In Vino Veritas: I’ll Drink to That

Binge drinking may look like a communal act, but it as an act of solitude, celebrating the self

Concerns over binge drinking — the habit of drinking large quantities of alcohol with the intention of getting drunk, usually in company but without the benefit of conversation of any kind — have brought into focus the great difference that exists between virtuous and vicious drinking. Our puritan legacy, which sees pleasure as the doorway to vice, makes it difficult for many people to understand this difference. If alcohol causes drunkenness, they think, then the sole moral question concerns whether you should drink it at all, and if so how much. The idea that the moral question concerns how you drink it, in what company and in what state of mind, is one that is entirely foreign to their way of understanding the human condition. 

This puritan legacy can be seen in many aspects of British and American society. And what is most interesting to the anthropologist is the ease with which puritan outrage can be displaced from one topic to another and the equal ease with which the thing formerly disapproved of can be overnight exonerated from all taint of sin. This has been particularly evident in the case of sex. Our parents and grandparents were concerned — and rightly concerned — that young people should look on sex as a temptation to be resisted. However, they did not see chastity as a preparation for sexual enjoyment: in their eyes it was precisely the enjoyment that was wrong. As a result, they made no real distinction between virtuous and vicious desire. The whole subject was taboo and the only answer to the question of sexual urges was “Don’t!” The old idea of chastity as a form of temperance eluded them. Yet what Aristotle said about anger (by way of elucidating the virtue of praotes or “gentleness”) applies equally to sex. For Aristotle it is not right to avoid anger absolutely. It is necessary rather to acquire the right habit — in other words, to school oneself into feeling the right amount of anger towards the right person, on the right occasion and for the right length of time.

In just such a way we should define sexual temperance, not as the avoidance of desire, but as the habit of feeling the right desire towards the right object and on the right occasion. That is what true chastity consists in, and it provides one of the deep arguments in favour of marriage or, at least, in favour of the constraint upon sexual appetite that is offered by love, that it makes sexual enjoyment into a personally fulfilling habit.

Puritans lack this sense of measured and temperate appetite. When sexual taboos were lifted, therefore, they found no further reason to refrain from indulgence. Since no virtue was at risk in our sexual transgressions, these ceased overnight to be transgressions. Thereafter, no proof of the damage done to children by premature experiment, no proof of the moral and medical chaos of uninhibited sexuality, could be heard. Puritanism turned an absolute no into an absolute yes. And it looked around for other pleasures that it could forbid, not because God was offended by them but because they offended the thing that had replaced God in the Puritan conscience — namely the Self. Any pleasure harmful to the self must now be subject to the same absolute condemnation as had been directed against the pleasures of sex. Hence the hysterical campaign against smoking, which has not taken the form of advising against something harmful, but the far more alarming form of condemning that thing as a sin. You can portray young people on the screen as engaging in sexual orgies, beating each other up, swearing and exhibiting every kind of nastiness. But you must never show a young person with a cigarette in his hand, since that will be condoning and encouraging sin. Portraits of famous smokers like Brunel, Churchill and Sartre have been doctored by the Ministry of Truth in order to remove the offensive item from between their fingers, and side by side with the poster on the school notice board that advises 12-year-olds on safe sex and free abortion, is the absolutist edict saying that thou shalt not smoke. 

Puritans have had as much reason to target drinking as to target smoking. And here it is somewhat easier to sympathise with them. For there is no doubt that the wrong kind of drinking is not just offensive to the new God of Self, but offensive also to the old God of Others, who is the God of love. Drunkenness does not merely harm the individual. It can destroy his capacity for human relations and turn his world into a sea of bitterness. Now that the puritans have turned their attention to drinking, therefore, they have met with an understandable wave of sympathy from those of us who are otherwise repelled by their vindictive joylessness. It is vital, if we are to save one of the greatest of human goods from the new Inquisition, that we find another and more humane way to approach the problem of alcohol. And that is why we should take a lesson from Aristotle, and see the question not in terms of thou shalt and thou shalt not, but in terms of the right and the wrong way to drink. And we should try to understand the distinction between virtuous and vicious drinking by reflecting on wine, since it has been, in our civilisation, both the vehicle of the real presence of God, and the symbol of our ways of reaching him. 

Wine intoxicates; but we should distinguish intoxication from drunkenness. The first is a state of consciousness, whereas the second is a state of unconsciousness — or which tends towards unconsciousness. Although the one leads in time to the other, the connection between them is no more transparent than the connection between the first kiss and the final divorce. Just as the erotic kiss is neither a tame version nor a premonition of the bitter parting to which it finally leads, so is the intoxicating taste of the wine neither a tame version nor a premonition of drunkenness: they are simply not the “same kind of thing”, even if at some level of scientific theory they are discovered to have the same kind of cause. 

It is also questionable to speak of the intoxication that we experience through wine as “induced by” the wine. For this implies a separation between the object tasted and the intoxication felt, of the kind that exists between drowsiness and the sleeping pill that causes it. When we speak of an intoxicating line of poetry, we are not referring to an effect in the person who reads or remembers it, comparable to the effect of an energy pill. We are referring to a quality in the line itself. The intoxication of Mallarmé’s abolit bibelot d’inanité sonore lies there on the page, not here in my nervous system. 

Likewise, the intoxicating quality that we taste in wine is a quality that we taste in it and not in ourselves. True, we are raised by it to a higher state of exhilaration, and this is a widely observed and very important fact. But this exhilaration is an effect, not a quality bound into the very taste of the stuff, as the intoxication seems to be. At the same time, there is a connection between the taste and the intoxicating effect, just as there is a connection between the exciting quality of a football game and the excitement that is produced by it. The intoxication that I feel is not just caused by the wine: it is, to some extent, directed at the wine, and has a quality of “relishing”, which makes it impossible to describe in the abstract, as though some other stuff might have produced it. The wine lives in my intoxication, as the game lives in the excitement of the fan: I have not swallowed the wine as I would a tasteless drug; I have taken it into myself, so that its flavour and my mood are inextricably bound up with each other. 

An intoxicating drink, which both slides down easily and warms as it goes, is a symbol of — and also a means to achieve — an inward transformation, in which a person takes something in to himself. Hence you find wine, from the earliest recorded history, allotted a sacred function. It is a means whereby a god or daemon enters the soul of the one who drinks it, and often the drinking occurs at a religious ceremony, with the wine explicitly identified with the divinity who is being worshipped: witness the cult of Dionysus, the Eleusian mysteries, the Athenian festivals such as the thesmophoria, the mystery cults of Diana and the Egyptian child Horus. For the anthropologist, the Christian Eucharist, in which the blood of the sacrificed lamb is drunk in the form of communion wine, is downstream from the mystery cults of antiquity, which are in turn downstream from those ceremonies that accompanied the vinifying of the grape among the great heroes who first discovered how to do it and believed, with commendable piety, that it was done by a god.

The religious use of wine and its soul-transforming effect reflect the underlying truth that it is only rational beings who can appreciate things like wine. Animals can be drunk. They can be high on drugs and fuggy with cannabis, but they cannot experience the kind of directed intoxication that we experience through wine, since relishing is something that only a rational being can exhibit, and which therefore only a rational being can do. Hence we control our intake, and are acutely aware of the danger that our rational powers, and the human relations that depend on them, can be jeopardised by the wrong kind of drinking. In the normal human case, therefore, we endeavour to remain true to ourselves in our cups, and to display nothing when under the influence that we would wish to hide when not. 

Alcohol in general, and wine in particular, has a unique social function, increasing the garrulousness, the social confidence and the goodwill of those who drink together, provided they drink in moderation. Many of the ways that we have developed of drinking socially are designed to impose a strict regime of moderation. Buying drinks by round in the pub, for example, has an important role in both permitting people to rehearse the sentiments that cause and arise from generosity (yet without bearing the full cost of them), while controlling the rate of intake and the balance between the inflow of drink and the outflow of words. This ritual parallels the ritual of the Greek symposium, and that of the circulation of wine after dinner in country houses and Oxbridge common rooms. 

The practice of buying rounds in the pub is one of the great cultural achievements of the English. It enables people with little money of their own to make generous gestures, without the risk of being ruined by them. It enables each person to distinguish himself from his neighbours and to portray his individuality in his choice of drink, and it causes affection progressively to mount in the circle of drinkers, by giving each in turn the character of a warm and hospitable friend. In a way it is a moral improvement on the Greek symposium, where the host alone appeared in the character of the giver, and also on the common room and the country house. The round of drinks enables even the speechless and the downtrodden briefly to receive the thanks, the appreciation and the honour of their neighbours. It is a paradigm case of “social inclusion”, to use the jargon of our rulers, and it is hardly surprising that everything is now being done to ensure that the practice dies out. Our Government’s current campaigns against binge drinking and public smoking are designed to destroy the normal forms of relaxation among simple people, and to cause them to stay at home with a bottle, where they can watch politically correct television in silence, absorbing the images of social decay.

The transformation of the soul under the influence of wine is merely the continuation of another transformation that began maybe fifty years earlier when the grape was first plucked from the vine. (That is one reason why the Greeks described fermentation as the work of a god. Dionysus enters the grape and transforms it; and this process of transformation is then transferred to us as we drink.) When we raise a glass of wine to our lips, therefore, we are savouring an ongoing process: the wine is a living thing, the last result of other living things, and the progenitor of life in us. It is almost as though it were another human presence in any social gathering, as much a focus of interest and in the same way as the other people there.

The ancient proverb tells us that there is truth in wine. The truth lies not in what the drinker perceives but in what, with loosened tongue and easier manners, he reveals. It is “truth for others”, not “truth for self”. This accounts for both the social virtues of wine and its epistemological innocence. Wine does not deceive you, as cannabis deceives you, with the idea that you enter another and higher realm, that you see through the veil of Maya to the transcendental object or the thing-in-itself. Hence it is quite unlike even the mildest of the mind-altering drugs, all of which convey some vestige, however vulgarised, of the experience associated with mescalin and LSD, and recorded by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. These drugs — cannabis not excepted — are epistemologically culpable. They tell lies about another world, a transcendental reality beside which the world of ordinary phenomena pales into insignificance or at any rate into less significance than it has. Wine, by contrast, paints the world before us as the true one, and reminds us that if we have failed previously to know it then this is because we have failed in truth to belong to it, a defect that it is the singular virtue of wine to overcome. Something similar might be said of beer and English proverbs testify to the honourable place of ale in popular thinking, as a source of insight into human society.

Hence drinking in company induces an opening out of the self to the other, a conscious step towards asking and offering forgiveness: not for acts or omissions, but for the impertinence of existing. This suggests another reason for the centrality of wine in the communion ceremony, which is that it both illustrates and in a small measure enacts the moral posture that distinguishes Christianity from its early rivals, and which is summarised in the prayer to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us”. That remarkable prayer, which tells the Christian that he can obtain forgiveness only if he offers it, is one that we all understand in our cups, and this understanding of the critical role of forgiveness in forming durable human societies intrudes too into Islam, in the poetry of Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, winos to a man. It is a sign of the extremism of Islam, in the versions that seem so threatening today, that it emphasises the Koranic interdiction of wine, and forgets that the rivers of paradise, according to the Holy Book, are actually made of the stuff. 

This returns me to the point about intoxication. The pronounced mental effects of wine are, so to speak, read back into their cause, so that the wine itself has the taste of them. Just as you savour the intoxicating flavour of the wine, so do you savour its reconciling power: it presents you with the taste of forgiveness. That is one way of understanding the Christian doctrine of trans-substantiation, itself a survival of the Greek belief that Dionysus is actually in the wine and not just the cause of it. The communicant does not taste the wine with a view to experiencing reconciliation and forgiveness as a subsequent effect. He savours forgiveness in the very act of drinking. This is what reconciliation, mercy and forgiveness taste like:

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

So George Herbert expressed the point (in The Agonie). And in those great (and alas far too short) periods of Islamic civilisation in which the spirit of forgiveness prevailed, their poets would also, in their own way, sing praises to

The grape that can with logic absolute

The two-and-seventy jarring sects confute

as Omar Khayyam puts it, in Fitzgerald’s version. 

In attempting to describe the knowledge that wine imparts, we look for features of our actual world, features that might be, as it were, epitomised, commemorated and celebrated in its flavours. Hence the traditional perception of fine wine as the taste of a terroir: where that means not merely the soil, but the customs and ceremonies that had sanctified it and put it, so to speak, in communion with the drinker. The use of theological language here is, I believe, no accident. Although wine tells no lies about a transcendental realm, it sanctifies the immanent reality, which is why it is so effective a symbol of the incarnation. In savouring it, we are knowing — by acquaintance, as it were — the history, geography and customs of a community. 

Since ancient times, therefore, wines have been associated with definite places and been accepted not so much as the taste of those places, as the flavour imparted to them by the enterprise of settlement. Wine of Byblos was one of the principal exports of the Phoenicians, and old Falernian was made legendary by Horace. Those who conjure with the magic names of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhine and Moselle are not just showing off: they are deploying the best and most reliable description of a cherished taste, which is inseparable from the idea and the history of the settlement that produced it.

And here we should again return to the religious meaning of wine. At the risk of drastically oversimplifying, I suggest that there are two quite distinct strands that compose the religious consciousness, and that our understanding of religion has suffered from too great an emphasis on one of them. The first strand, which we over-emphasise — this, too, being part of our puritan legacy — is that of belief. The second strand, which is slipping away from modern thought (though not from modern reality) is that which might be summarised in the term “membership”, by which I mean all the customs, ceremonies and practices whereby the sacred is renewed, so as to be a real presence among us, and a living endorsement of the human community. The pagan religions of Greece and Rome were strong on membership but weak on belief. Hence they centred on the cult, as the primary religious phenomenon. It was through the cult, not the creed that the adept proved his religious orthodoxy and his oneness with his fellows. Western civilisation has tended in recent centuries to emphasise belief — in particular the belief in a transcendental realm and an omnipotent king who presides over it. This theological emphasis, by representing religion as a matter of theological doctrine, exposes it to refutation. And that means that the real religious need of people seeks other channels for its expression: usually forms of idolatry that do not achieve the refreshing humanity of the cult.

Now, it seems to me that the act of settling, which is the origin of civilisation, involves both a radical transition in our relation to the earth — the transition known in other terms as that from hunter-gatherer to farmer — and also a new sense of belonging. The settled people do not belong only to each other: they belong to a place, and out of that sense of shared roots there grow the farm, the village and the city. Vegetation cults are the oldest and most deeply rooted in the unconscious, since they are the cults that drive out the totemism of the hunter-gatherer and celebrate the earth itself, as the willing accomplice in our bid to stay put. 

The new farming economy, and the city that grows from it, generate in us a sense of the holiness of the planted crop, and in particular of the staple food — which is grass, usually in the form of corn or rice — and the vine that wraps the trees above it. The fruit of the vine can be fermented and so stored in a sterilised form. It provides a place and the things that grow there with a memory. 

At some level, I venture to suggest, the experience of wine is a recuperation of that original cult whereby the land was settled and the city built. And what we taste in the wine is not just the fruit and its ferment, but also the peculiar flavour of a landscape to which the gods have been invited and where they have found a home. Grain, too, can be fermented, and in its way will provide a similar tribute to the place and our way of settling it. Aficionados of real ale and malt whisky are aware of this, and know that they are tasting the rains and the soils of the places that they visit in the glass and making contact across the centuries with the people who put down roots there. Such experiences are especially valuable to us, now that the world is accelerating to inhuman speed. The need to sit quietly and be at peace with the dead is one of the greatest requirements of a civilised life. And to do this in company, conversing all evening with a glass in your hand is to be reconciled to life in a way that few people now — in the age of the screen and the scream — achieve. 

If you wish to understand “binge drinking”, and the vice that it exemplifies, I think that this is the intellectual domain in which the search should begin. When people sit down together in a public place — a place where none of them is sovereign but each of them at home — and when those people pass the evening together, sipping drinks in which the spirit of place is stored and amplified, maybe smoking or taking snuff and in any case willingly exchanging the dubious benefits of longevity for the certain joys of friendship, they rehearse in their souls the original act of settlement, the act that set our species on the path of civilisation, and which endowed us with the order of neighbourhood and the rule of law. When, however, people swig drinks without interest in their neighbours, except as equal members of the wild host of hunter-gatherers, when their sole concern is the intoxicating effect and when the drink itself is neither savoured nor understood, then are they rehearsing that time before civilisation, in which life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Understandably, the first and natural effect of this way of drinking is an implacable belligerence towards the surrounding signs of settlement — an urge to smash and destroy, to replace the ordered world of house and street and public buildings, with a ruined wasteland where only the drunk is at home. Binge drinking may look like a communal act. In fact, it is an act of collective solitude, in which the god of modern puritans, the Self, reigns supreme.

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