17 June 2011

On Drinking and Drunkenness

If there is one thing that characterizes Montaigne it is his advocacy of moderation in almost every area of life. And so I am delighted to read his essay “On Drunkenness” and discover that even this activity has its rightful place in the lives of men and women. Now, I really don’t think that it is absolute drunkenness about which Montaigne speaks: it is the benefits of social drinking addressed in his essay. Within limits, Montaigne actively supports imbibing liberally in alcoholic despite the occasional headache or discomforting behavior it may inspire. Indeed, I think he was sipping a glass of wine even as he wrote! 
Drunkenness above all, he avers, calls us to ourselves.That is, because we hold such high opinions of ourselves as sane and rational creatures, because we are so vain, a little inebriation enables a valuable check on our egos. Since we are all human, well, we are all, therefore, imperfect, and drinking liquor reveals to us our flaws: when we drink we often act in ways distinctly different than when we are cold sober and seemingly rational. Since, “wisdom does not overcome our natural inclinations,” Montaigne cautions the sage to best remember his humanity “and moderate his inclinations; for to do away with them is not in him.” The sage ought to drink a bit more and learn some humility. In this age of rampant moral hypocrisy, I appreciate this sentiment. 
As for myself, it has been a number of years since sincere drunkenness was even mildly attractive, but I do like to have a regular drink or two. Indeed, for any number of years I have, whenever possible, put the work aside at about 4:00pm, come into the house, from Walden, turn on the musicBeethoven or Dylan or something else that might fill the environment with hope. I would circle into the kitchen area, pour myself a drink and prepare dinner for the family. The whole process of chopping and mixing and listening and drinking contents me. I rarely have more than a single drink, and with the meal my liquid of choice is usually water, but the ritual of the alcoholic beverage while cooking is comforting and helps me transition into a new space. I liked the aesthetics of the bar or beer glass sitting expectantly amongst the vegetables. I cook some lovely thoughts having a drink while preparing dinner. 
For some time now I have for my pleasures purchased micro-brewed and relatively expensive beer: I would spend anywhere from $6.00-$8:00, for a six-pack of the brew, and last week I treated myself to a new double-hop India Pale Ale that was priced at $10.00 for six bottles. My purchases are a small luxury that I can afford, bourgeois though the indulgence may be. Compared to a case of Budweiser Light (24 cans) that might cost $16.00, my immoderation might seem excessive, but I have learned the difference between crafted beers and mass-produced ones even as I know the difference between coffee beans roasted at J&S Beanery and the coffee served at most local diners and restaurants in the United States. And after all, the purpose of my drinking is sensory satisfaction and not drunkenness. I love the taste of a well-brewed beer. If it is not beer that I pour while preparing dinner, I settle in with a single malt scotch in the medium price range: never more than $50.00 per bottle. On the rocks with a slight splash of water. It lasts a month or two: the bottle that is and not the particular drink! 
I like to have my drink during dinner preparation, but when possible I like to share my drinking as well. A very perfect evening involves friends, good food and an assortment of bottles of wine that cost no more than $15.00 a bottle. I am cosmopolitan in my tastes: wines of all countries have a place at my table. I no longer get drunkit is better than forty-five years since I overindulgedthough at these social events I have occasionally drunk more than moderately and had some interesting ideas. Indeed, in moderation drinking lubricates the moving parts in the mind and about the table. Drinking is about realizing pleasure, and as sitting about the table with friends is pleasurable, then drinking all the more increases the pleasure. Montaigne urges, “To drink French style, at two meals and moderately, for fear of your health, is to restrain the god’s favor too much. You need more time and persistence . . . And so we should make our daily drinking habits more expansive and vigorous.” Here, here! 
Like so many of Montaigne’s essays (at least as I read them), “On Drunkenness” has a tendency to ramble. All the more delight to consider that as he wrote he drank! But in the midst of his lovely discussion of liquor and its effects, he suddenly digresses into a lovely encomium about his father for whom Montaigne seems to have had great respect. Apparently he admires his father’s zest for life, which somehow Montaigne aligns with the joy of drinking, but realizing he has drifted somewhat from his topic he concludes this section with a resounding command: “Let’s get back to our bottles!” I like that. 
Montaigne declares that drunkenness has a tendency to push to the top all that is at the bottom: I also hear in Montaigne an early form of psychology’s recognition that wine looses the inhibitory reflex, and while somewhat inebriated we say (and do) things we wouldn’t do while sober. Many of those acts are not necessarily exemplary. Nevertheless, though he finds drunkenness a “loose and stupid vice,” it is less malicious and harmful than the others, which almost all clash more directly with society in general.” Again, what Montaigne prefigures is our concept of the victimless crime, such as recreational drug use, or the employment of call girls and gigolos (the latter not at all frequent, or frequently reported). Montaigne also defends drinking by suggesting that since “we cannot give ourselves pleasure without its costing us something,” then drinking is something that has minimum cost. Montaigne here precedes some words of contemporary philosophers: Bob Dylan (of course) and the Grateful Dead (also, of course): the former declares that, “every pleasure has a edge of pain/ Pay for your ticket and don’t complain;” and the Grateful Dead acknowledge that “every silver lining has a touch of grey.” So Montaigne acknowledges that though inebriation has its cost, it is the price paid for its pleasure. 
Besides, he writes, drinking is one pleasure that age does not take from us. Montaigne suggests here that if we attempt to learn to drink only the finest as we ageif we keep trying to find the most perfect and finest wines—this only means that we have to drink a lot of bad wine to find the good ones. This seems to him to somewhat antithetical to the pleasure one ought to derive from drinking in the first place.  Therefore, “to be a good drinker, one must not have so delicate a palate.” Not to be too picky I find this so true for myself: once I heard tell of an auction where a jeroboam of wine was sold for $50,000! For me, anything between $15.00 and $25.00 is more than adequate. Montaigne says that a coarser palate increases the potential for pleasure. We should increase our pleasure as we age, he writes, and not look for occasions that might disappoint, as in drinking a bad bottle of wine or beer. 
Quoting respectable authorities, Montaigne supports drinking—even drunkenness—because such indulgence makes possible pleasure where pleasure seems not possible. “For drunkenness to Plato is a good and certain test of each and every man’s nature, and at the same time suited to give older people the courage to make merry in dances and music, useful pastimes that they shy away from in a sober mood.” Drinking increases our capacity for pleasure as we age, but it has the potential to do so even in our youth. Again, this is a drunkenness in moderation and not that state that disables but rather, one that liberates. 
Lastly (but not finally), Montaigne avows that poets and artists often are carried outside themselves in their creative process: in the heat of creative and even courageous activity, people “lose” themselves and cannot answer for their extraordinary accomplishments. Assuming that wisdom (or reason) constrains us from such fanciful flights as enables such remarkable feats, Montaigne, after Plato, declares that such accomplishment do not happen unless our wisdom is “obscured by sleep or by some illness, or lifted from its place by celestial rapture.” The poetic frenzy and madness of say, artistic creation or prophecy, Montaigne ascribes to a certain madness “that transcends our own judgment and reason.”  Drunkenness enables such a state. 
And so, as for now, I think I’ll go into the house, have a drink and make some dinner. L’chaim!


Post a Comment

<< Home