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  • Between Intoxication and Narcosis: Nietzsche’s Pharmacology of Modernity
  • Jason Ciaccio (bio)

The idea of an “aesthetics of intoxication” seems to be nearly synonymous with Friedrich Nietzsche’s work. Introduced most famously in his earliest writings, the idea that a frenzied, intoxicated state was a crucial component of Hellenic art was part of what made Nietzsche’s first book so provocative upon its initial reception, and the nature of Dionysian intoxication has been a concern of tremendous importance to a host of subsequent readers. Yet when intoxication reappears in what scholarship often identifies as the more positivist-empirical works of the “middle” period, it does so in a different guise. In these books, intoxication functions particularly as an object of a cultural diagnosis and a polemic, in marked contrast to his earlier positing of intoxication as fundamental to the creation of tragedy. When in The Gay Science (1882) Nietzsche questions, “[w]hat is wine to the inspired!,” he speaks from a spirit very different than that of Dionysus.1 Yet the concept of intoxication—along with the figure of Dionysus—recurs in his late thought, particularly in Twilight of the Idols (1889) and in his notes for The Will to Power (1901). In those writings, it is once again conjoined with poetic practices and visionary states. Indeed, intoxication runs like a curious thread through the labyrinth of Nietzsche’s evolving thought.

That the semantic range of intoxication is an elusive component of his vocabulary is evidenced by its array of antipodes throughout his work: dream, vision, sobriety, and narcosis occur as correlates of intoxication at certain points in his writing. Each opposition speaks to different and intersecting planes of experience as well: from the aesthetic and affective to the epistemological [End Page 115] and cultural-historical—intoxication has a bearing on them all. Certainly, the vicissitudes that the concept undergoes are a testament to how slippery and elusive this semantic field is in Nietzsche’s work. And not only do its metonymical relations range far and wide in his thought, but intoxication is itself a signifier with an ever-shifting set of signifieds: he employs it as a trope to address such a varied set of concerns about modernity that the concept takes on a depth of metaphoricity as multivalent as his idea of the body itself.

While the scholarship on the Nietzschean Dionysian is nothing short of gargantuan, the amount of attention paid to intoxication itself is much more limited and the topic often somewhat narrowly construed.2 I look to offer here a broader understanding of what I will show to be a rich dimension of Nietzsche’s work and a crucial facet of the historicity of his thought. As I will argue throughout, intoxications, narcotic effects, drugs, and alcohol, as well as stimulants and depressants of various sorts, played a dynamic role in Nietzsche’s writings; their increasing presence in his contemporary Europe formed a part of his historical circumstances, and his work can be read as among the literary and philosophical expressions of modernity’s drug discourse. The narcotic lexicon that appears in his writing is frequently poised between the literal and metaphoric and thus presents the interpreter with all the problems of negotiating that apparent polarity. And yet principal among Nietzsche’s concerns when deploying that army of narcotic tropes, as I will argue, was a struggle over the concept of health, a struggle that animated much of his writing, and a point upon which his thought produced a dissonant resonance with the medical, legal, and moral discourses that were swarming around a great variety of drugs and their effects at the time he was writing.

Techno-modernity and its Intoxicants

Opiates, cannabis, cocaine, chloral hydrate, chloroform, ether, nitrous oxide, as well as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine all formed part of the landscape of Western modernity in the late nineteenth century. The moods of the era were stimulated and depressed by a variety of pharmacological substances. Numerous scholars have shown a discourse of addiction emerging at this time and have explored its coincidence with notions of autonomous selfhood and the autonomous nation-state.3 Temperance and teetotal movements formed, addiction narratives proliferated, and nations began...


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pp. 115-133
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