Saturday, September 20th, 2014
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Alms for Oblivion

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To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
—William Shakespeare

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.” On the evidence of the travelers’ tales collected in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, 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.

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Intoxication
About the Author

Lewis H. Lapham is the editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

That which the sober man keeps in his breast, the drunken man lets out at the lips. Astute people, when they want to ascertain a man’s true character, make him drunk.
Martin Luther, 1569
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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