of my hometown; Tombstone has a dozen bars and no grocery store except the Circle K, which does most of its business in beer and liquor. I spent large parts of my teenage years getting wasted at boonie parties, huddled around tire fires, staring back across the black expanse of the San Pedro valley toward town, watching for cops.
But save for a handful of times in college and the years after, I didn’t do illegal drugs anymore. Not even during the four years I lived in San Francisco, where at the time high-grade marijuana was practically, if not technically, legal—you could call a guy and have it delivered via bicycle—and where I got stoned exactly twice. I thought the last time might be the last time. I was applying for real jobs, and needed to be able to pass drug tests. Besides, I thought I’d outgrown drugs.
From San Francisco, I moved across the country to a strange place where I knew nobody, and where I was ostensibly a professional for the first time in my life. Then I did it two more times. In none of my new settings did I get high. I thought I was reformed, responsible, adult. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t changed, only my context: nobody was offering me drugs anymore.
Nine months into his hash experiments, Benjamin did a protocol alone. It was seven in the evening on a Saturday night in Marseille, a city foreign to him. In his notes he says a passage of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf prompted his “last impetus to taking hashish.” (He doesn’t say which passage.) After taking hashish, he writes and dictates a series of banal notes, waiting for it to kick in. Soon, convinced it will have no or mild effects, he leaves his hotel room to wander the streets.
The rest of his notes were written the next morning, with the “positively splendid” aftereffects still lingering; he warns the reader, presumably himself, that he may not stick to the actual chronology. He reports strolling along the quay, reading the names of boats. He dines at two different cafes, oysters and pate, half a glass of white wine. As the trance intensifies, he sits on a bench by a park, watching pedestrians pass by and experiencing “isolated moments of mania.” Faces strike him as monstrously ugly, and he hallucinates Dante and Petrarch walking past. At one point, he seems close to solving “the riddle of the trance,” and compares it obliquely to a labyrinth, one of his favorite metaphors.
He would later publish two separate pieces based on the notes from his Marseilles protocol. One was fiction, the short story “Myslovice—Braunschweig—Marseille.” The other was an essay, “Hashish in Marseilles.”
I moved to Oregon at the age of thirty-four, the week its governor signed a bill legalizing recreational cannabis. At the time, I knew of Walter Benjamin, and had read a bit: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” excerpts of The Arcades Project. But I didn’t know he’d written about taking drugs until a few days before marijuana went on sale.
I was looking for something to teach in my first class, an introductory survey of the essay. I’d never taught the subject and had only written a couple of essays myself, but there I was, charged with delivering their lone required literature credit to thirty undergraduates at nine in the morning, three days a week. While leafing through an anthology, I stumbled upon “Hashish in Marseille.” I read the first few paragraphs, scrapped the Annie Dillard essay I’d been planning to teach—on the subject of Dillard, I agree with The Malcontent—and assigned Benjamin instead.
We discussed it the day after legalization went into effect. It will surprise few who teach that assigning Walter Benjamin to a large group of mostly freshmen the first week of class did not go well. A few red-eyed young men chuckled knowingly at some of his more prosaic observations—his “lionish hunger,” say, or his gratuitous descriptions of ugly faces—but by and large the class didn’t seem to appreciate the stoned philosopher’s musings, and a stark generation gap revealed itself. Getting high and walking around was no big deal. Not in Oregon, not anymore. It’s legal.
And here is where our threads intersect. First I should make a couple of confessions. I’m altering the timeline here, just like Benjamin did—his Marseille protocol occurred on September 29, but he dated his essay in July, for reasons that remain unclear, at least to me. He also published his account first in a fictionalized form, at least partly to protect his reputation from puritanical readers. I’m doing the same here. For the record, this whole essay is fiction.
Anyway, shortly after teaching “Hashish in Marseille” for the first and last time, I stumbled into a protocol of my own. At the threshold of my first Oregon fall, I found myself sitting at a table in a stranger’s backyard one evening, dusklight deepening the green: the grass, the garden, the trees, the neighbor’s trees, the other neighbor’s trees. I’d grown up in deserts and had never seen so much fucking green.
It was my old friend’s old friend’s house. I hadn’t seen my friend in some time, and we’d never met each other’s partners—on the West Coast everyone is partners, it’s one of the things I’d missed—or kids, or friends. We drank Oregon wine and Oregon beer and talked about Oregon things, rain and rivers and beer, books, Portland, farmer’s markets, whatever. Somebody mentioned the new marijuana law—probably me—and the man of the house explained that you could grow it now, too. His partner gestured toward the garden and said they had a plant right over there. I was trying to spot it through the tomatoes when someone asked if I wanted to smoke.
I hesitated. The old sense of transgression, imminent consequences, checking for cops. The others declined, in the Oregon fashion, without a trace of disdain. If I didn’t do it, no weed was getting smoked. Sure, I said, why not.
The homeowner left, returned, and showed me the buds in a baggie, saying it was good grown-up shit, nice and mellow. He loaded a small pipe with water in it—plain glass, no skulls or mushrooms, I hesitated to call it a bong but it must have been one, an adult bong, my first, the kind of thing that exists in Oregon. He lit it, took a hit, passed to me. I wondered if they were going to drug test me at my new job. Could they? Fuck it. It’s legal.
I took a modest hit, choked, coughed hard in the bloody way only a bong makes you. Then another. I waved off the third, waiting to see, and just when I thought it didn’t work, I didn’t get high, I remembered in a rush that you don’t notice the change, it just happens.
It wasn’t what I’d remembered. I’d been high a hundred times as a teenager, but that was ’90s border weed, brown and dry and cheap, full of stems and seeds, like smoking dirt. My two experiences with California’s “medical” marijuana had left me unable to move, talk, or think enough to take notes. This was something else, more of a trance, an attunement, the treble turned down. My brain let my body drive, and I noticed my arms prickling in the chill, the twinge in my lower back from sitting in the chair. The feeling was not a presence so much as an absence—my anxiety was gone, and Jesus Christ, how much of it had there been? The proverbial veil lifted; I saw who I was in my waking life, neurotic and obsessed with death, just like my old friend Walter. I had changed without understanding it was happening. This was high me, Oregon me, and I liked him a whole lot better.
When we left, our host slipped me a baggie containing what I would later learn to eyeball as a couple of grams.
In the service of multiple interests—decorum, employability, the feasibility of anyone finishing it online—I should wrap this up. Like Benjamin, I’m hoping to complete this later, perhaps even as a book. Then again, it seems like most planned books about drugs don’t get finished.
One potential exit would be to mention a disturbing fact I’ve been hesitant to deploy, lest it read like something our D.A.R.E. officers would’ve told me and Frank in middle school: at least two of the participants in Benjamin’s protocols died of drug overdoses. Benjamin was one of them, although the drugs were just a mechanism in his case, and far the lesser evil. His Satanic hash visions proved prophetic. Soon after the protocols began, Hitler rose to power, and Benjamin found himself in exile, stripped of his German citizenry, arrested by the French and sent to a prison camp. He lingered too long afterward in Paris, home of his arcades, and fled only a day before the Nazis rolled in.
He went south, headed for Portugal, and crossed the Spanish border to the small town of Portbou, just across the Gulf of Lion from the city he’d once wandered in a hashish trance. When the Spanish authorities told him he’d be deported back to occupied France in the morning, Benjamin did his last drug experiment, ingesting an intentional overdose of morphine. Fanciful legends say his suitcase contained a completed manuscript. It was never found.
But that’s not very Christmasy, so instead I’ll steal a happier ending, the one Benjamin himself came up with after that long stoned night in Marseilles, the wisdom of his trance. “When I recall this state,” he wrote, “I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love.”
Justin St. Germain is the author of the book-length essay Bookmarked: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and the memoir Son of a Gun. He lives in Oregon.