This essay will appear in "Intoxication," the Winter 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch and here with the kind permission of that magazine.
The question that tempts mankind to the use of substances controlled and uncontrolled is next of kin to Hamlet's: to be, or not to be, someone or somewhere else. Escape from a grievous circumstance or the shambles of an unwanted self, the hope of finding at a higher altitude a new beginning or a better deal. Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars; give me leave to drown my sorrow in a quart of gin; wine, dear boy, and truth.
That the consummations of the wish to shuffle off the mortal coil are as old as the world itself was the message brought by Abraham Lincoln to an Illinois temperance society in 1842. "I have not inquired at what period of time the use of intoxicating liquors commenced," he said, "nor is it important to know." It is sufficient to know that on first opening our eyes "upon the stage of existence," we found "intoxicating liquor recognized by everybody, used by everybody, repudiated by nobody."
The state of intoxication is a house with many mansions. Fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ, the Rigveda finds Hindu priests chanting hymns to a "drop of soma," the wise and wisdom-loving plant from which was drawn juices distilled in sheep's wool that "make us see far; make us richer, better." Philosophers in ancient Greece rejoiced in the literal meaning of the word symposium, a "drinking together." The Roman Stoic Seneca recommends the judicious embrace of Bacchus as a liberation of the mind "from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it, and emboldens it for all its undertakings."
Omar Khayyam, 12th-century Persian mathematician and astronomer, drinks wine "because it is my solace," allowing him to "divorce absolutely reason and religion." Martin Luther, early father of the Protestant Reformation, in 1530 exhorts the faithful to "drink, and right freely," because it is the devil who tells them not to. "One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely, and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me."
Dr. Samuel Johnson, child of the Enlightenment, requires wine only when alone, "to get rid of myself—to send myself away." The French poet Charles Baudelaire, prodigal son of the Industrial Revolution, is less careful with his time. "One should always be drunk. That's the great thing, the only question. Drunk with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please."
My grandfather, Roger Lapham (1883–1966), was similarly disposed, his house in San Francisco the stage of existence upon which, at the age of seven in 1942, I first opened my eyes to the practice as old as the world itself. At the Christmas family gathering that year, Grandfather deemed any and all children present who were old enough to walk instead of toddle therefore old enough to sing a carol, recite a poem, and drink a cup of kindness made with brandy, cinnamon, and apples. To raise the spirit, welcome the arrival of our newborn Lord and Savior. Joy to the world, peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
"If You Meet, You Drink…"
Thus introduced to intoxicating liquors under auspices both secular and sacred, the offering of alms for oblivion I took to be the custom of the country in which I had been born. In the 1940s as it was in the 1840s, as it had been ever since the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth laden with emboldening casks of wine and beer. The spirit of liberty is never far from the hope of metamorphosis or transformation, and the Americans from the beginning were drawn to the possibilities in the having of one more for the road. They formed their character in the settling of a fearful wilderness, and the history of the country could be written as a prolonged mocking and harassing of the devil by the drinking, "and right freely," from whatever wise and wisdom-loving grain or grape came conveniently to hand.
The oceangoing Pilgrims in colonial Massachusetts and Rhode Island delighted in both the taste and trade in rum. The founders of the republic in Philadelphia in 1787 were in the habit of consuming prodigious quantities of liquor as an expression of their faith in their fellow men—pots of ale or cider at midday, two or more bottles of claret at dinner followed by an amiable passing around the table of the Madeira.
As a reporter at the SF Examiner, I was assigned to go with the poet Allen Ginsberg to the Stanford Research Institute to take a trip on LSD.
Among the tobacco planters in Virginia, the moneychangers in New York, the stalwart yeomen in western Pennsylvania busy at the task of making whiskey, the maintaining of a high blood-alcohol level was the mark of civilized behavior. The lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner were fitted to the melody of an 18th-century British tavern song. The excise taxes collected from the sale of liquor paid for the War of 1812, and by 1830 the tolling of the town bell (at 11 a.m., and again at 4 p.m.) announced the daily pauses for spirited refreshment.
Frederick Marryat, an English traveler to America in 1839, noted in his diary that the way the natives drank was "quite a caution…If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink, because it is hot; they drink, because it is cold."
During what were known as the Gay Nineties, at the zenith of the country's Gilded Age, Manhattan between the Battery and Forty-second Street glittered in the lights of 10,000 saloons issuing passports to the islands of the blessed and the rivers of forgetfulness. No travel plan or destination that couldn't be accommodated, prices available on request. French champagne at Sherry's Restaurant for the top-hatted Wall Street speculators celebrating the discoveries of El Dorado; shots of five-cent whiskey (said to taste "like a combination of kerosene oil, soft soap, alcohol, and the chemicals used in fire extinguishers") for the unemployed foreign laborer sleeping in the gutters south of Canal Street. Who could say who was hoping to trade places with whom, the uptown swell intent upon becoming a noble savage, the downtown immigrant imagining himself dressed in fur and diamonds?
What else is America about if not the work of self-invention? Recognize the project as an always risky business, and it is the willingness to chance what dreams may come (west of the Alleghenies or on the further shores of consciousness) that gives to the American the distinguishing traits of character that the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, identified as those of the chronic revolutionary and the ever hopeful pilgrim. Boorstin drew the conclusion from his study of the American colonial experience: "No prudent man dared be too certain of exactly who he was or what he was about; everyone had to be prepared to become someone else. To be ready for such perilous transmigrations was to become an American."
"There Are More Kicks to Be Had in a Good Case of Paralytic Polio"
So too in the 1960s, the prudent becoming of an American involved perilous transmigrations, psychic, spiritual, and political. By no means certain who I was at the age of 24, I was prepared to make adjustments, but my one experiment with psychedelics in 1959 was a rub that promptly gave me pause.
Employed at the time as a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, I was assigned to go with the poet Allen Ginsberg to the Stanford Research Institute to take a trip on LSD. Social scientists opening the doors of perception at the behest of Aldous Huxley wished to compare the flight patterns of a Bohemian artist and a bourgeois philistine, and they had asked the paper's literary editor to furnish one of each. We were placed in adjacent soundproofed rooms, both of us under the observation of men in white coats equipped with clipboards, the idea being that we would relay messages from the higher consciousness to the air-traffic controllers on the ground.
Liftoff was a blue pill taken on an empty stomach at 9 a.m., the trajectory a bell curve plotted over a distance of seven hours. By way of traveling companions we had been encouraged to bring music, in those days on vinyl LPs, of whatever kind moved us while on earth to register emotions approaching the sublime.
Together with Johann Sebastian Bach and the Modern Jazz Quartet, I attained what I'd been informed would be cruising altitude at noon. I neglected to bring a willing suspension of disbelief, and because I stubbornly resisted the sales pitch for the drug—if you, O Wizard, can work wonders, prove to me the where and when and how and why—I encountered heavy turbulence. Images inchoate and nonsensical, my arms and legs seemingly elongated and embalmed in grease, the sense of utter isolation while being gnawed by rats.
To the men in white I had nothing to report, not one word on either the going up and out or the coming back and down. I never learned what Ginsberg had to say. Whatever it was, I wasn't interested, and I left the building before he had returned from what by then I knew to be a dead-end sleep.
My long-standing acquaintance with alcohol was for the most part cordial. Usually when I drank too much, I could guess why I did so, the objective being to murder a state of consciousness that I didn't have the courage to sustain—a fear of heights, which sometimes during the carnival of the 1960s accompanied my attempts to transform the bourgeois journalist into an avant-garde novelist. The stepped-up ambition was a commonplace among the would-be William Faulkners of my generation; nearly always it resulted in commercial failure and literary embarrassment.
I didn't grow a beard or move to Vermont, but every now and then I hit upon a run of words that I could mistake for art, and I would find myself intoxicated by what Emily Dickinson knew to be "a liquor never brewed/from Tankards scooped in Pearl." The neuroscientists understand the encounter with the ineffable as an "endorphin high," the outrageously fortunate mixing of the chemicals in the brain when it is being put to imaginative and creative use.