Wild Heart Turning White: Georg Trakl and Cocaine

He doesn’t know whether his behaviour was unusual, he didn’t drink but took large amounts of cocaine.

This remark is taken from the medical file of Georg Trakl and is part of a brief account of the poet’s movements and behaviour in the month or so preceding his committal for observation to a psychiatric hospital in Kraków in early October 1914. Just six weeks earlier, towards the end of August, the 27-year-old Trakl had undertaken the 1000-kilometre train journey from Innsbruck, at the western end of the Habsburg Empire, to the far eastern crownland of Galicia, where he was to be deployed as a military pharmacist. His frontline experience was brief but traumatic. During the Battle of Grodek-Rawa Ruska of September 8-11, he was assigned sole care of ninety badly wounded soldiers sheltering in a barn, a task for which he had neither the training nor the equipment. As he later recounted from his hospital bed in Kraków to his friend and publisher Ludwig von Ficker, when one of the wounded men had ended his own suffering by shooting himself in the head, Trakl had fled outside only to be confronted by the sight of local peasants hanging lifeless in the trees. One evening during the westward retreat of the defeated Austro-Hungarian forces, he announced his own intention to shoot himself, but was forcefully disarmed by his comrades. His committal followed on October 6, and he died in hospital on November 3. His medical file lists the cause of death, complete with exclamation mark, as “Suicid durch Cocainintoxication!”

When news of Trakl’s death on the Russian front reached intellectual celebrity Karl Kraus in Vienna, Kraus reacted by claiming that the poet was “hardly a victim of war. It was always incomprehensible to me that he could live at all. His insanity wrestled with godly things”. In the light of what we now know about Trakl’s final months, it is fair to conclude that Kraus underestimated the role that the war played in his demise: there are indeed compelling reasons to number him among its many victims. Yet the enduring value of Kraus’s assessment is that it draws attention to the importance of other factors that made Trakl’s hold on life so tenuous even before first-hand experience of armed conflict precipitated his final crisis. His war story is neither one of the destruction of innocence nor of the betrayal of naïve faith, but rather of the exacerbation of existing vulnerability. What, then, are we to make of Kraus’s assertion that Trakl’s “insanity wrestled with godly things”? First and foremost, the poet’s readers are likely to associate this statement with his dark, exquisite, often enigmatic verse, once characterized by Ludwig Wittgenstein as “beautiful yet incomprehensible” and as possessing “the tone of true genius”. Rainer Maria Rilke was similarly startled by its other-worldly quality, comparing the act of reading his younger compatriot’s second published collection Sebastian in Dream (1915) to being “pressed against panes of glass: for Trakl’s experience occurs like mirror images and fills its entire space, which, like the space in the mirror, cannot be entered”.

Unlike Wittgenstein and Rilke, however, Kraus knew Trakl personally, even having holidayed with him for ten days in Venice in August 1913, and when he expressed amazement at the poet’s ability to “live at all”, he was probably thinking less of his poetry than of his personality. Many aspects of Trakl’s biography point to chronic maladjustment. This is reflected to varying degrees in his inability to hold down a regular job, his sometimes eccentric behavior, his tendency to brooding and melancholy, his habitual identification with abject figures (such as Germany’s best-known feral child Kaspar Hauser), his suspiciously close attachment to his younger sister Grete, and last but not least his drug and alcohol abuse. Trakl’s partiality for “dark poisons”, as he would call them in several late poems, embodied a self-destructive tendency that at a basic, physiological level certainly did more than anything else to render his earthly existence so precarious. “A heavy drinker and drug-eater” is the characterization offered by Ficker, a man by no means given to cheap sensationalizing, least of all in matters concerning his brilliant protégé. From the perspective of Trakl’s wider biography, the cocaine overdose that killed him appears as the culminating act in an unrelenting process of self-poisoning that loomed large over his brief adult life.

Documentary evidence of Trakl’s cocaine use is restricted to the notes in his medical file and therefore to the ten-week period of his active military service in Galicia and hospitalization in Kraków. It is probable, however, that he had at least tried cocaine before, as this was in common medicinal use in the years before the First World War. Ease of access to the full range of available pharmaceuticals was one of several advantages presented by Trakl’s decision to pursue pharmacy as a respectable and gainful career to complement his literary endeavours. He took his first steps along this path immediately after leaving school in autumn 1905, starting with a three-year apprenticeship at a local chemist’s shop in his native Salzburg, followed by two years of pharmacy study in the imperial capital Vienna. Trakl’s letters suggest that his two intoxicants of preference during the pre-war years were alcohol and Veronal (the first barbiturate to be marketed for medicinal purposes), but he is known to have used a wide range of substances, and clearly the imperative to achieve intoxication in any form was more important for him than particular effects associated with individual substances.

Ready availability was probably an important reason for Trakl’s choice of cocaine while on active service in Galicia. First isolated from Andean coca leaves by Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855, in the final decades of the nineteenth century the cocaine alkaloid had been extolled as something of a wonder drug, most enthusiastically by none other than the young Sigmund Freud. Popular tonics such as Vin Mariani and Coca-Cola had made its stimulant effects available to a wide consumer base throughout Europe and North America. Among its numerous medical applications, its local anaesthetic properties had the most profound and lasting impact, so much so that the suffix –caine subsequently became standard in naming synthetic substances with similar properties. An exponential increase in the need for anaesthetics explains the accelerated production and geographical diffusion of cocaine during the First World War. As Hans Maier explains in his 1926 study Der Kokainismus, the main European source of the drug at this time was the German pharmaceutical industry. Whereas recreational use had previously been restricted mostly to major urban centres, the war made cocaine relatively easy to obtain in places as remote, for example, as the Galician countryside to which Trakl’s unit was posted, or for that matter the small Russian village in which Mikhail Bulgakov’s story “Morphine” is set (“Morphine” tells the story of a young doctor who unsuccessfully attempts to cure his morphine addiction by replacing morphine with cocaine and is based on Bulgakov’s own experience of the years 1917-18 in the province of Smolensk). In the aftermath of the war, as Maier notes, the chaotic distribution of army stocks aided the huge rise in the popularity of cocaine that saw it become a “champagne drug” among European socialites during the roaring twenties.

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