A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics

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“The main difficulty with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz,” writes Soren Gauger in his translator’s note for Narcotics, “is that no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he were writing something else.” Witkiewicz’s playful (and occasionally frustrating) discursive style is on vivid display in the six essays that comprise most of Narcotics (new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press)Witkiewicz’s stylistic twists are one of the joys of Narcotics. A moralizing diatribe might veer into medical discourse; private anecdotes might shift into a rant on class theory or a patchy precis of a book about physiognomy. (All delivered in a semi-ironic-yet-wholly-sincere tone). In the case of Witkiewicz’s essay “Peyote,” we go from “Elves on a seesaw. (Comedic number)” to “A battle of centaurs turned into a battle between fantastical genitalia.” This last note is preceded by the observation that “Goya must have known about peyote.”

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“Peyote” is the most vivid and surreal of the essays in Narcotics. Unlike the other sections, this chapter most closely resembles a conventional drug diary. “Peyote” begins with Witkiewicz taking his first of seven (!) peyote doses at six in the evening and culminating around eight the following morning with “Straggling visions of iridescent wires.” In increments of about 15 minutes, Witkiewicz notes each of his surreal visions. The wild hallucinations are rendered in equally surreal language: “Mundane disumbilicalment on a cone to the barking of flying canine dragons” here, “The birth of a diamond goldfinch” there. Gauger’s translation conveys not just the wild imagery, but also the wild linguistic spirit of Witkiewicz’s prose.

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The prose in “Peyote” most closely approximates the spirit of Witkiewicz’s wonderful paintings. Narcotics includes 34 full-color reproductions of Witkiewicz’s art, which is reason enough to pick up this volume. According to Narcotics’ blurb, Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he is commonly known) “established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time.”

For example, we see that Witkiewicz has noted that he had ingested cocaine and eucodal (a semi-synthetic opioid) in order to paint the Portrait of Michal Jagodowski (below). Narcotics includes a helpful “List of Symbols” as a glossary for the shorthand Witkiewicz used both in the text of his writings and in his paintings. (Although “her (herbata): tea” is included in the gloss, this vice regretfully does not merit its own essay).

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In addition to peyote, we get essays on nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and ether (a list that may remind you of a certain Queens of the Stone Age jam). In “Nicotine,” Witkiewicz despairs that “A person deadened by tobacco and alcohol…seeks even more mind-numbing entertainment to relax,” whether that be the “utterly depraved cinema with its vacuous attempts at artistry,” or the “sensory narcotization through music” achieved by “station surfing” on the radio. (Even worse is “chronic and brainless dancing, that most monstrous of modern society’s unacknowledged plagues”).

In “Alcohol,” Witkiewicz concedes that “alcohol lets you perform actions at a particular moment that otherwise would not have been possible right then,” before launching into a sustained attack on alcohol as a creative crutch. His most convincing (and depressing) line here is “alcohol is boring. Anyone who has abused it even mildly knows this to be true.” (If this were a different sort of review, I might riff here a bit on the fact that I drank no fewer than three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon while writing about Narcotics).

Witkiewicz, despite his exorbitant indulgences, is a bit of a snob—a modernist snob though. From frenzied, enthusiastic experience he warns us that “cocaine is one of the worst kinds of filth,” before plugging his cocaine novel Farewell to Autumn and offering a synopsis of one of the novel’s chapters, a so-called “cocaine orgy.” (The editors of Narcotics graciously include a brief selection from Farewell to Autumn, as well as additional essays by Witkiewicz on hygiene and other matters).

In the last two essays, Wietkiewicz hands the reins over to friends (designated drivers?). In “Morphine,” Bohdan Filipowski warns that, “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable, you must first travel through all manner of hell and suffering in life, only then to find yourself in addled stupefaction, which ultimately is all there is.” The essay “Ether” — a drug that packs a “powerful metaphysical wallop” is attributed to “Dr. Dezydery Prokopowicz,” a pseudonym for Wietkiewicz’s friend, poet Stefan Glass.

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The admonition that “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable” is pretty much the thesis for Narcotics, a book that simultaneously celebrates and reviles drug use. Misery is the byword here, a word we find repeated in in Henri Michaux’s 1956 collection Miserable Miracle. Published a quarter century after Narcotics, the two volumes share much in common. Too, Narcotics picks up some of the threads that we find in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater(1821)–that foregrounding of suffering, even if it also anticipates the (exhaustive) drug literature of the 1960s, which wasn’t nearly so reticent about banging the narcotic gong. And yet Witkiewicz seems to wink at us through all the moralizing and apologia, suggesting that, yes, narcotics, are, like, bad—they are a crutch, a shortcut, a substitute for true artistic inspiration—but he also shows how utterly modern the process of consuming mind-and-body-altering substances is. Witkiewicz comprehends the dangers of narcotics. He’s out there on the ledge, dancing around a bit, his foot wagging over the precipice, while he grins and says, “Hey, don’t try this at home.”

Try this at home. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics, translated from the Polish by Soren Guager is new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press. Just Say Yes.

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