A woman opium smoker
I once knew an opium smoker, a woman. I met her in a Western, a wild Western which played in the snow, which is why these movies are called Snow Westerns. The woman gets her opium from the Chinese, the same people that built the railroad for the Americans, the white Americans. The men in the Wild West are cowboys or cardsharps; they build houses and factories, and shoot and drink like crazy. The women work in the saloons or run brothels, some of them are wives with kids, later they are made widows. The Wild West is something like America’s language of dreams, at least with respect to the idiom of the Far West. Each tongue, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi tells us, has its own language of dreams. Our Western tells the story of a man who comes to build a town in the wilderness by erecting gambling halls and a brothel. One day a woman brothel owner arrives with her girls, and the two get down to business. The women are given a decent house with a bath. They bring a bit of civility to the place and succeed in soothing the men, at least to some extent. They even bring with them a bit of love. They’re just as good at their job as the men are wild,; which has a lot to do with their boss, the woman opium smoker. She’s also a professional but charges more for her services. The man who built the brothel would like to love her, were it not for the awkwardness of life. She keeps her distance and prefers to take every cent she earns to her Chinese dealer where she lies down and, clutching her pipe, recedes into a long dream, drifting on the eternal Indian waters, like Johnny Depp as the figure of the resurrected William Blake. But that scene is from a different Western called Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch, made many years after Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller. The images, however, are similar. She, played by Julie Christie, lost in her opium reverie, he, Johnny Depp, floating on his last trip in a canoe across a placid and misty stretch of water, almost dead. Both are part of a Western; in other words, the dramas play far off on the Western frontier, on the brink between life and death.
But back to our Snow Western. While the woman drifts off into her opium dream, McCabe is hunted down by the mining company’s gunmen and finally killed. He sits cowering behind a bush at the edge of town, in wait, until he is able to gun down the last killer. All the time in this scene the snow is falling, gradually covering and sinking the landscape in snow as if sent to accompany Mrs Miller on her opium trip to an unknown inner realm. Maybe the snow allows them to share an experience together after all. According to Blanchot, snow evokes the space of error. Like the snow in this Western, which covers everything only to reveal it in a different guise. Incessantly like the snow, Leonard Cohen sings of the winter woman, of the stranger and the other, but we never get to know who is who and what kind of other this strangeness is. Maybe it is his song, his way of speaking America’s language of dreams, untouchably strange and hence incredibly touching.
Occasionally you get the chance to make out a word from this dream language. The term opium is a suitable vessel for the eternal Indian waters in us Westerners. Maybe every vernacular not only has its idiom of dreams but also its own Indian tongue, or, going even a step further, possibly its own opium language.
Opium is a word
The closer you inspect a word, the further away it looks back on you, Karl Kraus once said. Is opium really a word? How do you inspect it closer, and how does it look back from a distance? Does closer mean more accurately? And further away stranger? Does close also mean different, and further away less likely? Or is this already the effect of the opium? Can we even read, write, or think without falling prey to its grasp? Can we even speak the word opium without being caught up in its story? Are we given at least a little space and distance to find out what it is or at least what it is meant to be, whether we know it, and what knowing means in a case like opium? That would leave us with opium without the opium.
Certain words require a hundred years of slow, very slow scrutiny, of peeling away layer for layer, before they tell us what they mean without really being what they claim to be. This is actually one of the great feats of words, telling us about something that is there, but not a word. Something that words like opium certainly can do without is more than a century of drug policies, colonialism, imperialism, wars, pain and hostile treatment.
Is it true, as some people say, that opium allows you to travel back in time? To where death and birth come into being? That opium allows us to easily overcome, to conquer the obtrusive and frightening barriers we have erected within to stop us from travelling to these past and foreboding places? If so, then an opium reverie is probably an apt way of approaching a word and making it even a little more incomprehensible, outlandish and resilient against the notions it usually awakens in us and the things it encapsulates or excludes us from.
If fairy tales mean hundreds of years of labour on our wishes, then the stories around opium embody a century of toil on the inaccessible regions within us which, whether we like it or not, link us through time with the dreams about paradise lost, or maybe merely paradise hidden.
So give the word opium and us a chance. Let us journey to the region between distant and close that we wish to cross on an unknown course and which will remain beyond our grasp lest we are prepared to cope with a host of obstacles.
There are certain contexts that look difficult although they really aren’t. You probably know the saying “order is the soul of disorder”; maybe you even live by it. But what if we turn it around and say “no soul without disorder” or “disorder brings about soul”. Suddenly the two terms order and disorder become entwined, they refer to and contain one another, inseparable but distinguishable. That’s the point: order and disorder are not opposites, they belong together, like life and death, the one comes with the other, they are each other’s soul. This means you can’t fight disorder with order, and vice versa. Moreover, when you fight something you simply make it stronger; yes, one could even say by fighting you actually create the thing you’re opposing. The same happens when we exclude something we’re trying to get rid of; all we do is tether it to us more tightly.
In life, and as long as we breathe, nothing ever vanishes even if it is no longer present. In Moses and Monotheism, in the passage where he compares the distortion of a text with murder, Freud notes: “The difficulty lies not in the execution of the act but in getting rid of the traces.” In other words, that act does not vanish just because it caused no problems. And, one might even add, what is a murder compared to the way its traces spread, grow and continue down the line, independent of us and our intentions?
Everything we do leaves behind traces, indelible in space and time, which is one reason why the past never ends. Unlike many a historian, Charlie Brown is aware of this fact. Linus once asks Charlie Brown: “Wouldn’t it be better not to worry about tomorrow and concentrate on today?” To which Charlie Brown answers: “That’s giving up, I’m still hoping that yesterday will get better.” It’s actually the only way to tackle the present. And now we’re stuck here with this word opium, which has already started looking back distantly.
The grey Reeve
A fitting figure for intractable situations which, as such, are not hard to resolve but difficult to bear, is the little hunchback from Georg Scherer’s collection of children’s stories to which Walter Benjamin opened our eyes: “To the little kitchen I go / to cook a bowl of soup / there stands this little hunchback / my pot he has crack’d.” What on earth is this little creature doing in our kitchens, gardens and chambers? Clumsiness is his business, Walter Benjamin’s mother explained when he attempted to do something with two left hands, that is, playing awkward.
In late Middle English awkward means “the wrong way round, upside down”; it comes from Old Norse afugr meaning “turned the wrong way”. In other words, alone, out of place, unable to converse or correspond, useless, distracting, even obstinate. “If the hunchback looks at you, it means you’re not paying attention, neither to yourself nor him.” So that’s his fate. He not only makes things awkward, he is the personification of awkwardness. Not blind himself, he recognizes our blindness at once, reminding us that not looking means being blind; being negligent means missing out on what goes on around us. This is not a tautology, it has to do with how exposed, even imperilled we live; and, however mindful we are, there’s no escape. Others call this fate (bear in mind, for example, the many stories that tell of how people desperately try to outpace death, only to face the Grim Reaper sooner than they expected.)
The little hunchback reminds us of our fragility which we preferably try to block out, unsuccessfully, I may say. There he stands before you, making you realize that half your life is wasted on unconsciousness, invisibility and carelessness; all the things that prevent you from being the master in your own home. His hunchback way of reminding us is different from the kind of memory that has become so fashionable, at least in art (which reacts to the slipping of time by relying on the art, or artificiality, of remembrance, causing it to dwindle even faster). Moreover, we are dealing with the kind of memory that we encounter in Proust’s search for the lost time: the unwanted, forced memory that befalls us that can never be evoked by willed effort. Nor can we send it away again. It is not an active remembering; no, we are being reminded, inescapably and awkwardly. “He did nothing to me, this grey reeve, except collect of every item half of what slips into oblivion”, Benjamin writes. His little hunchback wishes to forget and make forgotten, that’s his job. He’s not recovering memory, he’s collecting forgetfulness; it’s the safest form of memory to retain the awkwardness of our collected experiences. A memory that needs no reasoning, like the sea: “But it is the sea that takes and gives memory”, says Hoelderlin.
In his deliberations about this creature Benjamin comes up with a daunting idea. Does the famous, backward-running film that is said to flash before your eyes the moment before you die consist of the images the little hunchback holds for us. Maybe you even hear his little voice saying: “Please make friends with the necessity of dying.”
The broken heart
“A human being has in his broken heart / areas that do not exist / until pain enters / and brings them into being”, says Godard in his The History of Cinema.
The motion I am concerned about in the following refers to the entry or passing over into an area within us that is not there until pain sets in. I don’t necessarily mean that the entry as such is painful; no, it’s the pain itself that enters. However, does pain cause pains when its entry brings something to life that was not there before? Or an empty heart that we have learnt to keep free of pain? What’s the point? Is not pain a part of us? Pain is the experience of what is involuntary, unavailable, powerless. It’s painful, but what is there to be said against that? Doesn’t it warn us? Doesn’t it alert us to boundaries that are dangerous to cross?
The image of pain entering our heart and bringing into existence something that was not there before prompts the question: how does it do this? How can something that does not exist be there, but only be felt as pain?
Yes, we’re talking about domains which are governed by forces that make us see what is not there, make us hear what is not spoken, but this makes them no less real than the pain that marks the crossing and tells us, yes, something is there.
Accepting the pain we feel when entering rough territory is difficult. This has a lot to do with the culture we live in where pain is countered by a plethora of sedative options. Pain has become a thing to oppose, a kind of enemy.
However, inasmuch as we remain human beings with broken hearts, these domains that do not exist as long as we do not accept their existence are there to stay. The fact that discovering them is painful, that entering them almost sweeps us off our feet, has to do with the beauty that comes with them. Also with the fragility we face when touched by our own life. Pain is the key to our sensitivity.
Pain would be something completely different if we were to regard it as a trusted companion, a watchman over the known and unknown territories within us. The fact that we try to soothe it holds no contradiction. Rather, it has to do with the relationship we have with ourselves as pain-stricken beings. Because the pain that shoots into us when we set off in search is already there; in fact, it has already been there for a long time. We are not alone, we are heirs and, like all heirs, we feel sadness. The areas within us are lodged in time. They carry time within, time that does not pass, but also time that frequently has not yet even arrived.
I devote this text to all former hippies even though they weren’t magicians. Nor were they opium eaters. In other words, they have no business here. They preferred their musty hashish – black, red or brown – until they almost turned into pinnate flowers themselves. Or they shot heroin into their veins under the wide desert sky, later in dark and dirty hovels until they died, never to return again. They were young, very young, and in search of something. They travelled east, only to find the west from which they were trying to escape and which left them to die so hopelessly alone in their yearning, in Afghanistan, India, the Golden Triangle, even in Recklinghausen, for that matter.
What is interesting about them is their search, their leaving, their yearning and their failing. They stand for a powerful eruption of homesickness; their addiction lay in the longing for a haunt, to come home instead of setting off on a journey into the beyond which lay within them, alien and different; neither at home nor homeless.
Nonetheless, the hippies reveal something that is made to disappear from time to time. By this I mean the astonishing trace they left behind as heirs to the ancient story of the lost paradise. But how do you search for a paradise that only begins to exist the moment it is lost? Round the back, said Kleist. Not towards the west, but towards the east, instead. For thousands of years paradise was located in the west – Ithaca, America, to name but two. The hippies heeded Kleist’s advice and took the journey round the back, towards the morning and the light. To where poppy and memory grow cheek to cheek, so to speak, the one not being able to exist without the other – actually, what prevents us from regarding poppy as a form of memory? As the memory of those territories of oblivion that require the incursion of pain to exist; areas of voided awkwardness that provide entry to lands intimately close and infinitely distant, and where the real adventures lie in wait for you. I mean the land within us, a location without place, awkward but existent.
There is something about hippies that remains impregnable and resistant to explanations. What made them follow their vague yet determinate yearning in such large numbers? What was the energy that broke forth in them at a specific moment in history? It must have similar to the one that Büchner makes Danton refer to: “Even the slightest tinge of pain, may it affect merely one single atom, creates a fracture in creation, from top to bottom.” Astonishing the absoluteness as to how creation is seen as forming a coherent entity, the old idea of the equality of all forms of existence with no exceptions, pain included – above all pain – in this case cosmic pain, not the individual culpable form we know. Cosmic pain creates fractures that encompass and pass through everything, a pain divorced from its designation that remains wanting.
The pain of our times is a sedated pain, suffocated in its busy and buzzing speakability which, by now, has become a compulsion. The rupture of pain, the fissure that passes through all of us, is also an opening. And language is still irreducible, still means existence. It spells being and not being by not ceasing to being something else, in between and nothing of the two. Distance-cum- proximity. A distance that separates us from death and from what death has engulfed. At the same time this distance only exists because it comprises the proximity of death; it separates us from death and does not make us dead even when we are distant; likewise, when we think of the dead, it doesn’t mean that we are dead.
Opium is a drug of pain. It does not overcome pain but allows us to descend into it, into this dark and rough terrain within us,; the heart of darkness in which a another light never stops shining – that of the waking of the forces of a different memory.