He is thirty-six years old, not tall but not a short man either. A single defining feature would be hard to name; perhaps it’s more a constellation of his moustache, his thin rounded spectacles and the shock of hair that stands up as if fizzling with a sort of static charge. His weak shoulders curve over a rotund trunk around which his trousers are hiked up. After some anxiety and deliberation, the man gingerly locks the door of his room. Considering the risks, he has come to the conclusion that for his first time he is better off in the safety of his own hotel room, alone, the bed within easy reach. Approaching this as a sort of experiment, with an almost scientific flair for detail, he has done his research and is anticipating a number of different outcomes. He is alone in his room, but also alone, unknown, in this metropolis. This isolation satisfies him; what he is about to do is something that can only be experienced alone. His room looks out onto the streets of Marseille. In the belly of this city he suddenly sees the streets as knives that criss-cross the skin. It is the 29th July, 1928. The clock turns seven in the evening. The midday heat has subsided and the sun won’t set for another couple of hours. Finally, after much trepidation, he takes the hashish.
Walter Benjamin was not much older than me when he recounted the experience of taking hashish in Marseille. His account of the city is done through the space- and time-altering power of this drug. It is almost as if, as he emerges from his hotel room to take his high into a more intense sensorial environment, he creates Marseille as he is seeing it. After his first port of call at a café in Belsunce, he wanders down the Cannebière to the Vieux Port to find dinner, a feast that he imagines could continue into an eternity. In a twist that I have come to learn is truly indicative of Marseille, being ready for his eternal meal, Benjamin is informed that, with regret, the kitchen is now closed. Marseille is a transformative playground, a place that unfolds under his feet as he walks. In this haze, the car horns form a brass band that plays a haphazard public concert in the streets. And it occurs to him with such profound simplicity – hadn’t it occurred to anyone else before? – that ‘ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty’.