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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

alcohol: friend and foe

It's warmer, but still cold, with snow lying packed, crusty, and icy on the ground. Kimmie and I trudged through patches of it on our half-hour power-walk this morning (we have embarked on daily power-walks since 1 December, her first day of vacation).

It was a restless night for me. I lay awake a long time after 2:00 thinking about problems personal and "career". Sometime after 3:00 I got up to pour myself a whisky, and drank that in bed in the dark. It is when I drink the liquor that way, at that time, that I notice its effects most clearly, and why, apart from its flavor, it has been such a longtime friend (as well as enemy) of mankind.

The main effect for me is, first of all, an easing of obsessive thinking. The alcohol makes the mind less efficient, less able to follow a train of thought. If one is in the grip of an unpleasant obsession, that's a good thing. And it's not merely that one is unable to follow the thought, it's also that the thought loses its importance--as though the whisky were able to selectively turn down the Superego knob a little without affecting the Ego and Id settings.

Then there is the warm glow of a pleasant confusion, as though doors opened to other memories and thoughts that were being kept shut by the stream of obsessively negative thinking. I find detachment and humor and enjoyment returning. In these circumstances, it's a positive pleasure, just as the relief of nagging physical pain by taking an analgesic is a kind of positive pleasure--not a mere absence of discomfort.

I recall reading that Ian Fleming said there are four main types of drunks, corresponding roughly to the four humors of Hippocrates: the choleric, the sanguine, the bilious, and the phlegmatic. The choleric drunk is the angry and violent man, the drunk who starts picking fights and throwing punches. The sanguine is the happy drunk, laughing it up and wearing a lampshade. The bilious drunk is the maudlin emotional case weeping on your shoulder. And the phlegmatic is the expressionless guy at the bar who drains a whole bottle without saying anything or showing any outward sign of effect.

I suppose I'm mainly a sanguine drunk, leaning toward phlegmatic if I really get into it. But I don't get drunk now--haven't been drunk since sometime in the mid-1980s. Truth to tell, it's never been an experience I really liked. I felt a certain need to experiment with it, though, as a young man. And I like liquor: especially scotch, and secondarily red wine. I drink them every day. Doctors would say it's too much, but I don't think they'd be giving due account to whom they're addressing: a writer, specifically a novelist. I read once that 50% of novelists are alcoholics. The only "profession" that ranked higher was actors, at 70%.

James Joyce could drink heavily, but I'm not sure he would be classed as an alcoholic. Malcolm Lowry certainly was. Let's see...when he was my age--my exact age, today--he had 19 more days to live before he died of drink.

For me, whisky is still a (temporary) antidote to obsession, and not an obsession itself. Last night I was again grateful for the bottle in the cupboard over the fridge.

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