What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin

It’s the year 1927. In the U.S., marijuana use is widespread almost exclusively amongst Mexicans and black Jazz musicians during the swinging “Roaring Twenties”. In Berlin, the decade is also in full swing. Still, the first signs of the upcoming catastrophic 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 of 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 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. Legendary 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 ailments, 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 reasons to try hashish, as he had already written in a 1919 letter to Ernst Schoen:

“I have read Baudelaire’s Paradis artificiels. It is an extremely reticent, unoriented attempt to monitor the “psychological” phenomena that manifest themselves in hashish or opium intoxication for what they have to teach us philosophically. It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book.”[1]

Benjamin’s overall verdict on Baudelaire’s hashish writings is not as negative as it would seem in this statement. He will later write in a protocol on his hashish experiences that he takes Baudelaire’s writings on hashish to be the best he has encountered so far. Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish served Benjamin 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 investigation. When he sits down for scientific experiments on hashish intoxication with his friends, the medical doctors Ernst Joël and Fritz Fränkel, all three men take these experiments very seriously. Benjamin has a profound philosophical interest in the experience 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 Republic, who had started a treatment clinic for morphine, cocaine, and other addictions in Berlin-Kreuzberg. In his excellent essay “From ‘Rausch’ to Rebellion: Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish and the Aesthetic Dimension of Prohibitionist 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 edition of “Phantastica” in Berlin, which appears on the list of books which Benjamin read from cover to cover. (…) Hermann Schweppenhaeuser’s claim that Benjamin’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 experimentation with psychopharmaca. Kurt Behringer’s amazing monograph on mescaline, “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 (…)” [2]


A path strewn with roses?

During his first experiment with hashish in December 1927, Benjamin notes in the last entry of his first short experiential protocol: “Your thinking follows the same paths as usual, but they seem strewn with roses”[3]

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 mechanical, or, even more so, digital reproduction, the quote goes viral. Many commentators on Walter Benjamin’s writings on hashish will use this statement to characterize and discredit the importance of Benjamin’s hashish experiments. Yet, although correctly quoted from Benjamin’s first protocol on his hashish experiences, we will see that it 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 protocols, 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 cannabis high as a merely euphoric state of consciousness with no significant useful changes in thought and cognition. Yet, why would such an outstanding and inventive thinker with so many groundbreaking ideas be so interested in hashish? Why would Benjamin plan to write a book about his hashish experiences, if he experienced it merely as a euphoriant?

In what follows, I will argue based on 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 between 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 various 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 Habilitationsschrift – a thesis needed in Germany to qualify for professorshipfell 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 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, barely 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, whom it was said he admired greatly. He was in contact with 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 Bertolt 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 financially. She would later describe him as one of “the unclassifiable ones (…) those whose work neither fits the existing order nor introduces a new genre that lends itself to future classification.[4]

In the article “The Philosopher Stoned. What drugs taught Walter Benjamin[5], Adam 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 (…)”[6].

Benjamin’s most famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) left its eternal mark on our thinking about mass media and modern art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states on Benjamin’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 important stimulus for both the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Marxist poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht.”[7]


Marijuana Insights – Myth or Fact?

Benjamin’s thoughts and ideas strongly influenced other thinkers of his time and 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 experiential 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 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.”[8]

Kirsch’s judgment seems to be based on the widespread assumption that consumers of hashish or other psychoactive substances often have the feeling of great insight under the influence of the substance, only to find later that their big idea was pure nonsense or nothing special after all. Critics usually refer to this phenomenon as the “myth of insight” during a cannabis high or the influence of other kinds of psychoactive substances. I have extensively argued before that a marijuana high can indeed cause a whole range of cognitive alterations leading to deep and valuable insights.[9] In the following, I’ll argue based on my research that Kirsch’s negative conclusion about Benjamin’s writing on hashish is wrong – dramatically wrong. Benjamin left us with 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 experience. 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”[10], Benjamin quotes his friends Ernst Joël and Fritz Fränkel, who observed and described several effects of a hashish high, including enhanced episodic memory, insights, a change in space 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 follow because you forget about everything you had just thought about”[11]

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.”[12]

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 physiognomies, and I observed something quite unique in my experience: I became dead set on the faces around me, some of them of a remarkable rawness and ugliness.”[13]

These mind alterations, Benjamin writes, allowed him a deeper understanding of art: “I suddenly understood, how a painter – didn’t it happen to Rembrandt and many others? – would find ugliness appearing as a true reservoir of beauty, or better, as a treasure keeper for beauty, as the torn mountains with all of the contained gold of beauty, with beauty flashing from the wrinkles, glances, and expressions.”[14]

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 fundamentally 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 hashish high[15]:

“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.”[16]

Connectedly, many marijuana and hashish users have remarked that during a high, they are not only able to understand other people better but also music or art, even those forms that would not normally resonate with them. Lester Grinspoon once told me in a private conversation that marijuana helped him to expand his musical taste spectrum and to enjoy listening to the music of the Beatles, although he preferred classical music 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. (…)” [17]


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.”[18]

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.[19]

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:

“Here, human reason becomes more flotsam, at the mercy of all currents, and the train of thoughts is infinitely more accelerated and ‘rhapsodic.”[20]

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; (…)” [21]

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”[22]

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.”[23]

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, nonsensical, and not useful at this point – but it is clear that the process of changing one’s perception of language during a high can help thinkers to come to a deeper understanding of language and interesting associations along the lines of its underlying metaphorical content.

Let me summarize then: Benjamin and his friends experienced and described many of the cognitive enhancements of a cannabis high which I have researched and discussed in my books and essays. We find wonderful descriptions of the effect of the hyperfocusing of attention, of an enhanced episodic memory, changes in the perception of space and time, insights, an enhanced pattern recognition (seeing, for instance, new patterns in faces or art), and an enhanced capacity for empathic understanding. 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 how a cannabis high influences cognitive processes. Benjamin’s elaborate characterizations of altered thinking during a hashish high show that his early statement “(…) 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 influence 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 are in the light of my research – and how much these experiences during a high 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 Joël:[24]

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 of making a statue of this poet. It was at once integrated into the sculptural form of my body (…)” [25]

So, yes, again, this sounds cryptic. But this paragraph is 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, and 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 important psychological mechanisms fundamental to the process of spontaneous, creative insight – one of the mechanisms often triggered during a high, which I believe helps 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 (“Gestaltpsychologie”) 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 explanation. 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 moment. Wertheimer and his followers wanted to study “productive thinking” empirically so he started to design intellectual problems that required a certain 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.[26] 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 presented them the matchbox with the matches inside, instead of presenting the matches separately – thereby 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 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 “functional shift” in perception during a high. Years before the Gestalt psychologists would come up with the notion of “functional fixedness”, Benjamin had given an explicit description of one of the fundamental keys to understanding 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 mechanism that can lead to insights, as Gestalt psychologists would later demonstrate.


What Hashish Did to Walter Benjamin

Benjamin’s experiments with hashish were a success. He never really succeeded 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 cognitive alterations of the cannabis high. Benjamin also showed us how these effects on higher cognition during a high can be used positively: for facial pattern recognition, to revive long gone memories, for a deeper appreciation of 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 experiments 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.[27]

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”.[28] This is the first time Benjamin mentions 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 mystic property, but something real that can be assigned to each and every object – not just some special objects. Benjamin believes the aura changes when the object moves and calls it an “ornamental environment (“Umzirkung”), in which the object or person is enclosed.”[29] 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 object in its unique spatio-temporal and cultural-historical context. The concept 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.”

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 embedding, which makes each of them unique. Even later in times of the Renaissance, 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 groundbreaking 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, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitic dependence as ritual.” [30]

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 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 certain 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 (…).”[31]

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 reproduced through technology – especially photography and film – led to a similar 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 connection with the medium of film, he presents some more fundamental insights which, again, seem to be linked to his previous experiences with hashish:

(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 the world:

For the entire spectrum of optical, and now also acoustical, perception the film has brought about a similar deepening of apperception.”[32]

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 presentation’ 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 motions.”[33]

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 moment, 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 psychoanalyst who helps his patient to become aware of his unconscious thoughts:

“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.” [34]

These changes of experience, these altered modes of presentation of reality sound familiar when we look at Benjamin’s observations during his hashish 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”[35] 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 Marijuana, 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 omnipresent 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 interested 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 modern life and nature. It show us the omnipresence of patterns we have not noticed 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 (…).[36]

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 under marijuana, you may find that you have been just as stubborn in your behavior 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.”[37]

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 enhancement 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 examples of stubborn behavior throughout your life – which can lead to the insight, 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 easily 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.”[38]

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 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 reality.

So, back to the original question. What did hashish do to Walter Benjamin? 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 exactly that: an altered state of consciousness enabling new perspectives and revealing new aspects of reality. Benjamin’s search for what he called a ‘profane illumination’ during the influence of hashish was successful. In his later work, he used the insights gained during these experiences to come to a radical 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 religious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological illumination, to which hashish, opium, 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.“[39]

In a letter to Max Horkheimer in 1938, Benjamin states:

“Critical theory cannot fail to recognize how deeply certain powers of intoxication [“Rausch”] are bound to reason and to its struggle for liberation.”[40]

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 soldiers 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, dampens their fears and empathy. Hitler, himself a multiple-toxico-maniac, receives high dosed shots of vitamins, crystal meth, “Eukodal”, which is a derivative of morphine, cocaine applications for his headaches, and many other substances until his death.

Benjamin decided shortly before the invasion of German troops in France to flee to Spain to then proceed to Portugal and eventually to the U.S. After a strenuous climb over the Pyrenees Benjamin, who suffers from both heart and lung disease, makes it to Portbou in Spain in September 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 Gestapo or by Stalin’s agents. We will probably never know.[41]

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 experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. [42]


[1]      In: Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, Edited by Howard Eiland, „From the Letters“, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.144.

[2]      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.

[3]      Benjamin, Walter (1927/1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p.68.

[4]      In: Benjamin, Walter (1969) Illuminations. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. Schocken Books

[5]      Kirsch, Adam (2006), “The Philosopher Stoned. What drugs taught Walter Benjamin”, The New Yorker, August 21.

[6]      Ibid.

[7]      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/.

[8]      Ibid.

[9]      Compare Marincolo, Sebastián (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, and Marincolo, Sebastián (2013), Das positive Potential von Marijuana, Tropen Verlag, Stuttgart.

[10]    In: Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt

[11]    Ibid., p. 45.

[12]    Ibid., p. 46.

[13]    Ibid., p. 48.

[14]    Ibid., p. 48.

[15]    Benjamin uses the German word “Rausch”, which has various different translations in English, like “rush”, “inebriation”, “ecstasy”, or “intoxication”.

[16]    Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, From the Notebooks, Preparatory sketches for “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, edited by Eiland, Howard. The Belknap Press of Har­vard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.142.

[17]    Ibid., “Hauptzüge der ersten Haschisch Impression”, p. 66.

[18]    Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 53.

[19]    Ibid., p. 54.

[20]    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.

[21]    Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 108.

[22]    Ibid., p. 120.

[23]    Ibid., p. 49.

[24]    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.

[25]    Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 75.

[26]    Duncker, Karl (1935). Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens,[Psychology of Productive Thinking]. Springer. OCLC 6677283.

[27]    Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 67.

[28]    Ibid., „Haschisch Anfang März 1930”, p.106

[29]    Ibid.

[30]    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.

[31]    Ibid., p.127.

[32]    Ibid., p. 127.

[33]    Ibid., p. 127.

[34]    Ibid., p. 127.

[35]    Benjamin, Walter (1972), Über Haschisch, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, p. 96.

[36]    Marincolo, Sebastián (2010), High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, p. 107.

[37]    Ibid., p. 108.

[38]    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.

[39]    Benjamin, Walter (2006), On Hashish, from: “Surrealism” (1929)

Edited by Howard Eiland, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts., p.132.

[40]    Ibid., “From the Letters”, p. 145.

[41]    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

[42]    Ibid., p.129-30.

Time lapse scene in the movie Koyaanisquatsi

This essay is my extended book chapter version of my original expert blog article for Sensi Seeds Amsterdam”What Hashish Did To Walter Benjamin”, first published here.

Share this