Alcohol, Additional Subthemes
Four posts have discussed sub-themes of the broader theme of alcohol:
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", “Absinthe” by Edgar Degas, “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffet, and “Mr. Flood’s Party” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Having explored sub-themes of alcohol that suggest themselves primarily in only one of those four artistic forms, I want to close with several additional observations that deserve mention. We’ll start with five sub-themes shared by two or more these mini-stories, and then consider a few other paired considerations.
Loneliness: Loneliness cries out in these pieces: The old man trudging back alone in the cold to his hermitage, the sodden expatriate in Mexico who yearns for a woman back home, the café demimonde locked in the solitary confinement of her musings, and the warring couple on the precipice of divorce’s separation. Perhaps alcohol didn’t cause these plights of loneliness, but it may well have worsened them. The behavior of people who tickle too much can alienate friends and neighbors. Acquaintances and family fall away; someone with alcoholic tendencies find themselves unwelcome and uninvited.
Despondency: Sadness seeps out of each of these works, and not simply because of the pervasively loneliness. Mr. Flood lives by himself without companions, the margarita-lover can’t recover as he misses a lost woman, the dawn drinker doesn’t radiate that absinthe makes the heart grow fonder; and the loathing in “Virginia Woolf” bites deeper than mere sadness. Drinking too often or too much contributes to despondency both as a physical downer and as a weakener of capabilities. Alcohol can be fingered as the cause of melancholy but as we discuss below it can also romp hand-in-hand with fun and games. But none of these mini-stories suggests that good side of alcohol.
Handicaps: Each work radiates struggle, tension, conflict. Old Eben Flood wishes he still were welcome but the doors in the town below stay shut. He worries about being overseen swigging from the jug and judged. He’s torn between trying to revive friendships or drinking by himself. In the painting, an exhausted argument, embers of friendship or love burning low, or a reluctance to trudge home suggests tensions between them or hardships facing them. In the movie, tension understates the searing fury that makes the scene so difficult to watch. Martha flashes razor-like comments with a “mind like a scorpion” (Macbeth) as the two roar over blame for their crushed dreams. Finally, the beach guy yearns for more than floundering in a glass of a sorry Mexican shanty, but he can’t shake the trauma of losing someone in his past. Not that alcohol on its own necessarily provokes struggles but it can exacerbate strife and handicap a person’s ability to cope difficulties.
Flight: Given the loneliness, despondency, constraints and generally lousy effects of alcohol conveyed by these four glimpses of life, small wonder the protagonists seek escape from the bottle. But even deeper the escape carries its own paid; they would like to set aside at least for a moment the realities they face: poverty and solitude, broken heart, a hurt from the Parisian night, or shattered marital hopes. Alcohol can help from escape for a while from hurtful reality – but the reprieve is short. Worse, margaritas mortgage your future.
Similarly, hallucinatory drugs, promiscuous sex, mosh-pit dance, throbbing music, and religious rites all enable ecstatic escape. They remove participants from daily indignities and psychic wounds. Sadly, all Bacchanalias wear off and the harsh world comes crashing back. Moreover slipping from the bonds of reality frightens sober, hard-working, Puritan-ethic folk. Culture and its fist, the law, clamp down on these outlets of temporary release out of fear that civilization unloose its discontents. All societies have constrained the perceived dangers of ecstatic excess. Drunkenness has consequences.
Positive and Negative: The residue of these pieces is solidly negative – alcohol is actively destructive, a solvent dissolving good behavior and self-maintenance. Each piece repeats the pattern of people trying to dull the edge of personal pain. Flood’s not having a party, he’s talking to himself, regretting his lost friends, exile from his own happier, earlier life, and banished probably from good society as an old drunk. He walked a long way in the cold just to buy a jug of booze, which he downs alone. He’s in pain. Degas’ woman is also in pain, painted in muted colors and blurry strokes, and having yet another drink to take the edge off. She seems too sad, or too exhausted, even to sip her glass, like the singer who staggers around blending the concoction while knowing it’s really not helping – his problems are his own damn fault. In “Woolf” the cocktails are gasoline poured on a smouldering history of dislike that blew up what was rancid and irreparable.
When scrutinized and unpacked, these four particular sips of alcohol through art emphasize the negative. However, the take on alcohol can be positive – there are plenty of pieces of art, poems, songs, and movies where people are genuinely happy, toasting, joking, laughing, being happy, relishing booze. On the other hand, alcohol can relax people, heighten the conviviality of the gathering, taste good, and transport people to a most pleasurable state. So I would say a commonality of the ones you picked is not that alcohol caused their problems; they had problems, and are drinking perhaps to feel better, but without success; and from what we know of alcohol, in fact it will probably make things worse – which segues to your scientific information. the supposition is that alcohol brings happiness and pleasure and gregariousness.
Cause and Effect: Another paradox of alcohol lurks in these four works: the ambiguity of cause and effect. From these brief vignettes, we cannot glean whether drinking too much has significantly caused their current malaises, or whether the vicissitudes of life have driven the characters to drink. Are these broken people or people broken by drinking? Either way, many people recognize the spiral downward that may result from downing too much alcohol.
Moderation and Tradeoffs: As a group, the alcoholic symbols and suggestions in these works hint at alcohol’s risk and reward trade-offs. Indulging in moderation in the right circumstances strikes a balance between the pleasures of drinking and the possible repercussions. A stimulating sense of risk and adventure may come from downing too much, because they then slip into a perception of heightened powers, creativity or attractiveness. That reward, however, also plagues them if they drink too much with risks of harming their body, their relationships, or others physically. “Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy.” (Frank Sinatra, from a site with drinking quotes.
The more you ponder these connotations of alcohol in our society, the more you realize the English language spills over with colloquial expressions for overdoing: cockeyed, hammered, inebriated, out of it smashed, tipsy, toasted. They all point to the same conclusion: Drinking profoundly alters an individual’s mood, behavior, and neuropsychological functioning.
Acknowledgements and Thanks: Several of my friends have talked with me about this set of blog posts on alcohol and some of them have offered edits or suggestions. They, of course, bear absolutely no responsibility for what I post, but I especially want to thank Paul Morrison and Rob Thomas.