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Withering Highs: Hashish at the Fin de Siècle

A latecomer to Satan’s library, Oscar Schmitz’s 1902 Hashishhas been pretty much buried for over a century, but now it returns as part of Wakefield Press’ ongoing project to unearth weird ore from the depths of the fin de siècle. You get more than the usual amount of black masses, succubi and incubi, necrophilia, cannibalism, and secret societies in this Huysmansy patchwork, along with dope chic and rents in the fabric of time. Schmitz’s book also reflects contemporary developments in photography by linking its portmanteau of horror tales by a kind of impressionist double-exposure (Redon’s floating heads and Moreau’s glimmering apparitions also come to mind), connecting his hash-induced contes cruelsto Phantasmagoria projection and the Lumière Bros. The new edition of this curious short novel reprints Alfred Kubin’s original drawings, making this a striking and suitably shadowy pocket book. W. C. Bamberger’s translation is the work of a real pro

Schmitz had a genius for being in the right place at the right time. At a sanitarium, he befriended and helped publish Meyrink (I have a sneaking suspicion that Schmitz was the anonymous editor of The Golem, which has a similar disjointed narco feel as Hashish,as well as the same sense of sedentary time travel), he knew Beardsley and Alfred Douglas, dated the ‘Dada Countess’ Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and later pissed off Walter Benjamin by giving Eisenstein’s Potemkina bad review. He attended events organized by the notorious magus Péladin, was an early psychoanalysis patient and wrote a treatise synthesizing Freud and Yoga, ran into Alfred Jarry, and roomed with Franz Hessel, later the model for Jules in Jules et Jim. In short, he was one of those peripheral figures who was around to a dizzying degree and is now almost forgotten.

According to James J. Conway’s excellent afterward, Schmitz’s meticulous diary omits the most famous events of the time as if they were utterly irrelevant in relation to salon life and his own neurotic observations on the milieu, very much the alien beat of Hashish. The anonymous narrator meets one Count Alta-Carrara in a café. The aristocrat expresses admiration for some of his poems and then offers his club for an evening’s diversion, promising not only drugs but occult illumination. They enter a gaudy hashish den where, under the time-distorting effects of the drug, six smaller narratives ‘appear’ in the smoky haze, featuring sinister protagonists from history such as Gilles de Rais and the Comte St-Germaine, while decadent-types loll around and the Count comments on the tales, sometimes by magically inserting himself into the action. The stories are quite strange and work more like a series of trashy tableaus, rarely offering the standard trick ending or any kind of morality lesson beyond their intricate descriptions of orgies, cavernous underworlds, and the frenzy of revolutionary mobs. Schmitz’s amusingly wry, contradictory preface calls the book as an etiquette lesson for dirty girls which should be kept far away from the innocent, unless corrupting the innocent is your bag. It all seems as if Schmitz was trying to get Méliès under contract to the Marquis de Sade, providing a rare example of German Francophilia in late Belle Époque.

After these revels, the narrator beds a hideous prostitute-seer right out of Le Crépuscule du soirand ends up alone on park bench in the Bois de Boulogne at daybreak. There, in gardens designed for Napoleon III, he wonders what to do with himself now that the visions of excess have laid bare their miserable miracles. This kind of reverie firmly places Schmitz in the bildungsromanschool; his book was first reprinted in 1913, a year before mustard gas and Lewis Light became a young man’s real education. The bildungsromandeals most of all with the first perception of death, a meridian death which cannot be final no matter how decisive it appears – even if it be suicide, like Werther. The rest of adult life haunts the dead like the dead are supposed to haunt the living. It is the bourgeois passage of initiation par excellence and it is always very moving because it is the last time that spite is allowed innocence, that cruelty is simple before it becomes merely the least offensive quality in ‘decent’ souls. And this kind of story never fails to move those whose coming-of-age was sworn by different class rites; perhaps it moves them especially because it was not made for them, staring at stars through a telescope. This youthful abyss is an exotic violence which we are told is owed everyone of a certain age, but it is part of a specific education which may be just as callous as common education, yet far easier to despise. It is this ease in hating the things that have made you which constitutes the greatest jealously for those who have been forced to admire that which has made them. The grand death glimpsed at the end of childhood is the seal of education for the middle class; for the others, it is as ridiculous as bad skin. It would be absurd to do a bildungsromanbased on the horrific crime of Jon Venables, for example, where the rules of the darkest games of adolescence are at once more clandestine and a thousand times more banal (banal enough to be caught on CCTV). So, who has not wanted a bourgeois childhood, at the very least in daydreams? Maybe it really is the only authentic one.

And since there is only one other death to come later in life – and it is uncertain that this second death is part of our world – death-as-youth and young death looks out on long years of dying that are not yet made real by the actual, personal presence of death. Final death is the death of deaths, or so it seems – all others take a little at a time, being whole only with the last. The first naïve procrastination of death, the simple center of every single bildungsroman from the Satyricon to Richard Linklater’s, decrees that you can return only by moving backwards into life from an adolescent dying.  Here is the last time one can be outside of death, when death temporarily takes on the painted symbols of love, murder or flight. Middle age can only look back from its own exhausted thoughts on death which are quite inside the matter, agonized and angst-ridden and usually shameful, as if staring through a hole in a motel room wall.

Perhaps this is what is really behind the venom thrown at the Parkland school demonstrators recently, kids whose deaths and near-deaths make a perfect middle class bildungsroman, complete with chill automatic machines, the sacrificial alter, and the realization that Evil does not exist. They are screamed at by those who envy their thoughtless resolve and by those too cowardly to surrender the ruins of a last, useless reuse to miss their own appointments in Samarkand. The kids know too much and too little at the same time. Their opponents are petrified mummy-cloths, unable to see that there is a knowledge that one can never know without being destroyed. Naturally, there are other concerns also. The famous Bois de Boulogne, where Schmitz’s protagonist finishes, was designed by Haussmann, who also created the wide boulevards of Paris in order that cavalry and cannon may easily move and isolate parts of the city in case of another Commune.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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