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Deny Dionysus at your peril

Dear Uma: "Have a drink; it'll gladden your heart, gild your liver and flower like a rose in the compost of your bowels." So said that old man of the desert, Edward Abbey, and as with many of the quotes credited to him, this one is politically incorrect

Dear Uma:

“Have a drink; it’ll gladden your heart, gild your liver and flower like a rose in the compost of your bowels.”

So said that old man of the desert, Edward Abbey, and as with many of the quotes credited to him, this one is politically incorrect in the brave new world.

Alcohol gets a lot of bad press and there is no doubt in any sane mind that it is not undeserved, but once in a while we can remind ourselves there is another side to alcohol - a good side.

As with most every substance that enhances or expands or in any way alters our perceptions, it can be misused; there have always been those who don’t know when to stop, who use alcohol and other potent substances to escape a reality they find too harsh to deal with in a sober state. These are not the sort of folks who are fun to drink with; they inevitably get morose or mean, repetitive and often very untidy.

Then there are those who simply enjoy the taste as well as the sensation of relaxation that comes with imbibing alcohol. It is not necessary to drink to have a pleasant time, but it certainly can add a feeling of celebration.

We were celebrating on the weekend: we were celebrating a milestone birthday, and we were doing it with food and dance as well as wine.

It was a lovely time, with everyone present feeling happy to be there, together, honouring someone we liked. Of the nine people celebrating, four were not drinking alcohol, but a casual observer would not have been able to tell which four - everyone was behaving with the same indications of comfort and pleasure in the evening.

I am not a fan of the Dean Martin definition of being drunk: “You are not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on,” but I have occasionally been more inebriated than I was on this birthday night; and I have suffered the punishment of a hangover, complete with guilt and shame enough to satisfy the staunchest of Christians.

On none of those occasions has a state of drunkenness been my objective, however; the rarity of times I have paid in pain for drinking is testament to my attitude regarding this matter.

No, when I drink more than I need it is an accident. I simply am too caught up in the moment to notice I have passed my personal marker. Easy to do: my personal marker tends to be low. Three glasses of wine is my limit, and that needs to be accompanied by some food, and drunk over a period of several hours. I am what is known as a cheap drunk, as you, Uma, are well aware. Many are the times you tucked me into bed at 10 o’clock before carrying on with your evening.

No one at our get-together the other evening drank too much; it was a reminder that it is possible to have a few drinks with friends and that alcohol can be a part of celebration.

I am not saying we would not have had just as good a time without the wine because, of course, we would have; the availability of it simply ritualized the gathering as a special one.

When did it begin, I wonder, the gradual shift in the use of mind-altering substances from ritual occasions to the everyday?

Which man thought to himself, after neatly dispatching a rat that was eating the family grain, “Wow! That was a good shot with the old rock; damn thing won’t be eating my food again. I feel good, really good; I am a fine shot and a good guy. I’d like a bit of that stuff the priest handed out at my initiation. I deserve it. Hmmm É I know where the priest keeps it. Maybe I could have just a sip to celebrate this very good rat killing. Maybe my buddy would like to join me; he’s killed rats before.”

And so it began, the trivialization of a hallowed substance into an everyday ‘reward’ for simply being alive.

Now we think we deserve, we need, a drink for making it through another day at work or, in more cases, another week. For some folk, a raise or a bonus is a good reason to rejoice with booze and, for many, a paycheque is reason enough.

The ambiguity of our affiliation with alcohol is revealed in how it is described: ‘grog’ or ‘spirits’ denote two very different attitudes towards liquor. Drinkers can be ‘barflys,’‘soaks,’‘souses,’ or they are ‘wassailers’ or ‘comptators’ and the designated places to drink have been given names like ‘blind pigs’ or ‘speakeasies.’ Obviously, what the wassailers drink in their speakeasies are spirits, leaving those souses in the blind pigs to drink the grog.

Do I detect a socio-economic split here?

The two-sided nature of the association with booze goes back to the Roman and Greek gods, Bacchus and Dionysus, who were in charge of the drinking of spirits.

Bacchus was called ‘the Liberator’, and he also was credited with presiding over the communication between the living and the dead. If one became too liberated, one was in danger of getting a lecture from a long dead grandmother? Berated by a buried wife?

Dionysus brought an end to care and worry, and was the kingpin of the ritual madness and ecstasy that resulted from not enough care and worry.

In all the pictures I have been able to find of statuary and drawings depicting these ancient party hosts, I have noticed they had rather small penises. Coincidence? Or a not-so-subtle warning of the effects of being too enthusiastic a follower of the party circuit?

They had some high old times, having a lot of fun and foolery, but also creating some truly terrible situations wherein people died or were drastically and permanently altered. There were also some markedly peculiar conceptions, and some babies were born in bizarre circumstances, like out of their father’s thigh.

The warnings have been posted for a long time: “Drink at your peril.”

Maybe these harsh economic times would be a good opportunity to revisit our relationship with our favourite recreational substances.

Although I have never had more than two drinks alone, I am resolving to not drink at all when solitary.

And I think I shall save my libations for those times of real celebration, with the ones that involve people I cherish and honour.

Real celebration includes a very good meal with the above-mentioned folks; I am not going to go too crazy on this.

What do you think, Uma? Could you forgo your marvelous merlot until I get there?



Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.