In Defense of Drunks

Why do we disdain the drinkers and praise the pill poppers?

A bartender serves alcohol at a bar in Prague September 12, 2012.
Perhaps it is time for an attempt to reinvent “public space” for our day, to create possibilities of communion that are not only virtual but visceral—where people gather around something other than a screen—perhaps even around a glass

Photo by David W Cerny/Reuters

Watering holes in America are turning into waxing salons. Vineyards are being displaced by pharmaceutical plants, wine bottles by pill bottles. And as far as one can tell from recent journalism, we’re pleased as punch about it.

“My feeling is one of liberation.” exclaims Lee Siegel in his New York Times essay “Bye-Bye Bohemia,” cheering the installation of a hair-removal shop in the home of Manhattan’s legendary Cedar Tavern, where poets, painters, and filmmakers used to convene to debate, seduce, inspire, and offend one another. Those folks were just a crowd of cantankerous winos, Siegel tells us. One dark day, he adds ominously, a painter in their group even went so far as to ask another painter to “step outside” to resolve an artistic difference. Imagine that.

In our day, that artist might simply have assumed a few pseudonyms and blasted his detractors from the comfort of his home computer (Siegel knows this: He was suspended from the New Republic for doing it.)* That artist would also, in all likelihood, have put down his wine glass and picked up—permanently—a vial of anti-depressants.

“I’ve taken anti-depressants for around 20 years,” proclaims another journalist recently in “Getting Sober with Zoloft,” an all-too-hackneyed contemporary coming-of-age story: the rueful user of nonprescription drugs who becomes a pious user of prescription drugs (i.e. Zoloft and others).* “My only regret about taking (these) medications,” she proudly concludes her piece, “is not having done so sooner—in fact, I wonder if I might have skipped addiction entirely had these drugs been available in my teens.” What she does not admit, however obvious it may seem, is that she has simply swapped one addiction for another addiction, at least equally powerful.

For this is what we usually do, as societies and as individuals: We do not eradicate our addictions and obsessions so much as we trade up for new, more virtuous, ones. The 18th-century obsession with reading mediocre serial novels becomes the 20th-century habit of watching middling soap operas and the 21st-century habit of following the lives of a thousand semi-friends on Facebook. The preoccupation of earlier eras with white skin becomes the modern preoccupation with tan skin; the obsession with small women’s feet becomes the obsession with small women’s waistlines. A commitment to repetitive religious rituals becomes a commitment to repetitive physical exercises; the cult of the soul becomes the cult of the body. The worship of the Christ child becomes the worship of the Super child. The favored drugs of yesteryear—wine, whisky, beer—become the favored drugs of today: Prozac, Wellbutrin, Xanax.

The question, quite possibly, is not how to banish obsession, addiction, idolatry, and habit altogether, for they are inherently linked and ineradicable parts of human nature. The better question might be: How to choose one’s habits and addictions wisely—or, if not wisely, at least relatively pleasantly or interestingly—and not just according to despotic current fashion.

I would propose that the contempt we increasingly heap upon alcohol drinkers, upon bars and upon individuals actually willing to face off about their disputes on the sidewalk rather than on the Internet is misplaced. The drinkers of old—and there were hard ones, to be sure, perhaps especially in the milieu of art—had the advantage that at least their vice tended to draw them into the public sphere: It did not isolate them in the bathroom studying the fine print on a prescription label, or throwing back capsules with toothpaste water before repairing to a lonely night of video streaming.

You clink with wine glasses—not pill-containers.  You make a toast to your comrades with pints—not milligrams. So even if and when the buzz wears off, you still have real-life contacts, social skills, a flesh-and-blood community. Your friends may sock it to you sometimes, but at least they recognize your face on the street. They know about the trips you take and sometimes accompany you on them: They don’t take off alone in the bathroom by their medicine cabinet.

What is it with the cliché of the lazy and lonely drunken artist? Take the case of one of the most maligned of the last century’s famous poet-drunkards, Dylan Thomas. Thomas may have been miserable off and on, but he was never isolated, rarely depleted, and arguably never depressed. If he urged his dying father,

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light,”

it was first, because he had caring relations with his family-members and second, and most important, because he loved life with an incandescent fervor—raw and red-hot as it seemed to him. It is a sign of our times that his colleagues today are so often vituperatively dismissive of his life—accusing him, like the unnamed editors of Wikipedia, of having a relationship to his wife that was “defined by alcoholism and was mutually destructive” and a career that was a shambles:

“In the early part of his marriage, Thomas and his family lived hand-to-mouth. … Although Thomas was appreciated as a popular poet in his lifetime, he found earning a living as a writer difficult …”

Thomas was the furthest thing from a slouch. Long before his death at 39 (an age where the most industrious contemporary poets are perhaps landing their first job), he was generally regarded as “the greatest living poet in the English language” and was financially supporting a family of seven—his wife, the three children he had with her and his impecunious parents (for whom he acquired and kept up a house near his own). It is next to impossible to find a contemporary poet who is able to maintain himself by writing—much less half a dozen helpless dependents.

As for Thomas’ marriage: suffice it to say, he exchanged passionate epistolary, pragmatic, and poetic love affirmations with his wife all of his adult life, and when she died nearly half a century after he did in Italy (though she was a far bigger party-animal than he was), she demanded that her remains be returned to the tiny fishing village in Wales where he was buried. In the interim, she had written at least two books about her husband—one, Leftover Life to Kill, expressing her fathomless despair at having to continue to exist without him. Thomas’s Wikipedia editors should have so much to show for their own “destructive” love lives. They should have as much to show for their professional lives, too.

In contrast to popular opinion, lovers of the grape and grain are often an excessively industrious lot. For an initial impression of alcohol’s effect on work ethic and economics, one could compare cultures that drink deeply to cultures that abstain entirely from doing so. The United Kingdom is a heavily-drinking country; Indonesia is a teetotaler one. Germany, France, and Northern Europe are deep-drinking, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Northern Africa are almost altogether anti-alcohol. Such evidence is necessarily anecdotal, but it does seem to throw a question mark behind the frequent clichés of the “lazy drunk.”

Speaking of drunks, consider the late Christopher Hitchens, author of 21 impeccably formulated books and tens of thousands of boldly argued essays, articles, speeches, observer of war zones, debater of politics, analyst of high literature, imbiber of thousands of bottles of liquor a year—and arch defender of the creative and human virtues of doing so.

“The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament,” Hitchens declares with characteristic impiety in his memoir, is “the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana.”

It is a tribute to philosophy, he claims, to play and to social vibrancy

“in an otherwise austere Judaee. The same applies to the seder at Passover, which is obviously modeled on the Platonic Symposium: questions are asked (especially of the young) while wine is circulated. No better form of sodality has ever been devised: at Oxford [where Hitchens studied] one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials. The tongue must be untied.”

The tongue must be untied, for when it is, all kinds of good things happen: ideas circulate, thoughts are renewed, friends are made, goals are forged, energy for work is reignited, and spirits are lifted (often more enduringly than with anti-depressants).

Of course there is the possibility of excess, as with all things. We can love too much, drink too much, work too much, try too hard, stare at our computer screens too relentlessly, hide away with our capsules to excess. And at this point, the dangers of prescription drugs are in danger or seriously lapping the dangers of good old wine and beer. The Dylan Thomas’ of our day are not dying of Cabernet consumption (and it’s not clear he did, either—almost everyone in his family died young, from his sister to his children and father; only his wife, the heaviest abuser, lived into her 80s). Rather, they are dying, like Michael Jackson of nerve soothers, sometimes given to them illegally by dubious doctors.* They are dying, more recently, like Shulamith Firestone, the gorgeous feminist icon, of psychotropic-drug-enhanced loneliness in the privacy of their studio apartments in the middle of downtown Manhattan.

Perhaps it is time for an attempt to reinvent “public space” for our day, to create possibilities of communion that are not only virtual but visceral—where people gather around something other than a screen—perhaps even around a glass. The big city lends access to a “coffeehouse culture”, as writers like Juergen Habermas, Russell Jacoby, and Katie Roiphe have pointed out—unless, that is, the local watering hole has become a local depilatory salon. In that case, chances are you don’t grapple psychologically or intellectually with your neighbors any more than you would on a remote farm in Wyoming—and perhaps less.

Nobody writes with smug complacency about solving life problems by picking up a glass of wine. (Picture it: “I have been drinking for 20 years and my only regret is that these drinks were not available in my teens!”). It does not breed the self-congratulation, the back-patting genre literature of redemption that we so often see in recovery memoirists. Social drinkers, by and large, are not arrogant. They are curious and humble. They know they are attackable. They know they have an Achilles heel. They know there is a crack in anything—but in the words of Leonard Cohen, that’s where the light comes in, that’s where the light comes in.

Correction, July 3, 2013: This piece originally stated that Lee Siegel lost his job at the New Republic for anonymously attacking readers who criticized his blog posts. Siegel was suspended, not fired, and his blog was shut down. He resumed writing for the magazine in April 2007. Also, this article originally misquoted the punctuation in a line from Lee Siegel’s New York Times essay. The sentence “My feeling is one of liberation” did not end in an exclamation point, but rather a period. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, July 12, 2013: This piece incorrectly stated that Michael Jackson died because he took an “anti-anxiety” medication. He died of an overdose of propofol, an anesthetic that he used illegally. (Return to corrected sentence.) Also, the writer mischaracterizes the memoirist as an alcoholic, when actually she was addicted to cocaine and heroin. (Return to corrected sentence.)