#13 Acclimating to Berghain
I’ve been in Berlin for the last few days visiting a very good friend. Let’s call him McMoil. He’s a bartender and up-and-coming DJ in the electronic music scene. I’m struggling to get this out of my head, feeling zen-ed out, at peace, calm, as usually happens after one of my psychedelic research experiments. In one word: catharsis. While most people frequent their local pub, bar, or restaurant, McMoil’s local is arguably the most famous club in the world: Berghain. We have spoken often about other worlds, altered states of consciousness, losing oneself and surrendering to non-normal experiences. He knows I enjoy exploring the unknown, to have and be new experiences. But just as nothing can prepare one for a days-long iboga experience, nothing can prepare one for Berghain. The only preparation available is to have had experience going to other clubs, trying other drugs, having experienced prior as many novel experiences as possible. What one learns from previous experiences before experiencing the pinnacle of clubbing or psychedelics is transferable up until a point. I imagine it being like a weightlifter who incrementally increases his/her workout by an extra set, rep, or weight, continually pushing him/herself beyond what s/he had done before. If someone had never been to a club before, gotten drunk or high before, stayed out until the next sunrise before, then s/he would not survive Berghain.
McMoil is a regular in this world. He goes nearly every Sunday. He has befriended some of the staff and other regulars. He was on the guest list plus one (that was me). Although I like techno and house music, I don’t normally go to clubs or, for example, psytrance festivals, because I don’t particularly like crowds and many people take either party drugs which I generally avoid or are taking drugs recreationally which I also do not do. But I felt a common bond with the Berghain crowd. I had never been among a more open-minded, diverse group of people in my life.
Berghain began as a gay club, so there were many men in harness straps across their chests and backs (I have since been told some straight men now wear this too), and most men and women in the club were naked to different degrees. Lots of black leather, some chains, some gimp masks, some plastic ensembles, and in one phrase: intense futuristic. I thought: was this what the future post-apocalyptic party scene will look like after society as we know it collapses? Did these people know or were these people ahead of the times, expressing themselves however they wanted, however they felt or wanted to feel in this environment? All of the abovementioned sensory overload occurred in the large coat check room.
My first impression was impressive. McMoil guided me up the stairway to the main dancefloor. We went up one flight of stairs. The lack of light, the cigarette smoke, the artificial fog and condensation from so many moving bodies created an aura about the place. When we reached the top of the stairs I was blown away. For those who have skydived, you understand what it feels like to have your arms extended to the sides, the air pushing the fat in your cheeks upwards, the hair clinging to your head. I fell right into the core, the center of this scene, and it was overwhelming to me anyway, this being my first time. The vibration of the place was intoxicating; by the spectacle in general before me but also from the vibration created by the masterful DJ manipulating sounds with his equipment. To give another example of what it was like, think of the club scenes in the Matrix film trilogy with Keanu Reeves and the first Blade film with Wesley Snipes, but this was real, this was not a cinematic representation of what screenwriters and directors think it is like on the inside; this was the original die-cast mold from which all other clubs likely aspire to, perpetually making itself more original each consecutive weekend as other clubs attempt to replicate yesterday’s Berghain scene. The main dancefloor made me so anxious and panicky I tapped my friend’s shoulder to get me outta there, to check out the chiller areas of the club.
We went up another flight of stairs to Panorama Bar, the house music section of the club. It was equally overwhelming – especially when people indulge their sex drives in dark corners as you walk toward the bar – but less so because I prefer house over techno. McMoil told his friends about me, those who worked at the club in addition to some of the regulars. These people know this world, and I respect them for that, but I know the iboga world very well. We both push the limits in different ways, but both ways are to the max, sharing a common experience of exploring the unknown, to peek at that which is just beyond the possible, to confirm to oneself and others that that which is probable is actually possible.
Most people would say my temporary 12-hour environment was weird, but not me. I’ve acclimated myself to the most weird, strange, and other by way psychedelics. However, I had never seen anything like this before. I admit that I didn’t begin to relax until after about two hours. I needed to adjust to my environment. The ascent of any psychedelic experience is always uncomfortable, even if you have experience in that substance’s world. It only becomes manageable, explorable, until you’ve acclimated yourself to the plateau or nearest to the plateau. I find this idea of acclimatization to be noteworthy when comparing any novel experience, whether it be a club or psychedelic, mountain climbing or scuba diving. In mountain climbing, for example, one must ascend the mountain in stages because, to the best of my knowledge, something happens with oxygen levels in the blood, so one must be careful to not ascend or descend too quickly, since doing so will create health risks. Not only physical health risks, but also mental. One of my friends is a marathon runner who frequently competes in Nepal. He once told me that during one particular trek the harder he pushed his body up the mountain the more hallucinations he experienced. He didn’t know the limits of his body and mind prior to that exploration into the unknown. Acclimatization is important to consider in addition to throwing acclimating to one’s new environment to the wind, to push and push the limits of what one should not do. What might we find when we push ourselves toward the limits of the known? What insights and hitherto unknown capabilities at our disposal might we discover when we enter such terrain?
A common observation made by many psychedelic users is that “that reality” feels more real than “this reality,” that is to say, intoxicated states of consciousness feel more real, or perhaps we could say, hyper real, than sober states of consciousness. As I acclimated to the Berghain environment, I wondered: is this more real than the world outside of these walls? Are people more real here, showing their true selves, being more comfortable with themselves here than out there? I said this to one of McMoil’s friends and he disagreed, saying that people likely change one mask for another; they take off their public mask and put on their Berghain “letting loose” party mask, or people are trying to fit the expected role/look of what Berghain and its guests expect of them and from each other. Fair point. I would put it another way: just as most people strip away their public clothes for far fewer other clothes and different types of clothes at Berghain, perhaps one’s mask is thickest when out in public, and one’s mask thins depending on the environment. For example, there are eyeglasses that auto-adjust to the amount of light that hits the glasses. In bright settings the glasses’ tintedness is most dark, but when someone wearing these glasses goes inside, the glasses’ tint decreases, appearing to have no tint at all. Whether people dress and act according to how they think they should dress and act in the Berghain environment does not concern me; what concerns me is the idea of stripping away some public persona, the result of which is only accessible to oneself and others within this very unique environment.
This leads me to my next observation, what I call a kind of supra-hedonism. At Berghain you do what you want. You dress however you want, have a drink, dance, have sex, watch other people having sex, and so on. People do and act however they want, whatever makes them feel good. I sympathize with each of the various theories of well-being such as hedonism, desire-satisfaction theories, and objective list theories (e.g. Parfit, 1984, p. 493). In the case of Berghain, partygoers seem to indulge in whatever gives them pleasure and happiness to the extreme. I don’t think it’s healthy when someone strives to maximize their own personal pleasure, for example, at the expense others; at Berghain, however, everyone is maximizing their pleasure not at the expense of others but perhaps at the expense of their public persona/self, everyone is doing exactly what they want when they want it, and this attitude is unsustainable outside of Berghain’s walls. Berghain provides a space for this to happen, for people to shed off something about themselves and what is replaced by that void can be obtained in that environment only. What is replaced can be found from interaction with others, or, learning something new about oneself, an experience of growth that stems from within the individual, or both.
Finally, the idea of environmental impact on the individual makes me wonder how environment can induce a particular experience. This relates to the term used in psychedelia, “set and setting.” One’s setting has enormous impact on the kind of experience one can expect. What kind of experience is Berghain trying to effectuate for its guests? How does this environment make Berghain guests feel the way they do? Additionally, we must consider how would taking a particular drug at Berghain in combination with the environment affect one’s mental state and experience? Just like psychedelic experiences, the experience is dependent on multiple overlapping variables, and what I gather from my first Berghain experience is that the construction of its essence has been a continually evolving project, so that when I arrived three nights ago on that Sunday the thousands of people who have visited that space before have tweaked these variables over time to make what Berghain is today and what it stands for. And it will continue to change depending on what guests want that space to be, and what that space will represent especially in contrast to the values of the world outside.
For more info on this very unique place, see https://www.berghain.berlin/en/
Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. OUP Oxford.