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What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin

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Book Abstract: What is it like to be high on marijuana? Can a cannabis high help to remember long gone events, to fuel your imagination, to work creatively, to come to introspective and other insights, to empathically understand others, and to personally grow? How much did cannabis inspire outstanding thinkers, artists and musicians like Charles Baudelaire, Rudyard Kipling, Walter Benjamin, Billie Holiday, Diego Rivera, John Lennon, Carl Sagan, Hal Ashby, and so many others? And how much did the marijuana high positively transfom our society? "What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin - Mind-Altering Essays on Cannabis" is a collection of 20 neurophilosophically inspired essays on the astounding positive potential of the cannabis high.
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What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
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Das positive Potential von Marijuana. Tropen/Klett-Cotta 2013
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www.sebastianmarincolo.de
What
Hashish
Did To
Walter Benjamin
Mind-Altering Essays
on Marijuana
Sebastn Marincolo
For
Lester Grinspoon
Mentor and friend,
who so generously shared his unbelievable knowledge with me
in so many conversations
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Text © 2015 by Sebastián Marincolo
Cover Design © 2015 by Andy Smith
All rights reserved under the International Copyright Conventions. This book may not be
reproduced in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, in-
cluding photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system now
known or hereafter invented, without written permission from the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-In-Publication Data
Marincolo, Sebastián 1969-
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin. Mind-Altering Essays on Marijuana
p. cm. (What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin)
Includes biographical references.
ISBN 978-3-9817712-0-6
1. Marijuana 2. Cannabis 3. Walter Benjamin
First edition: November 2015
Stuttgart, Germany
Publisher: Khargala Press
Number of Pages: 190
First Printing: 2015
Summary: 20 neurophilosophical essays about the positive potential of the marijuana high
and how it positively affected luminaries such as Walter Benjamin, Carl Sagan, and Louis
Armstrong.
Publisher’s Note
We take great care to ensure that the information in this book is accurate and presented in
good faith, but no warranty is provided or results guaranteed. This material is intended for
informational purposes only. The publisher does not condone illegal activity of any kind.
Printed in the U.K.
Contents
Foreword by Joe Dolce 1
PartITurnOn
Cannabis, Mind Enhancements, and Culture 6
Just Another Altered State of Consciousness 20
Marijuana, Dopes, and Cognitive Enhancements 26
GUINEA A Guerrilla-Neurophilosophical Approach to High Science 31
PartIITuneIn
The Zen-Effect of Marijuana 42
Marijuana and the Enhancement of Episodic Memory 47
Marijuana and The Power of Imagination 52
Marijuana and The Slowdown of Time Perception 59
Marijuana, Pattern Recognition, and What it Means to be 'High' 64
The Effects of Marijuana on Body Image Perception 68
Marijuana, Empathy, and Severe Cases of Autism 72
Marijuana, Reading, and Language Understanding 86
Marijuana and Creativity. A Love Story 90
Personal Transformation with Marijuana 99
PartIIIInspire
Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz 105
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin 122
The Most Powerful Drug Used by Mankind 146
An Unusual Argument for the Legalization of Marijuana 151
Carl Sagan, Cannabis, and the Right Brain Hemisphere 156
AppendixOfftoNewShores
Vaporizer Highs 169
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122
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
It's the year 1927. In the U.S., marijuana use is widespread almost exclu-
sively amongst Mexicans and black Jazz musicians during the swinging
“Roaring Twenties”. In Berlin, the decade is also in full swing, but the first
signs of the upcoming cata-
strophic end of this era are already
visible, as radical national socialist
groups clash more and more with
Marxists in violent street fights.
Here, the popular drugs outside
from alcohol and tobacco – are
cocaine and morphine, available
on prescription only, but happily
peddled by many doctors who are
making good money pushing their
illicit wares. The authorities aren't
really enforcing the drug regulations; they protect the interests of the big
drug-producing pharmaceutical companies in Germany, which are now part
of the leading pharmaceutical industry in the world.
Writers like Ernst Jünger and Gottfried Benn consume cocaine. Legend-
ary naked dancer Anita Berber, who openly admits to consuming large
amounts of cocaine, is the style-icon of the day. She steps out of a car on the
Kurfürstendamm with a sable fur and a monocle, her hair dyed red, her
make-up in screaming colors and carrying a little monkey with her. More
than once, she jumps off the stage furious at a heckler shouting obscene
comments to grab a bottle of champagne and smash it over his head.
Cannabis is still available in many medicinal products for various ail-
ments, but it does not play much of a role as a psychoactive substance in the
cultural life of Berlin at the time. Walter Benjman, who will also experiment
with mescaline and opium, has his own reasons to try hashish, as he had al-
ready written in a 1919 letter to Ernst Schoen:
“I have read Baudelaire's Paradis artificiels. It is an extremely reticent, unor-
Berlin in the late 1920s.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
123
iented attempt to monitor the “psychological” phenomena that manifest them-
selves in hashish or opium intoxication for what they have to teach us philosophi-
cally. It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book.”105
Benjamin's overall verdict
on Baudelaire's hashish writ-
ings is not as negative as it
would seem in this statement.
He will later write in a proto-
col on his hashish experiences
that he takes Baudelaire's writ-
ings on hashish to be the best
he has encountered so far.
Baudelaire's experiences with
hashish definitely served Ben-
jamin as an excellent starting
point for his investigations. In
1927, the now legendary
German philosopher, essayist
and literary critic gets his
chance to start his own inves-
tigation. When he sits down
for scientific experiments on hashish intoxication with his friends, the medi-
cal doctors Ernst Joël and Fritz Fränkel, all three men take these experiments
very seriously. Benjamin has a profound philosophical interest in the experi-
ence of the altered state of consciousness he is looking for what he later
calls a profane illumination, a new way of experiencing reality, which can lead
the way to new philosophical insights. Joël and Fränkel, on the other hand,
are among the group of leading experts on narcotics in the Weimar Repub-
lic, who had started a treatment clinic for morphine, cocaine and other ad-
dictions in Berlin-Kreuzberg. In his excellent essay “From 'Rausch' to Rebel-
lion: Walter Benjamin's On Hashish and the Aesthetic Dimension of Prohi-
105 In: Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, Edited by Howard Eiland, „From the
Letters“, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
p.144.
Walter Bendix Schoenflies Benjamin, 1892-1940
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
124
bitionist Realism,” Scott J. Thompson reminds us of the historical context in
which Benjamin's experiments took place:
“Of the hundreds of books, articles, essays, monographs and dissertations on
Benjamin (over 3000 exist), only a handful discuss the writings on hashish and
opium (…) and none of them situate the experiments within a historical context.
When Benjamin became a “test subject”, he also became part of a long-forgotten
community, the Weimar Republic's psychonautic avant-garde (…). The year
Benjamin began his experiments (1927) Louis Lewin published his second edi-
tion of “Phantastica” in Berlin, which appears on the list of books which Benja-
min read from cover to cover. (...) Hermann Schweppenhaeuser's claim that Ben-
jamin's writings on hashish, opium and mescaline are amongst the most genuine
ever put to paper can only be evaluated against the context of Weimar experi-
mentation with psychopharmaca. Kurt Behringer's amazing monograph on mes-
caline, “Der Meskalin Rausch” was also published in 1927, and remains the
greatest work ever written on the subject. Behringer's book contains over 200
pages of protocolls from 60 experiments in Heidelberg among doctors, medical
students, natural scientists, and philosophers (...)” 106
A path strewn with roses?
During his first experiment with hashish in December 1927, Benjamin
notes in his last entry of his first short experiential protocol: "Your thinking
follows the same paths as usual, but they seem strewn with roses"107
It's a neat little statement - short, picturesque and flowery, excellent for a
quotation databank and, of course, several decades later in the age of me-
chanical, or, even more so, digital reproduction, the quote goes viral. Many
commentators on Walter Benjamin's writings on hashish will use this state-
ment to characterize and discredit the importance of Benjamin's hashish ex-
periments. Yet, although correctly quoted from Benjamin's first protocol on
106 Thompson, Scott J. (2014) From 'Rausch' to Rebellion: Walter Benjamin's On
Hashish and the Aesthetic Dimension of Prohibitionist Realism”,
http://www.wbenjamin.org/rausch.html, 2014.
107 Benjamin, Walter (1927/1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p.68.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
125
his hashish experiences, we will see that it definitely does not summarize
what Benjamin had observed about the marijuana high. Nothing could be
further from the truth. In fact, if we take a closer look at Benjamin's proto-
cols, we find that Benjamin had noted and meticulously described some of
the most interesting and complex thought-alterations of the cannabis high,
and that his experiences with hashish profoundly influenced and inspired his
thinking about other subjects.
Why, then, has his statement above been quoted so often when it comes
to Benjamin's thoughts about the hashish high? It seems obvious to me that
many interpreters of Benjamin have fallen prey to a biased view of the can-
nabis high as a merely euphoric state of consciousness with no significant
useful changes in thought and cognition. Yet, why would such an outstand-
ing and inventive thinker with so many groundbreaking ideas be so interest-
ed in hashish? Why would Benjamin plan to write book about his hashish
experiences, if he experienced it merely as a euphoriant?
In what follows, I will argue on the basis of my research on the cognitive
effects of a cannabis high that Benjamin's experiential protocols from his
hashish experiments - which took place in Berlin, Marseilles and Ibiza be-
tween 1927 and 1934 - may require some interpretation and analysis, but
are a highly interesting source for a deeper understanding of the cannabis
high. Furthermore, we will see that Benjamin's cannabis experiences had a
deep and positive impact on his thinking - and with it, the thinking of many
other important intellectuals, not to mention generations of students in var-
ious academic fields and, finally, on society as a whole.
Benjamin's Life and Influence
Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was born in 1892 in Berlin. After
studying philosophy in Freiburg, Munich, Berlin and Bern, he originally
pursued an academic career as a philosopher, but his unorthodox Habilita-
tionsschrift a thesis needed in Germany to qualify for professorship fell
between the disciplines of literary criticism and philosophy. Although full of
brilliant insights, it wasn't well received. Benjamin declined from his request
for academic promotion before receiving an expected official rejection. The
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
126
text, however, would later become a classic of 20th century literary criticism.
He went on to work as a freelance journalist, literary critic and essayist, bare-
ly surviving on a small subsidy granted from the Horkheimer's Institute of
Social Research. He also worked for radio and translated Balzac, Proust and
Baudelaire, of whom it was said he admired greatly. He was in contact and
corresponding with the influential sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max
Horkheimer. Benjamin was also a friend of the philosopher Ernst Bloch,
who participated in his hashish experiments in Paris, and a friend of the
writer Bertold Brecht.
The Nazi regime’s rise to power in 1933
forced Benjamin, who came from a Jewish
family, to flee Germany to Paris. In exile, he
met and corresponded with the philosopher
Hanna Arendt, who also helped him finan-
cially. She would later describe him as one
of “the unclassifiable ones (…) those whose
work neither fits the existing order nor intro-
duces a new genre that lends itself to future
classification.108
In an article “The Philosopher Stoned.
What drugs taught Walter Benjamin"109, Ad-
am Kirsch from the New Yorker aptly called
Benjamin,
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 (...)"110.
Benjamin's most famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
108 In: Benjamin, Walter (1969) Illuminations. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah
Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. Schocken Books
109 Kirsch, Adam (2006), “The Philosopher Stoned. What drugs taught Walter Benjamin”,
The New Yorker, August 21.
110 Ibid.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
127
Reproduction” (1935) left its eternal mark on our thinking about mass media
and the modern art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states on Ben-
jamin's writings:
“They were a decisive influence upon Theodor W. Adorno's conception of
philosophy's actuality or adequacy to the present. (…) In the 1930s, Benjamin's
efforts to develop a politically oriented, materialist aesthetic theory proved an im-
portant stimulus for both the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Marx-
ist poet and dramatist Bertold Brecht.”111
Marijuana Insights – Myth or Fact?
Benjamin's thoughts and ideas had a strong influence on other thinkers
of his time and on generations of academics, students and other intellectuals
ever since. How much did Benjamin learn from his hashish experiments?
Were they just eccentric excursions of a brilliant mind, leaving us with expe-
riential protocols of largely unaltered happy thoughts, following paths
"strewn with roses"? Really? In his article, Kirsch values the importance of
Benjamin's work in general, but concludes that ultimately, Benjamin's drug
experiments were a failure and expresses what the view of many when it
comes to Benjamin's writing on hashish:
”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.”112
Kirsch's judgment seems to be based on the widespread assumption that
consumers of hashish or other psychoactive substances often have the feeling
111 Osborne, Peter and Charles, Matthew (2013), "Walter Benjamin" The Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/benjamin/.
112 Ibid.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
128
of great insight under the influence of the substance, only to later find that
their big idea was purely nonsense or nothing special after all. Critics usually
refer to this phenomenon as the “myth of insight” during a cannabis high or
during the influence of other kinds of psychoactive substances. I have exten-
sively argued before that a marijuana high can indeed cause a whole range of
cognitive alterations leading to deep and valuable insights.113 In the follow-
ing, I'll argue on the basis of my research that Kirsch's negative conclusion
about Benjamin's writing on hashish is wrong – dramatically wrong. Benja-
min left us incredible perceptive and important observations of the hashish
high and his later writing seems to have profited a lot from his experiences
with cannabis.
Kirsch is certainly right to point out that the language and thinking of
Benjamin's high protocols is difficult to understand – Benjamin's writing is
already difficult to read when composed in a sober state of mind. Many of
his hashish experience protocols have been written at least partially under the
strong influence of presumably high doses of hashish, making it even harder
to follow his thoughts. They are often jumpy, fragmentary, almost lyrical in
some instances, and often 'cryptic'. 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 his writing
on his hashish experiences – as some 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 experi-
ence. So, let's get down to work and look into the high mind of one of the
most brilliant thinkers of modernism.
Long Gone Memories, Face Recognition, and Insights on Rembrandt
In his essay "Hashish in Marseilles"114, Benjamin quotes his friends Ernst
Joël and Fritz Fränkel, who observed and described several effects of a hash-
ish high, including enhanced episodic memory, insights, a change in space
113 Compare Marincolo, Sebastián (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear
Publishing, Indianapolis, and Marincolo, Sebastián (2013), Das positive Potential von
Marijuana, Tropen Verlag, Stuttgart.
114 In: Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
129
perception and the intensification of color vision, as well as 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
near to insights and epiphanies (…) the room can become extended (…) colors
become brighter, shining; (…) often, streams of thought become difficult to fol-
low because you forget about everything you had just thought about”115
Benjamin himself notes how he becomes much more sensitive during his
high: (y)ou become so sensitive: fearing a shadow would damage the paper on
which it is falling”, and how his sense of space and time changes:
“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.”116
He also observes that during a hashish high he would strongly focus on
faces:
“It (hashish) turned me into a physiognomist, at any rate an observer of phys-
iognomies, 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 ugli-
ness.”117
These mind alterations, Benjamin writes, allowed him a deeper under-
standing 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.”118
115 Ibid., p. 45.
116 Ibid., p. 46.
117 Ibid., p. 48.
118 Ibid., p. 48.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
130
These observations are
remarkable not only because
they suggest that Benjamin
had valuable 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 how marijuana helps
them to better empathically
understand others - which of
course includes the ability to
read and understand facial
expressions.
In recent philosophy of
mind, simulation theorists of
human understanding have argued that our empathic understanding funda-
mentally relies on our capacity to imaginatively simulate the situation of
others; to put us in their shoes. There are many reports from cannabis users
who claim they feel this during a high, the ability to simulate others becomes
enhanced. Likewise, Benjamin writes in one of his notebooks about a hash-
ish high119:
“Fundamental to this feeling of empathy [“Einfühlung”] is the insinuation of
one's own ego into an alien object. (...) nothing more of the person remains than
an unlimited capacity, and often an unlimited propensity, for entering into the
situation of every other in the cosmos, including every animal, every inanimate
object.”120
119 Benjamin uses the German word “Rausch”, which has various different translations in
English, like “rush”, “inebriation”, “ecstasy”, or “intoxication”.
120 Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, From the Notebooks, Preparatory sketches for
“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, edited by Eiland, Howard. The Belknap Press of Har-
vard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.142.
Rembrandt’s self portrait as Apostle Paul, circa 1661
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
131
Connectedly, many marijuana and hashish users have remarked that dur-
ing a high, they are not only able to understand other people better, but also
music or art, even those forms of which would not normally resonate with
them. Lester Grinspoon once told me in a private conversation that mariju-
ana helped him to expand his musical taste spectrum and to enjoy listening
to the music of the Beatles, although he preferred classical musical before.
Likewise, Benjamin notes in a protocol from a hashish experiment:
“Feeling that I understand Poe much better now. The doors to the world of
the grotesque seem to be opening. (...)" 121
Hyperfocusing, Mind-Racing, and Humor
Benjamin's strong attentional focus on faces during one of his hashish
experiments is only one instance of the "hyperfocus" effects of attention
reported by him. Later in his essay, Benjamin reports another observation
made possible by this hyperfocusing: “There were times in which the intensity
of acoustic impressions made them supersede everything else.”122
During his high, this strong attentional focus helps him to understand
what a strong 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 as it were didn't speak
French well enough for me.123
I have argued previously that one of the interesting effects of a cannabis
high is an acceleration of associative thought, or during a stronger high, an
accelerated stream of visualized images. Benjamin also observes this effect of
acceleration when he tries to trace back Baudelaire's inspiration for his poem
“Les Sept Vieillards” to the use of hashish:
121 Ibid., “Hauptzüge der ersten Haschisch Impression”, p. 66.
122 Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 53.
123 Ibid., p. 54.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
132
“Here, human reason becomes more flotsam, at the mercy of all currents, and
the train of thoughts is i
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more accelerated and 'rhapsodic.”124
In another instance, he also describes a “stormy production of images”
during a hashish high: “About the images themselves I cannot really say much
here, because of the tremendous speed with which they arose and then vanished
again; (...)” 125
Benjamin also observes that during his high, he experienced a wonderful,
inspired humor - and he proves this claim in his protocols with statements
written under the influence that could have come from comedy genius
Groucho Marx: “If Freud would psychoanalyze God's creation the Fjords
wouldn't come off very well”126
Another one of his funny experiences during a high is about Pâté de Lyon
(duck liver paste from the French city of Lyon):
“Lion pâté, I thought to myself laughing funnily, as it lay in front of me on a
plate, and then, despicably: this rabbit or chicken pâté whatever it may be. I
was hungry like a lion, so it seemed not inappropriate to me to satiate my hunger
with a lion.”127
As nonsensical 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 of Lyon and Lion is somewhat obvious but usually we use
many expressions and names in our discourse without thinking about their
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 funny, nonsen-
sical and not really useful at this point - but it is clear that the process of
124 Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, From the Arcades Project (1927-1940)
Edited by Howard Eiland, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, p. 138.
125 Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 108.
126 Ibid., p. 120.
127 Ibid., p. 49.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
133
changing one’s perception on language during a high can help thinkers to
come to a deeper understanding of language and to interesting associations
along the lines of its underlying metaphorical content.
Let me summarize then: Benjamin and his friends experienced and de-
scribed many of the cognitive enhancements of a cannabis high which I have
researched and discussed in my books and essays. We find wonderful de-
scriptions of the effect of the hyperfocusing of attention, of an enhanced epi-
sodic memory, changes in the perception of space and time, insights, an en-
hanced pattern recognition (seeing for instance new patterns in faces or in
art) and an enhanced capacity for empathic understanding. Clearly, even if
Benjamin's protocols make liberal use of poetic language and are often hard
to read, there is much to find if you are interested in the ways in which a
cannabis high influences cognitive processes. Benjamin's elaborate character-
izations of altered thinking during a hashish high show that his early state-
ment "(…) your thinking follows the same paths as usual, but they seem strewn
with roses" does not reflect his overall thinking on the subject.
I have pointed out above that Benjamin's hashish experiments did not
only produce insights about the effects of hashish, but had a lasting influ-
ence on his perception and thinking of art. In what follows 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.
Gestalt Psychology and the Functional Shift in Perception
In his second protocol about his hashish experiences written in 1927,
Benjamin explains an expression he said he took from his friend, Ernst Jo-
ël:128
128 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 they would start to experiment with psychoactive substances and
initiated Benjamin to participate in experiments with hashish.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
134
Functional shifting. I take this expression from Joël. Here is the experience
that led me to it: In my satanic phase someone gave me one of Kafka's books:
“Betrachtung.” I read the title. But then the book immediately became to me
what a book in the hand of a poet becomes to the academic sculptor with the task
to make a statue of this poet. It was at once integrated into the sculptural form of
my body (...)” 129
So, yes, again, this sounds cryptic. But this paragraph is definitely worth
a second look, because it contains a key to Benjamin's insights on marijuana.
Being high, Benjamin at first perceives the book as a book under its everyday
function: he looks at the object in his hands as a book, reads the cover. But
then his perception shifts away from this function and he suddenly sees the
object like an artist would look at it, as somebody who only wants to chisel
its form out of stone.
Benjamin described in one of his high protocols one of the most im-
portant psychological mechanisms fundamental to the process of spontane-
ous, creative insight – one of the mechanisms often triggered during a high,
which I believe helps to explain why so many users have reported valuable
insights during a high. Let me explain.
While Benjamin and his friends experimented with hashish in Berlin, a
group of psychologists led by Max Wertheimer – also located in Berlin -
were working hard on their groundbreaking theory about human perception
which would later become famous under the name Gestalt psychology (“Ge-
staltpsychologie”) or gestaltism. One of their main goals was to observe and
explain the phenomenon of creative insights in thinking. But insights seem
so elusive in our everyday lives; they often seem to come out of nowhere. We
do not really know how to generate them. If you ask somebody how he came
up with a certain creative insight, he will often be unable to provide an ex-
planation. Obviously, then, the processes involved are mostly unconscious,
and Wertheimer was convinced that there was something special about this
kind of “productive thinking” that culminates in a so-called Eureka mo-
ment. Wertheimer and his followers wanted to study “productive thinking”
empirically so he started to design intellectual problems that required a cer-
129 Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 75.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
135
tain non-linear creative solution, an insight from the problem solver. These
problems were then given to test subjects in an experimental setting so that
psychologists could study how the process of insights actually works.
Some years after Benjamin's observations about the “functional shift” in
his perception during a high, Karl Duncker, Wertheimer's most talented
student, came up with his famous candle problem (sometimes called
'matchbox problem'), a problem designed to be solved only by the means of
a creative insight.130 The setup is simple: test subjects were given a matchbox,
matches, a candle and some thumbtacks.
The task given by
Duncker to his test subjects
was to fix the candle to the
wall using only the objects
they were given. Note that
the candle can not be fixed
directly to the wall – the
creative insight needed here
was to see the matchbox
container as a tray for the
candle, fix it to the wall
and put the candle on it.
Duncker showed that
subjects needed longer to
solve the problem if he pre-
sented them the matchbox
with the matches inside,
instead of presenting the
matches separately there-
by emphasizing the function of the matchbox as a container for matches.
His hypothesis was that the perception of test subjects was 'functionally fixed'
to seeing the box as a container – which would prevent the insight to use it
130 Duncker, Karl (1935). Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens,[Psychology of Productive
Thinking]. Springer. OCLC 6677283.
Karl Duncker's famous candle experiment
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
136
as a tray. Only if the subjects moved away from this perception, would they
be able to arrive at the insight that would solve the problem.
Duncker's candle experiment and his concept of 'functional fixedness'
has become famous and modern theories of insights have clearly confirmed
that Duncker's notion was a groundbreaking step in characterizing one of
the most important mechanisms in the processes of insights in the phase that
leads to the Eureka moment.
Now, back to Benjamin's observation. It should be easy now to see the
importance of Benjamin's description of what he and Joël called a “func-
tional shift” in perception during a high. Years before the Gestalt psycholo-
gists would come up with the notion of “functional fixedness”, Benjamin
had given an explicit description of one of the fundamental keys to under-
standing why as he and his friends had observed themselves a cannabis
user would sometimes experience important insights and have epiphanies
during a high. Benjamin had observed that during a high, there can be a
functional shift in one's perception of an object as had happened for him
with Kafka's book; he was not bound anymore in his thinking to seeing the
object merely under the function of a book and seeing objects with this
more open perception generally enables subjects to come to interesting new
ideas how to use those objects in a new way. In his early hashish experiment,
then, Benjamin had named and described an important cognitive mecha-
nism that can lead to insights, as Gestalt psychologists would later demon-
strate.
What Hashish Did to Walter Benjamin
Benjamin's experiments with hashish were a success. He never really suc-
ceeded in writing the book on hashish or drugs he wanted to write because
he had to flee from the Nazi regime. But the posthumous compilation of his
essays in the book On Hashish and other passages on hashish in his wider
writings contain several outstanding observations on many interesting cogni-
tive alterations of the cannabis high. Benjamin also showed us how these ef-
fects on higher cognition during a high can be used positively: for facial pat-
tern recognition, to revive long gone memories, for a deeper appreciation of
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
137
art and nature, to hyperfocus on certain perceptions and actions, for a
broader sense of humor, for an enhancement of one's empathic ability to
take the perspective of others, and for insights. As to the latter, Benjamin
even made observations about a “functional shift” in perception during a
high, which helps to explain why so many cannabis users have reported an
enhanced ability to generate insights during a high.
We know that Benjamin intended to use the highs of his hashish exper-
iments to think about philosophical and other intellectual themes. So, how
much did his experiments influence the rest of his important work? Did
hashish help Benjamin to develop new ideas, generally? In his first protocol
about a hashish high from 1927 he states:
“17. It seemed to me: a marked unwillingness to converse about matters of
practical life, about the future, data, or politics. One seems to be drawn to the
intellectual sphere just like some maniacs are drawn to the sexual sphere.131
In the beginning of March 1930, Benjamin reports about a high that the
most important part was that with his eyes closed he had a thought about
the nature of what he calls aura”.132 This is the first time Benjamin men-
tions this notion; it will play a fundamental role in his later work. In this
first mentioning, he explains that for him, the aura is not some esoteric mys-
tic property, but something real that can be assigned to each and every ob-
ject – not just some special objects. Benjamin believes the aura changes
when the object moves and calls it an “ornamental environment (“Umzir-
kung”), in which the object or person is enclosed.”133 It is certainly difficult to
find a simple definition of Benjamin's notion of aura – we can find various
different characterizations throughout his work. For now, it should suffice
for an initial understanding that Benjamin thought of it as the concrete ob-
ject in its unique spatio-temporal and cultural-historical context. The con-
cept of aura will play a fundamental role in his thinking about art in his
most famous and widely influential 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age
of Mechanical Reproduction.”
131 Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 67.
132 Ibid., „Haschisch Anfang März 1930”, p.106
133 Ibid.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
138
Clearly, then, Benjamin thought about some themes of his later work
under the influence of hashish with the intent to come to new insights.
Now, of course, the question is whether the hashish high really helped him
to gain important insights, as he himself had stated in his writings. Or was
he just a brilliant mind who came up with great ideas, anyway some of
them during a high? I will argue in what follows that we can actually trust
Benjamin's own judgment: his experiences with hashish actually helped him
to gain insights which inspired his later work.
Let us look at two examples of Benjamin's ideas in his famous essay “The
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to argue this point.
(1) The 'Functional Change' of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
In this groundbreaking essay, Benjamin writes that the first pieces of art
had their ultimate foundation in the magical or religious rituals in which
they were used think, for example, of ancient statues of gods in temples
used in various religious rituals. This ritualistic or religious function ('utility
value') is part of what he calls their aura, the cultural, historical, scenic em-
bedding, which makes each of them unique. Even later in times of the Re-
naissance, Benjamin proceeds, art goes on to serve a certain function, and is
then fundamentally embedded not in religious rituals, but in secular rituals,
serving an aesthetic ideal. One of the core ideas of Benjamin's groundbreak-
ing essay is to observe that modern means of technical reproduction strip
pieces of art of their aura. A photograph of an object can be reproduced and
seen anywhere in the world, taking the object out of its spatio-temporal and
historical-cultural context. Thus, “(...) for the first time in world history, me-
chanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitic dependence
as ritual.” 134
During a hashish high, Benjamin experienced and described that objects
like that of Kafka's book can undergo 'functional shifting' in our perception;
they are no longer perceived under their original function of everyday use.
Now, Benjamin explains that through the use of technical reproduction such
134 Benjamin, Walter (1936), „The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction“,
in: Morra, Joanne, and Smith, Marquard (eds.) (2006) Visual Culture: Experiences in
visual culture, Taylor and Francis, p.19.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
139
as photography or film, artifacts are taken out of their original context of
function. This process, also, constitutes a functional shift: a piece of art is
not founded anymore in its function within a ritual, but it becomes founded
in “politics” now, what makes a piece of art valuable is not its function
within a defined ritual, but the question whether it can be exhibited in cer-
tain environments. Benjamin does not use the description 'functional shift'
at this point, but he uses the almost synonymous 'change in function':
“When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult,
the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. The resulting change in the
function of art transcended the perspective of the century; for a long time it even
escaped that of the twentieth century (…).”135
Benjamin's experiences with hashish made him see objects in a new way;
the high caused what he then called 'functional shift'. In his high experience,
he “stripped” Kafka's book of its original aura, of its function as a book, to
see it merely as an arbitrary object that could be chiseled out of stone; it
seems at least plausible that this experience helped him to see how art repro-
duced through technology – especially photography and film – led to a simi-
lar functional change; the objects presented in film are stripped of their aura.
The medium of photography or film allows us to see objects out of context,
leading to a functional change in our perception.
And when Benjamin goes on to explain this idea in more detail in con-
nection with the medium of film, he presents some more fundamental in-
sights which, again, seem to be linked to his previous experiences with hash-
ish:
(2) Film Technology allows a Revolutionary New Experience of Reality
For Benjamin, there is a revolutionary potential in this functional change
of art. For him, especially the medium of film shows a complete change in
the function and the potential of art; with its technical means, it offers a
whole new experience not only to a select group of eclectic viewers, but to
the masses around the world. Benjamin was excited how the technical means
of film allowed for so many of us to experience a deeper understanding of
135 Ibid., p.127.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
140
the world:
For the entire spectrum of optical, and now also acoustical, perception the
film has brought about a similar deepening of apperception.”136
He goes on to explain exactly in which ways the technical means of film
can achieve this by offering us what we could call new 'modes of presenta-
tion' of reality:
“With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.
The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any
case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of
the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement
but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded
rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural mo-
tions.”137
Benjamin goes on to explain that the camera can show us, for instance,
not only the usual visibly movement of somebody walking, but also various
postures during that movement that only come out in a fraction of a mo-
ment, postures that we would never see with the naked eye. The techniques
of filming can help us stretch our experience to see aspects of reality of
which we were previously unaware, and can therefore act like the psychoana-
lyst who helps his patient to become aware of his unconscious thoughts:
136 Ibid., p. 127.
137 Ibid., p. 127.
An extreme close
-up macro photo of a cannabis stigma, a part of the flowers. Photo © Sebastián M
a-
rincolo 2012
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
141
“Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its
interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and
reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis
to unconscious impulses.” 138
These changes of experience, these altered modes of presentation of reali-
ty sound familiar when we look at Benjamin's observations during his hash-
ish experiences. In his protocol from a high in Marseilles in 1928 he notes,
for instance, how he intensely focuses his attention on the handle of a coffee
pot, just like in a close-up in a film: “The handle of a pot, with which coffee is
served here, starts looking very big, and stays like this”139 As I have explained
before, the effect of “hyperfocusing” is a quite fundamental effect during a
cannabis high, so it is not surprising that Benjamin notices this change in
perception.
As quoted above, Benjamin had also noted and described 'mind racing'
during a cannabis high, an accelerated stream of thoughts or images, and the
enhancement of episodic memories. In my book, High. Insights on Marijua-
na, I described how this acceleration of thought and imagery of memories
can lead to a revelatory mode of presentation which can be compared to the
technique of time-lapse in film. The groundbreaking experimental movie
Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, made explicit use of techniques
like time-lapse to communicate some basic insights:
The mechanical and natural patterns shown in Koyaanisqatsi are omnipres-
ent in our daily life: we often experience traffic in cars, and we see the clouds
moving in the sky. But only when we see these patterns in a more compressed
mode of presentation do we start to attend to them as such; usually, when I look
at the traffic passing through several synchronized traffic lights, I am not interest-
ed in the fact that they “dance a mechanical rhythm”, since I am momentarily
just interested in crossing the street or getting home in my own car. The mode of
presentation in the movie Koyaanisqatsi, which shows many non-commented
time-lapse footage, focuses our attention on the very rhythm of our civilized mod-
ern life and nature. It show us the omnipresence of patterns we have not noticed
138 Ibid., p. 127.
139 Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 96.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
142
before, even though they determine almost all of our actions and interaction in
modern society as we take trains, drive cars, work in factories or companies
(…).140
During a high, you can have a similar “time-lapse” effect. The changed
mode of presentation of memories during a high can also help you to see a
new pattern in reality, an aspect of reality that was invisible to you before:
“Mind racing through past memories of your childhood and adolescence un-
der marijuana, you may find that you have been just as stubborn in your behav-
ior towards your parents as you are now in discussions with your wife. It is almost
like seeing or having a chain of associated memories played in time-lapse.”141
As we have seen, Benjamin experienced and described various effects of a
hashish high which play a role in such a time-lapse experience; the en-
hancement of episodic memory, the acceleration of thought or imagery.
Remarkably, these associative links during a high often present us with a
chain of similar situations; it is as if you would rapidly make an associative
chain between similar memories, such as seeing a rapid succession of exam-
ples of stubborn behavior throughout your life which can lead to the in-
sight, for instance, that you have kept a certain behavior throughout your
life. In one of his experiments in 1928, Benjamin also notes that he can easi-
ly find similarities between objects in his memory during his high:
“I immersed myself in intimate contemplation of the sidewalk before me,
which, through a kind of unguent (a magic unguent) which I spread over it,
could have been–precisely as these very stones–also the sidewalk of Paris.”142
The analogy between the special illuminating experience of time-lapse in
film and during a high show that Benjamin's experiences with hashish could
have paved the way for him to understand the ways in which the medium of
140 Marincolo, Sebastián (2010), High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing,
Indianapolis, p. 107.
141 Ibid., p. 108.
142 Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, From the Arcades Project (1927-1940)
Edited by Howard Eiland, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, p.54.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
143
film and its technical means, can help to expand the experience of reality, to
enable all of us to see aspects of reality that could not be seen before – just as
the experience of the cannabis high can allow users to see new aspects of real-
ity.
So, back to the original question. What did hashish do to Walter Benja-
min? He had experimented with hashish with the philosophical intent to
come to experiences that gave him a deeper understanding of reality. In his
hashish experiments, he obviously experienced and meticulously described
various interesting changes in perception and cognition which offered exact-
ly that: an altered state of consciousness enabling new perspectives and re-
vealing new aspects of reality. Benjamin's search for what he called a 'pro-
fane illumination' during the influence of hashish was successful. In his later
work, he used the insights gained during these experiences to come to a radi-
cal new understanding of the role of film and of art, in general, in modern
society and his insights have gone on to inspire not only his influential
philosophical and literary friends, but generations of students and other
readers ever since.
Benjamin, “Rausch”, and Revolution
Benjamin knew very well that the experience of the high (“Rausch”) does
not only have a positive mind-altering potential for the individual but also
bears a revolutionary political potential – just like the medium of film. In his
essay “Surrealism” (1929), he wrote:
“Lenin called religion the opiate of the masses (…) creative overcoming of re-
ligious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane il-
lumination, a materialistic, anthropological illumination, to which hashish, opi-
um, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson. (…) To win the energies of
intoxication for revolution – this is the project on which Surrealism focuses in all
its books and enterprises.“143
143 Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, from: “Surrealism” (1929)
Edited by Howard Eiland, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
Massachusetts., p.132.
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
144
In a letter to Max Horkheimer in 1938, Benjamin states:
“Critical theory cannot fail to recognize how deeply certain powers of intoxi-
cation [“Rausch”] are bound to reason and to its struggle for liberation.”144
As with the medium and the experience of film, Benjamin was well
aware that the experience of a certain kind of Rausch” had been abused by
fascists and other militaristic forces driven by capitalist greed. The threat of
fascism had long been omnipresent in his life. In 1940, the year in which
Benjamin tries to flee from Hitler's influence to neutral Spain, German sol-
diers invade Paris in a “Blitzkrieg”, fueled by millions of pills of Pervitin, also
called Hermann-Göring-Pillen”, methamphetamine pills (“Crystal Meth”),
which helps them to stay awake, keeps them fit and focused for days, damp-
ens their fears and empathy. Hitler, himself a multiple-toxico-maniac, re-
ceives high dosed shots of vitamins, crystal meth, “Eukodal”, which is a de-
rivative of morphine, cocaine applications for his head aches, and many oth-
er substances until his death.
Benjamin de-
cided shortly before
the invasion of
German troops in
France to flee to
Spain to then pro-
ceed to Portugal
and eventually to
the U.S. After a
strenuous climb
over the Pyrenees
Benjamin, who suf-
fers from both heart and lung disease, makes it to Portbou in Spain in Sep-
tember 1940 with a small group of refugees only to be denied asylum. The
group struggles not to be deported back to France with no success. At the
age of 48, Benjamin dies in the hotel in Portbou where the refugees are held
captive. He either commits suicide using the morphine that he carries for
that purpose in the eventuality that he is taken captive, or he is killed by the
144 Ibid., “From the Letters”, p. 145.
Portbou, Spain
What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin
145
Gestapo or by Stalin's agents. We will probably never know.145
Benjamin's friend, the philosopher and neo-Marxist Ernst Bloch, who
had experimented with hashish with Benjamin in Berlin, also went on to in-
fluence a whole generation of students in the 1960s with his main work The
Principle of Hope, which he wrote in the U.S. while in exile between 1938
and 1947. In his book, Bloch mentions his hashish experiences and how
they can help to enhance a user's ability for imagination – a gift that for
Bloch was central to human nature, enabling and driving us to live towards a
utopian society.
More than three decades before the revolutionary movements of the late
‘60s in various countries around the world, before the music at Woodstock
stunned and opened the minds of hundreds of thousands of people, young
and old, under the influence of marijuana or LSD, Benjamin wrote in his
essay “One-Way Street”:
“The ancient's intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic
trance [“Rausch”]. For it is in the experience alone that we assure ourselves of
what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the
other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos
only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experi-
ence as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the
poetic rapture of starry nights. 146
145 For an interesting report on Benjamin’s final hours, see “Chronicling Walter Benjamin's
final hours”, HAARETZ, Nov. 2014, http://www.haaretz.com/chronicling-walter-
benjamin-s-final-hours-1.449897
146 Ibid., p.129-30.
179
T
T
h
h
a
a
n
n
k
k
s
s
I would like to thank Jeroen Roeleveld for his trust and for giving me
the opportunity to write an expert blog for the cannabis seed bank Sensi
Seeds. The essays in this book are ‘enhanced’ versions of the original essays
published for this blog from 2012 to 2015. Without this support the neces-
sary research for this book would not have been possible.
Very generous support came from Carl Doherty, who helped me
extensively with editing and proofreading for no costs, even though I
offered. Eternal thanks, Carl. Excellent job! The remaining mistakes are
definitely on me.
This book was published with the help of an Indiegogo crowdfunding
campaign. I thank my anonymous supporters as well as some who chose to
openly support me: thanks Lieven D’hont, Paul Aguilar, and Shari L.
Mathieu.
Thanks, Joe Dolce, for contributing a foreword and for sharing so much
of your knowledge about the cannabis world with me in our conversations.
Last but not least, thanks again to Andy Schmith for the magnificent
cover design.
180
D
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r
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.
p
p
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S
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e
b
b
a
a
s
s
t
t
i
i
á
á
n
n
M
M
a
a
r
r
i
i
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c
c
o
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l
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is a former student of the
philosophers Manfred Frank,
Gianfranco Soldati, William G.
Lycan, Simon Blackburn, and
Dorit Bar-On. His research fo-
cuses on the philosophy of mind,
neurocognition, and on altered
states of mind. He has received
several academic grants and fel-
lowships, including a Fulbright
grant and a fellowship from the
German Academic Exchange
Service (DAAD).
Marincolo has published
various articles on the marijuana
high, co-edited bewusstseins-
erweiterungen (“mind expansions”), an issue of the German internetzine parapluie.de,
and published two books on the marijuana high: the study High. Insights on
Marijuana (Dogear Publishing, Indiana, USA, 2010), and an essay collection,
High. Das positive Potential von Marijuana (in German, Klett Cotta/Tropen,
Stuttgart, Germany, 2013), which contains his macro art series “The Art of
Cannabis”. The new essays in the present collection first appeared most of them
in shorter versions in five languages on his expert blog for the renowned Dutch
cannabis seed bank Sensi Seeds, the official provider of medical marijuana in the
Netherlands, between 2013-15. Marincolo also worked with marijuana expert
Harvard Associate Prof. Emeritus Lester Grinspoon on a book project. For more
than five years he was a creative director and consultant for one of the biggest
foundations in Germany and has more than 25 years of experience as a freelance
photographer specializing on documentary, art, travel, and macro-photography.
His art photography from New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Bali and other places has
been shown in various exhibitions and art galleries in Germany and the U.S. He is
currently living in Stuttgart, Germany, and works as a freelance writer, creative
consultant and photographer.
Personal home page and blog:
www.sebastianmarincolo.de
www.sebastianmarincolo.de
Photo © Tom Lichtenbergh 2014
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