[This essay will appear in “Intoxication,” the Winter 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com 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, twelfth-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.
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 eighteenth-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 there 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.
On being surprised by a joy so astonishingly sweet, I assumed that it must be forbidden, and if by the light of day I’d come too close to leaning against the sun with seraphs swinging snowy hats, by nightfall I felt bound to check into the nearest cage, drunkenness being the one most conveniently at hand. Around midnight at Elaine’s, a saloon on Second Avenue in Manhattan that in those days catered to a clientele of actors, writers, and other assorted con artists playing characters of their own invention, I could count on the company of fellow travelers outward or inward bound on the roads of perilous transmigration. No matter what their reason for a timely departure — whether to obliterate the fear of failure, delete the thought of wife and home, reconfigure a mistaken identity, project into the future the birth of an imaginary self — all present were engaged in some sort of struggle between the force of life and the will to death. Thanatos and Eros seated across from each other over the backgammon board on table four, the onlookers suspending the judgment of ridicule and extending the courtesy of tolerance.
Alcohol serves at the pleasure of the players on both sides of the game, its virtues those indicated by Seneca and Martin Luther, its vices those that the novelist Marguerite Duras likens, as did Hamlet, to the sleep of death: “Drinking isn’t necessarily the same as wanting to die. But you can’t drink without thinking you’re killing yourself.” Alcohol’s job is to replace creation with an illusion that is barren. “The words a man speaks in the night of drunkenness fade like the darkness itself at the coming of day.”
The observation is in the same despairing minor key as Billie Holiday’s riff on heroin: “If you think dope is for kicks and thrills you’re out of your mind. There are more kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio and living in an iron lung. If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you’re crazy. It can fix you so you can’t play nothing or sing nothing.” She goes on to say that in Britain the authorities at least have the decency to treat addiction as a public-health problem, but in America, “if you go to the doctor, he’s liable to slam the door in your face and call the cops.”
Humankind’s thirst for intoxicants is unquenchable, but to criminalize it, as Lincoln reminded the Illinois temperance society, reinforces the clinging to the addiction; to think otherwise would be “to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree and never can be reversed.” The injuries inflicted by alcohol don’t follow “from the use of a bad thing, but from the abuse of a very good thing.” The victims are “to be pitied and compassionated,” their failings treated “as a misfortune, and not as a crime or even as a disgrace.”
The War on Drugs as a War Against Human Nature
Whether declared by church or state, the war against human nature is by definition lost. The Puritan inspectors of souls in seventeenth-century New England deplored even the tentative embrace of Bacchus as “great licentiousness,” the faithful “pouring out themselves in all profaneness,” but the record doesn’t show a falling off of attendance at Boston’s eighteenth-century inns and taverns. The laws prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the 1920s discovered in the mark of sin the evidence of crime, but the attempt to sustain the allegation proved to be as ineffectual as it was destructive of the country’s life and liberty.
Instead of resurrecting from the pit a body politic of newly risen saints, Prohibition guaranteed the health and welfare of society’s avowed enemies. The organized-crime syndicates established on the delivery of bootleg whiskey evolved into multinational trade associations commanding the respect that comes with revenues estimated at $2 billion per annum. In 1930 alone, Al Capone’s ill-gotten gains amounted to $100 million.
So again with the war that America has been waging for the last 100 years against the use of drugs deemed to be illegal. The war cannot be won, but in the meantime, at a cost of $20 billion a year, it facilitates the transformation of what was once a freedom-loving republic into a freedom-fearing national security state.
The policies of zero tolerance equip local and federal law-enforcement with increasingly autocratic powers of coercion and surveillance (the right to invade anybody’s privacy, bend the rules of evidence, search barns, stop motorists, inspect bank records, tap phones) and spread the stain of moral pestilence to ever larger numbers of people assumed to be infected with reefer madness — anarchists and cheap Chinese labor at the turn of the twentieth century, known homosexuals and suspected Communists in the 1920s, hippies and anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s, nowadays young black men sentenced to long-term imprisonment for possession of a few grams of short-term disembodiment.
If what was at issue was a concern for people trapped in the jail cells of addiction, the keepers of the nation’s conscience would be better advised to address the conditions — poverty, lack of opportunity and education, racial discrimination — from which drugs provide an illusory means of escape. That they are not so advised stands as proven by their fond endorsement of the more expensive ventures into the realms of virtual reality. Our pharmaceutical industries produce a cornucopia of prescription drugs — eye-opening, stupefying, mood-swinging, game-changing, anxiety-alleviating, performance-enhancing — currently at a global market-value of more than $300 billion.
Add the time-honored demand for alcohol, the modernist taste for cocaine, and the uses, as both stimulant and narcotic, of tobacco, coffee, sugar, and pornography, and the annual mustering of consummations devoutly to be wished comes to the cost of more than $1.5 trillion. The taking arms against a sea of troubles is an expenditure that dwarfs the appropriation for the military budget.
Given the American antecedents both metaphysical and commercial — Thomas Paine drank, “and right freely”; in 1910, the federal government received 71% of its internal revenue from taxes paid on the sale and manufacture of alcohol — it is little wonder that the sons of liberty now lead the world in the consumption of better living through chemistry. The new and improved forms of self-invention fit the question — to be, or not to be — to any and all occasions.
For the aging Wall Street speculator stepping out for an evening to squander his investment in Viagra. For the damsel in distress shopping around for a nose like the one seen advertised in a painting by Botticelli. For the distracted child depending on a therapeutic jolt of Adderall to learn to read the Constitution. For the stationary herds of industrial-strength cows so heavily doped with bovine growth hormone that they require massive infusions of antibiotic to survive the otherwise lethal atmospheres of their breeding pens. Visionary risk-takers, one and all, willing to chance what dreams may come on the way West to an all-night pharmacy.
The war against human nature strengthens the fear of one’s fellow man. The red, white, and blue pills sell the hope of heaven made with artificial sweeteners.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne.