“…and the Clock strikes the Hour of Drunkenness.”


A fear of time and death is the fuel for many aspects of human behavior; they are the two inexorable adversaries of life. Both death and time loom in the background of our minds, repressed, flirting with the periphery of conscious thought. In the mind-altered states of intoxication, however, these notions of death and time take on a new shape. Nearly every single author we’ve studied this semester has encountered or investigated their idiosyncratic relation, through intoxication, to time and death. Frequently in the drug experience, eternity and infinity are evoked; they give rise to our two main themes of time and death. But the question I want to keep in mind throughout this paper is as follows: What significance does an altered experience of time have on one’s own notions of death (and vice-versa)?

Time dilation is most profoundly present in writings of Henri Michaux’s experiments with mescaline. Michaux describes how, in mescaline, “time is immense…it is supreme.” Time, for Michaux, has adopted a deity-like status in his experience of mescaline. In fact, Michaux goes as far as to blasphemously declare that, “Pullulation and Time” have taken over the roles inhabited by god; he writes that the altered experience of time on mescaline is “the kind of time God would inhabit if he existed.” Not only is there a god-like manifestation of time in Michaux’s writings, but there remains a shadowy implication for the kind of time we experience in sobriety. That is, Michaux’s writings of a consecrated, sanctified time seem to profane our sober experience of undilated time. The regal, mescalinian time of Michaux’s writings renders our clock-time paltry in comparison. Michaux, in fact, even proclaims that the mescalinian time he is describing, alone, is natural. Our everyday concepts of time, then, is implicated as something unnatural and lacunary. In this case, Michaux might argue that this implication is due to the truncated, pigeonholing tendency of clock-time; we have profaned the infinite by chunking clock-time into symbolic segments.

Further on in Michaux’s writings, he provides us a more unequivocal account of his dilated mescalinian time. It has abandoned the profanity of our customary clock-time: “I have once more become a passage, a passage in time. This then was the furrow with the fluid in it, absolutely devoid of viscosity, and that is how I pass from second 51 to second 52, to second 53, then to second 54 and so on. It is my passage forward…I feel nothing now but the going forward.” Here, one can feel the tedium of clock-time through the lingering of seconds. Clock-time, here, feels unnatural, which explicates Michaux’s earlier description of mescalinian time as “true time rediscovered.” The mescalinian experience of time seems to violently tear apart our (false) divisions of time into seconds, minutes, and hours. Rather, Michaux appears to be experiencing time in all of its fullness. If we are to trust the sanctity in which Michaux ascribes to mescalinian time, then it seems something worth experiencing.

Michaux, furthermore, presents us with a “new time,” in which one’s minutes are made up of “three million instants,” in which one will “never be in a hurry” with one’s attention; in “new time,” attention becomes “superdivided” and never “outdistanced.” Mescaline, in other words, functionally acts as an “infinity mechanism” which drags the intoxicated person to the margins of madness. The only difference between the intoxicated and the mad, in Michaux’s writings, is that, because of his sense of infinity, the madman “offers no resistance.” The mescaline user, ceteris paribus, does. To reinforce the maddening quality of this “new time” Michaux’s writings are supplying, he describes the typical madman as a “brave fellow” who, on his own, tries to cope with the “destructive phenomenon” of an infinite sense of time; the mescaline user, on the other hand, cannot endure the “destructive phenomenon.” The mescaline experience–regardless of subjective alterations–is temporal, fleeting, and will end.

Mescaline’s effects, according to the writings of Aldous Huxley, can be quite different from Michaux’s account. In fact, unlike Michaux, Huxley writes of having a “complete indifference to time.” This complete indifference comes from, what Huxley admits to be, a completely absurd place. He continues, very matter-of-factly, that, “‘There seems to be plenty of [time],’” as though that statement was supposed to help his interlocutors understand his experience. The peculiarity of Huxley’s statement is only rivaled by the way in which he acknowledges his capability to have looked at his watch; he writes that to check his watch would be to dive into “another universe.” So, we are already beginning to see the antipodal effects on time that Huxley’s writings emanate, as opposed to Michaux’s utter submersion in it. But, despite Huxley’s initial “complete indifference” to time, his subsequent experience is described as “an infinite duration…of a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse.” This seems to entirely contradict any “indifference” Huxley had initially proclaimed. Thus, it isn’t too crazy to suppose that Huxley’s indifference to time is very similar to Michaux’s. That is, both authors have invoked the “infinite” in considering the manner of time; they both seem to resist the segmenting of clock-time.

Huxley’s contribution to our budding taxonomy of time comes to fruition in his writings of how, under the influence of mescaline, one is “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception,” in which the hours spent on the drug are “timeless.” Huxley writes of an experience, like Michaux, that is “beyond time, of union with the divine Ground.” Here again, transcendent time has been evoked. Time, through mescaline, has become “divine”; ground, furthermore, has been capitalized. By taking care to ascribe those qualities to time, Huxley seems to be referring to time as the ground for experience itself. Time just happens to be the vessel through which all of our transactions with the world are made. He further characterizes mescalinian time dilation to be of “inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.” Huxley, as a naturalist, is pointing to something truly spiritual about human experience: the temporal contingency of our being.

Amidst further material is a smattering of thoughts about death and time, which return us to the core relationship of our initial concern. Theophile Gautier, for instance, equates death with a plunge into a “frozen eternity,” which has temporal traces of Michaux and Huxley. Furthermore, in Gautier’s writings on hashish, he describes his experience of a “temporary demise.” Within this phrasing, both death and time are evoked. But, although phrases like “frozen eternity” and “temporary demise” don’t conjure up rosy, joyous images, Gautier argues that these are a “necessary apprenticeship for one’s definitive death.” Gautier’s use of the word “apprenticeship” is peculiar, suggesting a teacher-student relationship between the hashish and himself. He seems to be suggesting, here, that intoxication is a pedagogical strategy in which one temporarily encounters one’s own mortality. The regions of space-time, as we’ve seen above, are distorted and deranged in various states of intoxication. This distortion might be the way in which a “temporary demise” can be achieved. And, by calling this encounter “necessary,” Gautier is implying that there is a moral/psychological benefit in this brief death.

In addition to Gautier’s linking of death and time, Mary Hungerford’s An Overdose of Hashish provides similar insights. For example, after ingesting far too much hashish, Hungerford writes how her body transmogrified into a “living temple of flesh in time.”Again, the word “temple” conjures up a religious encounter with time; life is the gift from, and the payment for, time. Hungerford’s writings on hashish explore, not only wild distortions of time, but a lucid, hallucinogenic encounter with death anxiety. She writes of being filled with a “bitter, dark despair” with a “wild, unreasoning terror.” One can almost feel her pen trembling on the page underneath the horrific gravity of this encounter with death. In her intoxication, “the door of time seemed to close on [her]” such that she was “thrust shuddering into a hopeless eternity, each time falling…[into] the dread of the unknown.” This vision, in which Hungerford is thrusted into the unknown, is beyond her own descriptive capacities.

Like Gautier, there is a temporary demise at play in Hungerford’s writings. Hungerford, petrified, plummets into the realm of the unknown, a place with no time. But, in addition to these fears, she is also–in her hallucination–forcefully propelled towards a great black ocean, bounding the “formless chaos” where “each tiny drop of [ocean] spray was a human existence which in that passing instant had its birth, life, and death.” Not only has Hungerford experienced a kind of deified time, she is seeing from above–like a god herself–the fragility and futility in the brevity of human existence. To this end, she indignantly exclaims, “How short a life!” to which a formless, faceless voice unexpectedly replies, “Not short in time.” Here, Hungerford obtains insight regarding human existence: It is all a part of a “universal system” which is, invariably, “reabsorbed into infinity.” Like our other authors, Hungerford, too, sobers up eventually and these proportions of the infinite lose their supernatural qualities. But her encounters with the great black ocean, the door of time, and the infinite, all seem to reflect Gautier’s “temporary demise” and “frozen eternity.” It seems there is much to be learned from the extremities of intoxication.

We should now spend some time on the author who first formulated my correspondence between intoxication, death, and time: Charles Baudelaire. Both his poetry and his writings on intoxication repeatedly evoke their interdependence. Specifically, in his poem titled “Poison,” Baudelaire writes how “Opium can dilate boundless space / and plumb eternity, / emptying out time itself” to which he concludes, “my soul…sinks / unconscious on the shores of death!” Both time and death are implicated in Baudelaire’s writings of opium’s effects, in addition to his writings on other intoxicants. The “emptying out” of “time itself” through opium is suggestive of Huxley and Michaux’s dismantling of clock-time. That is, by “plumbing time”–emptying it out–it loses the rigid quality that clock-time imposes upon the kind of time these authors are describing. And, as these effects progress, Baudelaire’s narrator ends up on the shores of death itself, further motivating intoxication as a “flight-from-time.” So, there is obviously a deep-seated coupling of time and death for mescaline, hashish, and opium users alike. These three drugs are all quite different, but the motif and recursive meditations of their mutual relationship reveals that death and time are not only evoked by intoxicants, they are the static furniture of our psychological landscape.

I first paid deep attention to the links between intoxication, death, and time, when I read Baudelaire’s poem titled “The Clock.” The clarity of this link can only be explicated by taking a look at this poem in its entirety:

Impassive god! whose minatory hands
repeat their sinister and single charge:
Remember! Pain is the unfailing bow,
as arrow after arrow finds your heart.

Pleasure fades and dances out of sight–
one pirouette, the theatre goes dark;
each instant snatches from you what you had,
the crumb of happiness within your grasp.

Thirty-six hundred times in every hour
the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies
in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past,
who passing lit and sucked your life and left! 

Remember! Souviens-toi! Esto memor!
(My metal throat is polyglot.) The ore
of mortal minutes crumbles, unrefined,
from which your golden nuggets must be panned.

Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins
on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.
The daylight fades…Remember! Night comes on:
the pit is thirsty and the sands run out… 

Soon it will sound, the tocsin of your Fate–
from noble Virtue, your still-virgin bride,
or from Repentance, last resort…from all
the message comes: “Too late, old coward! Die!”

Baudelaire’s “The Clock” flagrantly, and without remorse, draws together the notions of death and time. The invocation of a clock as an “impassive god” is particularly provocative, considering our earlier discussion regarding the profane qualities of clock-time. Baudelaire’s clock is deified, the arbiter of time itself. Death is also heavily intertwined, both implicitly and explicitly, in this poem. It is unclear how Baudelaire, the man, thought about time. But Baudelaire, the poet, is paying attention to the importance of keeping time in mind with regards to death. They are intimately connected for the narrator of this poem.

There is also Baudelaire’s formulation of “your still-virgin bride,” in this poem, which I interpret as the life you’ve been afraid to live or the body you’re afraid to push to its limits. Keeping time and death in mind as “fate,” the narrator is urgently trying to keep the reality of one’s own death in plain sight. Using one’s own death as motivation in defiance of time’s “impassive” nature seems to be the narrator’s purpose for the poem. To this end, the poem succeeds in that I, personally, will never forget the fact of thirty-six hundred seconds passing with every hour.

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Finally, we would be remiss to gloss over Baudelaire’s prose poem which inspired the theme of this class: “Be Drunk!” In this poem, the narrator declares that “One must always be drunk; That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as to not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.” This poem’s opening gambit is a clear nod towards the link between intoxication and time, which are further intertwined with death. The act of getting drunk, in this poem, is recalcitrant to the oppressing forces of time and death. Getting drunk, as described in this poem, is a dulling of, or escape from, “Time’s horrible burden,” namely, death. Yet, Baudelaire muddles up this clean connection of intoxication, death, and time, with his following paragraph: “But [get drunk] with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.”  Here, “drunkenness” is much broader than chemical intoxicants which we have been exploring thus far.

In considering the urgency of Baudelaire’s poem “The Clock,” this poem, “Be Drunk,” too, echoes similar themes of the severity involved in linking intoxication with time, and death. There is even a familiar character invoked in “Be Drunk,” namely, the clock. Baudelaire writes, towards the end of this poem, that “the clock will reply: ‘It is time to get drunk! So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk.’”As we saw in “The Clock,” it is vital that we understand the power of intoxication so as to flout the eventual victory of time and death over our bodies. By considering us the “martyred slaves of Time,” intoxication is being poetically prescribed–not just by Baudelaire, but by all our authors–as the way to make the most of our mortal situation.

Thus, we must return to our initial considerations. We saw, through Michaux, the divine presence of time in our lives. His mescaline-driven dilation of experience reminds us that there is but an eternal–an infinite–now. Our dissection of “now” into clock-time has severely sculpted our sentiments of, and sensitivity to, time. Through Huxley, we saw the deep profundities of time as a precondition to our being. His writings not only reinforce Michaux’s, they build off of them so as to ground the holiness of time in a secularly-oriented life. The writings of Gautier and Hungerford serve as our bridge between time and death; intoxication exacerbates one’s awareness of time, and of one’s own mortality. And Baudelaire’s writings most plainly illustrate the relationship intoxication has with time and death. There is a vital connection, for Baudelaire, between the act of getting drunk–on wine, poetry, or virtue–and the temporary escape from time and death. These authors, all functioning in concert, provide us a palliative prescription to the aporetic despotism of time and death in our lives. Their imposition are to be rebelled against, or so we must conclude, by intoxication. Following the sagacity of Baudelaire’s broad definition of intoxication, we might have something to learn, in fact, by turning to the bottle.


Works Cited:

Baudelaire, Charles. Poems. New York: AA Knopf, 1993. Print.

Gautier, Theophile. Hashish, Wine, and Opium. London: Calder and Boyars, 1972. Print.

Hungerford, Mary. An Overdose of Hashish.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Print.

Michaux, Henri. Miserable Miracle. San Francisco: City Lights, 1963. Print.


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