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the Complete Review
the complete review - drugs



Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

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To purchase Narcotics

Title: Narcotics
Author: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1932 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 155 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Narcotics - US
Narcotics - UK
Narcotics - Canada
Les narcotiques - France
Narcóticos - España
  • Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine, Ether + Appendices
  • With excerpts from Farewell to Autumn
  • Polish title: Narkotyki
  • Translated by Soren Gauger
  • With 34 color plates of art work by Witkiewicz

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Our Assessment:

B : all over the place, but appealingly impassioned

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In Narcotics Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (also known as Witkacy) talks and takes drugs. His stance is firmly anti -- save a soft spot he has for peyote (the real stuff, not mere mescaline), despite the accompanying nausea he describes -- and he counsels strongly, even militantly against drug use -- while also acknowledging extensive (and sometimes excessive) personal use (though never to the extent the gossipmongers claim, he repeatedly insists). While not exactly scientific, he has firm opinions about each of the narcotics he discusses -- and often speaks from personal experience, offering (what he hopes to be): "some instructive personal truths in a digestible form".
       Witkacy devotes a chapter each to six drugs: nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, peyote, morphine, and ether. His first experiences were with ether, as a teen -- noting amusingly that it just made him more teen-ish: "Ether never made me euphoric, only strange and morose" -- but that's left for last, and he begins with the habit he is most addicted to and arguably finds most insidious, smoking. He manages periods of non-smoking, but it's a struggle -- especially that initial withdrawal, when: "The sense of meaningless is so profound that lighting that cig seems the very height of logic".
       For the most part, he claims smoking was his only real addiction, but he admits to weakness with other substances as well, and even about some he is almost entirely negative about -- "Cocaine -- hideous filth" -- he admits: "I don't suppose I'll ever experiment with that crap again, though I wouldn't absolutely swear to it". It should also be noted that his conception of dabbling in these substances -- his understanding of what limited use amounts to -- might differ from most people's. So, for example, he helpfully insists:

     Vodka is filth and should only be drunk to combat raging influenzal head colds, and only on the first day: half a liter with lunch and half a liter with supper at most.
       If the medical advice is dubious (if not downright dangerous), he's good on the allure of the drug-high, with its sense of wider vistas, and the otherwise unseeable and unknowable -- and he's especially good on the coming/crashing-back-down to reality when the effects wear off (and the after-effects make themselves felt):
Reality opens its gelatinous and reeking maw, its derisive eyes goggling with wild abandon -- a monstrous caricature affected by the general degradation and inner flaccidity that comes with post-alcoholic crapulence. But by increasing the dosage of the intoxicant you can always occasionally return to the old ecstasy and gain at least a wan simulation of life.
       Witkacy remains suspicious of the high, and of the (ir)reality found there. Even when the altered states have been inspiring, he qualifies the successes:
I have created a small number of portraits I would never have been able to accomplish otherwise. Yet I should note that I do not regard these pieces as finished works of art but as an entirely different species.
       The longest chapter is on peyote, complete with a detailed timeline of his experience with a dose of the authentic stuff (lamenting that: "It's too bad relations with Mexico make it incredibly difficult to obtain the genuine article"). He tries to relate what he saw -- even as he admits he can only describe: "about 1/2000 (one two-thousandth) of all the visions I experienced on that unforgettable night".
       Still, here's a drug he can really get on board with:
a drug that provides remarkable visions and profound glimpses into buried layers of the psyche and discourages the use of any other drug, above all alcohol. I consider its sporadic use utterly harmless
       Of particular interest to Witkacy is the effect of narcotic use on art, even as he maintains it interferes more than it helps: Witkacy was also painter, and this volume includes 34 color plates of portraits he painted under the influence, each one with a notation as to what narcotics were involved. There are some remarkable contrasts, depending on the substances involved, and it's a shame that he doesn't explore this particular aspect of his drug-experimentation more closely (though there is quite a bit of at least general discussion of it).
       Part of the fun of Narcotics is how Witkacy is led to spirited criticism that extends beyond the narrowly narcotic -- a symptom of society's ills, but only part of a larger, troubling picture. And so he rages enjoyably -- about how: "appalling what is happening to our literature and theater" is, for example, and he gets in quite a few personal digs as well.
       The volume also includes welcome relevant (i.e. drug-related) excerpts from his novel Farewell to Autumn, as well as two appendices; the first is: 'On washing, shaving, aristocratomania, hemorrhoids, and the ilk', and includes helpful observations such as:
Whatever a person's underwear/clothing situation, it will invariably be improved by proper and regular washing.
       Yes, Witkacy clearly saw a lot in the world and society around him that he felt people needed help (or at least helpful reminders) with.
       As far as drugs go -- well, early on, Witkacy writes:
I believe we are approaching a time when getting stoned will lose its appeal, which will spell the end f narcotics. The currently disastrous state of drug addiction marks their final death throes amid this temporal blurring.
       It's presumably more wishful thinking than something he was convinced of, but it reflects his general attitude throughout the book -- more what he wanted to convince himself of than an accurate analysis of narcotics and their effects.
       For better and worse, Narcotics is something of a rambling -- and very opinionated -- discourse rather than sober analysis. It's certainly an engaging read, and, as a very personal document, offers interesting insight into the character (and, to some extent) his art -- and his struggles with narcotics.
       The Twisted Spoon edition is also an attractive volume, and the many color plates a fascinating complement to the text (though one wishes there were more discussion of this art by the artist).

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 March 2018

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Narcotics: Reviews: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz: Other Books by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz under review: Other Books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) is best known as a dramatist. With Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz he was a leading figure of Polish intellectual life between the World Wars. He committed suicide in September, 1939, after the Nazi invasion of Poland.

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© 2018 the complete review

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