If Well Used: A Meditation on Alcohol

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The Drunks by Ta Thimkaeo

Cassio: O strange! Every inordinate cup is
unblessed and the ingredient is a devil.

Iago: Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature,
if it be well used.

Othello 2.2

My mother’s people, Southern Baptists, considered the use of alcohol a sin, so my poor Granddaddy Kiki was reduced to hiding his half-pints in shoes stowed inside his closet. A bantam rooster of a man, five-six at the most, he was literally a redneck in that having worked for decades at the gas station he owned, his head and neck had been permanently crimsoned by the sun, the redness coming to a point in a v beneath his neck. He wore those undershirts that have become known as wifebeaters, though I’m fairly certain he never lay a hand on my grandmother,  despite her reducing him to hiding his contraband like a child.

Kiki was a wiry man, fun-loving, could stand on his head in his 70s.  Acrobatic, he could also fall stiffly face first to the floor by cushioning the impact with his palms. He had been in a singing quartet as a young man and enjoyed yodeling while strumming on a ukulele. So when he drank, he went whole hog (as he himself might put) disappearing, sometimes for days, but eventually returning to the Fury of my justifiably outraged grandmother.

Perhaps he should have chosen someone a bit less religiously rigid, but if he had, obviously you wouldn’t be reading this because I would not be I.

Although not Baptists, my father’s parents also didn’t drink – or at least I don’t remember ever seeing them imbibing. Like Kiki, Granddaddy Moore lived to be a lithe old man and in his 70s could shoot his age at golf, but I never saw him take even a sip of alcohol. His sister, however, my Great Aunt Lou, would get sloshed on sherry every afternoon, repeating the same old stories over and over again as we pretended to be hearing them for the first time. She was a fiery old woman, but the sherry seemed to have a mellowing effect.

So no one I know of in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations ever suffered from what I would a serious, chronic drinking problem, at least the type dramatized this abbreviated sad song by The Kinks:

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15 February 2018 French Quarter

But even if you don’t suffer from a serious, chronic drinking problem, one solitary bender can get you in an ark-load of trouble [cf Cassio and [see here]]so I started wondering what three universally hailed sages from three different cultures and centuries have to say about drinking. After all, why even start something if it might get you in trouble?  Is having, as Iago says, “a good familiar creature” at your beck and call worth the risk of the creature turning on you?

Birth of Dionysus Zeus Thigh

The birth of Dionysius from Zeus’s thigh

Not surprisingly, since one of their most important deities was Dionysus,  the Ancient Greeks thought drinking produced at least some salutary effects, especially when practiced in moderation.  The word symposia literally means drinking together.  Symposia might be described as ritualistic drinking parties with singing accompanied by a flute girl, who, according to my sources, wore little or no clothing. As midnight turned to dawn, things could get out of hand.

As the evening went on, the wine had gone around the room in a particular order and so had the songs, the members became progressively drunker. This was when the flute girl “was liable to be groped by the men”. According to Prof Davidson and Dr Fearn, “we don’t know when they stop singing but certainly they get drunk. They talk about banqueters as if they are fellow voyagers on a ship and gradually the sea gets more and more turbulent and they start to get seasick or throw things out of the window, break furniture and grope the flute girl. Eventually they will emerge from the house in a kind of festival conga, go to another house with the flute girl accompanying them and try to cause riots there as well.” It was an out of control pub crawl.

“Drinking in Ancient Greece” from the University of Warwick website

 

In Plato’s Symposium, most of the participants are suffering from hangovers from the night before, so they decide they’re going to take it easy, dismiss the flute girl, but end up drinking all night and talking about love. The mode of narration is appropriately very convoluted; the conclusion is that the pursuit of wisdom and beauty is the ultimate object of love.

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The Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach

Montaigne, in his essay “On Drunkenness,” offers this encapsulation of Plato’s views on drinking:

Plato forbids children wine till eighteen years of age, and to get drunk till forty; but, after forty, gives them leave to please themselves, and to mix a little liberally in their feasts the influence of Dionysos, that good deity who restores to younger men their gaiety and to old men their youth; who mollifies the passions of the soul, as iron is softened by fire; and in his Lazes allows such merry meetings, provided they have a discreet chief to govern and keep them in order, as good and of great utility; drunkenness being, he says, a true and certain trial of every one’s nature, and, withal, fit to inspire old men with mettle to divert themselves in dancing and music; things of great use, and that they dare not attempt when sober. He, moreover, says that wine is able to supply the soul with temperance and the body with health. Nevertheless, these restrictions, in part borrowed from the Carthaginians, please him: that men forbear excesses in the expeditions of war; that every judge and magistrate abstain from it when about the administrations of his place or the consultations of the public affairs; that the day is not to be employed with it, that being a time due to other occupations, nor the night on which a man intends to get children.

However, Montaigne himself calls drunkenness “a gross and brutish” vice and quotes Lucretius:

When we are conquered by the strength of wine,

Our limbs grow heavy, our legs intertwine;

With sodden mind, slow tongue, and swimming eyes,

We reel amid the hiccups, brawls and cries.

Montaigne admits, though, that he wishes he enjoyed alcohol more because it’s one of the last pleasures available to the aged.

michel-de-montaigne-essays

To turn to England, my hero, Samuel Johnson, has much to say about intoxicants. He tells Boswell, “I have no objection to a man’s drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation” but admits he tends to go in excess. Of course, he disdains drunkenness, but on one occasion justifies it.

I [James Boswell] called on Dr. Johnson one morning, when Mrs. Williams, the blind lady, was conversing with him. She was telling him where she had dined the day before. “There were several gentlemen there,” said she, “and when some of them came to the tea-table, I found that there had been a good deal of hard drinking.” She closed this observation with a common and trite moral reflection; which, indeed, is very ill-founded, and does great injustice to animals — “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” “I wonder, Madam,” replied the Doctor, “that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Anecdotes of the Revd. Percival Stockdale; collected in “Johnsonian Miscellanies,” edited by G.B. Hill.

Walking up the High Street by Thomas Rowlandson

My late mother-in-law, Dot Birdsong, was the wisest drinker I’ve ever known.  Each day at five, she prepared hors d’oeuvres and drank exactly two glasses of Dewars on the rocks. In fact, she continued essentially to the day of her death, though by then heavily diluting the Dewars.

And as it turns out, the Mayo Clinic informs us

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as:

Reducing your risk of developing and dying of heart disease.

Possibly reducing your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)

Possibly reducing your risk of diabetes.

So I guess it all depends on who you are, your constitution, your powers of self-constraint.  Poor Cassio knew he couldn’t hold his liquor but caved in to peer pressure,  poor Charles Bukowski had his demons to subdue, but happy Dot Birdsong took her small sips of that delicious amber-colored liquid and enjoyed companionship.

One size doesn’t fit all.

 

David Foster Wallace and Samuel Johnson

posterAt one point in The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace character (Jason Segal) introduces the David Lipsky character (Jessie Eisenberg) as “Mr. Boswell.”

It’s what we used to call a “cut” when I was a kid, a playful little knife nick to the ego’s epidermis. As future biographer Thomas Boswell followed the Great Samuel Johnson around the salons of 18th Century London scribbling down his every word so Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky follows the Great David Foster Wallace around the fast food joints of Bloomington and Minneapolis scribbling down (and recording) his every word.

A major difference, though, is that Boswell worshipped Johnson, and being 30 years younger, looked up to him as you might an adored father. True, Lipsky recognizes that Wallace is a genius (and he was) and that he Lipsky is not (and he’s not); unfortunately, though, Lipsky suffers from that common young male testosteronic compulsion to see any contemporary as a rival. In his head he knows when it comes to Foster and him, it’s the literary equivalent of Bogey versus Barney Fife, but in his heart – or at least in his testes – he wants to be considered Wallace’s equal.

So the Lipsky character is both an ardent admirer and a resentful rival, and this tension provides the slight dramatic arc of the movie. Frankly, if I were you, I’d wait until the film comes out on Netflix.

Not that the film’s not well crafted and superbly acted (Segal might deserve an Oscar). However, this little movie with its appropriately washed out colors straining in winter light to render those undistinguishable commercial corridors that lead to every city in the US as soulless as possible ain’t exactly crying out to be seen on “the big screen.” The movie’s sort of claustrophobic. Our characters don’t talk about fiction, much less Infinite Jest, which could be a multi-generational novel set in Alaska for all we know. They migrate from emblematic soulless room to emblematic soulless room talking mostly about themselves, and the Wallace character’s social awkwardness doesn’t make you wish you could trade places with Lipsky.

What would have made the movie more interesting (and let me assure any Hollywood moguls out there reading this that I am available) is if we could have peeked inside of Wallace’s head on occasion. For example, when Lipsky asks Wallace why Wallace wears a head bandanna, we could have been treated to a montage from Wallace works – surreal scenes – for example, rapidly edited shots of wheelchair bound terrorists . . . a father strapping a Raquel Welch mask to his daughter before abusing her . . . a rollercoaster ride at the Indianapolis State Fair . . . dinner on a cruise ship with its Felliniesque diners, etc. etc. – all of these quick cut images gaining momentum until DFW’s head literally explodes.

The good and bad news is that this movie is very stage adaptable.

Dave and SamBut here’s why I’m glad I went. A cartoon light bulb went off over my head as I was watching. The DFW character as Segal plays him is a lot like the Great Samuel Johnson. He’s straggly-haired, overweight, disheveled, stooped, ursine, shambling, prone to a soul’s darkest nights, pitifully self-absorbed, and, despite his genius, someone who strives as hard as he can to be a good man.

I love Boswell’s Johnson, and in my way, I love David Foster Wallace, but not Lipsky’s Wallace. In fact, in this movie, he’s not as clever or fun or witty as at least three friends I can think of – Furman Langley, Jake Williams, and Melissa DeMayo Reiss.

I’d much rather spend a couple of hours with them on a rainy Sunday.