Tuesday, July 22, 2014

`Discontent Seeks for Comfort'

In my own drinking days I enjoyed the novels of Donald Newlove, in particular Leo & Theodore (1973) and The Drunks (1974), the story of alcoholic Siamese twins who are prodigious drinkers and musicians playing traditional jazz. The novels were reprinted in a single paperback volume in 1978 under the title Sweet Adversity. On a visit to New York City in 1981, several years after Newlove and I had sobered up, I found an autographed copy of his newly published Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers. At the same time I bought a first edition of Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (later autographed by the author), also just published, and a collection of Colette’s stories (she wasn’t available for an autograph) – perhaps my single most successful visit to a bookstore, though I didn’t know it at the time. A few years earlier I had read W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson (1977), so I wasn’t surprised when Newlove writes: “One of the most striking recoveries from excessive drinking was made by Dr. Samuel Johnson two centuries ago.” In the familiar roll call of literary drunks – Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, John Berryman, et. al. – Johnson’s name is seldom included, perhaps because he slowed down and eventually stopped. To his credit, Johnson never preached against the evils of demon rum. He was too subtle a psychologist and too empathetic a man to do so. Boswell reports him saying: 

“Sir, I have no objection to a man’s drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation. I found myself apt to go to excess in it, and therefore, after having been for some time without it, on account of illness, I thought it better not to return to it. Every man is to judge for himself, according to the effects which he experiences.” 

A small anthology of drinking wisdom could be drawn from Johnson’s writing and conversation. In his “Life of Addison,” Johnson writes: “In the bottle discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence.” And again, in Boswell: 

“Talking of drinking wine, he said, `I did not leave off wine because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this.’ Boswell: `Why then, Sir, did you leave it off?’ Johnson: `Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself.’” 

As a boy, in some forgotten book, I was horrified by a reproduction of William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751). The woman in the foreground, her face moronic with gin, her legs covered with syphilitic sores (Hogarthian shorthand for prostitution), drops her baby off the stone stairway. The inscription over the doorway in the lower left reads: “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing.” To this day I find human monsters more disturbing than the monsters of fantasy. In Dr. Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1770 (2000), Liza Picard begins her chapter titled “Amusements” with a quote from Johnson: 

“`To amuse: to entertain with tranquility’: Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Perhaps amusement is not the right word for what the poor did in their free time. Tranquil it was not.” 

Picard gives a three-page history of what she calls the gin “mania” that swept London beginning late in the seventeenth century. The word’s etymology is amusing, from the French eau de genièvre, “juniper water.” English soldiers couldn’t pronounce it and anglicized it to geneva, which soon became gin. Picard gives us a review of folk poetry: 

“Before leaving it, here are some synonyms for gin: cock-my-cap, kill-grief, comfort, poverty, meat-and-drink, washing, lodging, bingo (also used to mean brandy), diddle, heart’s ease, a kick in the guts, tape, white wool and strip-me-naked. If you had been hicksius-doxius (drunk) you might well feel womblety cropt (hungover) the day after.” 

Hogarth and Johnson met in 1739 and became friends. When Hogarth died in 1764, Johnson wrote four lines about him, quoted in a footnote by Boswell:

“The hand of him here torpid lies,
 That drew the essential form of grace;
 Here clos’d in death the attentive eyes,
 That saw the manners in the face.” 

Having read that, look again at the unfortunate mother in Gin Lane.

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