A DESPERATE NEED FOR CHOCOLATE CREAMS
I MANAGED TO GRADUATE,
moved to the capital and enrolled at
Meanwhile I vigorously explored the city and started to feel at home there, especially in the parts that came to life after dark. My actual home, on the Sarphatistraat, then still a beautiful tree-lined avenue, was a nine by twelve feet room with a wash-basin and a shared toilet down the corridor. The one who shared it with me was an attractive, tastefully dressed young woman in her late twenties who, like me, kept irregular hours, and was quiet as a cat. The landlady, Mrs. Nijssen, ran a tidy household, clean and well kept. Thick burgundy carpets covered stairs and corridors, the wooden barristers smelled of freshly applied wax, and the help weekly polished the brass front door trim.
In these secure, bourgeois surroundings Roland and I took the remaining doses of yage - still thinking that this was what it was. We swallowed the faint, lightly bitter dark liquid at high noon. We now knew not to expect anything earth-shattering for the first half hour, but because we had learned what symptoms to look for, we noticed the onset in twenty minutes: a warm tingle that spread throughout the body and elicited sighs of well-being, a slight unsteadiness in all straight lines and a gradual dissolution of solid fields into wavy forms, a heightened sensibility to sound and smell...
I had done a thorough job of house-cleaning, something that soon became part of my standard pre-trip preparation. The first experience had shown that it is not a good idea to have dirty laundry, overflowing ash trays and empty sardine cans lying around. I had briefly been overpowered by the atmosphere of neglect and decay they evoked: at one of those moments when I was lucid enough to be aware of my state at all, I had found myself lying on a compost heap similar to St. Job's, worms and bugs crawling all over me. This, if it could be helped, I was not going to go through again.
In addition I had profited from the guidance of Charles Baudelaire, the French poète maudit whose sonnets on love, wine, death and related melancholy subjects Roland and I translated as part of our self-imposed training. In the mid 1800's, Baudelaire and his artist friends of the 'Club des Hachichins' regularly came together to ingest hashish or opium, often in the sumptuous apartment of Théophile Gautier. Baudelaire vividly describes his experiences in The Artificial Paradises, inserting a few practical tips that, a century later, had lost none of their value:
"I assume that you have been so cautious to carefully choose the moment for this adventurous expedition. Perfect debauch requires perfect leisure. You are aware of course that hashish [substitute any psychedelic substance] causes not only an exaggerated sense of self, but also of circumstance and setting; you have no duties to perform that require punctuality or precision; no nagging family matters; no heartaches whatever. You really want to take care in this regard. Those troubles, that uneasiness, that remembrance of a duty claiming your will-power and attention at a fixed moment in time, would keep tolling throughout like a death bell, and poison your pleasure. The uneasiness would turn into anxiety, the troubles into torture. If, when all the above conditions have been met, the weather is nice, and you find yourself in a conducive environment, like a picturesque landscape or a poetically decorated apartment, if moreover you can expect some music, everything is for the best."
Failing access to a poetically decorated apartment I had adorned my room with a replica of a 15th century Chinese scroll depicting two poets contemplating a mountainous landscape, and an Aat Veldhoen litho of a reclining nude, whose realistically rendered vagina I had replaced with an old engraving of a cloacan phonograph horn. Apart from that, fittingly poetic, there were hundreds of books, as many as I could fit into the room and still have space for a bed, an oak desk, two reclining chairs and a coffee-table that doubled, or rather trebled as dining table and ottoman. Free floor space was limited to about thirty square feet, just enough for someone in need of a place to crash.
The curtains were drawn to shut out the outside world, a tray had been stacked with fruits and honey-cakes, Roland made tea (carefully creating a blend for the moment from the row of tins on the glass shelf above the wash-stand), lit some incense and candles and put on a record of Japanese koto music - tender tones of delicately plucked string, cherry blossoms floating on the wind.
A streetcar screeched as it rounded the corner from Sarphatistraat into Roeterstraat, cleaving the mood like a samurai sword, an unmistakable sign that the yage was taking effect. The wound that the metal struck was soon healed by the sweet balm of a female voice. The woman in the room next to mine, singing softly as she dressed (or dusted, or whatever it was she did there). Was it a sign? To communicate that she knew I was there, and in what sensitive state?
Over the summer months, the continuous proximity of a photogenic, voluptuously shaped woman had become, not an obsession, but something I was keenly aware of - and I was sure she was aware of mine. We were so close, yet so far apart: she must be almost one and a half times my age, and whenever we met on the stairs or the corridor she'd smile and radiate a strange, disquieting warmth. There was an erotic component, unmistakably, but alas it was smothered by the all-accepting warmth found in grandmothers and childless aunts.
Miss Monica Stork was, I felt, in a league well above my own. I was a freshman in the school of life, studying to become someone; she was a woman, self-supporting as far as I could tell, and given her appeal probably not in dire sexual need. But I could not help listening to her every movement, and with every noise I made I was conscious that she must hear it. When I peed in our shared facility I sometimes sat down so as not to rent the house's silence with my splattering; in bed, when I masturbated I suppressed my sighs so as not to betray my need.
Now, as the yage cursed through my veins, she was here again, this woman oozing sensuousness; just as my sensibility surged and my whole body tingled... I closed my eyes and expressed my mood in a deep sigh.
'Hey Peter, feels good eh?'
Roland gave me his big, jovial grin. He had a boundless capacity to enjoy life - and to suffer - and could let go far more easily than I could. Three cognacs and he'd be drunk, merry as an angel, or thrown into an abyss of despair, a Nietzschian maelström of nihilistic notions. Now he was riding the wave, high on the expectation of joy.
The walls started their familiar bulging and caving, as if they were breathing deeply. Pale coloured lint drifted through my field of vision, now briefly up, in one quick movement, then slowly earthward, sagging, bringing the objective world down with it. (A phenomenon that later studies showed to be due to tiny strands of dead protein in our eyes' lenses that we normally don't notice.) The candles had auras so large that they filled the room; they invited us to soar to the sun, bathe in oceans of golden light.
'You want some tea?' Roland asked.
I burst out laughing. Taking tea, that mildest of stimulants, in the midst of this foaming sea of sensations, seemed ludicrously superfluous. My whole frame laughed with me, my arms and legs shaking uncontrollably. Everything was so comical: the world (at least the little I saw of it) coming apart before my eyes. Nothing was real, it was all illusion, the maya of Hindu and Buddhist teaching.
Looking at Roland made it worse, or better, whichever way you looked at it: his face was a rubber mask, rhythmically swelling and collapsing. Only his eyes were steady. I kept looking into them till he, too, convulsed with laughter. Then, when that wave receded and I regained a measure of control over my limbs, I grabbed a pen and jotted down one memorable line, crooked but decipherable: "I wish I could stay like this all my life."
Fortunately this wish didn't come true - though in the next few years I would try like hell. To quote William Blake: "Cowper came to me and said: 'O that I were insane always... Can you not make me truly insane? I will never rest till I am so."
The intensity of the psychedelic experience convinced many of us that 'normal' non-enhanced experience was but a paltry substitute for this true, full state of awareness. Aldous Huxley, the visionary author who experimented with LSD-like mescaline in the 1950's, exclaimed in The Doors of Perception: 'This is how one ought to see, how things really are.'
The philosopher Henri Bergson wrote as early as 1913: "I take it that we virtually perceive far more than we actually perceive, and that, here too, the role of our body is to reject from consciousness all that would not be of any practical use to us, all that does not serve our actions. The sense organs, the sensitive nerves, the brain's processing centres, channel the input we receive from the outside world, and in so doing mark the directions in which our own influence can exert itself. But, by this very process, they limit our vision of the present, just as the cerebral mechanisms of memory constrain our view of the past.") He was echoing Plotinus, who already spoke of "that other kind of seeing which everyone is capable of but few make use of."
Bergson predicted that one day we would develop techniques to temporarily disable this filtering, channelling mechanism of the mind. Could he have been thinking of yage, mescaline, LSD? The psychedelics, namely, do exactly that: remove the filter and bring one back to the spontaneous state underlying all conditioning. This process of freeing oneself from conditioning is called ecstasy, after the Greek ex-stasis, meaning 'outside the normal condition', more specifically the flight of the soul from the body.
Equally thrilling was Bergson's interest in extra-sensory perception, precognition, coincidence and related phenomena. Contemporary academe regarded these as the figments of addled brains, but for someone who knew them from own experience they were bona fide realities. Yage seemed to favour if not promote their occurrence. Take bibliomancy for instance. While Roland sat rocking in his chair, laughing about the beating of his heart, I took Bergson's collected works in hand and opened the 1602 page tome at random, inviting it to guide me to a significant passage, and read: "Any division of matter in independent bodies with absolutely fixed outlines is artificial.")
So let it all crumble and merge, let it all drip down the walls! Any attempts at holding onto the perception of separate entities are vain, futile mental artifices. Give up the struggle, just lay back and watch the show, the exuberant visual imagery... Reality is a squirming mass of indeterminate matter, given shape and seeming solidity by our own process of interpretation. Let the thought process stop and there goes the neighbourhood - and the house, and the coffee-table, and the body resting its feet on it.
My passion increased to a fever when I realized that this view of matter was perfectly congruent with the latest discoveries in the field of physics. We may say 'this is my hand', but what does it mean? Does it mean that we can claim ownership of all the protons, neutrons and electrons in our bodies? Well, try holding on to your property.
Any contact with a 'foreign' body, dead or alive, causes a swap of elementary particles. Some of 'your' electrons are jolted out of their orbits, to be replaced by electrons similarly kicked out of the other constellation. Pick up a mug of hot coffee and, oops!, you initiate a mad polka of millions of electrons, many of which won't ever come back home. Go out into a blizzard and bits of you will be blowing in the wind - you'll never be the same.
It was comforting to have a theoretical underpinning for yage's forceful dissolution of familiar reality. It wasn't that one was constantly aware of such underpinnings - in fact much of the time we were simply swept away like stardust in search of a galaxy - but whenever we tried to think, they did come in handy.
As the yage's effect increased, the whole business of thinking, the arrangement of verbal abstracts into meaningful patterns, started to look more and more like an artifice as well. Concrete words in particular covered less and less of their supposed content. A spontaneous study in general semantics. 'This is a wash-basin' - oh, really? The notion that you could sum up that wobbling blob of porcelain, flaking chromium, and tortuous tubing with a mere triplet of syllables became ludicrous. 'Book' was worse. Never mind that all the objects with that name in the room were utterly different in content, the concept was so vast that representing it with one syllable seemed the pinnacle of stupidity.
The process of written language was revealed in its mind-boggling complexity. First you created verbal abstracts, then you agreed on a set of phonics to express them, next you invented symbols for these phonics and arrayed them on paper (where they danced and pranced), and then somebody else came and did it all over in reverse, trying to grasp what the first was trying to communicate. It was a joke. The tags sat onto the things they described like faded stickers that peeled off before your eyes and dropped to the floor. Korzybsky's nightmare. Terms for feelings were even worse: 'I am happy, I love, I fear, I want, I etcetera...'
'I want to buy new shoes', Roland suddenly said. I looked at him as if he were a fever patient, mumbling phrases without meaning.
'I can't wear those anymore, they pinch my toes.' The shoes in question stood in a corner, looking guilty.
'I wanna get some loafers.'
'That means we'd have to go outside. Think you'd be up to it?'
'Why not? I can still walk, can't you?'
I put on my calf leather Jodhpurs, he his toe-pinching black brogues. We pulled open the curtains to prepare us for exploration of the outside world, and were instantly inundated by masses of cloud-filtered sunshine, a waterfall of light. But is was only after our eyes had adjusted that we really got knocked over.
The crumbling old houses on the back alley behind the Sarphatistraat stood swaying like drunks, their window panes bulging as if they were struggling to retain tons of liquid. The two pear trees in the backyard waved at us insanely, their greenery as bright as pure chlorophyll. Wow! Was this the world we had to wade into to obtain shoes (and nourishment, and eventually education, and jobs)? If so, we better brace ourselves, and not let anybody notice how hypersensitive we were. This was my first conscious attempt at 'shifting down'.
We tiptoed down the carpeted stairs, keen not to disturb Monica or Mrs. Nijssen, and opened the front door. Woaah! The outside world! It was possible to recognize individual buildings, but they had all coalesced into lumps of soft organic matter, alive and vibrating. They were also affected by a serious loss of decorum. The dour edifice opposite, the Government Medicine Depot where they stored all the aspirin we would need in case of an atomic war, had turned into one of those playground castles that they blow up with a compressor - alas in grown-up greys. It looked only half inflated, struggling to stay up.
The sidewalk was covered with a filmy layer of pink and pale green ferns that shifted underfoot. If you have a fractal generator on your computer, try the Lambda with 3D layering set to superimposed and color cycling on slow, that should give you some idea. Any other solid surface was decorated with similarly reticulating, branching and interlacing patterns that made it seem particularly non-solid, just patterns in space. It was very beautiful, as if you saw everything through an electron microscope.
Another streetcar screeched through the Roeterstraat bend. This time there was no mellow voice to soothe the gash it cut in our mood. Other objects, too, came across as cruelly harsh: concrete curb-stones, manhole covers, gratings over basement windows, rusting bicycles... A small tricycle bereft of wheels immersed us in the grief of all involved, including the karmatic repercussions for the thief up to the seventh generation. The lamp posts provided comic relief by pendulating like strands of fresh pasta.
Coming to the
Turning the other way, we faced the palatial Amstel Hotel. It had turned into a giant Baked Alaska. As a festive touch, flags of various nations had been stuck into the foamy substance. It looked scrumptious, but we were sober enough to know that eating it would cause massive indigestion. We lowered our gaze and only then noticed the asphalt - a special coating they use on bridges, sprinkled with glittering high-abrasive sand. Seeing it up close was like gazing at a crowded milkyway, drifting through distant galaxies...
When, after some three aeons, we returned to earth, finding ourselves still on that same old bridge, we turned around, noticed the meandering rivers of mercury that pretended to be tram rails, and only then noticed how furiously the bridge heaved and canted. A minute later it undulated like a banner fluttering in the wind. We were not going to risk our lives traversing this cakewalk, no way. Holding on to the stone railing we worked our way back to safety, gradually beginning to realize that the ripples were all in our mind.
Good, we had that under control. We nodded at each other gravely, inculcating ourselves to not let ourselves be swept away by the yage's visual effects. But seeing a snaking streetcar crawl towards us onto the rippling roadway was more than we could take. We burst into laughter, falling into each other's arms for sheer pleasure.
Holding hands for moral
support, we followed the river along the Carré Theater to the Magere Brug, the
Not us. No, we might be choking with laughter, but we were definitely not drunk. We now started making an effort not to appear drunk either. It suddenly seemed very reprehensible to be drunk in the daytime. Something you could get picked up for. 'Okay, cool it now, Roland - where are we? O yes...' In the busy Utrechtsestraat we perused the shop windows like Bushmen from the Kalahari. Never seen blenders, vacuum cleaners, raisin-breads, tweezers or bras in our lives; nor shoes for that matter. The shoe store of Swartjes displayed mostly orthopaedically correct walking shoes and boots with lug soles; but hidden in a corner stood a pair of loafers that oozed comfort.
We stepped in gingerly, forcing ourselves not to grin. At first everything went alright. We got across the threshold, made it through the entry hall, but then we saw the batteries of boxes, stacked up against the walls, and collapsed with laughter. Such eloquent depiction of the compartmentalization in people's heads, it was too much! We rushed back out, scaring some ladies on the sidewalk who must have thought we were shop-lifters in a hurry, and paused under the awning of a butcher to regain our composure. For a moment this worked - as long as we faced the road. But when I turned around and saw the open, exposed structure of raw meat, I felt I was making a descent into hell. It was not the meat itself. That was actually quite beautiful. It had a subtly indicated structure, with several layers of glazing; some of the sausages were works of art in oxblood and lard. No, not the meat - it was the butcher's knives on the wall behind the counter, and the fleshy turds hanging out of the grinder. All the violence and cruelty of the human race stared me in the face. We are carnivores!
My accomplice saw me go livid and pulled me away to a chocolatier's shop where a white sugar bride and bridegroom stood being happy on top of a towering cake with white chocolate icing. All the beauty of a life in purity... I suddenly realized that I was in desperate need, not so much of purity as of chocolate creams. Brushing off Roland's protest that we'd expose ourselves as idiots again, I stepped inside, leaving Roland to watch the traffic. The lady behind the counter tried to fool me by pretending that she was not Mrs. Nijssen; I felt that she understood my need.
'Which would you like', she said.
Fearing that hearing my own voice would make me crack up, I just smiled and put some money on the counter. Mrs. Nijssen's platinum blonde hairdo, I noticed, had served as a model for the bridal cake.
'You want me to pick for you?'
I kept my lips pressed together in a thin smile. As she filled a small box, I looked outside and saw Roland staring at me through the glass as if Mrs. Nijssen and I were exhibits in the monkey house.
'Is it a present?'
I shook my head, paid (thousands of years of monetary history compounded into transaction) accepted the box of assorted chocolate creams with a slight bow and walked out the store, very proud of myself.
We dropped the first chocolates standing on the bridge across the Prinsengracht, looking down on the houseboats. Just now they were riding the tidal waves produced by a pair of passing ducks.
The moment the sugar hit
our blood stream we had to gasp for air: 'Oooaah, this is good!' The raised
glucose level seemed to give us more control over our mood. We could now get
down to the level of two students standing on an
We returned to Swartjes, managed to buy the loafers with little more than a few winks and sniggers and slowly walked home, reverting to our exploration of the shopwindows: lace curtains and doilies, discretely displayed rubber wares, a giant version of a Swiss Army knife constantly swinging open then hiding its blades and tools, party hats and monstrous masks and fake turds, scarlet lingerie on voluptuous but faceless torsos...
As we stood studying the finery, a young woman in a leopard jacket over a little black dress came ambling up to us. One of the handful of girls working this street. No prisoners of junk, nor Schopenhauerian 'sacrifices on the altar of monogamy', just girls too lazy to work or smart enough to realize that if they were bedding legions of different guys anyway, they might as well charge them. The animal skin that hung off her shoulders looked sadly lifeless, rather bringing out her eyes. It made them seem predatory. She smiled and asked for a light, her lightly clothed breasts thrust forward. Roland flicked open his Ronson. All I could do was think of her vibrant body. It was asking to be taken - not just for a moment, but for all time.
The girl put a hand on my shoulder and said: 'Hey, you want to come with me?'
But this was not all she said. I also heard: 'I want to be a bride; I want to have a washing machine and a dresser with clean sheets; I want children; I want to bake cakes and cook split-pea soup for a man hurrying home from back-breaking work through lashing rain... Perhaps you are that man?'
I saw the man. It was a November evening, he was pushing his bike through that lashing rain, his broken chain trailing him like a tail. I knew I wasn't that man and that it was unfair to just want her body while he was away.
'What about you', she asked Roland. 'You got any money?'
'No, I just bought some shoes.' He pointed at his new loafers, which he had walked out the store.
'Hmm, easy to get in and out of...' the girl said suggestively. She now turned to me again, looking me up and down. Being a professional she must see what state I was in.
'You sure you don't want to come? You don't like me?'
'Yeah, I like you, but... Right now I'm kind of...' I looked into her eyes to find the right word, and somewhere, deep inside a world of small dark rooms, untidy beds and thrown off loafers, I found it: 'Preoccupied.'
She burst out laughing: 'Ha, mister student is preoccupied! Yeah, I guess... Alright kid, just go home and jack off!'
She walked off like a dying leopard.
We got home around five, closed the curtains again, blended a tea for the occasion, and settled in the reclining chairs, enjoying the visual imagery - no longer raging now, just entertaining - and our heightened sensitivity to music. We put on the koto music once more, its tingling tones falling like silvery petals, and joined the two Chinese sages in meditation on the forces of nature. From the room next to mine came the sound of a coat-hanger screeching over a metal tube, then a door opening, shutting and being locked.
My soul followed her down the stairs and even went out on the street with her. I felt empty and in need of replenishment just like I had felt in front of that chocolate store. Then, without warning, my soul came back. Maybe Monica had boarded a streetcar and he had not dared pursue her into the screeching steel snake.
'Hey brother,' Roland said sighing, 'this one is even better than the first, isn't it?'