Tim James: The glories, miseries and meaningfulness of intoxication

By , 28 March 2023

A few weeks back someone kindly gave me a book, of which he’d received three copies as Christmas presents. It was easy to see why it had been such an obvious gift for a wine lover: With a lush Titian bacchanal on the cover, the book is called Drunk, and subtitled How we sipped, danced, and stumbled our way to civilization. Looks like fun – and designed to make us feel good about our devotion to fermented grape juice. The book opens thus: “People like to masturbate. They also like to get drunk and eat Twinkies.” Catching buyers, and even readers, with the such baited hooks is clearly a vital consideration for author (Edward Slingerland) and publisher (Little Brown Spark, 2021). 

And fun the book is, and make us feel good it does – up to a point. But the title and cheerful vulgarity are partly a misrepresentation. Firstly because the book, although not at all heavy and often amusingly written, is much more serious than the breeziness might suggest. The author is a Canadian professor of philosophy, and a great deal of (mostly secondary) research lies behind his book. It is also far from being the simple celebration of alcoholic buzz implied by the title – it is that, but it also pays a great deal of attention to the widespread and appalling effects of alcohol abuse, social and individual.

Partly, the book is an attempt to bridge that gulf. And one way of expressing the gulf is to ask why, if alcohol is as unremittingly bad for our bodies and our social fabric as doctors and sociologists tell us, why hasn’t evolution done more to discourage us from finding pleasure in it?

Slingerland treats alcohol as the most widely used and easily available of the various mind-altering chemical intoxicants that human beings have made such unremitting use of since “the very beginnings of civilization”. As for evolution’s failure to wean us away from them, he first argues against the “highjack” idea – that our taste for alcohol (and other intoxicants) is a design glitch, whereby the brain chemicals that reward us with pleasure for imbibing the stuff were actually developed to encourage more laudable and nutritious intakes. The other common evolutionary theory of relevance is that a desire for alcohol might once have served a purpose but has been hanging on in humans long after it became quite the opposite of useful; Slingerland convincincingly debunks this idea too.

Instead, he marshalls a good deal of evidence from both prehistory and history that intoxicants, with alcohol in the lead, have been pervasive and vital in the development of the human as creative, cultural and communal animals, while providing a great deal of pleasure, happiness and comfort. He offers many wonderful archaic quotations, like this from an ancient Sumerian hymn to the Beer Goddess: “Let the heart of the fermenting vat be our heart! … Our liver is happy, our heart is joyful.” Very few societies have managed, or even desired, to suppress intoxication, except perhaps through the substitution of other forms of socialised “ecstasy”, including some religious forms.

The usefulness of intoxicants, Slingerland argues, persists into human societies today:

“While we await the worldwide takeover by teetotaler forms of religiosity, and the wholesale replacement of bars and pubs with holotropic breathing stations, alcohol and related drugs will continue to be our method of choice for dialing down the prefontal cortex and enhancing our creativity, cultural openness, and communal feelings.”

So he must – and does, fully and uncompromisingly – respond to widespread alcohol abuse making many livers unhappy indeed, and many hearts rendered full of pain. This is “the dark side of Dionysis”. It seems to be something comparatively recent in human society.

Through his accounts of drinking and intoxication in earlier cultures, Slingerland stresses its social roles, its communality, and, by implication and more, the subtle social controls exercised over excessive and anti-social drinking. Even today, he can point to the (waning) drinking culture in southern Europe, where alcohol is “normalised” and there are institutionalised social controls over excess consumption, meaning that rates of alcoholism and major drinking problems are low.

The book doesn’t leave things at the descriptive, analytical level that I’ve so briefly summarised. And it’s only when it tries to offer some solutions that Drunk becomes a weaker contribution. The first crucial differences in the modern world’s general drinking culture, compared with earlier cultures, says Slingerland, are the advent of distillation (allowing for unprecedentedly alcholic drinks that get you very drunk very fast), which started becoming widespread in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. The second major problem is the emergence of much more drinking in isolation, outside of more-or-less ceremonial contexts and away from the dining table, thus removing some crucial social constraints on over-consumption.

The first of these, distillation, is not the problem in itself, surely. The increasing recourse to highly alcoholic drinks is the problem. And isolation is similarly more of a social symptom than a cause to be addressed on its own terms. That is, it seems to me, while Slingerland has effectively shown the social origins of human use of alcohol to various positive ends, he starts looking for individual, rather than social, solutions to the problems that have emerged in modern human societies.

However one may feel about Islam and other fundamentalist religions, their prohibitive hostility to alcohol and drugs tends to be accompanied by social replacements and compensations (social bonding and ecstatic practices, for example) rather than individual ones. I’m afraid that Slingerland’s list of solutions seems rather inadequate in social terms, and pretty much absurd outside the context of middle-class life in rich countries. We should drink “mindfully”, perhaps “alternating rounds of soda water or other non-alcoholic drink when out drinking or drinking at home”; never drink alone, and have “well-trained and thoughtful” bartenders controlling consumption in bars; raise the age at which drinking spirits is allowed, etc. Believe it or not, “virtual social drinking” is now possible though cellphone apps – clearly designed for people like me who live alone and want some wine with their dinner and, perhaps too often, some brandy or grappa after it: much healthier and more fun to do it in company via an app, suggests earnest Edward.

One wonders how useful such prescriptions would be in, for example, in a Western Cape riddled with foetal alcohol syndrome, or in confronting the vodka epidemic in Russia that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the alcohol problems that were introduced to indigenous peoples in post-colonial America or Australia, etc.

Slingerland has done a splendid job in defending a modest degree of drunkenness and illustrating its positive contribution to human society. It would have been better, not weaker, to have stopped there, rather than offering well-intended nostrums of minuscule relevance to the scale of the problem of alcohol abuse in the alienated and often brutal conditions of the modern world. I’ve no useful suggestion to make myself, beyond pointing out the need for a radical transformation of that world. It’s fine and important to seek local, ad hoc, limited solutions in specific circumstances – as long as doing so doesn’t disguise the need for more fundamental solutions.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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