Drunkenness or sobriety?
And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour—well,
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell…
The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.
I stopped drinking – alcohol that is, in case my meaning wasn’t immediately explicit, the good stuff, here in the fairest Cape our vintners cultivate the Lord’s own grapes, about seven months ago. Well, if you’re going to insist on specificity, seven months and twenty-six days ago – at the time of publication, but hey, who’s counting!
I’ve never thought of myself as an alcoholic. Put it this way, I’ve never gone to place of an evening with a motley crew of strangers and introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Stephen, and I am an alcoholic.” Nor would I characterize myself as an inebriate or dipsomaniac, I am most definitely not a barfly, tippler, wino or heaven forbid, a lush. I am, however, a Bacchanalian, and amid some the wilder moments of my early adulthood, may even have been called a carouser. Most of all though, and here is the nub and possibly the rub of this confession, I am a drunkard.
I subscribe to the school of thought, am an apologist for, and am philosophically sympathetic, to borrow a turn of phrase from Hattori Hanzo , to the principle of drunkenness. I realise, of course, that there is an ambiguity in the term “drunkenness”. And, seeing as I am, or more modestly claim to be, in the business of truth telling, and not to be disingenuous, let me concede that at this point of the confession, to some degree I am seeking refuge in this ambiguous signification. I will however, or at least such is my intention, come clean on these matters if you’ll indulge me.
It may be helpful to offer you some biography to establish my street cred, and right to weigh in on this oversubscribed field of discourse. Both of my parents were alcoholics. My father, by innate disposition, and my mother as an act of sovereign self-defense in response to my father, putting aside for the moment the wisdom of such response. My younger and now late brother, whilst not strictly speaking an “alcoholic” mediated the weal and woe of life through substance use, and by common definition, abuse. This path proved fatal, and he died, as a relatively young man, in 2019. Alexia, my girlfriend, whose decision to quit alcohol just before the lockdown in 2020, over two and a half years ago now, that drinking was not enabling the best version of herself, and after many years of grappling with the conundrum – to drink or not to drink, and her resolve to stand by this tough choice in no small way inspired my own journey. I could go on, but I trust my pedigree, if initially only by association and familiarity is already clear.
Personally, I only came into my own as a drinker since moving to Cape Town in 2015, already in my forties at the time. In that sense, as an aficionado of the fruit of the vine, I am a late bloomer. As a younger man, whilst no teetotaler, I imbibed only on rare occasions and never developed a real taste for it. Moving to the Cape, which, jests aside, has some of the finest grape cultivars in the world, I developed a penchant for a glass, and on occasion two, of fine red wine, with my evening meal. Once I had developed the habit, I maintained it rather blissfully for about seven years.
On average, once I became conscious of this habit and thought to pay attention, I noted that I was drinking about two bottles of red wine a week. In other words, at least by standard convention according to the Mayo Clinic, I was a moderate drinker. And that classification of moderation, felt accurate. Although this had become habitual it was never compulsive, nor was I inclined to drink more than that. Nevertheless, once I decided to stop, which I did prompted by the advice of an Ayurvedic physician, it proved a lot more challenging than I imagined it would be. It wasn’t and isn’t still so much resisting the urge to drink, which, as I say, I have never experienced as a compulsion, as the state of being permanently sober that has proved challenging. Somewhat strangely, from my perspective at least, even if this is a naivete on my part, before developing the habit of regular alcohol consumption, it (sobriety) never used to be difficult and now it is. Or let’s say more modestly, I wasn’t aware of how difficult it was because I had nothing to compare it to, and now I do. Whatever the case though I have come to find permanent sobriety to be a painful condition.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that there is no virtue and even joy in sobriety, albeit it a qualitatively quite different type of joy. I enjoy getting up early in the morning sans hangover, clear headed, and going for a morning walk, enjoying a cup of coffee, and then doing some creative work, such as writing this piece. And I wouldn’t wish to substitute that for a permanent state of even mild drunkenness. I’m not intending to portray a nihilistic or disenchanted orientation to life, the world, and everything that comes along with that. Sure, life includes suffering, there is no denying that, but it also offers joy, meaning and beauty to those with the ability to see these. I am someone who celebrates being alive. Not stupidly and naively, such that I cannot appreciate the irony of Beckett or Kafka, simply that given a choice I choose life and am immensely grateful for this opportunity of being.
This though brings me to the conundrum I am hoping to highlight. One of the great joys of being alive is the experience of drunkenness!
Sobriety, lucidity, cool headedness can only take you so far, if your intended destination is the euphoric dimension of being alive. Drunkenness – and the kind of drunkenness I’m talking about is not the falling-flat-on-your-face, making an ass of yourself, blackout drinking. In fact, even having a drink too many, I find mildly distasteful, given to some degree a certain sensitivity to being exposed to this as child. I don’t celebrate inebriation and dissolution of dignity and consciousness in the opiate-like-haze that alcohol at a certain level of consumption can induce. Nor the alcohol and testosterone infused aggression that is often associated with alcohol abuse, particularly among the mean-spirited, small hearted, little men who drink to find their way back to their absent manhood.
No, on the contrary, the kind of drunkenness I’m referring to and am interested in here is the celebration of life and being that is accompanied and to some extent facilitated by enjoying a drink with a meal or at an occasion, the celebration of friendship and companionship, the slight relaxing of normal inhibitions and tensions to allow a more sensuous, happier, more passionate, better humored, version of oneself to emerge. And, to this effect, in my view, there is no substitute for a snort or two, in the old-fashioned sense of this term.
Don’t give me your dope, your, pot, ganja and for G-d’s sake man, spare me the mushrooms! I have no interest in your new-age-psychedelically-lit-path to the great delusion. To each his or her own, but in the field of Bacchanalian celebration, all poisons were not indeed created equal, or, at least, such is my view.
To no small degree, I would argue that being drunk is the very purpose of being alive. If we were not born for ecstasy, what prey tell is the reason for enduring the inevitable suffering that accompanies being? To propagate the species so that future generations might know the dry, passionless, and bitter fruit of abstinent temperance, perhaps? Sobriety, consciousness, lucidity, cool headedness are virtues, I’m not arguing that they aren’t, but let’s be frank, they sure aren’t the life of the party. They serve utility value, but when it comes to the meaning, the juice, the euphoric, except for certain idiosyncratic philosophers, these ae not the road to the embodied experience of the transcendent.
Notwithstanding and despite this apologia to the fruit of the vine and the vintners craft, I remain sober, at least currently. Why, might you ask? As indeed I regularly enquire of myself, and which question has indeed motivated this short essay.
Look, to some degree, I, like many of you I suspect, simply enjoy suffering. I wear my suffering as a badge of honor. I am a Roman Catholic by birth, and so am mythologically identified with the crucifixion and its accompanying motif of the divine suffering. Besides that, psychologically – as the Architect of the Matrix learned at great cost to his original construct , humanity finds solace, brotherhood and even sanctuary in its suffering. It is not only that suffering connects us to each other, which it undoubtedly does, but it offers a soothing balm for narcissistic wounding. I may not be able to brag to you about my outstanding life, litany of achievements, and proudly wear the laurel of honour, but I can wear my suffering as a cloak with which to adorn the unimpressive visage of my otherwise naked mediocrity.
In this sense, every day of sobriety acts as a homeopathic dose of crucifixion. Every day I willingly choose to suffer, brings me one step closer to salvation, or so I hope and if not, in any case I am familiar with my pain body and we keep close, if not exactly good, company. Beyond this very catholic idealization of suffering, my understanding, based on my admittedly limited research, is that alcohol, even in moderation, is not actually all that good for one’s health. I’m willing to concede here that this may be open to debate and even have my own reservations in this respect. However, it’s a belief I have come to subscribe to and until convincing data to the contrary is provided, I’ll stick with it.
Truthfully though, neither of the above reasons are the spine of my abstinence and my belief that such abstinence, although painful, is not without some virtue.
The core ethical value my sobriety serves is my belief that the virtue in sobriety is learning to deal with an unbroken stream of consciousness. Consciousness unmediated by any psychoactive or psychotropic drug, in other words, natural consciousness. This is the same reason that I am opposed to the use of psychopharmacology i.e., anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication et al. I’m not claiming here that these medications are not useful and often lifesaving, no doubt they are, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of this medicine. Rather my concern centers on determining when the virtues of such use outweigh the cost. To be clear, once again, I don’t challenge that there is a myriad of situations when the use of psychopharmacology is legitimate. Only that, in my view, people are frequently seduced into the use of mood stabilizers as an illegitimate remedy or anesthetization to the legitimate and real sources of their distress.
I cannot fully elaborate my anti-psychopharmacology reasoning here. It will take us too far afield of the discussion on drunkenness and sobriety of this post. Suffice to say, the point I want to emphasize is my belief that a legitimate path of spiritual and psychological maturation involves an essentially veridical inner state. And the path to maturation, enlightenment, and individuation, is one that grapples with problematic and distressing states of mind and mood, without medicating these away. And, alcohol use, can, and often does, act as a surreptitious form of self-medication and mood elevation. Not always of course, and not for everyone, but certainly facing sobriety and lucidity again squarely and unmediated, has made me recognize that I was indeed using it in that fashion.
Finally, then, the weighing up. The religious ecstasy and liberation of the Dionysian as against the Sisyphean character of natural consciousness.
Is it better and more virtuous my friends, to celebrate this life with wild abandon, to recognize ourselves as instruments of joy, ecstasy and passion, to either honour the G—d of our creation through such celebration or lift the finger in defiance by such celebration to the meaningless void, depending on one’s philosophy in this respect (hope or rebellion), or should we take up the Sisyphean burden and dedicate our lives to ascending the mythical mountain with every fiber of our being, knowing full well that in all likelihood the apex of our ascent will be lost in the mists of time and memory. Should we take this business of life with such deadly earnestness, committing ourselves to perennial personal evolution or, more modestly, the virtue of such orientation, even if we are not always successful in this regard, or should we simply say, fuck it and evermore! I’ve earned the right to this glass of wine, to hell with you and me, and the whole bang shoot if I’m not going to enjoy its heady dizziness for an hour or two, a balm for my tired and bruised soul, before I return to the salt mine, ready to once again set my jaw firmly for the fray?
Whatever your personal ethic, if it you’re reading this on an evening, with a glass of the finest in hand, I toast you in spirit and wish you a long and meaningful life. If not, if like me you’ve embraced a life of sobriety, we suffer together, but not illegitimately, keep the faith and keep your eyes on the North Star.
Until we speak again,