“The state of intoxication is a house with many mansions.”

by on December 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm in Current Affairs, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

So reads the preamble to the Winter 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, titled merely “Intoxication.” A tribute to tanking oneself, the anthology collects some 60 essays, poems, and stories from across the ages. As though anticipating Alex and Tyler’s trip to the Subcontinent, Lapham’s preamble traces the dignified heritage of the drink to those sacred Hindu texts (page references omitted):

Fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ, the Rigveda … finds Hindu priests chanting hymns to a “drop of soma,” the wise and wisdom-loving plant from which was drawn juices distilled in sheep’s wool that “make us see far; make us richer, better.” Philosophers in ancient Greece … rejoiced in the literal meaning of the word symposium, a “drinking together.” The Roman Stoic Seneca … recommends the judicious embrace of Bacchus as a liberation of the mind “from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it, and emboldens it for all its undertakings.”

The litany continues through the Persians, Martin Luther, Samuel Johnson, and Baudelaire. Next to Plymouth and the American experiment.

The spirit of liberty is never far from the hope of metamorphosis or transformation, and the Americans from the beginning were drawn to the possibilities in the having of one more for the road. … The founders of the republic in Philadelphia in 1787 were in the habit of consuming prodigious quantities of liquor as an expression of their faith in their fellow men—pots of ale or cider at midday, two or more bottles of claret at dinner followed by an amiable passing around the table of the Madeira. Among the tobacco planters in Virginia, the money changers in New York, the stalwart yeomen in western Pennsylvania busy at the task of making whiskey, the maintaining of a high blood-alcohol level was the mark of civilized behavior. The lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner were fitted to the melody of an eighteenth-century British tavern song. The excise taxes collected from the sale of liquor paid for the War of 1812, and by 1830 the tolling of the town bell (at 11 A.M., and again at 4 P.M.) announced the daily pauses for spirited refreshment.

Add in all other intoxicants, and we have some dark comparisons within a realm of human experience that’s about worth Spain’s economy:

If what was at issue was a concern for people trapped in the jail cells of addiction, the keepers of the nation’s conscience would be better advised to address the conditions—poverty, lack of opportunity and education, racial discrimination—from which drugs provide an illusory means of escape. That they are not so advised stands as proven by their fond endorsement of the more expensive ventures into the realms of virtual reality. Our pharmaceutical industries produce a cornucopia of prescription drugs—eye opening, stupefying, mood swinging, game changing, anxiety alleviating, performance enhancing—currently at a global market-value of more than $300 billion. Add the time-honored demand for alcohol, the modernist taste for cocaine, and the uses, as both stimulant and narcotic, of tobacco, coffee, sugar, and pornography, and the annual mustering of consummations devoutly to be wished comes to the cost of more than $1.5 trillion. The taking arms against a sea of troubles is an expenditure that dwarfs the appropriation for the military defense budget.

Words to ponder this holiday season, when more bottoms are up than usual, and as the complex world of 2013 awaits. Cheers, Sarah Skwire, for the pointer.

1 Barkley Rosser December 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm

A rather large literature by anthropologists and such as Aldous Huxley have argued that the Vedic soma was really derived from the psychedelic Amanita Muscaria mushroom used by Central Asian shamans for forecasting and other purposes, a rather different ball game from good old acohol. Supposedly the active agent passes through the urine, and whether or not soma was that, in the tribes using this mushroom, three to four people will have the experience from a single dose, although there is a hierarchy of who is far down the line of consumption. Do not know if this is one of the mushrooms that Radagast the Brown is reported to have consumed too many of, according to Saruman in the new “The Hobbit” film, :-).

2 Go Kings, Go! December 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm

..the conditions—poverty, lack of opportunity and education, racial discrimination—from which drugs provide an illusory means of escape..

Maybe drugs’re part of the cause of LOOERD, not an escape from it?

3 uffy December 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm

But “recreational” drug use is quite evenly distributed across the socioeconomic strata.

4 Go Kings, Go! December 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Can once every 6 months and 4 times a week both be “recreational” in your telling?

5 dcdrone December 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm

ancient vedic hindus were cool-drank soma, hunted, ate beef and sacrificed animals. true indo-europeans! it would appear life in the subcontinent has been enervating. See Nirad Chaudhuri, The Continent of Circe.

6 jeanne December 17, 2012 at 5:32 pm

“annual mustering of consummations”

wow, having trouble visualizing that.

7 Edward Burke December 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm

And from the second excerpt: “. . . were drawn to the possibilities in the having of one more for the road.”

And also from the third excerpt: “The taking arms against a sea of troubles is an expenditure that dwarfs . . .”

I don’t know Lapham or Lapham’s Quarterly: but if this is Lapham’s prose, Lapham needs to hire a skilled editor, and fast, before a sea of troubles musters annual consummations for the road.

8 Brian Donohue December 18, 2012 at 9:51 am

Dude was prolly wasted.

9 Peter December 17, 2012 at 6:31 pm

I think I’ll make some Pruno for the holidays.

10 Dismalist December 17, 2012 at 8:53 pm

At the English court, in Henry VIII’s time, individuals consumed about eight quarts of beer per day, starting at breakfast. They were the lucky: The water was filled with those pesky bacteria!

All the pharma industry, licit and illict, has been doing is finding substitutes. Why bother? Fewer side effects? Really? At best, different side effects.

11 Cliff December 17, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Everyone drank weak beer and wine exclusively for exactly that reason. You’d think they could boil the water or something…

12 Lonely Libertarian December 17, 2012 at 10:38 pm

I have been reading the third volume of “The Last Lion” – William Manchester’s awesome bio of Winston Spencer Churchill…

Sir Winston drank early – and often – nursing a scotch and soda thru the day – having several glasses of champagne with dinner and finishing the evening with a glass or two of port – or a glass or two of brandy – or sometimes both 😉

And he lived till 90…

One of my favorite tv networks is TCM – it is amazing how EVERY film from the 30s and 40s treats both drinking and smoking – The Thin Man series had William Powell with a martini in hand or on the way for at least half the time. And the “normal” greeting for a guest in movies of that era was “would you like a drink”.

Today we think both drinking and smoking are evil – but I am puzzled as to why?

Do we live appreciably longer in this more pure world?

Are we appreciably happier?

I would love to see some data supporting our shift to a less enjoyable lifestyle.

13 Doug December 17, 2012 at 10:54 pm

I suspect a lot of the people who would have been heavy drinkers in the 1940s are now heavy pot smokers. It’s an easier habit to frequently engage in. No hangover for one, more control even after heavy consumption for another, and cheaper to boot.

Marijuana isn’t going to be profligately offered to every guest, served at cocktail hours or shown on broadcast TV. Because of its legal and social status you’re more likely to only offer it well-known fellow consumers, you smoke it discretely out back before the social event, and you read between the lines to figure out which characters get high.

Overall it makes it seem like our society intoxicates itself less, but I think it simply intoxicates itself more discretely.

14 Therapsid December 18, 2012 at 12:20 am

Churchill lived until 90, long enough to see that his policies from Gallipoli to the Mau Mau rebellion contributed to the decline and fall of Britain’s empire.

15 Lonely Libertarian December 18, 2012 at 9:11 am

In the final volume of Manchester’s epic bio of Churchill he seems to argue that the end of the Empire was, in part, the price that FDR demanded in exchange for the US entering the war against Germany. FDR clearly hated the idea of the British Empire – not the Brits…

At one point after suggesting that the Brits would be wise to begin the process of “freeing” the far flung pieces of it’s realm, Churchill responds by asking FDR when he would do likewise?

Churchill believed until his death that the BE was an agent for good – it spread democracy and liberty and prosperity. It would be interesting to see if Tyler and/or Alex would agree. Would places like Kenya be better off today under British rule?

16 So Much For Subtlety December 18, 2012 at 3:06 am

LL, you should read The Thin Man. It is not that both the husband and the wife had a martini in their hands for half the book. It was that they were permanently and damagingly soused for the entire book. It would be hard to think of any other pre-1960s book where the main characters were so obviously and self destructively alcoholic and without it being used as a moral point. They just drink. Nick Charles does not work. He drinks. More interestingly, his wife does too.

Apparently Johnny Depp is doing a re-make. That ought to be interesting as long as Tim Burton is not directing. And Angelina Jolie is not Nora. I wonder if he will be so obviously drunk as the original Nick in the book.

17 Lonely Libertarian December 18, 2012 at 9:19 am

so much – thanks – while N&N may have been extreme cases – the times were portrayed on film very differently than what we find acceptable today – alcohol flowed and everyone smoked. The Libertarian in me wonders if we are “happier” and “better off” having given up those vices – or at least diminishing the acceptability of them.

18 Edward Burke December 18, 2012 at 10:49 am

Madame Rachilde, on the daily fluid intake of Alfred Jarry (who pointedly disavowed consumption of water): “Jarry began his day by sinking two liters of white wine. Three absinthes marked the hours between ten o’clock and midday, and then at lunchtime he washed down his fish, or his steak, with red or white wine alternating with further absinthes. In the afternoon, a few cups of coffee laced with brandy or other spirits . . . With his dinner, and of course afterward, further aperitifs, and he could still consume at least two bottles of some vintage or other, good or bad. Now, I never saw him really drunk, except on one occasion when I took aim at him with his own revolver, which sobered him up instantly.” (p 250, Brotchie’s newish biography of Jarry)
Also renowned as a cyclist and as a dedicated fisherman, Jarry extended his membership in Paris’s 27 Club by seven years.

19 Ed December 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I read somewhere that Churchill did drink throughout the day, but his drinks were watered down and he nursed them. Jenkins says in his biography that he only may have had a problem with drinking in the 1930s, when he had some reason to develop a problem.

I think its possible to drink continuously but slowly throughout the day with limited adverse health effects, but of course the way American life is set up makes this difficult. And this country does seem to have become more puritanical about these matters in the last ten to fifteen years.

20 Lonely libertarian December 18, 2012 at 8:38 pm


From his memoirs sir Winston clearly does not believe his drinking to be a problem…

“I have gotten more out of alcohol than it has ever gotten out of me”

I am unconvinced that we have benefited from less smoking and less alcohol in our lives – I would love to see the data that proves me wrong – but it has yet to be presented. On the other hand I have proven to my satisfaction that wheat and sugar are poisonous – nine months ago I decided to limit my daily carb consumption to 80 grams or less – now a reasonably healthy 230 vs a morbidly obese 350. Carbs KILL!

21 jorod December 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Throughout most of history people lived under socialism. Or at least the threat of losing everything to the ruler. Reason enough to get intoxicated. And farmers, chained to the weather.

Tobacco, cheap anti-depressant.

22 Lisa December 18, 2012 at 11:14 pm

I posit that we need to stop
Lying about MJ and effects, contraindications to teens. Problem is, They then won’t believe us about the real
Facts on the heroin/s of the world which are hard core lethal.
Lie to me once , I’ll never trust you again. ( Hello hate mail.)

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