Wednesday, December 26, 2012


IntoxeratedIntoxerated by Paul Dickson

Ah, the holidays. The end of the year. When you celebrate by a cozy fire with the shiver of time in your fillings. When you cozy up to those you love best and those who therefore make you crazy. In other words, time to drink.

Melville House Books's "Definitive Drinker's Dictionary," Intoxerated, a fun compendium of annotated synonyms for the word drunk, provides the literary drinker with a smidgeon of words to go with his smahan of whiskey. (Smeahán being Irish, according to the OED, for a drop of whiskey; see James Joyce's wonderfully woeful drinking story, "Counterparts.")

Herman Melville himself, however, took a somewhat dryer approach when he launched American literature "on the high seas" (one of many sailing metaphors for drunk according to Paul Dickson's book). Having adopted some of the abstemious spirit of old Nantucket, perhaps, Melville introduces alcohol in chapter 3 of Moby Dick with a barkeep named Jonah who "dearly sells the sailors delirium and death. Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison." One sailor there in the Spouter Inn abstains from drink, and when the sailor (named Bulkington) reappears in chapter 23, "The Lee Shore," it's as the type who eschews the false comforts of shore for the raw, cold, hard truths of the ocean. Under the terms of the allegory that spans chapters 3 and 23 of Moby Dick, alcohol counts among the false comforts.

Certainly, alcohol blunts reality, not least the reality of one's own self; isn't that why people need it? The many euphemisms for drunkenness are a further evasion. But as much as drinking is an honorable literary pastime, the many euphemisms for it appear relatively uncommon in literary works, perhaps because such works deal in undiluted truths, and in novels and stories alcohol is either the antidote to realities too acutely perceived or the disinhibiting solvent that liberates a character from his blinding fear.

Ernest Hemingway's hard-drinking characters in The Sun Also Rises seem to chase from bar to bar partly in flight and partly in search of liberation from self-deceptions much deeper than mere intoxication. Drinking in that novel is like a portal through which a tortured soul might claw back some semblance of pleasure, aggression, instinct, sincerity. Perhaps as a consequence, Hemingway relies mainly on the self-sufficient term "drunk," which is like onomatopoeia for the sound of the soul denting its rear fender on the telephone pole of life. There's one exception in the dialogue toward the beginning of part II: when Jake judges Bill much drunker than he is and calls him "pie-eyed" (p. 78).

Euphemisms for drunkenness are equally scarce in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A multi-faceted Shame has driven the mental patients in that book into the unhealthy safety of Nurse Ratched's psych ward, and alcohol enters as a sort of holy reprieve from Shame. Drunkenness sets up a cataclysmic change in Chief Bromden that ultimately emancipates him from fear:
As I walked after them it came to me as a kind of sudden surprise that I was drunk, actually drunk, glowing and grinning and staggering drunk for the first time since the Army, drunk along with half a dozen other guys and a couple of girls--right on the Big Nurse's ward! p. 260.

Daisy Buchanan appears “drunk as a monkey” on p. 70 of The Great Gatsby, and the phrase is duly noted in Dickson’s Intoxerated, but otherwise F. Scott Fitzgerald too treats inebriation with a certain sobriety. Alcohol flows through his novel’s pages as through a human bloodstream. It’s the medium through which the characters think, a disorienting twilight between dream and reality. Of note, neither Daisy nor Gatsby are heavy drinkers (see pp. 71 and 91). They are not content to live in dreamy drunken twilight, but strive to escape into a hypothetical place where dreams turn solid and come true.

In Joyce’s story “Counterparts” and in others in Dubliners, alcohol seems to purify the element of self-destruction in characters, but the penultimate story, “Grace,” celebrates a bit of drinking, even to excess. In a spirit of self-sympathy rather than self-destruction, Joyce makes use of one of those funny synonyms for drunk: Mr Cunningham calls Tom Kernan "peloothered" (Dubliners Viking Critical Library edition, p. 160; Dickson may want to add this one, as he has "plootered" but not "peloothered" on p. 134!). Kernan was so peloothered that he fell down the steps to the lavatory and bit the end of his tongue off. The funny euphemism seems to handle Mr Kernan’s indignity with a certain care and gentleness—perhaps because Kernan and his friends have already made their peace with instinct. "Glasses were rinsed and five small measures of whisky were poured out,” Joyce writes on p. 167. “The new influence enlivened the conversation." And on p. 169 comes one of my favorite lines on drinking: "The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude." “Grace” is a wonderful story about moderation, and it very consciously applies the principle of moderation to moderation itself. In other words, to be perfectly moderate, and not too abstemious, you must also be immoderate now and again.

When I arrived in Connecticut for Christmas, my brother-in-law had a nice bottle of sipping tequila, a Centenario añejo, waiting for me. It stood me in good stead through four and a half hours of assembly of a “wired control robotic arm kit” for my older son, and through other minor holiday travails. So let’s raise a glass and face the New Year ah-wat-si (“crazy-brave,” according to the Blackfeet Indians, Dickson p. 16), if not completely jugged, lock-legged, and shot in the mouth. :*)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doublethink, Consciencethink

19841984 by George Orwell

George Orwell's famous dystopian novel 1984 could be the best prose ever written in the science fiction genre. Its anti-fascist themes remain relevant too. This description of an overzealous patriot beset by "war hysteria" may sound familiar to anyone who's watched Bill O'Reilly on Fox News: "a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph." (1984, p. 192) Yet the novel's purview is bigger than just politics, and its outlook might be summed up like this: what is righteous is not necessarily right. Or, as the emancipated Roman slave-turned-playwright Terence wrote two millennia ago, "The strictest justice is sometimes the greatest injustice."

An immoderate conscience is like a totalitarian conspiracy against the self, and Orwell's totalitarians are conspicuously interested in their subjects' inner lives after the manner of conscience. When Big Brother, the face of 1984's totalitarian regime, stares at protagonist Winston Smith from the cover of a doctored history text, Orwell writes:
It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you--something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. p. 80
What is that if not a description of conscience--of that bullying spokesperson for society within our heads? Orwell takes great pains, in fact, to show Big Brother's means of getting inside citizens' heads in the manner of conscience, of controlling not just speech or actions, but thoughts. "[I]n the eyes of the Party there was no distinction between the thought and the deed." (p. 242) Orwell calls the governmental agency that gets inside people's heads the "Thought Police"--an immortally apt descriptor of bully conscience.

If that were not enough to convince you of the connections between the political and the psychological in Orwell's writing, Orwell also assigns the Thought Police a rather unexpected preoccupation with sexuality.
The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it. p. 66

The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion. Desire was thoughtcrime. p. 68
A member of the Thought Police even makes this startling prediction late in the novel: "We shall abolish orgasm." (p. 267)

By contrast, Winston describes the chief virtue of "the Proles," who have largely escaped the Party's suffocating influence, in the following way:
They had held onto the primitive emotions which he himself had to relearn by conscious effort. p. 165
The Thought Police are so aggressive in their puritanism that they demand a good number of thoughts be extirpated from consciousness entirely. To satisfy the Thought Police, "Zeal was not enough. Orthodoxy was unconsciousness." (p. 55) Party members are even equipped at their desks with "memory holes" for the incineration of intolerable information, usually data that might reflect the Party's practices of destroying facts--a practice that has all but "abolished" the entire temporal category of "the past." (p. 143)

This is exactly the theory of conscience according to psychoanalysis: the conscience polices one's mental contents and rejects and suppresses those that offend conscience, such as, I hate my (big) brother, leaving behind a cleansed mental landscape of inoffensive contents like: I love my brother. Orwell all but tips us off that his political parable recapitulates an intrapsychic relation: "Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your own nervous system." (p. 64) And again: "one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one's own body." (p. 103)

1984 is a fantasy more thoroughly paranoid than Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and more unrelievedly chilling than any of Kafka's, to which Orwell is directly or indirectly indebted. Both master Kafka and disciple Orwell concern themselves with the life of the individual inside the group--what might be called social psychology, which ought to be the psychology of conscience, since that's the internal institution that brokers relations between the individual self and society. While abuse by political or religious authorities is probably sufficient to corrupt a child's conscience, it's by no means necessary. I'd guess that's why Orwell's nightmare speaks to so many people who live more or less free of the sort of propaganda he describes. We all know what it is to feel guilt, suppress thoughts, and to run from the merciless Thought Police.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Confessional Poetry

The Collected Poems The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

You'd think with all the cocktails, a cocktail party ought to be more fun than a hole in your head. Twitter has been called a global-scale cocktail party. Unfortunately, it seems to lack the essential ingredient of the cocktails. To put it another way, it's confessional poetry without the poetry.

What people sometimes call "confessional poetry," by contrast, may be personal and autobiographical, but it's neither a low artform nor symptomatic of commonplace vanity--at least not when it's practiced by a great writer like Sylvia Plath, author of some of my favorite poems. There's something deeply artistic going on in Plath's tortured imagination.

Confessional poetry, like much else that is modern, is not modern. Catullus wrote it in ancient Rome and there's poésie intime in France going back at least as far as Joachim du Bellay, who wrote in the sixteenth century. Du Bellay was an early advocate of writing in the vernacular (in his case, French) as opposed to Greek and Latin, because the vernacular was the language of direct experience--the language learned as a child through direct experience of the world.

Modern confessional poetry is part of this long tradition in paying heed to direct, personal experience, hard though it may be to look it in the eye.

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Owl at Home in the Wilderness

Owl at HomeOwl at Home by Arnold Lobel

As a child, I knew children's author-illustrator Arnold Lobel for his fabulously funny, slyly philosophical Frog and Toad books. Lobel died young (downer), but he did create at least one other iconic animal character to help kids and adults alike through this bumpy journey called life: Owl.

Owl at Home shares the Frog and Toad books' virtues of empathy and humor, coziness and comically unfounded terror. Both of my kids loved Owl.

When he was 7, my older son saw me typing up my thoughts on Owl at Home and asked me, "Is this review going to go to the person who wrote the book?"

"No," I said authoritatively, "unfortunately the man who wrote it died a long time ago."

"How do you know he died?"

"Uh, I looked it up on the internet," I mumbled, ashamed.

"Did he make another chubby owl story?"

Alas, no. In any case, it would have been a tough act to follow. This is the finest group of chubby owl stories ever written. "He made the owl so chubby," my son said. The owl is indeed very cute and also, according to my kids, "very, very crazy" and "very stupid." But endearingly so. "Tear-Water Tea" is as funny as anything I've come across in a children's book, including the wickedly funny George and Martha. So is "Strange Bumps." It's perfect as is--one would almost hate to see a sequel involving an arrogant badger or annoying weasel (even as a fan of stories with a good annoying weasel). Owl's character is wedded to a confrontation with nature that he must carry out alone, without weasels and badgers to aid or hamper him. That's because, behind the children's illustrations and large type and simple words is a rather profound reflection of the confused and eager state of the human being alone with himself--and even of the human condition altogether, so eager and confused and alone in the wilderness.