Imaginary places, hallucinatory spaces, and a postscript: altered states in the Germanic realm.
In the works of some writers, a state of extreme separation from or immersion in the surrounding world, coupled with a loss of ego, may, in its ultimate form, even take the shape of visual or auditory hallucinations, as simple objects or everyday occurrences may become charged with virtually cosmic relevance. Often hypnotic in nature, such states of self-forgetting and abandonment are usually characterized by a complete suspension of time, typically merging or inverting dream and reality. An early (ca. 1205) example thereof in German literature is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival who, when encountering three drops of blood in the fresh snow, becomes literally frozen, hypnotically paralyzed, and has to be snapped out of his hallucinatory state by stimulus extinction: a companion throws a piece of garment over the blood drops. Taking examples from Hermann Hesse and the above-mentioned Frisch, it would seem evident that such mental states are frequently triggered by fascination with archetypally connotated phenomena: staring into water or its reflection, as happens in Hermann Hesse's "Indischer Lebenslauf" (Indian Life, 1943), where what appeared to be reality turns out to be a mere dream) or staring into fire, as in Frisch's Graf Oederland (Count Oederland, 1951), where what appeared to be a mere dream turns out to be reality. They may also be the result of quiet meditation, as in Hesse's Siddharta (1922) or appear substance-induced, as in the case of Hesse's Steppenwolf (1927).
In their extreme form, such experiences may lead to a blending of the individual components of sensual perception, a phenomenon commonly known as synesthesia, as can be witnessed in the works of many German Romantics. While such creativity "on/at the edge," not unlike mental states during psychotic episodes, may be found in virtually all epochs of Germanic literatures, the periods of Romanticism, and later of Neo-Romanticism and of Expressionism were clearly the heyday of such fantastic writing. Presently, the subject enjoys some retrospective global attention: In 2005 the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. partially dedicated its "Visual Music" exhibition to the synergistic effects of holographic, oscillating synesthesia, and the media would also seem to have rediscovered this subject (Blakeslee D5). According to theory, sensory perception of one kind can induce sensory experience of another: one may see certain colors when hearing music, as the two senses interact to elicit a heightened state of consciousness (See Cytowic). What is true for art and music is, in a different way, also true for literature.
In Latin, allucinari means "to perceive objects with no reality," yet in a broader sense, hallucinatory encounters may not be limited only to seeing things that are not, but may also include not seeing things that are, thus adding loss of world to loss of self. Experiences of unreality seeping into the real world, states of radically changing perception may be drawn out over a story in its entirety, as is the case in Georg Buchner's harrowing Lenz (1839) and, in a twisted way, in Franz Kafka's Verwandlung (Metamorphosis, 1915), or they may punctuate or suddenly enter a literary work, as is the case with the fifth act of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1867). For still others, the entire story may be set in an eerily inexplicable world--again, Kafka's oeuvre comes to mind, so does Franz Werfel's Stern der Ungeborenen (Star of the Unborn, 1946), but also more recent works, like Lars Gustafson's Tennispelarna (The Tennis Players, 1977). (2) In this context, the once euphoric experience of a self-forgetting unio mystica (as experienced in medieval times by German mystics and, to some degree, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's lyrical Werther figure (1774), has now often been replaced by encounters with a total horror vacui, by the perception that the world is caving in or falling out from under one's feet--as can be seen, as an early example, in Rainer Maria Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), and, more recently, in several novels by Peter Handke and some other Postmodernist writers. As the foregoing may already suggest, it is not generally the aim of this paper to proceed chronologically through a body of literature, but. rather, phenomenologically in order to do justice to various ways in which altered states, potentially climaxing in hallucinatory experiences, find artistic expression in Germanic literatures.
Seemingly strange ideas of another world, or even other worlds, universes existing somehow parallel or synchronous with ours, are often reinforced by the inevitable daily glance in the mirror. It thus comes as no surprise that mirrors, in the form of mirror images, of chiastic mirror reversals, or, to use the language of Chaos Theory, of self-mirroring quilts, are omnipresent in modern literature. Especially the late nineteenth century, in several ways first unconsciously reinventing and later actually rediscovering long-existing Cabalistic concepts, was fascinated by possible counter-worlds populated by alter egos, doubles, doppelgaengers, and other mirroring figures, as science began to question and push beyond the limitations of a three-dimensional world-view, in search of worlds beyond or co-existing with the one that may be experienced by sensory perception. While by no means limited to the German-speaking world, this new thinking on/at the edge created some of its wildest flowers in the realm of Germanic literatures, where it often gained hallucinatory dimensions--protagonists, pushing on the mirror and finally coming through, (3) being pulled, as if through a vortex, into another world.
Insights or even keys as to what appears to run as a common thread through diverse forms of altered states and hallucinatory experiences, euphoric as well as dysphoric, are not so much provided by literature and its criticism, but by philosophical scientists, and not so much by German but by Anglo-Saxon thinkers. According to the venerated Cambridge philosopher C.D. Broad, the function of the brain, nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. (4) The function of our brain and nervous system is thus to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of perception and information largely useless and irrelevant for the purposes at hand, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such theory, each one of us is thus potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are, biologically speaking, members of a species, our business is at all costs to survive in a given setting.
The Hungarian philosopher Albert Szent-Gyorgyi went even further in describing our cerebral functions, seeing the human brain not as an organ of thinking but an organ of survival, like claws and fangs, made in such a way as to make us accept as truth that which is only to our advantage, something recently confirmed by several British behavioral studies. To make biological survival possible, Aldous Huxley tells us in his epochal The Doors of Perception (1954),
Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. (5)
What Huxley called the "reducing valve of the brain" has since been pinpointed and identified as the reticular formation in the brain stem, which, over the long evolutionary process of humankind, has learned to regulate the flow of stimuli to the brain, thus telling us what we "need" to know and experience: any change in the amount of stimuli allowed to enter the brain will radically change our perception of the world and our place in it. This is as true for meditative states of mind as it is for substance-induced or otherwise altered states of perception. In altered and especially in hallucinatory states, the reticular formation may allow the mind to open up so wide that nerve tracks get temporarily overloaded with stimuli or even jumble up, which may translate into dissociative hallucinatory effects, among them the crossover of sensual perception described above as synesthesia.
Scanning the vast body of literary works reaching into such other realms, one may arrive at categories and sub-categories delineating the seemingly diffuse and elusive mind-altered states generally encountered:
Category 1) a seemingly extroverted altered, at times hallucinatory extra-polar state, agitated in nature, an externalizing world experience characterized by the perception of any given environment as an elaborate, lively--even though potentially deadly--place, full of surprises and animated beings, experienced as others by the self. In the extreme euphoric form of this extra-polar state, the world will be perceived--metaphorically speaking--as one enchanted forest, in its extreme dysphoric form as a paranoia-inducing setting filled with various demons (Latin allucinari is, after all, etymologically related to Greek alyein, "to be distressed").
Category 2) a seemingly introverted, intra-polar altered, at times hallucinatory state, more hypnotic in nature, an internalizing experience of the world characterized by a melting away of the boundaries of self and world, of a world that appears to be shrinking, increasingly limited to the immediate surroundings which somehow become part of the individual character. Euphorically experienced, this may culminate in meditative immersion and self-forgetting unio mystica; dysphorically perceived, it may lead to an experience of total abandonment, of horror vacui.
Examples of all of the above states in their imaginary manifestations in Germanic literatures will be examined briefly below; at the same time, in an excursion to this first part of my paper, the question will be raised to which degree such states may have been substance-induced or actually the result of mental, not chemical persuasion. In the process, I will limit myself to citing authors, titles, and the occasional comment when giving examples for each of the above groupings.
As regards euphoric extroverted, extra-polar encounters, I came up with only a short list of Germanic literary works, perhaps due to the fact that in literature, unlike the worldview prevalent in the European folk fairy tale--especially in the Germanic realm, with its suspense of disbelief--surreal encounters in the real world, even if perceived as primarily euphoric, contain a scary and thus potentially dysphoric component. Often a given work may oscillate between these poles: both Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus (1669) and Goethe's Faust (1806) experience such altered states and have such bipolar hallucinatory encounters. Mainly euphoric experiences characterize aspects of Goethe's Marchen (Fairy Tale, 1795), Novalis's Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to Night, 1800), his Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), especially the fairy tale contained therein, Heinrich Heine's poem "Morphine" (1851), and especially E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der Goldene Topf (The Golden Pot, 1814), where everyday reality turns, virtually for an entire story, into an unquestioned hallucinatory dream world, something rarely seen again in German literature until Michael Ende's fantastic Die Unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1979).
While August Strindberg's Droemspelen (Dreamplay,1901)--in its lyrically surreal style reminiscent of Ibsen's Peer Gynt (excluding Act V) and of many stories by Hans Christian Andersen--phases in and out of euphoria and dysphoria alike, the same author's Inferno (1894) documents one long slide into paranoid hallucinatory encounters, bringing us dysphoric extra-polar encounters. Such a state of mind, often triggered by the realization that the enemy is somehow within, a state at times induced by visual and/ or auditory hallucinations, characterizes Act III of Goethe's Iphigenie (1787), the end of Ludwig Tieck's Der Blonde Eckbert (Blond Eckbert, 1796) as well as his Runenberg (Mountain of Runes, 1804), Jean Paul Friedrich Richter's "Die Neujahrsnacht eines Unglucklichen" (New Year's Eve of an Unhappy Man, 1795) and, especially, his "Rede des toten Christus vom Weltgebaude herab, daB kein Gott sei" (Speech of Dead Christ down from the Universe that there is no God) which is contained in John Paul's novel Siebenkas (1797). The alcoholic fantasies of Christian Dietrich Grabbe, especially in his Don Juan und Faust (1829), as well as most of the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann fall under this category, whereby the latter often constitute pre-Freudian musings on the inevitable disintegration of the self and the limited power of the will. Hoffmann's burning imagination was at times so powerful that late at night he perceived his demonic, grotesque creations so vividly and with such hallucinatory force that neither putting his hands over his eyes nor closing them would drive away the demons; he then felt compelled to wake up his wife to talk him down from his agitated state. Over a century and a half later, significant others are, at times, still called upon to fulfill this late-night function, and not merely for surrealist poets but even for level-headed political writers, as is manifest in Wolf Biermann's "Walpurgisnacht" (1986), where not demonic fantasy (as is the case with Hoffmann) but horrific recent German political reality is reenacted in a contorted panopticum--right on the author's bed sheets.
From late German Romanticism and Hoffmann we jump into the nineteenth century to Neo-Romantic Hugo von Hofmannsthal, e.g. his "Marchen der 627. Nacht" (Tale of the 672nd Night, 1919), and several other of his shorter prose works, Alfred Doeblin's "Ermordung einer Butterblume" (Murder of a Buttercup, 1913) as well as some scenarios preceding the very end of his famous Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), to Heinrich Mann's "Der Vater" (The Father, 1913), Franz Werfel's play Der Spiegelmensch (The Mirror Person, 1920), virtually the entire oeuvre of Kafka, Heimito von Doderer's "Eine Person von Porzellan" (A Person Made of Porcelain, 1953), Adrian Leverkuhn's hallucinatory encounter of the devil in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (1947) and the Magic Theater insert in Hesse's Steppenwolf, where the explosive mix of extreme feelings of alienation from society and mind-altering psychedelic chemical experimentation in search of some form of holistic spirituality creates a kaleidoscopic fragmentation of reality. Later in the twentieth century, Marie Luise Kaschnitz's "Das dicke Kind" (The Fat Child, 1956), Friedrich Durrenmatt's "Der Tunnel" (Tunnel, 1958) (6) and Ilse Aichinger's "Spiegelgeschichte" (Mirror Story, 1952) with its bizarre reversal of time, seemingly resulting in elimination of causality, (7) are noteworthy in this context, as is much of Max Frisch's work, especially the above-mentioned Graf Oederland and his homo faber (1957).
We find seemingly introverted, intra-polar altered, at times hallucinatory states, more hypnotic in nature, internalizing experiences of the world characterized by a melting away of the boundaries of self and world, experienced as euphoric. Such states were described by German mystics like abbess Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1145), Mechthild von Magdeburg (ca. 1260) or Meister Eckhart (ca. 1310), the latter coining the stunningly insightful term "Istigkeit" (Is-ness) for a state of self-forgetting and abandonment, at times culminating in an experience of one-ness of everything with everybody and everything, thus making the self part of the divine, a state described once again a full five centuries later, early on in Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sufferings of Young Werther, 1774). While Werther is worrying, justifiably so, where his mindset of total immersion into the experience of nature will ultimately lead him in life, Buchner's mentally instable character Lenz, who also starts out with an experience of "Istigkeit" not unlike Werther's, but much less gentle, with virtual out-of-body experiences of first euphoric, later increasingly dysphoric dimensions, is shown as being gone beyond worries--thus bringing us to the last subcategory. Lenz's disintegration is drawn out painfully over much of Buchner's story, as the protagonist is shown rapidly deteriorating into a clinical state of self-alienation characterized by severe hallucinatory sequences (later to become known in pathological terms as "hallucinosis").
Dysphoric introverted, intrapolar altered states and hallucinatory episodes adding loss of self to loss of world may be found in a good deal of modern Germanic literature and seem to have become symptomatic of much of modern existence per se. Early examples include the abovementioned Act V of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, where Peer, peeling an onion, looks in vain for the core of his self (8) and where later a button molder is about to actually melt down Peer's identity; sections of Rainer Maria Rilke's already mentioned Malte Laurids Brigge; and, more recently, Kurt Kusenberg's badly hung-over Mr. Boras in "Wer ist man?" (Who is One? 1958) who, like Peer Gynt in the final act, literally suffers a total loss of identity and goes unrecognized among his own people. (9) Experiences of a horror vacui can be found virtually anywhere in most recent German literature (and film), be it in the novel Brandstellen (Burned Spots, 1975) by unrepentant German Marxist Franz Josef Degenhardt or, at the other hand of the spectrum, in much of the oeuvre of the Austrian sensibilissimus Peter Handke.
What may produce such altered perceptions of reality? Presumably, many readers of Handke's Langsame Heimkehr (Slow Homecoming, 1979), especially of the chapters "Vorzeitformen" (primordial forms) and "Raumverbot" (space prohibited), will come away with the distinct impression that in this work psychedelic substances must have interacted with an extremely sensitive psyche, either during the conception of the novel itself or in the context of experiences leading to its conception. Observations of a similar nature as regards substance use could be made in reference to a good number of works mentioned over the course of this paper. Discussing the use of psychoactive substances and their manifold reflections in literature was, until very recently, deemed too controversial and was not readily pursued by literary criticism, which often--perhaps out of denial--considered such discussion to detract from examining the true roots of literary imagination. Now, however, digging to possible roots of chemical persuasion in the creative process is emerging as one of the new branches of literary criticism. Often, the involvement of chemical substances as regards individual writers or periods is easily documentable: (10) wide-spread use of opium and its derivatives, especially laudanum, among the Romantics (not just the German Romantics) is a well known fact, then kindly referred to as "indulgence," as "habits of intemperance," or, more cryptically, "the old affliction." Lines like the following, from Novalis's Hymnen an die Nacht, speak for themselves: "Kostlicher Balsam/Trauft aus deiner Hand/ Aus dem Bundel Mohn/ In suBer Trunkenheit/ Entfaltest du die schweren Flugel des Gemuths/ Und schenkst uns Freuden/ Dunkel und unaussprechlich" 'Precious balm/ drips from your hand/ from the bundle of poppies/ in sweet drunkenness/ you unfold the heavy wings of the spirit/ and give us pleasures/ dark and unspeakable' (411). These lines, of course, also bring to mind more recent examples of a writer's apparent use of opiates, as, for instance, described in Friedrich Georg Junger's "Der Mohn" (The Poppy, 1934).
Central nervous system (CNS) depressants like opium and its derivatives, or ethanol (alcohol) may produce, on account of their sedative, often hypnotic, even paralyzing effects, feelings of immersion and embeddedness, of being at home, which supplies an additional--psychopharmacological--key to the essential Romantic notion: "Wohin gehen wir? Immer nach Hause. Wo sind wir? Immer zu Hause" 'Where are we going? Always home. Where are we? Always home.' Furthermore, as long-term use of CNS depressants has a tendency to suppress REM-sleep, dreams tend to creep into the waking state. Thus another great tenet of the German Romantic movement, "die Welt wird Traum, der Traum wird Welt" 'the world becomes a dream, the dream becomes the world' gains an additional plausible dimension when viewed psychopharmacologically: The medium is also the message. (11)
Of course, some assumptions regarding the use of certain substances by individual writers will be impossible to substantiate. Case in point: While long-term excessive alcohol use as well as the sudden cessation of such intake are likely to produce a host of physiological as well as psychological symptoms (including severe hallucinations potentially culminating in quasi-religious experiences), attempting to determine to which degree such chemical abuse influenced, for instance, the mental state of writers like deeply conflicted Christian Dietrich Grabbe or schizoid E.T.A. Hoffmann or, earlier on, of some medieval mystics, may, barring the discovery of new documentary material (like the recent unearthing of pharmacy records showing Nietzsche's heavy use of psychoactive substances prior to the onset of his insanity) prove somewhat elusive in retrospect. As regards earlier times we know, for instance, that in many medieval monasteries and convents heavy drinking was the rule (records in one convent indicate that the Mother Superior there felt compelled to enforce a five liter daily limit on beer consumption per nun), we also know that prolonged fasting may result in severe chemical brain imbalances (not dissimilar to those experienced in withdrawal from CNS depressants), often manifesting themselves in hallucinations, and we also know of the synergistic effects of drinking and fasting (be the latter religiously motivated or the sign of a deteriorating body in the late stages of alcoholism). Yet definite assessment of the involvement of chemical substances must remain limited to those welldocumented cases where a writer's vita and work become blended in an often-bizarre mix. When experiencing and writing his Inferno in Paris, for example, Strindberg was reportedly consuming large quantities of absinth, anise liquor containing wormwood, a strong, potentially paranoiainducing hallucinatory agent outlawed since in most countries. Similarly (and also in Paris) Joseph Roth, a writer shortly to die of alcoholism, described in his last work, Die Legende vom heiligen
Trinker (Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1938) the end of his alcoholic protagonist. It is an end characteristic of mostly euphoric hallucinatory experiences that are religious in nature, symptoms, which in clinical terms are now known as "religious alcoholic psychosis," in some cases characterizing the final stages of alcoholism.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the high priest of Germanic literatures, after a youth accentuated by alcoholic excesses, developed a life-long habit of maintenance-drinking--with some interruptions, one to two liters of wine per day, if one scrutinizes his personal secretary and biographer Eckermann's Germanically precise listing of details. Aware of the potentially elucidating qualities of ethanol consumption (long reflected in the Roman in vino veritas) (12) and its perils, for the writer and the productive process, Goethe, no great friend of creativity on/at the edge and certainly not of a hallucinatory mind-set, apparently never managed to solve the riddle of what constitutes excess interfering with the creative process for himself. For advice in this matter, the old Goethe had to consult Eastern thinking, as is manifest in his West-Ostlicher Divan (3, 372; 1819): "Wenn man nuchtern ist/ gefallt das Schlechte/ Wenn man getrunken hat/ WeiB man das Rechte/ Nur ist das UbermaB/ Auch gleich vorhanden/ Hafis, o lehre mich/ Wie du's verstanden" 'When sober, one likes the banal/ after one had something to drink/ one knows what is right/ yet excess is also immediately present/ Hafis, you teach me the way you understood this.' Yet in an earlier poem, "Seelige Sehnsucht" (Divine Longing, 3,299; 1819) Goethe would appear, at least in part, to have answered his own question: "Und solang Du das nicht hast/ Dieses: Stirb und Werde/ bist Du nur ein truber Gast/ auf der dunklen Erde" 'And if you do not have this/ die and become again/ you are only a sorry guest/ on this dark earth.'
The creative forces of imagination thus appear forever vulnerable, shaped and undone by a vast array of forces from outside and within. Whether created out of great joy or pain, quiet meditation, or through chemical persuasion, all the texts mentioned in this paper share one triumph--they are unique, and many of them have been enjoyed by a great number of curious readers young and old, by recipients constructing their own personal universes of understanding for each text. And every true reader will have learned to appreciate that, like snowflakes or the flowers of nature, no two flowers of the imagination will ever be the same.
GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY
Blakeslee, Sandra. "When the Senses Become Confused." New York Times 25 Dec. 2007 : D5.
Cytowic, Richard E. Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Saemtliche Werke [Vollstaendige Ausgabe letzter Hand]. Stuttgart: Cottascher, 1856.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper. 1994.
Johnson, Hugh. "Der Wein und sein Wirken." Mysterium Wein. Ed. Meinrad Maria Grewenig. Speyer: Hatje, 1996. 55-68.
Novalis. Novalis Werke. Ed. Gerhard Schulz. Vol.2. Munich: Beck, 1969.
Pamuk, Orhan. "My Father's Suitcase: The Nobel Lecture, 2006." The New Yorker 25 Dec. 2006: 82-96.
Siegel, Ronald. Intoxication : Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise. New York: Dutton, 1989.
(1) This state of consciousness is described by writers anywhere at anytime, most more recently perhaps by Orhan Pamuk: "To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves...." (86).
(2) It is the story of a Swedish visiting professor in the U.S., whose favorite student moonlights for a division of the Pentagon and, at the end of this humorously apocalyptic novel downloads Strindberg's Inferno into the main nuclear defense computer.
(3) Kurt Vonnegut's entire Breakfast of Champions feeds off the leak between the two universes, as does his Slaughterhouse 5.
(4) According to such views, each person may at each moment be capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him or her and, supposedly, of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.
(5) Aldous Huxley, "The Doors of Perception" (23). Here Huxley paraphrases the earlier findings of Henri-Louis Bergson and C.B. Broad.
(6) Fellini's great film La citte della Donne (City of Women, 1981) picks up on this theme.
(7) The 2000 American film Memento owes its entire structure to such a time reversal.
(8) Gunther Grass's much discussed 2006 autobiographical novel Beim Hauten der Zwiebel (While Skinning the Onion) is clearly indebted to Peer's act of self-analysis--Grass's mother would even refer to him as "Peer" in his youth.
(9) This is a topic at the core of a good number of American films, classics as well as present-day avant-garde.
(10) This becomes particularly obvious if the title itself points to chemical persuasion, as in Heine's "Morphine," and is by no means limited to opiates, as can be seen from Gottfried Benn's "O Nacht ich nahm schon Kokain" (O night, I already took cocaine, 1922) or Walter Benjamin's "Haschisch in Marseille," conceived in the early 1930s, finally available in English as part of a 2006 Benjamin edition in a volume entitled On Hashish.
(11) As Ronald Siegel put it, "Opium ... soothed the body while romancing the imagination" (126).
(12) A view still alive at the end of the millennium: see Johnson.
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Date:||May 1, 2011|
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