Wednesday, December 09, 2015

`It Makes a Man Mistake Words for Thoughts'

Only in 1981, early in my own non-drinking days, did I figure out Dr. Johnson’s somewhat ambiguous history of alcohol consumption. My source was Donald Newlove’s Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers, published that year not so much as a confession, as the subtitle might imply, but as a brief and personal history of the writer/alcohol elective affinity. I had read when they were published Newlove’s novels Leo & Theodore (1972) and The Drunks (1974), the story of alcoholic Siamese-twin jazz musicians. The books were better than that description suggests, and in 1978 Newlove revised them into a single paperback titled Sweet Adversity.     

Not long after it was published I bought a signed copy of  Those Drinking Days in New York City. I had already read Boswell, Bate and Wain on Johnson, and much of Johnson himself, but never made the alcohol connection. Newlove writes: “Great writing about alcohol is an ocean without shoreline and I have a thick notebook of excerpts from world literature to attest to it, a sheaf of quotations to help me keep sober. One of the most stirring recoveries from excessive drinking was made by Dr. Samuel Johnson two centuries ago.” Newlove goes on to assemble a small anthology of Johnson’s wisdom-from-experience regarding alcohol, drawn largely from Boswell:

“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.”

“Melancholy, indeed, should be diverted by every means but drinking.”

“We discussed the question whether drinking improved conversation and benevolence. Sir Joshua [Reynolds] maintained it did. Johnson: `No, Sir: before dinner men meet with great inequality of understanding; and those who are conscious of their inferiority, have the modesty not to talk. When they have drunk wine, every man feels himself happy, and loses that modesty, and grows impudent and vociferous: but he is not improved; he is only not sensible of his defects.’”

“Boswell: `I think, Sir, you once said to me, that not to drink wine was a great deduction from life.’ Johnson: `It is a diminution of pleasure, to be sure; but I do not say a diminution of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational.’”

“This is one of the disadvantages of wine. It makes a man mistake words for thoughts.”

Seasoned drinkers will recognize that Johnson speaks from life, not out of haughty moralism like Carrie Nation. He’s not preaching. Newlove quotes many similar passages in Johnson and Boswell, all free of nagging and proselytizing. In The Idler #34, published on this date, Dec. 9, in 1758, Johnson draws a tour de force analogy between punch and conversation. The entire essay is an extended shaggy-dog metaphor which acknowledges the attractions and perils of alcohol:

“He only will please long, who, by tempering the acidity of satire with the sugar of civility, and allaying the heat of wit with the frigidity of humble chat, can make the true punch of conversation; and, as that punch can be drunk in the greatest quantity which has the largest proportion of water, so that companion will be oftenest welcome, whose talk flows out with inoffensive copiousness, and unenvied insipidity.”

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