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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Portrait of Stefan Glass — Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

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Portrait of Stefan Glass, 1929 by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939).

From Narcotics, Twisted Spoon Press, 2018.

Witkiewicz’s notes indicate that he painted his portrait of the poet Stefan Glass while on mescaline, vodka, and cocaine.

Stanisław I. Witkiewicz’s Narcotics (Book acquired, 5 Feb. 2018)

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Stanisław I. Witkiewicz’s Narcotics is forthcoming in full-color hardback from Twisted Spoon PressSubtitled “Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine, Ether + Appendices,” the volume consists of Witkiewicz’s musings on his intake of these substances, both in his creative and personal life, as well as the various portraits he composed while taking those substances. Narcotics is translated by Soren Gauger, who also authors a helpful afterword that contextualizes Witkiewicz’s volume. Narcotics was written and published in Poland in the 1930s, and was apparently quite a big hit. I read Witkiewicz’s foreword last night (as well as the section on, um, peyote). In its strange moralizing, the foreword—an apologia really–reminded me a bit of Henri Michaux’s similar exercise, Miserable Miracle, which also strikes a defensive tone at the outset.

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The book, like Witkiewicz’s portraits, is gorgeous. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb; full review forthcoming—

For his “portrait painting firm,” 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. Type C were created under the influence of alcohol and “narcotics of a superior grade” to produce abstract compositions he called “Pure Form.” A variety of drugs and their combinations were taken to produce a variety of distortions and effects, and often this would be the portrait subject’s choice. And in some instances a given portrait might be marked with symbols denoting how many days he had gone without smoking or without drinking (and type D were executed to achieve the same results without any artificial means). Different substances resulted in different color combinations or brought out different aspects of the subject’s features or psyche. One stunning series of self-portraits, for example, was executed while on a combination of moderate amounts of beer and cocaine.

In the vein of the well-known drug writings of De Quincey and Baudelaire from a century earlier and those of his contemporaries Walter Benjamin and Jean Cocteau – and foreshadowing the later writings of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda on psychoactive drugs – Witkacy composed Narcotics in 1930 to discuss and document not only his own experimentation with different substances but the nature of addiction itself and the prevailing social attitude toward drugs, particularly those that were considered “acceptable.” As life became increasingly mechanized, Witkacy felt that a sense of the metaphysical could only be achieved by artificial means, and like Henri Michaux, he produced an extensive oeuvre of singular visual art while under the influence of a variety of substances.

Meandering, acerbic, and burlesque, rife with neologisms and expressions from German, French, English, and Russian, Witkacy dissects Polish society and the art world as well as himself via the hypocrisy surrounding drug use. Since it was first published in the 1930s, Narcotics has achieved a cult status in Poland where it is considered both a modernist classic and a paragon of Witkiewiczian madness. This edition, the first complete translation in English, includes a second appendix written later, passages from the novel Farewell to Autumn, and 34 color reproductions of a cross section of portraits to show how various substances impacted Witkacy’s art.

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The Pink Hotel (Book Acquired, 4.02.2013)

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The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard is new from Picador. Their blurb:

A raucous, drug-fueled party has taken over a boutique hotel on Venice Beach—it’s a memorial for Lily, the now-deceased, free-spirited proprietress of the place. Little do the attendees know that Lily’s estranged daughter—and the nameless narrator of this striking novel—is among them, and she has just walked off with a suitcase of Lily’s belongings.

Abandoned by Lily many years ago, she has come a long way to learn about her mother, and the stolen suitcase—stuffed with clothes, letters, and photographs—contains not only a history of her mother’s love life, but perhaps also the key to her own identity. As the tough, resourceful narrator tracks down her mother’s former husbands, boyfriends, and acquaintances, a risky reenactment of her life begins to unfold. Lily had a knack for falling in love with the wrong people, and one man, a fashion photographer turned paparazzo, has begun to work his sinuous charms on the young woman.

Told with high style and noirish flare, Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel is a powerfully evocative debut novel about wish fulfillment, reckless impulse, and how we discover ourselves.

Excerpt:

Her bedroom reeked of cigarette ash and stale perfume. Two ashtrays were packed with lipstick-stained filters as if she’d just popped out for another pack. A suspender belt hung from a chest of drawers, a mink scarf was curled like roadkill at the floor next to her bed. A mirror opposite the bed reflected an image of me lying fully clothed and out of place on the crinkled sheets. My haircut and body could have been that of a boy, but my oversized eyes made me look like a Gothic Virgin Mary from a museum postcard. I wore a sweat-stained T-shirt and a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms. My skin still smelt faintly of grease and coffee from Dad’s café in London, but now the smell was mingled with dehydrated aeroplane air and smog from Los Angeles traffic.

Read the rest of the excerpt.

 

The Penguin Guide to Children and Hallucinogens

Children and hallucinogens

From Scarfolk Council, one of the finest sites I’ve seen in sometime. Their self-description:

Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. “Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.” For more information please reread.

The site’s got this wonderfully weird Wickerman / Ballard / Prisoner vibe to it. Very cool stuff.

 

Nilsson and Ringo Do Lame Comedy at the 1973 Grammys

Aldous Huxley Talks About Drugs, TV, and Threats to American Freedom

Mike Wallace interviews Aldous Huxley (1958)—

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“An Account of Sharing an Ambien with a Girl I Met One Week Prior at a Party” — Tao Lin

“An Account of Sharing an Ambien with a Girl I Met One Week Prior at a Party” is a short short story (?) by Tao Lin published this week at Thought Catalog. An excerpt–

We went into her room ~6:55PM. She asked if I wanted wine and I said no. She asked again and I said no. I said “I brought the Ambien.” She said something about Tiger Woods and I felt confused and said “we should see if it’s okay with alcohol.” She typed “ambient” into Google. I said “no, that’s the music, delete the t, ambient music.” She laughed and typed “ambien and alcohol and klonopin and” and grinned and said “just kidding.” She deleted all but “ambien and alcohol.” The first result said not to combine Ambien and alcohol. Every result seemed to say that. She clicked the first result. It said not to combine Ambien and alcohol. She said she drank a lot so it was okay.

Sex, Drugs, and Harry Potter

[Editorial note–We originally ran this post in the summer of 2009 when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was in theaters. We run it again now to celebrate the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (we also are running it again ’cause we’re lazy)].

First thing’s first: if you’re looking for Harry Potter slash fiction, you’ll have to check out our original Harry Potter Sex Romp post for links, you dirty dawg (you’re weird but you’re welcome). Just like that post a few years ago, this post’s title is really kinda sorta mostly irrelevant to what this post is about. What is it about? I want to take a look at some of the homoerotic tension in the new Harry Potter movieHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. If you want to find a proper review of the film, with plot summary and insight, shop around. That’s not gonna happen here.

Also, there will be SPOILERS, okay? Fair warning.

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Okay. So, I saw the new film last night (henceforth HP6). And it was pretty good or whatever. But I noticed a subtext that cracked me up quite a bit, an underlying motif that might be lost on most summer blockbuster audiences. I’m talking about the implicit love between men and boys in this film.

At the beginning of the film, in an apparently insignificant scene, young Harry makes a date with an attractive young girl. However, old man Dumbledore shows up and dashes any hopes for a late sumer romance. Instead of meeting up with this lithe young thing, Harry has to grip hard to Dumbledore’s stiff arm to be apparated away to meet Horace Slughorn, an old potions master. Dumbledore uses Harry as fresh young bait for Slughorn, who has something the old wizard needs–a key memory about the development of Tom Riddle–Voldemort–a former protégé of Horace’s (lots of mentors and mentees here). Much of the narrative’s conflict revolves around the task Dumbledore has given Harry; it’s almost as if Dumbledore is pimping out the young wizard. These multiple man-boy relationships are doubled darkly in the failing bond between Snape and emo Draco.

In contrast, heterosexual relationships between the teens are treated with a lightness and even frivolity that codes such romances as ephemeral, or perhaps even inessential. Although the film solidifies the groundwork for the long-term relationships between the series’ principals (Harry-Ginny/Ron-Hermione), the real love story here is between older men and their young apprentices. HP6 depicts teen romance as silly without coloring any of its fragility with pathos. What the film really argues for is a sort of Greek or Platonic ideal of love; that love exists as a conduit for wisdom, passed from an older, experienced man to a younger boy in exchange for some of that youth’s beauty and vitality. Although moments of teenage adventure punctuate the film, the real scope of heroic encounters are shared between older men and their attendant lads (particularly Dumbledore and Harry, although even Snape, through the annotations of his old textbook, manages to plant part of himself into Harry).

The film reaches its climax with a lot of phallic wand waving and a bit of indecision over who gets to shoot off at whom. The climactic scene encodes the strange aggressions and series of shifting allegiances between the male wizards present. Dumbledore becomes the tragic figure; his death allows for Harry’s maturation, enacting a definitive arc in Harry’s Oedipal complex, where Dumbledore is both father figure and secret sex object. The weight of this tragedy initiates Harry into the adult world and adult responsibilities.

So why bother to write about this? No reason really, and I’m sure plenty of readers will find my analysis insupportable, silly, offensive, or just plain wrong. That’s fine. I guess I mostly find it remarkable that this motif should prevail so heavily in a summer blockbuster. There was also a whole drug motif going on–so many of the film’s plot development hinge on the ingestion of mind-altering substances–so maybe I just like the idea that the film is kinda sorta subversive.

“It Was Like a Romance” — Norman Mailer on Marijuana

“I’m Not Sure Why You Love Reading About Drugs” — The Paris Review Interviews Sam Lipsyte

The Paris Review interviews Biblioklept fave Sam Lipsyte. From the interview–

I’m not sure why you love reading about drugs. Maybe at a certain point the reading high is better than actually doing them? That could be preposterous though. I guess I’ve written about drugs a good deal because for a time, in my younger days, certain hard substances were the major elements in my life. My movements and decisions revolved around them. I like to pretend it was all some meaningless blur, but it was a very intense and focused time. I had a daily purpose (to get more drugs) that heightened the experience of being alive (a heightening then nullified by the drugs). I felt very alert during the mission phase of the day. Make no mistake, it was a horrible time, but I’ve always been fascinated by that robotic intensity. Also, it’s a way to give your character something to do, and we all know you have to keep those fuckers in motion, or readers might find out they are just constructions in a fiction! I try to make sure the drug-users in my stories aren’t acting high. Most of them tend to do drugs to get straight anyway. They are in that awful place. So their interactions might seem slightly off, but mostly these could easily be people not doing dangerous drugs. It’s just that occasionally they die from their addictions or else make really bad decisions that lead to more misery. That’s where the comedy kicks in. Drugs are hard to resist for some people because they work really well. And then don’t. But you find that out later.


Many books have been written depicting drug addictions, drug addicts and how drug addiction treatment centers actually work, with varying degrees of consistency.

Robert Crumb on LSD

In his new interview in the Summer 2010 issue of The Paris Review (excerpt here), Robert Crumb describes how taking LSD for the first time affected his art —

I had been working along in this modern adult cartoon trend, very influenced by the modern, expressionistic, arty quality of work by Jules Feiffer, Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman. Then, on LSD, I got flung back into this cruder forties style, that suddenly became very powerful to me. It was a kind of grotesque interpretation of this forties thing, Popeye kind of stuff. I started drawing like that again. It was bizarre to people who had known my work before. Even Kurtzman said, What the hell are you doing? You’re regressing!

Here’s R. Crumb on LSD again, from the “Crumb on Crumb” section of his website —

A whole new thing was emerging in my drawings, a sort of harkening back, a calling up for what G. Legman had called the “Horror-Squinky” forces lurking in American comics of the 1940s. I had no control over it, the whole time I was in this fuzzy state of mind; the separation, the barrier betwixt the conscious and the subconscious was broken open somehow. A grotesque kaleidoscope, a tawdry carnival of disassociated images kept sputtering to the surface… especially if I was sitting and staring, which I often did. It was difficult to function in this condition, I was certifiably crazy, I sat staring on the couch at Marty’s apartment, or on long aimless bus rides around Chicago. These jerky animated cartoons in my mind were not beautiful, poetic or spiritual, they were like an out-of-tune player piano that you couldn’t shut off… pretty disturbing… this strange interlude ended as abruptly as it had begun in the next time I took a powerful dose of LSD in April ’66. My mind suddenly cleared. The fuzziness was gone, the fog lifted. It was a great relief… a weird drug, that was. But what the heck — “minds are made to be blown.”

If you want to quit using drugs like cocaine or LSD but are having difficulties affording it, you can try to find the best drug rehab at a discount by doing some research online.

Pop Damage Interviews James Grauerholz, Executor of William Burroughs’s Literary Estate

Pop Damage interviews James Grauerholz, executor of William Burroughs’s literary estate. From the interview:

SF: William’s magickal experimentation, the aspects of recording what he called “Danger Sounds” and replaying them in proximity to his target, or using collage to hit a specific target has become the stuff of legend. Some attribute the closing of one particular establishment to William’s hexes. Is there another specific instance which you can recall that is as dramatic and apparently self-evident?

JG: Nope, not really. You are likely referring to the Moka Bar in London, where William said he received snide, snotty service and lousy, weak tea — and his tape-recorders-and-cameras mock-surveillance routine, back and forth on the sidewalk of Frith Street, and how the Moka Bar failed and was shuttered not too long after that.

Forgive me please, but my cast of mind leads me to suspect the Moka Bar, if it really did sell lousy tea with terrible service, might have been headed out of business, with or without the sound-text-tape-film sidewalk-pacing routine…

As with William’s long-ago theory that, because he had never known a NYC junky ever to get a seasonal cold, it was likely that Junk provided a protective covering to the cells (or else, maybe Junk kept the cells well-exercised and in-shape with a constant cycle of shrinking to kick, swelling back up in re-addiction, kicking, hooked again, etc.) — I pointed out that, because a junky with a good supply on hand rarely leaves his apartment to mingle on the sidewalk with other people (which would expose him to more airborne rhinovirus particles), maybe the apparent immunity was more the result of limited exposure to current pathogens…

Prelude to Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld

I’m finishing up Pantheon’s gorgeous new edition of BodyWorld, Dash Shaw’s graphic novel. Shaw originally serialized BodyWorld on his website from 2007-2009, but it’s nice to have it a big heavy physical form. Full review forthcoming, but in the meantime, check out the prelude (and go to Shaw’s website for more)–

Convicts and Sailors, Yagé and Nutmeg, Seeing Things from a Special Angle, and the Uncut Kick that Opens Out Instead of Narrowing Down: Don’t Try This at Home, Kids

Do you remember when you were like thirteen or fourteen and you read that bit in Naked Lunch about the supposed mind-expanding properties of nutmeg? Nutmeg! Like your mom baked with! Like, readily-available, no questions asked! And then you took it, just like Burroughs indicated, and it made your stomach hurt and gave you a headache (just like he said it would). And nothing else happened. No visions, no enlightenment, nada. Do you remember that? Oh, wait…that wasn’t you? That was someone else? Sorry…

From “Afterthoughts on a Deposition,” an index to Naked Lunch:

Convicts and sailors sometimes have recourse to nutmeg. About a tablespoon is swallowed with water. Results are vaguely similar to marijuana with side effects of headache and nausea. Death would probably supervene before addiction before addiction if such addiction is possible. I have only taken nutmeg once.

There you go, kids. Knock yourselves out. Actually, don’t. Just rent Altered States instead.

Burroughs, of course, was far more interested in yagé, or ayahuasca, a psychoactive preparation of a South American vine. At the end of his spare, funny, first novel Junky, Burroughs writes:

I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage. … My wife and I are separated. I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.

Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of aging, cautious nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.

I’ve read Junky a few times and it seems that these lines are strangely half-hopeful and also deeply ironic. Burroughs’s stand-in, narrator William Lee doesn’t get what the writer William Burroughs seems to realize: there is no permanent solution, no “final fix.” Still, Burroughs sure did have some wacky adventures looking for it. Check out this clip from a documentary, apparently called Ayahuasca, narrated by Burroughs (if anyone out there knows anything about this movie, please let us know):