Don’t forget the animal spirits. A short history of drinking for enjoyment

Saturnalia Biondi Buenos Aires Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi, 1909 copy in Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens. The original was deemed immoral in the US and was not displayed. The Romans, however, were a bit shrewder about acknowledging bingeing. Credit: Wikimedia.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

Worrying about drink is an immemorial custom of the world. This is reasonable enough, even if some of the worries and the worriers aren’t; drinking isn’t safe. Nor is it controlled or controllable, and some people don’t like that. Fashions in worrying change with time, however, and we seem to have emerged from a period of medico-moral panic into a measured, sensible and scientific consideration of peril. The panic hasn’t altogether receded, but hysteria about binge drinking now seems a little dated, like Tony Blair, brash alcopops and confident military interventions.

The relative physical demerits of steady drinking and binge drinking are now considered in a cool, appraising way, often with a certain proper hesitancy; results are not yet conclusive. There is little moralising and it’s like a project run by popular teachers and enlightened school prefects; some good humoured disapproval, encouragement to do better, and advice. A fine example is the BBC’s recent Horizon documentary, ‘Is binge drinking really that bad?’

Two doctor-twins try binge/steady drinking for a month and compare physical results. Each twin drinks the same number of units per week, one with them spread over each night of the week, and the other in one go. They are amused and concerned, as required, and it’s all conducted in a cool, beautifully rational manner. My only objection is that it’s beside the point. Interesting, yes, moderately useful, perhaps; relevant … not so much. The puritans are the clearer thinkers in at least one respect: they’re against binge drinking because it’s binge drinking. They recognise what it is, that it’s qualitatively different from temperance, and disapprove in principle. The other lot have ignored every consideration except the physical effects; they think it may be worse in a physiological sense if you binge rather than drink steadily (it’s the giddy toxins)—even if it’s admitted that the binger enjoys himself more and generally feels in better nick in between hangovers.

I sometimes wonder if these fine, clever, kindly people think that people play the piano to exercise their fingers. They’re so rational in a functional, utilitarian way that they’re sometimes mad. Bingeing and steady drinking are not the same, any more than an apple is the same as a bar of chocolate, even if they both contain sugar, as parents tell their children with more hope than conviction. To quote the only bit of Jane Austen I like:

“I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner … It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”

“Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

Taking a little wine regularly might be more rational from a medical perspective, but it’s not near so much like drinking.

Now, there are too many varieties of drinking to represent fairly in a short piece, but let me put it like this. I drink for many reasons, unreflectingly and with all sorts of pleasures. But I don’t drink out of habit or to deaden my feelings, taking a glass or two of wine after work like paracetamol (also bad for your liver, they say). It’s to enlarge the sensibilities, not dull them; to have adventures, make new and strange and sometimes ill-advised acquaintances, to take a holiday. It should expand and not curtail the day, it’s not to kill time, get through or forget. In fairness, the doctor-twins acknowledged who had more larks, who was happier, and it was the binger.

This may seem irresponsible, and it’d be easy to cite the risks, the many risks attached to being drunk. I don’t deny these. But if that’s too much for you, that’s really okay; there’s no need to go to the ball, not everyone enjoys dancing and some worry that they might pull a hamstring or look foolish while doing it—some people can’t handle dancing and should avoid it. The physical dangers also worry me much less than the certain destruction of psychological dependence. Alcohol has the capacity to kill things inside you, your liver and even your character. The physical damage is inevitable, even if it varies in degree, but the mental damage is not. Having a couple of beers or glasses of wine every night isn’t the work of the devil, but it’s a lot closer to dependence than occasionally being drunk and otherwise being always sober; it’s habit-forming, it arouses a nightly appetite that craves to be satisfied. It’s a shadow of what I’ve seen and have always had a horror of: someone I know and like being slowly taken over by the need for drink, discarding their personality and interests and affections like someone in a hot-air balloon trying to stay up in the air long after they should have descended, having become a vehicle for the consumption of drink.

If that’s the worst of it, the best of temperance isn’t for me. A glass of wine is a fine enhancer of a meal and lifts the spirits briefly; I relish the taste and the feel, but what then? A couple of drinks is an invitation, not a complete thing in itself, not for me. All or nothing, drinking or not drinking. I’d rather be teetotal than take a couple of careful glasses of red wine regularly, thinking about the antioxidants. This isn’t to scorn our highly civilised friends who take a glass or two as part of a meal, quietly and slowly; I admire them and wish them well. Perhaps I’m a bit of a barbarian, being mostly sober and occasionally drunk, but then perhaps not.

Politicians and other well-wishers sometimes encourage us to become more Mediterranean, meaning that we should take it easy on the drink, lingering outside cafés for fourteen hours over a small digestivo. Well, why not start with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who were shrewd, clear-eyed and pragmatic about drinking, and even poetic. Classicist Richard Jenkyns describes the wine god Dionysus as “the god who is most violent and most gentle … the god of release—from anxieties but also from inhibition”. He “declares the limits of rationality” in Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, in which those in authority who are too rational to accept the god and his unreason come to a very bad end. We’re not solely or even primarily rational, and any sensible civilisation makes an accommodation with “animal spirits”. The Greeks and Romans saw drink as being divine, dangerous and both good and bad, and they had their semi-controlled, licensed disorder; the world turned upside down for a spell. There were heavy-drinking festivals. The orderly Romans had their Bacchanalia and Saturnalia. It was good for social order, and good for personal order, or so I’m suggesting with one eye closed, ignoring the excesses and occasional crackdowns; at any rate, it recognised our mixed nature, and the fact that drink has to be respected as something godly and perilous. It also requires a little conditioning and experience before you master drinking: “a man who exposes himself when he is intoxicated, has not the art of getting drunk”, as Johnson had it. By making drunkenness and irrational liberty part of your culture, you can school people in it.

Animal spirits are something both the doctors and the puritans fail to comprehend, in a sort of wilful naivety. For the puritans, it seems that a lack of control, personal and social is mysterious and offensive. Then there’s an assumption that human behaviour should be a matter of ends and means, of rational goals and selecting methods to attain these. But then there is enjoyment, and as Auberon Waugh said of vandals:

“Senseless” is a word usually applied to these acts, but when one grasps the simple proposition that vandals obviously enjoy breaking things, then vandalism is no more senseless than playing tennis.

In the ultra-rational, ultra-stable social order of Brave New World, there are periodic organised (and compulsory) orgies to answer the need for emotional release, and then there is soma to answer the other craving that alcohol responds to: life anaesthetic. Naturally I’m agin the deadening soma, while only a bottle-conditioned, manufactured human would enjoy the artificial orgies, but the point is there: to obtain the perfectly balanced (and horrible) society, you need to see things as they are.

There is a sense in which bingeing does more than just release animal spirits. Dr Johnson said something (I forget exactly what) about art enlarging the sensibilities and giving us access to many more experiences than we would have in our ordinary lives. Drink can do the same; it doesn’t always, for some it may never, it narrows them into rage. But drink opens you up, if that’s your inclination: to people, possibilities and experiences. It also makes you a better navigator in chaos. You learn to steer your way when you’ve lost ordinary control. Your vehicle may pick up a few knocks (or worse), but your driving may be more skilled and more enjoyable for it. And that’s the thing—what about simple enjoyment, is that not a rational end? As with sudden heavy snowfall and the suspension of orderly modern life, some enjoy bingeing, and some do not. Some disapprove. But whatever your take, temperance and bingeing are not the same, you don’t choose between them any more than you choose between liking cheese and nice sunsets.

Finally, for the record, I’d rather be treated by the doctor-twin who binged and was otherwise alert and clear-headed than the one in a perpetual fug. Just as you might rather have a writer/editor who’s occasionally drunk, but almost always sober — and cheerful and in good fettle.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, June 2015)

Fishman-bucketPaul is a freelance writer, editor and all-round ink-slinger; he’s also the managing editor of Alderman Lushington.

Website: Twitter: @fishmandeville

Image credits

Saturnalia: Roberto Fiadone, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).


In order…

C S Lewis 1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: HarperCollins)

Jane Austen 1813 Pride and Prejudice (anywhere: pick a publisher)

Richard Jenkyns 2015 Classical Literature (London: Pelican)

“Animal spirits” was the phrase used by economist John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money to describe the “instincts, proclivities and emotions that ostensibly influence and guide human behaviour”.