Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On The Virtues Of Alcohol

Frankly, it seems like something of a minor scandal (or a betrayal of a kind) that I have not written about this topic sooner. As the inestimable Bernard Baruch was known to say: "Only as you do know yourself can your brain serve you as a sharp and efficient tool. Know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so you can separate them from what you see.", and since a tender alcoholism (though I would take the tawdry route on this and call it more of an "enthusiasm") would undoubtedly be one of the defining standards by which those who know me could describe my character, I undertake such a post to know myself better, indeed. Mr. Baruch was valuable for his strict honesty in the face of cliche, and rather than upholding the encouraging standard of such quotations for their guidance-counselor-poster ability to inspire us to perfection, deliberately included the notion of failure and the binary edge of the human condition. When one wishes to venture into a topic as the mercurial provisions of strong waters, one would do well to remember the double-edged sword with which we champion the cause. 

(photo from Vilya Spirits website, the artisans of which I am most privileged to know)

That being said, I have come to the conclusion that, as far as the choice of mental lubrication goes, the pros far outweigh the cons. And would I be the Joshua Kelly that I am if I were to ignore a well-proposed idiom by the late Hitchens that alcohol "is a good servant but a terrible master", or to miss the irony that the original proverb actually referred to fire and not, indeed, to fire-water? No matter which side of the alcoholic spectrum one falls on, it is always essential to acknowledge, at least, that the pendulum does swing both ways. 

So, given that I advocate for the positive on this invention which outclasses organized religion by at least a couple of thousand years, the natural question remains: why? 

Namely, the answer is that the alcoholic tradition is one that has not been stemmed in several millennia, either in effectiveness or in popularity. And while I am rarely one to side with the utilitarian for the sake of comradery, when the Mesopotamians gave us so few things by which to remember them, it is easy to look at one of their finer achievements and take some pride in the art of brewery. Albert Camus, for example, might not have even questioned the idea of killing himself were his saving grace not in fact a cup of coffee but a glass of cognac. It is rare that in the course of our species we come across something, the effects of which are so objectively enjoyable, that we stick on to the tradition for so long. Even at its worst, what lank-haired, pump-missing teeny-bopper ever said between heaves: "I'm never drinking again!" and has kept her promise? Something always brings us back. 

For me, the beauty of the elixir is in its variety -- that is to say, there is a drink for every occasion and even those can vary by the drinker. For me, the standing bar is an alchemical smorgasbord of heightened emotion: mimosas for breakfast outside in summer weather, beer for carousing, tequila for fisticuffs, absinthe for overdone Shakespearean performance, gin for sexual inspiration, vodka for insomnia, and Scotch for whenever. It is the best available self-medication. In clothing, in politics, in romance, or in cinema there is never such a "suit-your-mood" potion available. The only genres to rival it in these instances are poetry and literature (and, much like alcohol, these too can make you equally ill should you ingest too much and in the wrong compositions).   

The power of liquid courage has come up again and again in stories of the greatest possible bravado, even in the face of itself. While I would never deign to call him "the last lion" in the ingratiating way many others have, Churchill was famous for his ability to slug a mug and, whiffled or otherwise, conduct affairs of wit and tenacity fit for his title. "I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me." A good servant, indeed! "Alcohol may be man's worst enemy, but the Bible says to love your enemy," intoned Sinatra. The only thing about Jesus of Nazareth worth remembering or chronicling was his penchant for (and uncanny ability of) drinking the wine of other people, and being able to conjure some when the mood was dull. (It is likely by some small interference of men that the communion involves at least a swallow of alcohol. Either that, or Christ was much more of Bacchus than most would willingly admit.) Even the epitome of all warrior-poets, Falstaff, was made likely most famous because of his inclination toward wine: 

"A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme: it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it and sets it in act and use. Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack."

Who respects something and does not acknowledge its danger? No one. I myself will admit that there are only two things in the world for which moderation is acceptable: imbibing and anal sex. Though, admittedly, my worries are much more reserved for the dangers of impotence implored by the porter than for the more commercial concerns. For those who have qualms against the miraculous substance and wish desperately for its exile, there is not a claim yet made that the simple act of responsible drinking cannot cure. Unlike the vicissitudes of religion, no matter how often said, the danger of alcohol does in fact lie with the drinker and not with the drink. In essence I say to this conflict as I say to almost all others: use your head. 

I'm very regretful for those who cannot, for whatever reason, enjoy the artisan beauty of one of humankind's oldest and most loved creations -- but I do not blame them for their avoidance. I am sure that they find equal inspiration and delight in things which I, in turn, could not possibly understand. Besides which, that leaves one more bottle of Johnnie Walker for me that might otherwise have vanished from the shelf. To all who give me that wonderful opportunity, I salute you. 

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