If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.

News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.

Our media outlets are so incapable of reporting good news that you might even have first heard about this historic Iran deal in a Literary Kicks blog post last November titled "Ending Sixty Years of Bad Karma With Iran". We're not in the breaking news business here at Litkicks, and yet we took the trouble to fill you in on the happy developments last year, while most professional news outlets remained silent until they found a tasty way to frame the news as a bitter controversy instead of a blessed breakthrough. Wake up, people! From Havana to Tehran to Obama's White House, smart politicians are trying to make good decisions, and they deserve your support.

Why is the Iran peace agreement good? Because it's a peace agreement between several nations that have been bitterly afraid of each other for six decades. This simple truth speaks for itself. Several major nations are afraid of each other right now, and a peace agreement is primarily an attempt to soothe raging paranoia.

The paranoia in pervasive. Many Americans I know are completely ignorant of the Iranian view of history, and cannot comprehend how frightened Iran is of the world powers who supported the Shah's oppressive (but oil-friendly) oligarchy from 1953 to 1979. Anybody who needs an explanation for Iran's hatred of Europe and USA only needs to read up on the history of Iran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That would be a valuable education for many Americans who think the problems between Iran and the USA only began in 1979.

But Iran isn't the only frightened party in 2015. Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a diagram of an imaginary bomb, while Tom Cotton seethes in the Senate. On Facebook, I hear my own friends express a sense of surreal terror that the villains in Tehran will surely take advantage of the deal to secretly build a nuclear bomb and blow up Tel Aviv, or New York City if they can reach it. This kind of primal paranoia appears hysterical when rationally examined, but the level of popular hysteria cannot be denied. Perhaps this is the nicest thing that can be said about Tom Cotton, the young pro-military Iraq veteran who has now made himself famous for writing a letter to Iran. He did not write this letter to advance his own career (though he has in fact advanced his career, and will probably be a popular face on Fox News for the next fifty years). He wrote this letter because he really thinks Iran is going to blow up the world. He's ignorant, but he's not cynical.

This kind of paranoia is what peace agreements are designed to cure. Difficult negotiations allow embattled leaders on all sides of an unbridgeable dispute to exchange information and ask questions. Peace agreements permit various kinds of conversation and commerce to slowly spin up, allowing cultural and economic interchange on new levels. They empower moderates at the expense of extremists -- and if that's not good news with regard to Iran and the rest of the world, I don't know what is.

Is it ever possible for a peace agreement to be a bad thing? Those who oppose this agreement right now point to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938, but that famous example is full of hot air. Even a failed peace agreement like the Munich deal of 1938 does little actual damage, and of course the primary cause of the Second World War was not Neville Chamberlain -- it was the First World War.

It was right before that ruinous war began, back in the muddled summer months of 1914, that Europe's paranoid nations lost their last chance for a significant peace agreement, and instead began the process of systematically slaughtering each other for the next few decades.

Its 2015, and we're not going to make those mistakes anymore. The peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will be signed next week is glorious good news. I'll be dancing in the streets when it's finally signed -- even if I have to go dancing alone.


Forget the noise. Despite the loud opposition, the peace agreement that will hopefully conclude this week is a great and historic step forward for every nation in the world.

view /IranDeal
Sunday, March 15, 2015 08:41 am
International talks over Iran peace agreement
Levi Asher

In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.

The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.

Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.

If I search back for my own early sense impressions of the name "Napoleon", I picture a cross-eyed guy in an insane asylum with a three-cornered hat, his hand tucked inside his shirt or strait jacket. This is not Napoleon himself, but rather somebody pretending to be him. The idea of a "Napoleon Delusion" has become such a popular meme that it merits a page on TV Tropes. An article at Straight Dope traces the idea that crazy people thought they were Napoleon to early mentions by William James and William De Morgan. It's worth asking: why would so many crazy people claim to be Napoleon Bonaparte? It seems to be a sign of his once-great renown, of the stunning power -- for good or evil -- his image once evoked.

To modern minds like mine, though, the image of a crazy person ranting as Napoleon has merged with the persona of the historical figure so completely that it becomes surprising to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte himself never went crazy at all -- -not even in his final years of lonely exile. He probably did rant from time to time, but no more than any other grand dictator ever did.

So why has Napoleon's name sunk so low that he is now only remembered as a joke? A world leader who was once widely hated and widely loved has been reduced to a silly cartoon, and today the silly cartoon is all we remember.

A "Napoleon" is also a dessert pastry, and "Waterloo" is a song by ABBA. This trivialization would certainly annoy the Emperor himself, and he would probably interpret the phenomenon as a sign that the anti-Napoleon propaganda of 19th Century England and Russia has dominated over the pro-Napoleon propaganda of France and its allies. Their propaganda was certainly immense in scale. For both England and Russia, Napoleon was the human incarnation of the bloody and anarchic French Revolution. The pitying and damning portrait of revolutionary Paris found in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities shows the intensity of condemnation the mention of revolutionary France once evoked on the British isles.

Literature's cruelest blow to Napoleonic glory was Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace, which captures the boastful Emperor at his peak of arrogance and folly. War and Peace was a great literary drubbing, but a sensitive reader should consider that the sublime mind of Leo Tolstoy did not choose easy targets. The fact that Tolstoy considered the grand image of Napoleon Bonaparte to be worth taking down in 1869, fifty years after Bonaparte's death, proves again how important the French Emperor's image remained, even in faraway Russia, throughout the turbulent century that followed his defeat.

The level of Napoleon's rock-star celebrity can blind us to the fact that it was not actually the individual human being but rather the political impulses this human being personified that were the main topic of discussion in 19th Century Europe. The fact that Napoleon may have been prideful or yearned for imperial glory shows a human failing, but one person's human flaws reveal far less about history than the phenomenon that so many millions of other people found this one person inspiring. To a stunning degree, they did.

As the incarnation of the French Revolution, as a personification of the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire, the people of Europe sanctified Napoleon as the representative of modernism, progressivism, egalitarianism, universal suffrage, "people power". He was appreciated as a breath of fresh air on a stale continent: an anti-cleric, a philo-semite, a breaker of racial and religious and ethnic and economic boundaries.

Whether this persona accurately represented the faulty human being or not, it was the persona itself that stood as a symbolic model of pure concentrated change and made him a hero to generations of intellectuals and artists and scientists. He was the fount of heroism in the modern age, the engine of political dynamism in a world stuck in the past. Charles Dickens could not appreciate Napoleon, but Lord Byron was certainly following a Napoleonic calling when he joined a military mission to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire and died at Missolonghi in 1824, as close to a battlefield as he could get. And it's impossible to fully understand Nietzsche's notion of the "ubermensch" without considering that Napoleon had once been Europe's "ubermensch".

Though he damaged his reputation for radicalism once he declared himself an emperor and established his various relatives as hereditary rulers all over Europe, the ideologies perceived as Napoleonic formed a point of origination for various radical movements, most notably Karl Marx's Communism, which was understood in its own time to be built upon the structure of French revolutionary doctrine. Virtually every brand of nationalist or internationalist progressivism of the 19th century would evoke Napoleon's name one way or another, and many powerful leaders would go on to consciously emulate his pursuit of moral greatness through military conquest: Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, Simon Bolivar in South America, Andrew Jackson and then Teddy Roosevelt in the USA. We many not naturally think of these distinct historical figures as consciously emulating Napoleon when we remember them today. But if we wish to understand these leaders in the contexts of their own times, we must recognize the shadows they stood in.

The era of glorious Napoleonic warfare began its ugly end in August 1914. The Great War began with Napoleonic fervor on all sides, but quickly descended into depressing and murderous stalemate. A sick new brand of militarism would dominate the 20th Century, with a new cast of characters whose cults of personality had sharper edges. Times had changed -- and yet even so, contemporary records indicate that when Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton looked in the mirror, they each saw Napoleon Bonaparte in the glass.

We often think of Communism and Fascism as opposites today, but Fascism emerged from the same Napoleonic fervor as Communism, now flavored with powerful appeals to racial separatism and ethnic hatred. It's no coincidence that both Communism and Fascism thrived in the German, Italian, Slavic and Russian lands that had hosted all of Napoleon's great battles.

It was only after the final tragedy of World War II ended that Europe's last Napoleons began to fade away. This was clearly good riddance all around, but it's a concerning fact that much of the intense intellectual ferment that the name of Napoleon once evoked has been lost to modern understanding, and replaced with cliches of broad comedy.

Our Napoleonic amnesia seems to represent some kind of short circuiting of our shared historical mind. We giggle with bored familiarity at the image of a person whose power of persuasion once shook the earth. It's a lazy way of avoiding the fact that we still don't understand how to process the legacy that impacted our world so much, and not so long ago.

Even in 2015, as ill-begotten notions of military nobility and glory continue to roil our world, the grand contradiction that ended at Waterloo 200 years ago seems still to hold us in its grip, though we still fail to understand it.


Napoleon is barely remembered today, except as a joke. But his influence over the disastrous wars and revolutionary movements of the 20th Century was immense.

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Monday, March 2, 2015 08:02 am
Two comedians dressed as Napoleon
Levi Asher

Update, March 13 2015: Daevid Allen has died, according to a message from his son.

Daevid Allen, a brilliant songwriter and archetypal hippie prog-rocker who co-founded Soft Machine in 1966 before reaching his peak as the mad visionary genius of Gong, has announced that he is dying of cancer and has six months to live.

I am not interested in endless surgical operations and in fact it has come as a relief to know that the end is in sight.

I am a great believer in "The Will of the Way Things Are" and I also believe that the time has come to stop resisting and denying and to surrender to the way it is.

I can only hope that during this journey, I have somehow contributed to the happiness in the lives of a few other fellow humans.

Many people have never heard of Daevid Allen, who wears a bright blue shirt and gazes skyward in the photo above. But those in-the-know prog fans who do know the music of Gong tend to be rapturous at the mention of his name. It was Daevid Allen who inspired the British band Soft Machine to name themselves after a William S. Burroughs novel, after which he drifted to Paris and teamed up with his muse and lover Gilli Smyth to create the musical collective known variously over the years as Gong or Planet Gong, or New York Gong (the punk-flavored variation that flared up in the late 1970s) or Mother Gong (the branch Gilli Smyth maintained on her own).

The lack of a hard core behind the band's fluid identity expresses not only the band's existential philosophy but also its musical approach, which was relentlessly experimental and international but always sweet, funny, approachable and optimistic.

Gong existed on a dynamic musical fault line: the lyrics were goofy and the cosmic imagery delightfully faux-naif, but the music was solid kick-ass jazz rock, tinged with theatrical flourishes reflecting influences from Ornette Coleman to Brecht and Weill to Edith Piaf. The remarkable sonic stew reached its peak in three great mid-1970s concept albums known as the Radio Gnome Trilogy. The very best of these three albums, in my opinion, is the delicious Angel's Egg, a little-known masterpiece that occupies a sonic ground somewhere between Zappa/Beefheart's Bongo Fury, Pink Floyd's Ummugumma and Preservation by the Kinks. A great video of the song "I Never Glid Before" from this album captures both the innocent sparkle and dramatic musical sophistication of Gong.

I never fully understood the fantasy/sci-fi plotline of the Radio Gnome rock opera, which deals with pointy-headed space aliens, Octave Doctors, a hero named Zero, a prostitute with a cat (memorably voiced by the fearless Gilli Symth) and a bunch of creatures known as Pothead Pixies, whose name is abbreviated as PHP on the comic illustrations that graced the covers of their 1970s albums. (I never found proof of this, but I always guessed that Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of the programming language PHP, must have been a Gong fan.)

I might never have heard of Daevid Allen or Gong, just as many people who think they know a lot about 1970s classic rock have barely any idea that this long-running creative collective exists. I only know about Gong because I long ago happened to briefly befriend a small community of obsessive young prog-rock fiends in a small Hudson Valley New York town who lived in a musical bubble and introduced me to the deep discography of serious experimental music from Brian Eno to early Genesis to Todd Rundgren to Gong, which made the biggest impression on me of all of these names. (I fell out of touch with this crazy group of friends, but later discovered that one of the ringleaders had morphed into the prog-rocker Phideaux Xavier, whose unique ongoing work continues to remind me of the genius of Daevid Allen.)

Indeed, Gong will probably live on through its influence on other artists, and if Daevid Allen dies in approximately six months as he expects to do, there will only be a gentle ripple of recognition around the world. The influence will be felt in large but subtle vibrations, like those of the ancient Asian instrument the band is named after.

Look up in the air
The Octave Doctor's there!
And when he strokes his gong
Your middle eye comes on

In a moving interview at Blues.Gr just a year ago, Daevid Allen hearkened back to his early Beat inspiration to provide his own perspective on it all.

William Burroughs gave me excellent advice. He said: "Keep your bags packed and ready to go at all times".

Daevid Allen, your friends around the world thank you for brightening our lives. We pray that your passage will be peaceful.


Daevid Allen, the brilliant jazz-rock mastermind of Soft Machine, Gong, New York Gong and Planet Gong, releases a public statement about his fatal cancer.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015 09:51 am
A circle of Gong, featuring Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth and Didier Malherbe
Levi Asher

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

Adam Hochschild, holding the seat of honor next to Lewis Lapham, emphasized the shock of the fast slide to total war, which took nearly every progressive European thinker by surprise. Many political pundits and activists had been absorbed in lofty socialist or idealistic agendas when the war broke out. "The Internationalist dream went up in smoke at this moment," Hochschild said.

I was glad to find Michael Kazin on this panel, as I had also once read his biography of the famous Christian revivalist William Jennings Bryan, a perennial Democratic candidate for President who is now mostly known as the anti-Darwin foil in Inherit the Wind. I'd originally read A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan because I was interested in Bryan's career as a religious revivalist, but I was fascinated by the unexpected discovery that this farm-country traditionalist was also a devout pacifist who did God's work in trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson not to enter the European war. At the New York Public Library panel, Kazin spoke of the wide variety of anti-war activities in the USA before and after we entered the war in 1917, including a women's march down Fifth Avenue and popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be A Soldier".

The final member of the morning panel was Jack Beatty, NPR pundit and author of The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began. Beatty stated crisply a key point that is too often forgotten: there is a single human emotion that is the engine of war. The emotion is not greed, not hatred, but fear.

After the morning panel we heard stirring tributes by Jessica Tuchman Mathews and David Nasaw to Andrew Carnegie, another famous figure of history who is not typically remembered as a pacifist, though he dedicated his life to the cause. Nasaw referred to Carnegie as a "fool for peace", and told enough stories to justify this honorific that I will certainly feel much more humbled by the benefactor's good intentions the next time I walk into Carnegie Hall.

The afternoon session "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?" was designed to pivot the conversation from history to activism, and this was the session I was most looking forward to. Lewis Lapham had invited a lively group, anchored by the peace and ecology activist Leslie Cagan. Next to Leslie was Steve Fraser, whose upcoming book The Age of Acquiescence criticizes our society's complacency about abuses of capitalism.

An interesting dynamic became evident as Cagan and Fraser each tried to answer the question "where are the voices for peace now?" in light of their own backgrounds and familiar activist communities. Leslie Cagan spoke of pacifism in terms of its connection to issues of racial equality, environmental policy and gender discrimination. She pointed out that the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels is the United States military.

Steve Fraser, meanwhile, became so enmeshed in a tangent about economic justice that I started to feel annoyed, because I began to suspect that he believes we will only be able to solve the problem of war after we overthrow capitalism. Personally, while I probably will be happy to help overthrow capitalism, I am definitely not willing to wait to overthrow militarism until that's done first and I certainly do not agree with those who say that peace is impossible until Wall Street is defeated. (I personally think it's the other way around: we won't be able to solve most other problems in the world until we discover peace, and once we do discover peace, many other problems will easily cure themselves.)

The third panelist was David Cannadine, an extremely vivid and confident speaker who at one point deservingly lambasted an elderly questioner who complained about Cannadine's kind words about Barack Obama. As much as I enjoyed Cannadine's performance, I felt that his approach to the panel was disappointing in the same way that Cagan's and Fraser's was: he was not primarily there to speak about pacifism. He spoke convincingly of issues of leadership style, and of the odd twists of history that determine our fate, but he did not indicate at any point during this panel that he felt there were any significant voices for peace worth mentioning today. Nor, for that matter, did Cagan or Fraser.

This is not David Cannadine's or Leslie Cagan's or Steve Fraser's fault. They're probably right: pacifism currently has no currency at all as a political philosophy. Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian addressed this directly in his introduction to the event when he pointed out that pacifism never recovered from the debacle of the Munich peace agreement that empowered Nazi Germany to seize Czechoslovokia in 1938. David Cannadine referred to this later when he pointed out that "pacifist" is now considered equivalent to "appeaser". This is indeed the major challenge that any pacifist must be able to respond to today. But anybody who considers this a fatal challenge to pacifism is certainly not trying hard enough.

Just as the afternoon panel failed to name any individual voices for pacifism who are making a significant difference today, it also failed to identify any highly relevant peace organizations in the world. There is Greenpeace, and there is Occupy Wall Street, and there is Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and these are all more or less tangentially pacifist to some degree. But these organizations each have specific purposes other than world peace itself. This panel discussion was called "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?", but it seems the world has a big empty space where a vibrant peace movement should be.

Or does it? Would we have been able to name some examples of voices for peace today if Lewis Lapham had invited Medea Benjamin, or Yoko Ono, or Nicholson Baker? Maybe so, and I wish they could all have been included, along with many others too. But the truth that was revealed by this afternoon session's scattered attention span is an important truth in itself, and I think it had to be revealed to help us realize what we must do next.

It was such a subtle omission that I barely even noticed it myself until near the end of the question-and-answer session, when somebody else pointed it out: "I'd like to bring this back," he said, "to the main question, which really hasn't been discussed at all. Where are the voices for peace today?"

I left the room with the question still in my head, and I'm going to keep thinking about it. If we don't know where the peace movement is in the world right now, maybe we need to get off our butts and create one.


Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty, Leslie Cagan, Steve Fraser and David Cannadine discuss pacifism at the New York Public Library.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am
Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty at the New York Public Library
Levi Asher

"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky

I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.

The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.

While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.

The specific rite of spring that these crazy-dressed people are dancing so hard about is a human sacrifice -- specifically, the sacrifice of a young virgin girl. Like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Sacre du Printemps is a work that challenges us to consider our own primitive and superstitious collective past ... though the sociological message is also not what sparked the theater riot in Paris, any more than the music sparked the riot. Contemporary accounts suggest that the audience was just put off by all the stomping on stage.

Enjoy this video of Le Sacre, if you wish ... and may you celebrate your own unique rites of Spring, whatever they may be, today.


The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.

view /RiteOfSpring2014
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 09:32 pm
Rite of Spring performed by Joffrey Ballet
Levi Asher

1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.

Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.

Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.

The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.

It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.

When I first heard that a book of literary history had been written about the year of 1922, I expected a series of thematic chapters. I'm glad that Kevin Jackson arranged the book chronologically instead. It introduces an element of natural rhythm (the slow-marching rhythm of time and history itself) that feels more meaningful than any superimposed thematic scheme could have been. Constellation of Genius is a book about modernism, and its own structure is modernist. (A similarly chronological/anecdotal structure also produced great results in Nicholson Baker's most important book, Human Smoke.)

Kevin Jackson is a modernist, but not a cold one. His tastes are catholic, but he has a cantankerous and opinionated voice that carries well in these short chapters. When he dislikes a critically acclaimed novel, like Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, which was published in 1922, he seems to rather enjoy the chance to say so.

My only problem with this book is the constant footnotes, which appear on nearly every page, and provide additional anecdotes that seem no more or less essential to the book's main thrust than the parts of the text that are not footnotes. Perhaps Kevin Jackson wanted to give readers the chance to decide which footnoted anecdotes were worth reading, but we can't really tell if they're worth reading except by reading them, so he may as well have placed them into the main text. Perhaps he was trying to nod to the footnotes in The Waste Land but those footnotes were better.

Still, I'm happy to learn all about the world of literature and arts in 1922, and I wonder if it would be possible to write books like this about several other years -- say, 1939, when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were filmed, or 1957, when On The Road and Atlas Shrugged were published, or 1986, when the Mets won the World Series.

We are still living in the modernist age, after all, and still acting out our primal dramas from the heroic age. Also, every year must contain its hidden masterpieces. I bet several more good books like Constellation of Genius could be written, and if they are I'll probably end up reading them all.


1922 was a pretty special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce's 'Ulysses' was published. On October 16, T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' appeared.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013 08:54 pm
Constellation Of Genius 1922 by Kevin Jackson
Levi Asher

Who wants words, on an August weekend before the final week of the summer? I don't. Let's look at some pictures instead.

Renee Jorgensen Bolinger, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Southern California, has found a fresh way to think about her favorite thinkers: she paints their portraits, mimicking styles of thematically corresponding classic painters. That's Wittgenstein/Mondrian at top left, W. V. O. Quine/Dali top right, Kierkegaard/Lichtenstein bottom left, Philippa Foot/Toulouse-Lautrec bottom right. (I've never heard of Philippa Foot before, but apparently she's a neo-Aristotlean ethicist).

I always try to find new angles with which to look at the history of philosophy, and I like the idea of matching classic thinkers to classic artists. Which classic artist would you pair with, say, Friedrich Nietzsche? (Please don't say Caspar David Friedrich ... too obvious). Perhaps Cezanne? I'm not sure why.

How about Jean-Paul Sartre? I'm drawing a blank.

Jacques Derrida in Matisse might be nice.

An Edward Hopper William James, anyone?

The enterprising Renee Bolinger has even created a calendar featuring these portraits. Thanks to Leiter Reports for the link.


Renee Jorgensen Bolinger, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Southern California, has found a fresh way to think about her favorite thinkers: she paints their portraits,

view /ReneeBolinger
Saturday, August 24, 2013 06:37 pm
Renee Bolinger's paintings of philosophers
Levi Asher

Tactile philosophy. These words popped into my mind when I saw a beautiful, amazing photograph of a blissful 74-year-old Helen Keller enveloped by a troupe of Martha Graham's dancers, feeling the music and visual expression through vibration and touch, raising her arms and joining in the dance. (Is this not one of the greatest photographs ever taken? Am I the only person who didn't know that this photograph has existed since 1954?)

I was already thinking about the sense of touch on the day I saw this photo. Philosophical rationalists and empiricists have long debated whether or not we experience the world through sensory data alone. This question has never been satisfactorily answered, but I bet many on both sides would agree that touch is the most philosophically final, the most authoritative, of all the human senses. Where the rubber hits the road. The stick a Zen master strikes an inattentive student with. To the extent that we develop our philosophy of life from our sensory experience of the world, it seems likely that our tactile experiences are the most philosophically influential of all.

A person may have been beaten as a child, or may have been deprived, or coddled, or forced at an early age to gain mastery of the physical world in order to survive. In all cases, we must expect this to influence that person's developing sense of ethics and morality. In this light, Helen Keller's achievement as a living example of a capable and communicative deaf-and-blind person is all the more remarkable -- not only because she transcended her assumed limitations, but because she proved that a person who experiences the world primarily through the sense of touch can have a positive attitude. She knows the world in a different way than you or I do, but she too has discovered joy. At the age of 74, she stands in a circle of moving dancers, a beatific smile on her face, and raises the roof.

I thought some more about the sense of touch after watching an amusing and revealing 8-minute video of a confrontation that took place in 1972 between the famous French philosopher and Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan and an angry, rebellious student who interrupts Lacan's presentation to spill water on his notes as a symbolic protest. The student appears to be an anarchist, no doubt inspired by the Parisian protest movements of 1968, which makes Jacques Lacan a slippery target for his protest, since Lacan was also known to be sympathetic to the French extreme left.

Perhaps it's because the young student knows how difficult a target Lacan will be that the student crosses the line from intellectual argument to a gesture of physical confrontation, a gesture of touch. The act of physical protest is also a perfectly valid form of communication, as any fashionable semiotician must know, and Lacan coolly accepts it as such. He says, "I understand". A few others in the room jump to Lacan's aid, and the young man wishfully asks if he is going to be "roughed up". He'll have no such luck.

In fact, the young protestor's nervous demeanor as he explains the purpose of his protest makes him so easy a target for the 71-year-old master that Lacan's attempt to respond calmly and without rebuke begins to appear condescending. He asks, "Shall I carry on from here?", inviting the young man to sit down, and the audience laughs.

The young man, realizing that he is in danger of becoming a comic figure of inarticulate youthful intensity, refuses to play along, and soon attacks Lacan a second time. Unlike the first act of physical confrontation, which Jacques Lacan tried to gently laugh off, the second seems to make him angry, perhaps against his will. As the mood in the room intensifies, the intellectual coherence of the confrontation between Lacan and the young protester begins to dissipate. Nothing has been decided or debated, but perhaps something has transpired.

I find historic moments like this delicious to watch, because, even with all the intense self-consciousness, philosophical irony and awkward foolishness that must fill the room of any modern seminar in philosophy, the young man's act of physical protest does succeed in fabricating a moment of revealed truth. Here is the act of protest. There is smug Jacques Lacan, an aged lion, a celebrity, basking in the glory of his questionable fame even as the failure of his philosophy -- the world in 1972, after all, is still not cured of its terrible mental illness -- is evident all over Paris, and all over the world.

Philosophy is at its most exciting when it becomes tactile. May we always experience it directly -- as a rush of waving hands and moving feet around us, like Helen Keller does at the center of this loving circle. If we can't dance to the moving touch of philosophy, let us feel it as a blast of cold water to the face, like Jacques Lacan in his seminar room. Through the sense of touch, and sometimes through touch alone, we are able to feel the friction and texture of truth.

* * * * *

The Helen Keller image is apparently found in a book called Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown, featured on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings. A video of her encounter with Martha Graham's dance company can be seen here:

I read about the Jacques Lacan confrontation on Richard Metzger's Dangerous Minds, though the accompanying article mainly finds comedy in the sheer number of cigars and cigarettes being smoked during the confrontation. Here's the video of the event:


A photograph of Helen Keller surrounded by dancers and a video of an act of protest at a Jacques Lacan seminar inspire some thoughts about the tactile nature of philosophical awareness.

view /Tactile
Saturday, July 13, 2013 11:47 am
Helen Keller with Martha Graham dance troupe
Levi Asher

Nationalism feels so natural to us -- to all of us, during this age on planet Earth -- that we barely question it. We could solve a few problems by questioning the basic concept of nationalism itself.

Virulent public arguments over immigration reform are currently taking place in the United States of America (a controversial bill may become law this week). Immigration reform has many facets; it involves taxation, employment, ethnicity, health care, education, voting patterns. But with all the talk that's flying around, nobody on either the liberal or conservative side ever acknowledges that the concept of immigration rests upon the more basic concept of nationalism, and that nationalism itself is not a necessary or historically deep-rooted political reality.

In fact, nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon on planet Earth. Historians agree that nationalism began with the American Revolution, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It gradually came to dominate Europe and the Americas, and spread to Asia and Africa in the 20th Century. Earlier, Wikipedia says:

In Europe before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a religion or to a particular leader rather than to their nation.

The word "nationalism" was coined by a interesting Prussian philosopher and critic, Johann Gottfried Herder, who appears to have been some kind of proto-sociologist and precursor to Max Weber and Carl Jung. (I think I'll learn more about J.G. Herder and write about him again on this blog soon). Herder was not a proponent of nationalism, but rather an observer of the nationalist crazes that began with Napoleon's redrawing of the Central European map at the height of his imperial success. Even after Napoleon's defeat by Austria, Prussia and Russia, it was clear that a nationalist state of mind, originating with Napoleon's revolutions, had become the norm in Austria and Prussia (this led to the creation in 1871 of a nation called Germany, which would develop an occasional habit of taking nationalism too far).

It seems that the Napoleonic empire's brief sweep over Europe amounted to a "European Spring" for many potent ideologies, including nationalism, socialism and communism. It's interesting to realize that nationalism's historical roots don't actually go much deeper than those of communism or socialism, and may be no more natural to the human race than either socialism of communism. We take nationalism for granted today, but perhaps we shouldn't.

What is a nation? Functionally, economically, politically, militarily, it is a unit, a community, a group self. We tend to take our citizenship seriously, and we're not kidding when we call non-citizens "aliens".

I'm supposed to feel a kinship with a person in Oklahoma that I'm not supposed to feel for a person in Mexico. Why? Because the person from Oklahoma pays into the same tax pool that I do? Okay, well ... the person in Mexico shares the Atlantic Ocean with me. I would prefer a concept of citizenship that allows me to express my kinship with every person in the world, and I'm not at all convinced that such a change would create a political or economic calamity.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a chapter in my memoir of Silicon Alley in which I had a surprising revelation. After a year in which I experienced great financial success due to a dot-com IPO, I discovered that I was not a bit happier than any other year, because the success was just my own, but other people in my life were still going through various traumas and crises (including, at the time, cancer, alcoholism, divorce).

I realized at this time that a person can't be happy if he's surrounded by loved ones who are unhappy, and that this is the obvious reason that personal success often fails to bring happiness. I think the same pattern holds true for nations.

I can't feel the United States of America is prosperous if the nations we share a border with are not prosperous. I would happily trade some of the abundance of modern American society -- it would be good riddance, in many cases -- if I could share some of this abundance more widely. So I really don't know why I shouldn't support immigration reform that helps my country be a more generous neighbor, and a better citizen of the world. Sure sounds like the right idea to me.

On a broader front, I'd love to illuminate the often tiresome public debates about immigration by questioning the more fundamental presumption of nationalism that underlies our debates about immigration. Why do we cling to hard to our nationalist pride, our patriotic (but globally alienating) sense of a collective self? If we consider that World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq Wars all revolved around virulent presumptions of national interest, and virulent expressions of nationalist patriotism, it becomes clear that nationalism has not had a great track record on planet Earth.

I'm sure I'll be accused of going all "Kumbaya" for suggesting that we can all be citizens of the world. Well, I'd rather sing "Kumbaya" than "Duetschland Uber Alles", or "Le Marseillaise", or "The Star-Spangled Banner".


Nationalism feels so natural to us -- to all of us, during this age on planet Earth -- that we barely question it. We could solve a few problems by questioning the basic concept of nationalism itself.

view /NationalismAndAlienation
Saturday, June 22, 2013 07:49 pm
World map of Napoleon's Empire
Levi Asher

In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:

That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.

The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.

Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.

The great-granddaddy of all substance books is the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, a 19th century English essayist, a colleague of William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge.

As a young student, De Quincy was a prodigy. He had such a mastery of Greek that one of his masters, quoted in the Confessions, said to another teacher: “that boy [De Quincey] could harangue an Athenian mob better than you and I could address an English one.” De Quincy passed through many schools in his youth, learned many of the Latin and particularly the Greek classics, and developed a life-long love of Wordsworth’s poetry. Unfortunately, his academic career was marred by constant moves from school to school, and especially by falling prey to some particularly inept masters and bishops who were charged with his education. At one point, young De Quincey ran away from school and led a vagabond life, wandering through Wales before ending up in London.

This itinerate existence forms the first part of Confessions – as a sort of explanation for the sources of pain that first drove him to the use of opium. He then holds forth first on the Joys, and then on the Pains, of opium.

De Quincey wrote the Confessions in London, while hiding from his creditors, a situation that was to be a constant in his life. He published the essay in serial form in the London Magazine; the piece received immediate acclaim, kicking off a lifetime career of magazine writing. Over the years, De Quincey revised and edited The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and it remains his most important and most continuously read piece.

Thomas De Quincey writes in a rambling, digressive style, peppered with quotes from poets such as Wordsworth and Milton, to lend gravitas to his pronouncements as well as to show off his considerable erudition. Once you get into the rhythm of this style, it becomes quite enjoyable, and his digressions are often quiet charming.

But what about the substances? The book is after all Confessions of an English Opium Eater, not Confessions of a Country Squire.

De Quincy is a master at describing the joys and states of mind induced by opium. He took the drug in the form of laudanum, a commonly used remedy in the 19th century. Laudanum is also known as tincture of opium. It's opium in a solution of alcohol, and it contains all of the alkaloids found in raw opium, including codeine and morphine.

Opium has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes as far back as prehistoric times. The Sumerians cultivated opium in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. The use of opium, along with the invention of writing, then passed from Mesopotamia to Egypt, where the ancient city of Thebes became noted for its poppy fields, and the yield from the ripe pods was known Thebic opium. The Greeks used opium widely in medicine, and passed their knowledge on to the Romans. The Roman legions spread the use of the drug to Western Europe.

Opium consumption continued through the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, a medical man and alchemist named Paracelsus wrote of the benefits of opium, and created his own elixir known as arcanum which he used to cure intestinal ulcers and other disorders. It was also thought to have magical powers. Arcanum was a mixture of 25% opium mixed with henbane, crushed pearls, coral, certain oils, and a “bone from the heart of a stag”.Paracelsus also carried little pellets of opium which he called laudanum, and which he boasted could wake the dead.

An English physician named Thomas Sydenham took Paracelsus’ term laudanum, and applied it to a tincture of opium that he produced by dissolving the opium pellets in alcohol. Laudanum could also be made by dissolving opium in strong red wine or port, thus disguising the bitter taste and forming a potent liquid that could only be taken by adding drops of it to a glass of water or tea. A large draught of laudanum would result in immediate overdose and death.

De Quincey’s first encounter with laudanum came in the autumn of 1804. He was still a very young man, a year into his studies at Oxford. While visiting in London, he came down with “excruciating pains of the head and face”. The pain continued on for twenty days, and on the twenty-first, an acquaintance of his from college recommended laudanum. De Quincey sets the scene of his first encounter with the drug: “It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London”. Heading home through Oxford Street, he passed a druggist’s shop and stepped inside. The druggist offers up the tincture of opium, and De Quincey pays and repairs to his lodgings, still in dire pain. He takes the required dose of laudanum, measured out in drops. An hour passes. Suddenly, not only is his pain gone, but he is unexpectedly shown “the abyss of divine enjoyment”. He continues: “Here was a panacea [...] for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be had for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle.”

From this first experience, De Quincy becomes a casual user of laudanum. At the time, the popular contralto Josephina Grassini sang at the London Opera, and it was De Quincey’s habit to imbibe some laudanum and then sit in the gallery, listening to the music of the opera, in particular to the singing of Grassini. Of his opera experience he notes “I question whether any Turk, of all that have entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had”. He would also take a dose of opium and ramble through the teeming market streets of London on Saturday night, observing the poor, and in his opium-induced euphoria, feeling a great solidarity with the common man.

Unfortunately, those halcyon days of early drug use didn’t go on forever. De Quincy remained a casual user of opium for eight years, up until 1813. At this time, he was brought low by an acute stomach ailment, one that he first experienced in his vagabond youth. The pain was so intense that he began to take laudanum every day. And here he discovers the law of opium: the more opium you take, the more you need to take, as the body builds up a tolerance that requires greater and greater amounts of the drug to attain the same pleasure. Accompanying this is the sickness you experience when the drug wears off. It is here that you enter the hell of addiction. Your primary purpose in taking the drug is not for the euphoric feeling it once gave, but to avoid the dreadful drug sickness.

De Quincey enters a period in which he rarely leaves the house, and his sleep is tormented by strange and terrible dreams. He seems to be living in a half-waking half sleeping hell. He is unable to read, unable to work, and unable to reduce his dependency on opium.

He begins to stockpile opium and manufacture his own laudanum by dissolving the narcotic substance in port or Madeira wine. He notes that “I [...] have taken happiness both in a solid and liquid shape, both boiled and unboiled, both East India and Turkey.” Opium is typically boiled and strained to remove impurities, and De Quincey’s preference for boiled opium becomes clear in a philosophical discussion on philosophers that he regards as inhuman moralists: “An inhuman moralist I can no more endure in my nervous state than opium that has not been boiled”.

Finally a crisis enters his life -- what it is he doesn’t say -- that leads him to the realization that he will die if he continues on with opium as he has, He begins to reduce his dosage, slowly at first, but enough over time that he is able to keep his consumption of the drug to manageable amounts.

De Quincey remained an opium-eater until the end of his days. He produced a vast amount of writing during his life and died at the age of 74, which was a fairly ripe old age for the times. Other than his severe addictive period, the opium did not seem to slow his literary output. And he left us an essay that shows us both the pleasures and pitfalls of opium use, as well as adding some wonderful description of the drug state to our literature, our substance books. He provides us with this paean to his drug of choice:

Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; [...] thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles – beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos: [...] Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle and mighty opium!

* * * * *

The poet Charles Baudelaire was also interested in the effect of various drugs on human consciousness. In Artificial Paradises, he treats the effects of wine and hashish, and then offers up a summary of De Quincy’s Opium Eater. For Baudelaire, wine is the substance most convivial, most humane, that which inspires everyone from the lowliest worker to the noblest aristocrat:

Who has not known the profound joys of wine? Everyone who has ever had remorse to appease, a memory to evoke, a grief to drown, a castle in Spain to build – in short everyone – has invoked the mysterious god hidden in the fibers of the vine. How great is the spectacle of the wine, lit by an inner sun! How real and ardent is the second youth that man sips out of it.

Baudelaire's assessment of hashish is more tempered. He describes the phases of hashish intoxication – an initial phase of uncontrollable hilarity, followed by the intensification of the senses and hallucinations, leading to a state he calls by the Oriental word kef:

It is a calm and placid beatitude. Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians and brings despair to thoughtful men becomes clear and transparent. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods.

The poet also notes the effect of hashish on the sense of time: “One lives several lifetimes in the space of an hour”, and comments on the fact that certain people experience a feeling of dread or paranoia while under its influence. But his overall assessment is that hashish is a substance that wastes too much nervous energy. His ultimate verdict: “Hashish belongs to the class of solitary pleasures; it is made for the pitiful creatures with time on their hands. Wine is useful, it yields fruitful results. Hashish is useless and dangerous.”

Baudelaire did not smoke hashish. Rather, he took it in a form developed by the Arabs, a form which was brought back from Egypt by Napoleon’s soldiers returning from the disastrous Egyptian campaign. The Arabs prepare a hashish concentrate by boiling the flowering tops of Indian hemp, that is, the cannabis plant imported from India, or grown in Algeria, in a combination of butter and water. This creates a greenish substance with a powerful odor of cannabis that is often masked with vanilla, cinnamon or other aromatic spices. It can be rolled in a ball and swallowed, or dissolved in a cup of coffee. Baudelaire mentions that doses range from 15 to even 30 grams, which would be a powerful jolt of hashish, especially when ingested.

Baudelaire lived in a bohemian milieu in Paris, and he was introduced to hashish through his friend, the writer Théophile Gautier, to whom Baudlaire dedicated his masterpiece Les Fleurs du Mal. Gautier and Baudelaire were members of “Le Club des Hachichins” -- the Hashish Eaters Club. This was a group of artists, musicians and writers who met on a monthly basis to ingest hashish and revel in its effects.

The Club des Hashichins met in rooms in what was known at the time as the Hotel Pimodan, currently the Hotel Lauzan, located on the Quai D’Anjou on the Ile-Saint-Louis, one of the oldest sections of Paris, and one of only two islands in the middle of the Parisian Seine.

Let’s follow Gautier to a "meeting" of the club, as he described it in his essay Le Club Des Hashichins.

He arrives on the Ile-Saint-Louis on a dreary December night. Although it is only six o’clock, it already completely dark. A thick fog rises up from the Seine, and he gropes his way along the wet paving stones until he finds the entrance to the Hotel Pimodan. It is the mid 1800s, but even at this date the hotel is ancient. He climbs the ornate staircase and arrives at the designated floor. He rings the bell, and enters a room that has not changed since the 17th century.

His fellow members are gathered around a table, and each takes a measure of the green potion, followed by a coffee. They then sit down to a light repast, while the drug takes affect and general hilarity spreads among the guests. They repair to the salon, where Gautier begins to experience hallucinations and is fascinated by the ornate decoration of the room, which takes on an enhanced brilliance and life under the influence of the drug. He enters the kef (or, kief) stage, a state of trance-like calm in which he can no longer feel his body, and in which his mind sails along on rolling waves of hallucinations and reveries.

After a period of intense joy, he suddenly experiences what William S. Burroughs calls “the fear”: a moment of paranoia and panic. He attempts to flee the hotel. His feet are like lead, and he struggles to the door. The stairway which he ascended earlier is now an endless passage descending into bottomless chasms. After what seems like hours he exits into the courtyard of the building. The tiny courtyard has taken on gigantic proportions and the surrounding buildings resemble structures from ancient Rome and Babylon. He decides to return to the salon, re-climbs the stairs he had with so much difficulty descended, and loses consciousness.

When he revives, he sees that is it is still 9:15 -- it appears that time has stood still. Finally the spell is broken, the hashish wears off a bit, and it is now 11:00. Gautier’s coach is awaiting him, and he again descends the stairs and makes his way home.

* * * * *

Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived as an expatriate in Morocco for most of his life, adds another dimension to the literature of substance. Instead of describing his own experiences with kif, he created a character, a young kif smoker, allowing us to enter his world and his consciousness.

The story is called “He of the Assembly”, which is the name (translated into English from the Arabic) of the young kif smoker. The story is in a City Lights collection of four stories called A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.

“He of the Assembly” on first reading seems like nonsense. There are two characters, each on separate plot trajectories, whose paths intersect at the end to the detriment of one of the two. On close examination, however, we see something quite different. Bowles has carefully constructed a tale that begins with a man named Ben Tajah. Ben Tajah has just returned from a journey. While walking through the market square, he finds an envelope lying on the ground, which he picks up and takes to the Café of the Two Bridges. At the café he opens the envelope. It contains a paper that says “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers”. He is instantly terrified, thinking that this is the work of Satan.

Immediately we enter the consciousness of He of the Assembly, who is also at the Café of the Two Bridges. He is listening to the wind in the telephone wires. He also has a thought concerning the eye: “the eye wants to sleep, but the head is no mattress”. We discover in further reading that He of the Assembly has been smoking kif all day. We also discover that he is quite young compared to Ben Tajah. But first we enter his cannabis induced waking dream. Initially the boy thinks about escaping from a policeman. He imagines the policeman chasing him, and he imagines running into a house where an old woman is stirring a big kettle of soup. Then he enters his own thought: the old woman becomes real, she tells him to climb down into the kettle of soup to escape from the policeman. She unfurls a rope ladder and hangs it over the side of the kettle. He of the Assembly climbs down the ladder, and at the bottom is a rowboat. The policeman, joined by two others, rushes into the house. The old woman throws the rope ladder down into the kettle. Now the boy is afraid for the old woman, who he knows the policeman will take to the commissariat. The boy comes out of this dream and notices Ben Tajah, who is leaving the café.

Now we get a brief sketch of Ben Tajah. He is a poor man living in a one room apartment. He has a stall in the market where he sells coathangers and chests. He is alone. He had a wife, but had to turn her out because she was a wild girl from the mountains who broke everything in his room. He has a sexually transmitted disease which he tries to cure by putting the vials of penicillin from the doctor around his neck in a necklace. He is an uneducated and superstitious man.

When Ben Tajah arrives at his room, he searches for the envelope, but he cannot find it. He imagines that someone took it while he was walking home. Then he thinks that he never had the envelope. He wants to go back to the Café of the Two Bridges to see if the proprietor remembers seeing him with the letter.

Meanwhile, He of the Assembly has re-entered the kif world where he had escaped from the police through the soup kettle. He decides to go looking everywhere for the old woman who helped him escape. Then he is chased by a real policeman, and in running away he encounters Ben Tajah, who has been standing in his doorway, trying to decide if he should go back to the Café of the Two Bridges. He takes the boy up to his room. The two of them smoke some kif. The boy goes in and out of various kif dreams. Ben Tajah worries about the letter.

The two of them decide to go back to the Café of the Two Bridges to take a glass of tea. At the café, it occurs to Ben Tajah that the boy may have been there earlier, and had seen him with the letter. He asks the boy if he remembers him. The boy says he did see Ben Tajah, but no letter. They sit and talk, and eventually Ben Tajah tells the boy the words in the letter: “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers”. The boy has never heard these words before, but he tells Ben Tajah that he has, and will try to remember where he heard them. They leave the café and return to Ben Tajah’s room. All along the way the boy says he is trying to remember where he heard the words. Finally, he makes up a song to go with the words. Ben Tajah is relieved. He thinks he must have heard the song on the radio somewhere. They both go to sleep.

Except He of the Assembly does not sleep. He waits until he is sure that Ben Tajah is sleeping. Then he gets up, and takes Ben Tajah’s money out of his pockets. In among the bills is the envelope. The boy holds it to a candle and reads the fateful words. He holds the letter and then the envelope to the candle and burns them, scattering the ashes across the floor. Then he leaves with the money in his pocket, and goes home to his aunt’s house, where he lives. He has a bit of kif hidden under his pillow, and he smokes it. Before going to sleep he thinks: “a pipe of kif before breakfast gives a man the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard”. Thus the story ends (and thus the story collection gets its title).

Rather than directly describing the effects of kif, Bowles puts us in the mind of He of the Assembly, so that we experience the dreamy, surreal world of the boy as if we are the ones smoking. The contrast with the sober but superstitious Ben Tajah heightens the sense of unreality that we experience through the boy’s eyes. Bowles also shows us that the reveries of the boy are those of someone raised in the Muslim world, and thus reflect his culture and experience. De Quincey observed that “If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen’ should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen. “ Baudelaire also observed that the effects of hashish vary based on the personality and background of the person using the drug. Bowles makes no such pronouncements. He merely puts us into the mind of the kif smoking boy, and we experience his cultural background as well as the way that it colors his kif world.

* * * * *

At the end of his autobiographical novel Junky, William S. Burroughs writes:

Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.

Burroughs is echoing Huxley’s idea of transcendence and escape. He continues: "Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix”. In a previous paragraph he states: “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage”.

In 1963, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published a book called The Yage Letters. This is correspondence between the two on their trips to South America, describing their search for and experiences with yage (pronounced ya-hay). The Yage Letters is substance book as travelogue.

The first part of the book recounts, in letters to Ginsberg, Burroughs’ trip to South America in 1953, in search of yage. His first stop is Colombia. Here Burroughs casts a jaundiced eye on the local population, and searches for the substance yage, which is reputed to induce visions and bring spiritual enlightenment. According to Burroughs, it also increases telepathic powers in the user.

Yage is also known as Ayahuasca. It is made from the vine of the banisteriopsis caapi plant, and mixed with leaves from shrubs of the Psychotria genus of plants, and boiled into a liquid concoction. The leaves contain dimethyltriptamine, the powerful psychedelic agent known as DMT. Mixing the DMT with the banisteriopsis caapi vine allows the DMT to pass through the stomach and activate centers in the brain that cause hallucinations and visions.

Burroughs’ first encounter with this concoction is in the jungles of Colombia. He visits a Brujo -- a sort of shaman who mixes and administers the yage. The Brujo hands him a black liquid in a dirty red glass. Burroughs downs the mixture, and hands the glass back to the Brujo. The Brujo and his assistant both partake of the brew, which Burroughs describes as a “bitter foretaste of nausea.”

Burroughs narrates what happens next:

In two minutes a wave of dizziness swept over me and the hut began spinning. It was like going under ether, or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins. Blue flashes passed in front of my eyes. The hut took on an archaic far-Pacific look with Easter Island heads carved in the support posts. The assistant was outside lurking there with the obvious intent to kill me. I was hit by a violent, sudden nausea and rushed for the door hitting my shoulder against the door post. I felt the shock but no pain. I could hardly walk. No coordination. My feet were like blocks of wood. I vomited violently leaning against a tree and fell down on the ground of cotton. I kept trying to break out of this numb dizziness. I was saying over and over, ‘All I want is out of here. ‘ An uncontrollable mechanical silliness took possession of me. Hebephrenic meaningless repetitions. Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk. (I later identified this squawking as the croaking of frogs). I must have vomited six times. I was on all fours retching and groaning as if I were someone else. I was lying by a rock. Hours must have passed [...]

My arms and legs began to twitch uncontrollably. I reached for my nembutals with numb wooden fingers. I must have taken me ten minutes to open the bottle and pour out five capsules. Mouth was dry and I chewed the nembutals down somehow. The twitching spasms subsided slowly and I felt a little better and went into the hut. The blue flashes still in front of my eyes. Lay down and covered myself with a blanket. I had a chill like malaria. Suddenly very drowsy. Next morning I was all right except for a feeling of lassitude and slight back-log nausea. I paid off the Brujo and walked back to town.

Undaunted by his first yage experience, Burroughs decides to try some Yage prepared in the fashion of the Vaupes region. This yage is a cold water infusion with a light red color. That night Burroughs drinks a quart of this liquid over the span of an hour. He again experienced the blue flashes and a slight nausea ( but no vomiting). He says: “the effect was similar to weed. Vividness of mental imagery, aphrodisiac results, silliness and giggling. In this dosage there was no fear, no hallucinations or loss of control. I figure this is about one third of the dose that Brujo gave me”.

Seven years later, Ginsberg travels to Peru to experience Yage and to recount his experiences in letters to Burroughs. After some initial pleasant experience with Yage, or Ayahuasca as he refers to it, Ginsberg attended a formal yage session led by a main he calls the Maestro. He sat in huts with the others who were to try the concoction. This time the brew is prepared fresh. Ginsburg takes a dose of the Ayahuasca or Yage and lays down, expecting pleasant visions, when he begins to get high, “and then the whole fucking Cosmos broke loose around me, I think the strongest and worst I’ve ever had […]. I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard [..] got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered in snakes like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe. Ginsberg experiences an intense fear of Death and Madness."

Eventually the fear subsides and Allen can sleep. He later writes about the bad trip to Burroughs, who replies, “there is nothing to fear.” Then Burroughs lays on his Hasan Ibn Sabbah riff. Hasan Ibn Sabbah, the old man of the mountain in a tale going back as far as Marco Polo, who created the Hashasseens , who took hashish before battle to give them extraordinary courage and strength. The motto of Hasan Ibn Sabban is “noting is true, everything is permitted”. Bouroughs will explore this idea and interweave into his cut up books, notably The Nova Express. What solace this brought to Ginsberg is anyone’s guess.

So in the Yage letters we get some local scenery, albeit twisted and contorted by Burroughs’ cynical world view. We get some visions, and much retching and vomiting in the jungle night, filled with mosquitos and snakes. A travelogue on the dark side of the hallucinogenic drug experience.

Let’s return to Aldous Huxley, whose quotes on man’s desire to find escape and transcend we encountered at the beginning. On a spring day in California, 1953, he took a dose of mescaline, and proceeded to see the world in a new way. The play of light in his garden, the color of the books in his study. He experiences the transcendence that he wrote about earlier.

‘This is how one ought to see,’ I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers, or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more that Van-Goghian chair. ‘This is how one ought to see, how things really are.’

Huxley observed the hallucinatory effect of mescaline and then wrote about in in a thin volume titled The Doors Of Perception. The title comes from a line in William Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

We have thus taken a brief tour of some of the “canon”, if you will, of the literature of substance. We have seen that fascination in, reliance on and reverence for transcendent or escapist substances goes back centuries, and is reported by English Gentlemen, French Poets, American Expatriates, Beat Writers and British Intellectuals. The common thread is the writer’s attempt to feel or see something outside of normal human experience – to feel pleasure greater than that given to us through normal means, to see visions, to experience that sense that we are one with the universe, that we can truly see the world and the beauty of nature.

Some may see this as wrong, or depraved, to rely on substances to reach an epiphany, or merely to escape the tedium of everyday life. Others may say “why not?” - echoing Burroughs’ Hasn Ibn Sabbah – “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Whatever your position on this, we have these books that describe various adventurous writers and their experience with substances. Think of the texts as guidebooks to our unconscious self, where the writer facilitates the route to the unconscious through the ingestion of a powerful substance. For most of us, the desire to escape or transcend is ever present.


Various literary views of opium, hashish, laudanum, kif, yage and other substances by Aldous Huxley, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Bowles. Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013 08:04 pm
An image of an opium smoker from a Baudelaire book
Michael Norris