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.