If you are reading this article, you are surely already aware that April 20 marks the annual celebration of cannabis. In the spirit of the holiday, I would like to offer a little tribute to this strange plant that has enhanced our lives in such wonderful ways.
Marijuana became illegal in America in 1937. The reasons, according to popular wisdom, were to aid the nylon industry by cutting out competition from hemp and to give police another excuse to arrest black people. This legislation, needless to say, has done nothing to decrease its popular- ity, and has led only to untold amounts of wasted government spending and millions of unnecessary arrests and imprisonments for victimless crimes. The arguments for legalization are overwhelming. Those arguing for it may hold up numerous scientific studies demonstrating its medicinal value and many more showing that it is less harmful, and enormously less addictive, than alcohol or tobacco, as well as figures showing how much money the government would make if marijuana, which is one of America’s largest cash crops, became a taxable commodity. Those arguing against it have nothing more than a handful of platitudes about how it would “send the wrong message” to teens, along with the increasingly untenable “gateway drug” argument. The only reason it is not legal is that too many politicians are afraid of losing their constituents. If it has been clear for a long while now that cannabis should be legalized, at this point it seems not even in dispute. It is almost like an inside joke that everyone is in on.
Cannabis is already all but legal in several states and, as time goes on, more and more will see the writing on the wall. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few decades from now cannabis prohibition seems just as nonsensical as segregation does now. A time will soon come when the ongoing public debate about cannabis will begin to have a different tone: instead of merely citing scientific studies about its medicinal usefulness, cannabis advocates may also begin to argue for the value of its psychoactive effects. Rather than merely a natural analgesic, it may begin to be praised as an enhancer of the imagination, a drug that stimulates creative and unconventional thinking. It is usually referred to as a “recreational drug,” but its effects are valuable for more than mere recreation. Indeed, they cast doubt on the validity of the ironclad antithesis of work against play that rips through almost every institution in capitalist society: the overflowing productivity of the imagination, which is revealed in cannabis intoxication, should perhaps not be restricted to the sphere of recreation. A look at the state of our culture suggests that the sphere of work could benefit mightily from a dose of imagination and creativity—two words that, in our society, are associated almost exclusively with children, as though we were expected to become unimaginative and uncreative as soon as we enter adulthood.
The cultural reference points associated with marijuana, like Cheech and Chong and Bob Marley and rasta-colored hackysacks, do not do it justice. They have little to do with the drug experience itself, and are therefore misleading. It is, on the contrary, the things that seem the farthest removed from cannabis, and the culture surrounding it, that inspire the most revelatory experiences. Its value lies in its power to divert thought out of its usual paths and into the realm of free-associative play. Unnoticed connections between vastly different phenomena suddenly become startlingly obvious, their obviousness flashing before one’s eyes like a grotesquely masked face. If thinking is normally analogous to talking, under the influence of cannabis it becomes more like seeing or hearing. Thoughts impose themselves on the thinker with the force of sense impressions, and the flux of their ceaseless self-transformation wriggles out of his conscious control and takes on a life of its own. If one then spends the slowly passing hours consuming ephemera that were designed to be viewed while stoned, that defeats the purpose: the emancipated imagination is locked once more into formulaic, predetermined pathways. Getting stoned and then watching a movie about people who get stoned is actually not very interesting—watching CNN is infinitely more enjoyable.
According to Rastafarian legend, the ganja flower first blossomed on the grave of King Solomon. Solomon’s reign was an age of boundless abundance and prosperity for the Kingdom of Israel, which had been united by King David, his father; it was Solomon who built the first Temple. But just a generation later, the kingdom split into two factions, the tribe of Israel and the tribe of Judah, and with this schism began the slow decline of the Jewish people into decadence and idolatry, leading eventually to the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. Even though it was an era of utopian fulfillment, Solomon’s reign marks the true beginning of the decadence that precipitated the downfall of the Kingdom of Israel. God, you may recall, punished David for committing adultery with Bathsheba; Solomon, who was their son, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. David strayed from the Law, but Solomon threw it away entirely, and the golden age that he oversaw arrived only because he had done so.
Utopia is only possible once one has forgotten the law, in that brief moment before the ugly consequences begin appearing. The law constrains us, reminding us of our finitude, and by so doing it ensures our survival. It makes sure we always use less than we have, so we do not become accustomed to using more than we have. The ecstatic leap over the threshold becomes, all too soon, a headlong plunge into the abyss. But at the same time, the promise of utopia is what sustains us in the face of despair. It was their dream of the Promised Land, according to their Law, that sustained the Israelites as they wandered through the desert. But the material fulfillment of that promise, the promise of infinite abundance and eternal renewal, only came with Solo- mon’s abandonment of the law, and could only last a generation before falling into decline. We imagine that redemption will be for all time, but when it comes it is the briefest thing in the world.
It did not vanish without a trace, though. The soil, nourished by King Solomon’s body, generated a fragment of the utopia that he had incarnated. If Solomon had precipitated the downfall of the Kingdom of Israel by daring to make the utopian dream into a material reality, the plant that sprung from his grave serves as a reminder of that wisdom, which no one, least of all the Jews, should ever forget: that true utopia can exist only as a dream. April 20 is also Hitler’s birthday, and the anniversary of the Columbine shooting—both of these serve as examples of the sort of nightmares that occur when people try to realize their fantasies. By prohibiting the creation of graven images and requiring all adult males in their society to become literate, the Jews ensured the survival of the imagination, which, unlike anything else under the sun, is truly infinite. Just so, cannabis reminds us of the power of imagination that lies within each of us, by unlocking that power and displaying it before us with a vividness that rivals the most opulent of Hollywood blockbusters. If more people smoked weed, perhaps we would not need to spend so much money on movies.
It is no surprise that widespread interest in cannabis among artists and writers in the West began in the mid-nineteenth century. Industrialization and mechanization were accelerating, and the disenchanted worldview of the Enlightenment had mostly taken hold. The generation reaching adulthood at that time was the first for whom industrialization, mechanization and disenchantment were facts of life rather than revolutions. The adults of this generation had no memory of the order their parents had overthrown—for them, scientific rationalism was the order from which they longed to break free. They yearned for the sort of metaphysical experience, the sense of the universe as inherently charged with meaning, which modernity had made impossible. Modernists and their intellectual forbearers were interested in cannabis and other drugs because they hinted at the possibility of overcoming the lifelessness of modern existence without lapsing into prehistoric delusion. They wanted to experience the modern world as prehistoric man had experienced his: to see the holy light emanating from sacred objects; to make out the signs of demons and spirits in the configuration of tea leaves or the motion of wind on grass; to feel the world as a cavernous enclosure, and the night sky a sheltering canopy, instead of merely as the sign of the infinite emptiness of space.
No one embodied this yearning more powerfully, or explained it more incisively, than Walter Benjamin, that crownless king of interwar Europe, whose early grave, like Solomon’s, has spawned much interesting vegetation. Benjamin stands at the intersection between philosophy and art. He sought not to deduce the truth but rather to express, using philosophical concepts, the wordless knowledge that sometimes flashed before his eyes in moments of prophetic illumination. Throughout his life Benjamin often experimented with hashish, as well as opium and mescaline; some of the notes from these experiments were published a few years ago in a volume entitled _On Hashish_, which also includes Benjamin’s famous essay, “Hashish in Marseilles.” He is one of the only major philosophical thinkers to have written about drug experiences. And, unlike the few others who have, such as Huxley, he did not attribute his trance to primal deities or the great mystery of Being, but to modernity itself. It is an irony of history that, the more the Enlightenment dismissed all metaphysics and all spirituality as superstition, the more mechanization made them true. It was Benjamin’s intention not to tear away the curtain of modernity and plunge into a timeless cosmos, but rather to discover how modernity had in fact never left the prehistoric timelessness toward which his more reactionary contemporaries longed to return.
As great as the pleasures of cannabis intoxication may be, its greatest value lies in its ability to reveal the ways in which our world falls short of a utopian dream, much in the way it helped demonstrate to Benjamin the prehistoric traces that remain in modernity. The antidote to the disenchantment of modernity is not a recovery of premodern naïveté, but rather the realization, which cannabis can help provide, that the world is really enchanted, and that it is the disenchanted worldview that is naive. Even today, we are still living in prehistory. We are still intimidated by displays of power and captivated by brightly colored stones. The arms of the State hang over our heads like gods and constellations. Millions of voices flit inaudibly through the oversaturated spirit world that stands between heaven and earth. Our lives are filled with things that move but are not alive, things whose operation is incomprehensible to us, things that in any other time would have been called black magic. We peel and eat Snickers bars like bananas, as though they grew on trees. And disenchantment, which once liberated humanity from superstition, now serves only to keep us from perceiving the anonymous enchantment of capitalist society that still holds us in its spell. It is only by becoming aware of that spell that we can hope to escape its power.