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A Cultural History of Intoxication

Written by Stuart WaltonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stuart Walton

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42140-1
Published by : Crown Crown/Archetype
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Synopsis

“Like any good cocktail, this book brings together tasty ingredients in a delicious mix.” —Boston Herald

“Walton is hilariously well-versed in wine terminology, and his wit is deliciously dry.” —Seattle Weekly

Out of It is a thoroughly addictive examination of intoxicants, from the everyday substances of alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco to the illicit realm of opiates, amphetamines, and hallucinogens. More than a mere (if heady) catalog of intoxicants, however, Stuart Walton’s book is a smart, wry look at why intoxication has always been a part of the human experience—from our earliest Stone Age rituals to the practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans, right on up through the Victorian era and ending with a flourish in modern times—and more significantly, why the use of intoxicants is, and will continue to be, an essential part of being human.

“An insightful overview of humanity’s historical and cultural attachment to various intoxicants. . . . It deserves a prominent place in the emerging discussion reshaping understanding and policies regarding intoxication and the use of drugs and alcohol.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Walton is particularly, and convincingly, engrossing, an elegant and forceful stylist.”—The Guardian

Excerpt

Coming Up

Here is a modern recreational tale. Three young men get together on a Saturday night. Their backgrounds are culturally diverse, but all reasonably comfortable. None of them has a criminal record, or comes from what sociologists used to call a broken home. They are of mixed ages (24-35), nationalities and sexualities; one is a mutual friend of the two others, who have not previously met. Two of them have come through a succession of relatively smart office jobs, but are now trying their hands at being self-employed. The third has held a responsible position in the catering industry, but is currently unemployed.

Two of them begin the evening in the apartment that one of them rents. They drink a bottle of sparkling wine and a bottle of white wine. While drinking, they also get through two grams of cocaine, snorting it in lines two at a time about every twenty minutes. They meet the third in a bar later on, and drink several rounds--perhaps half a dozen--of spirits with mixers. At around 2 A.M., they go on to another late bar, where one of them knows that drugs can be bought quite easily. Within minutes, they are offered ecstasy by a complete stranger. Following some gentle haggling over the price, they buy two tablets.

Outside the bar, a group of elderly bikers is selling amphetamine. They buy two grams of that as well. Back at the flat, they divide the tablets into six fragments and take two each. There is a further half gram of cocaine to finish, and the two grams of amphetamine. Whilst ingesting the drugs, they drink a further six bottles of sparkling wine between them over the course of the night. At 10 A.M., without having slept, they venture out into town again and, after lolling on public benches for a while, go to a bar and embark on a round of bottled beers.

This is not exactly a typical weekend. It counts in the running narrative of their leisure time as something of a "blinder." None of them suffers much in the way of aftereffects. There is, to be sure, the sense of vacuumed-out listlessness that follows prolonged amphetamine intake. Two of them have acutely constricted sinuses, a compensation reaction to cocaine-snorting. None has an alcohol hangover. They are all fit and fully functioning again by Monday.

In a paneled room in the nether regions of one of Oxford University's more ancient colleges, a group of graduates and undergraduates that forms its illustrious debating society gathers. The room is lit solely by candlelight, lending the proceedings a vague air of masonic clandestinity, but only intended in the interest of a period feel, to evoke the time of the seventeenth-century poet-playwright after whom the society is named.

An oak cabinet, stained with age, and referred to as the Ark, is solemnly placed on the table around which the group is assembled. From it is drawn, with ecclesiastical reverence, a large two-handled pewter sconce. All eyes are trained on the president of the society as she fills this vessel to the brim with strong beer. Raising it above her head as if it were the Communion cup, she intones a Latin invocation of greeting to the foregathered company that ends with the solemn announcement, "Nunc est bibendum" ("Now is the time for drinking").

The sconce is then passed slowly around the table, each celebrant gripping it by both handles and uttering a Latin formula in honor of the household gods of the society's patron presence, before drinking a respectfully deep draught of the beer and handing it on.

Following this, a short talk on some agreeably nebulous moral theme is delivered--Honor, perhaps, or Forgiveness--and then the entire table sets to with a will, arguing over the points raised in convivial disarray, untrammeled by presidential intervention, and lubricated by copious quantities of wine and vintage port. At whatever time the room must be vacated, the members will totter away across the quadrangle, still disputing with each other in amiable inebriation, perhaps straggling into the nearest pub to continue their exchanges, assertions and refutations thickening the already smoke-dense air.

At such august institutions did many of Britain's parliamentarians once cut their debating teeth, thumping the drunken table to make their point about Pride or Altruism, quite as if it mattered. (In the mid-1980s, the group's president was herself the daughter of a Scottish member of the European Parliament.) But what particularly fascinated the parvenu guest, with his alternative haircut and redbrick degree, was the way in which drinking was not merely an incidental adjunct to make a lively evening the more commodious, but had been ceremonially incorporated into the ritual so integrally that teetotalers need not have applied. The Platonic dialogue flowed precisely from the sacred rite of intoxication, so that the meeting became a dialectical drinking-session, a far more dignified proceeding than colleagues getting slaughtered in the nearby Bull and Pennant were engaged in. Without alcohol, the society's disputations would have been aridly futile.

There are around two dozen subsidized bars in the British Houses of Parliament.

A pair of dining companions scrutinizes the menus in a smart, trendsetting restaurant in a European capital city. One has opted to begin with the tempura-battered strips of calf's liver with pomegranate cream dressing, and go on to herb-crusted rack of lamb with Provencale vegetables. For the other, it will be quail terrine with red-currant relish and rocket, and to follow, poached perch with a sauce of lemon and capers. Now for the tricky business.

That dressing on the liver might present problems for a light white wine, and without knowing precisely how sharp it will be, the choice is something of a matter of stumbling in the dark. A crisp New Zealand Sauvignon might stand up to it, and cut any residual oiliness in the batter, but then, what of the quail terrine? Surely that needs a meatier white, even a light red? The merits of a sturdy white Burgundy are discussed, but the proposal is soon relinquished. An excess of oak would suit neither dish. Eventually, a compromise bottle is found. The weight and extract in a grand cru Gewurztraminer from Alsace will cope with the battered liver, and is a gastronomically unimpeachable match with any kind of terrine. The first bottle can safely be ordered.

How, though, to find a vinous chameleon to blend with both red meat and white fish? That way, gustatory madness lies. Pinot Noir might suit a densely textured fish like tuna, but could crush the delicacy of a river fish, while lacking the tannic heft required to stand up to lamb. The rich buttery sauce with the perch will happily negotiate the fleshiness of a Barossa Valley Chardonnay, but even that wine, with its layers of oak and alcohol, is just too white for rare red meat. An apposite half bottle each would be the obvious answer, were the list not so lamentably deficient in them. After much fretful chewing of bread, and flipping of pages back and forth, the issue is imperfectly resolved in favor of a bottle of cru classe Pauillac, the gameplan being that the fish-eater will be left the lion's share of the Gewurztraminer to go with the perch (which means drinking the same wine with two courses, alas), but will nonetheless be able to help finish the claret with some cheese. Now the logistics of it must be explained to the sommelier, so that he doesn't overserve the Gewurztraminer to the lamb-eater during the hors d'oeuvre.

In certain wine circles, food and wine matching has reached the status of an investigative science. A wine periodical convokes a bunch of journalists and wine-makers to pick wines to go with a succession of dishes, the linking theme of which is strawberries. There is goat cheese with strawberries, swordfish with strawberries, duck livers with strawberries in balsamic vinegar, and a strawberry and white chocolate gateau. A forest of opened bottles clutters the table as the panel searches earnestly on behalf of the magazine's subscribers for the precise wine to marry with each dish. At the Fetzer winery in Mendocino County, California, there is a dedicated school devoted to this pursuit, where interested parties may enroll to spend studious days tasting and conferring. Is Sauvignon a better match than Chenin for the acid bite of sorrel, or is its up-front fruitiness more obviously suited to watercress? Then again, it depends on the dressing...

What all these scenarios are about is the alteration of consciousness. The use of illegal drugs, being a minority pursuit within society at large, is not subject to quite the same complex elaborations that drinking is; the various plant substances have been disconnected from their deep ritual histories by transplantation into Western economies and their quarantining by legal restrictions, while synthesized laboratory chemicals such as amphetamine have never had them. Alcohol, by contrast, has accrued over the millennia a rich and almost infinitely diverse set of symbolic contexts in which it may be taken, whether the aim be celebratory, consolatory, medicinal, scholastic, sacramental or gastronomic. What motivates our involvement with all intoxicants, however, is what they do to us. That may range across a spectrum from gentle tipsiness to stupefied collapse, from mild mood-heightening to gasping elation, from slight drowsiness to barely conscious narcosis, from faint dissociation to full-on hallucinogenic psychedelia. Sometimes the spectrums may be superimposed one on top of the other as substances are combined. The point is, nearly all of us will be somewhere along one of these spectrums for a significant part of our lives. And we always have been, depending on what was available, right back to Paleolithic times.

It is only in the last few years, however, that the subject of intoxication has come to be addressed in any systematic way. Part of the reason for this is that nobody is officially supposed to have any experience of the substances listed in the American Controlled Substances Act, the British Misuse of Drugs Act, or analogous legislation throughout the world. "What we cannot speak about," as Wittgenstein might have reminded us, "we must pass over in silence." Even in the case of the permitted intoxicants alcohol and tobacco, though, there was until not long ago very little explicit acknowledgment that their importance in human affairs derives primarily from their psychoactive impact in our systems. Where this was referred to, an uncanny decorum persisted, so that in some peculiar way, to have become even mildly inebriated in the course of partaking of intoxicating drinks had to be spoken of as though it were an accidental, embarrassing side-effect. Indeed, there is a sedimentary layer of apologetics, of bashful, tittering euphemism, at the bottom of all talk about alcohol as an intoxicant that was laid down in the nineteenth century, and that not even the liberal revolutions of the 1960s quite managed to dislodge. If anything, it is impacting and strengthening again, underpinned by the predatory mood of neo-Prohibitionism that the United States may well succeed in exporting to Europe, and by the proscriptiveness of professional bodies such as the British Medical Association. A hysterical editorial in USA Today calling for drink companies to be made to pay the medical expenses of cirrhosis patients may simply be the mood music of the new repression, but how to react to this introductory comment in a monumental history of wine-making by one of its most elegant chroniclers, Hugh Johnson?

It was not the subtle bouquet of wine, or a lingering aftertaste of violets and raspberries, that first caught the attention of our ancestors. It was, I'm afraid, its effect.(1)

Quite so, but why the deprecatory mumble? What is there to be "afraid" of in acknowledging that wine's parentage lies in alcohol, that our ancestors were attracted to it because the ur-experience of inebriation was like nothing else in the phenomenal world? And what else in it attracts the oenophile of tomorrow in the first place, if not the fact that she found it a pleasant way of getting intoxicated today? Can we not say these things out loud, as if we were adults whose lives were already chock-full of sensory experience?

We can't. It is in many ways easier to be frank today about one's sexual habits than it is to talk about what intoxicants one uses. Illegality is its own form of straitjacket, of course, but the increasing requirement, even in quite irrelevant circumstances, to declare to doctors what the level of one's intake is, together with the concomitant imperative to cut it down or pack it in, quite as if such matters were invariably their concern, is rendering us all shamefaced inarticulates on the subject. Increasingly, corporate employers are awarding themselves the right to know what is in the bloodstreams of their staff. Decline the test, and you're out. A major psychological revolution was fomented in the early twentieth century when the infant science of psychoanalysis suggested, scandalously enough at the time, that we would be better off finding some honest way to acknowledge our sexual desires rather than continuing to stifle them. The same science might profitably direct many of its modern-day clients to be equally courageous in accepting the intoxication drive, which is at least as--if not more--peremptory in its demands on us. That task in any case lies before us all (Freudian analysands or not), I believe, as one of the challenges of the new century, and this book is an attempt to outline some of the most important historical reasons for our arrival at the present impasse. If we can see why we have come to be so embarrassed about the topic, then we will stand a chance of emerging from the long shadow of guilt that has been cast over that proportion of our lives for so many generations.

It isn't as though intoxication were evolving out of our history, after all. Tobacco-smoking may have declined in some Western countries as the health campaigns against it have gradually scared people off the habit, but we shouldn't simply rejoice at that tendency by pointing to the growing numbers in each generation who never so much as touch a single cigarette. There are many who, like the author, take it up in student years with the intention (successfully, as it transpired) to give it up a few years later, and they too count as part of the overall decline. No lasting harm may be done from a pattern of use like this, but that doesn't mean one can just edit the fact of it out of one's life. The fact is that I have been a user of tobacco--a temporary user, but a user nonetheless. And the propaganda may not be anyway quite as efficacious as its authors hope. An ex-smoker who professes to be baffled at the inability of others who want to stop, but can't, is disavowing the evidence of his own experience, while those who never started needn't feel obliged to weigh in. Temperance campaigners take a disproportionate amount of heart from antitobacco propaganda, in the sense that they believe that if they keep stressing, exaggerating and fabricating the health risks of alcohol, they will wean the next generations off that. This is a real hiding to nothing, though. A significant part of the impetus to stop smoking derives from the fact that the user becomes aware, relatively rapidly, of the physical consequences of the practice, an outcome not noticeably replicated by alcohol, where any demise through overuse is a much more gradual process.


From the Hardcover edition.
Stuart Walton

About Stuart Walton

Stuart Walton - Out of It

Photo © Roderick Field

STUART WALTON is a cultural historian, journalist, and the author of numerous books on the subject of wine and liquors.
Praise

Praise

“Walton is particularly, and convincingly, engrossing, an elegant and forceful stylist, and were this a longer review I would quote copiously to prove the point. For the moment, you will have to take this on trust.”
—The Guardian


From the Hardcover edition.

  • Out of It by Stuart Walton
  • October 28, 2003
  • Social Science - Anth/Cultural
  • Three Rivers Press
  • $14.95
  • 9781400049769

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