Adam Ash

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bookplanet: Walter Benjamin on getting stoned

Inside the List by DWIGHT GARNER

'PROFANE ILLUMINATION': If one were to draw up a list of the writers, living or dead, who seemed least likely to make the best-seller lists in 2006, the revered philosopher, essayist and critic Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis, would have to be near the top. But don't count him out. In May, Harvard University Press plans to publish "On Hashish," a slim volume of Benjamin's little-known writings about his occasional drug use. It's got a good chance of becoming this year's version of Harry Frankfurt's "On Bull - - - -," an academic book that makes it onto the front tables at Barnes & Noble. (Harvard says its volume was in the works before Frankfurt's book took off.) Benjamin experimented with hashish and other drugs in the late 1920's and early 30's, after being recruited by friends as a test subject. "On Hashish" is mostly culled from his notes for a book he planned to write. Benjamin wasn't always fond of hashish's effects — he referred to the drug as "poison" — but he did experience an ample amount of what he called "profane illumination." His notes have the makings of a cerebral dorm-room stoner classic. Here are three of Benjamin's observations: a) "Feeling of understanding Poe much better now"; b) "One seeks occasions for laughter"; c) "Oven turns into cat."

'LION PASTE': Benjamin being Benjamin, most of the writing in "On Hashish" has an intensity and historical imagination that won't put you in mind of Jeff Spicoli. "I experience the feeling that in the next room events such as the coronation of Charlemagne, . . . the signing of the Treaty of Verdun and the murder of Egmont might have taken place," Benjamin writes at one point. And also: "I held the cup of coffee motionless in my hand for a good quarter of an hour, declared it beneath my dignity to drink it, and transformed it, as it were, into a scepter." The best moment in "On Hashish" may be when Benjamin, the author of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," gets a world-class case of the munchies: "First I ordered a dozen oysters. The man wanted me to order the next course at the same time. I named some standard dish. He came back with the news that none was left. I then pointed to a place on the menu in the vicinity of this dish, and was on the point of ordering each item, one after another. . . . I came to a stop at a pâté de Lyon. 'Lion paste,' I thought with a witty smile, when it lay clean on a plate before me; and then, contemptuously: 'This tender rabbit or chicken meat — whatever it may be.' To my lionish hunger, it would not have seemed inappropriate to satisfy itself on a lion. Moreover, I had tacitly decided that as soon as I had finished at Basso's (it was about half past 10) I would go to another restaurant and dine a second time." Eat your heart out, A. J. Liebling.


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