Monday, March 30, 2009

The Daemon Alcohol

"And now comes John Barleycorn with the curse he lays upon the imaginative man who is lusty with life and desire to live. John Barleycorn sends his White Logic, the argent messenger of truth beyond truth, the antithesis of life, cruel and bleak as interstellar space, pulseless and frozen as absolute zero, dazzling with frost of irrefragable logic and unforgettable fact. John Barleycorn will not let the dreamer dream, the liver live. He destroys birth and death, and dissipates to mist the paradox of being, until his victim cries out, as in "The City of Dreadful Night": "Our life's a cheat, or death a black abyss." And the feet of the victim of such dreadful intimacy take hold of the way of death."

-Jack London, John Barleycorn

Today we have two fables, and fables they are. Both authors, despite their immense differences conceive of their alcoholism as a entity, a thing in which to have relations with. Alcohol, in the guise of London's demonic John Barleycorn or Knapp's seductive, sensual incubus takes on anthropomorphic traits. In London's case it even cleverly bides its time, waiting for the perfect moment to spring a deadly trap.

It is a tale of two sides of the tracks. Two very different sides of the tracks. Jack London, meet Caroline Knapp. You guys have only one thing in common and its that you both got to know booze really well.

Written nearly a century apart and on different coasts of the US, these two memoirs of alcoholism are separated by more than mere space and time. They are separated by societal concerns like poverty vs. affluence, exceptional vs. quotidian, and lastly romanticism (maybe even fantasy) vs. realism.

For all of the differences it is of course their common ground (maybe companion would be a better word) that finds them here together. London's bio looms fearfully large next to Knapp's. So too do his opinions on things, from his adamant socialism to the inexplicable racism and sexism that discolors his otherwise exemplary legacy as a humanist. London was also given over to believing wholeheartedly in the romances that informed his life. London, like all the great American figures, is shrouded in a mystique as much of his own fashioning as it is of history's.

Caroline Knapp is of our time, where people who refer to themselves as gods (London was very taken with the idea of potency equaling relevant divinity) are looked upon as insane. Hers is a life we can know, or at least know of. London had a hardscrabble youth and Knapp was born into a upper income family living in an affluent community in Cambridge. Her father was a psychologist. London's was a plowman (his biological father was a con man named William Chaney). Her mother was an artist. London's was a racist who had lived a hard life on the fringe of civilized society. Knapp's parents were "both devoted and insightful and keenly intelligent." Knapp went to Brown University and graduated magna cum laude. London was self-educated and didn't graduate high school until his early twenties. Knapp describes scotch, gin and tonics, and wine cases being brought to her parents house on Martha's Vineyard. London described cheap steam beer, whiskey (no delineation as to type) and a nearly transparent claret that was ubiquitous on the Oakland waterfront where he did his first hard drinking.

Opposites. Yet both walk hand in hand with the same daemon. Let's get to their stories then.

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Dial Press. ISBN: 9780385315548. 284 pp. $16. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.

A love story. Yes: this is a love story.

It's about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It's about needs so strong they're crippling. It's about saying good-bye to something you can't fathom living without.

The theme today is alcohol as denizen, as talking beast within a fable, as Platonic daemon whispering within our minds. We will soon go to rouse old John Barleycorn, an ancient god of sorts, and we will rouse him as only one who knows him well can, and for this we will rely on an old hand in Jack London. For now though we will tread in the softer shoes of the less obvious drunk. The high-functioning alcoholic.

Caroline Knapp was born into reasonable wealth (she described her upbringing as middle class but as someone who has been both squarely middle class their whole life I can say sincerely that she was well-to-do) and with this all the advantages. And disadvantages.

A somewhat doting father who brought his profession of psychology home with him can be a intimidating figure. Every question is weighed and measured. Every response codified and defined. Scrutiny and expectation come with the high life and with such pressures also come the need for release.

Drinking is a more honest book than London's John Barleycorn. It is a product of our era, which is an era of tolerances and political correctness. It is a place where irony has replaced the strong opinion. A time ripe for alcoholism and the ability to hide it cleverly behind the semblance of success and visible health.

Caroline would cross the street after work. There was a Chinese restaurant that she and her coworkers would hit for a few drinks following the long day. She then would meet someone for dinner and have a few glasses of wine followed by a cognac after dinner (all sensible things for a successful person with the funds to carry such a lifestyle). Then she'd go home to the bottle of white wine, dewy and crisp in the refrigerator's chill. Or perhaps the extra bottles hidden about her apartment (so that no one would notice her excessive drinking she maintained two supplies: the obvious selection of nice bottles of booze and the lower grade scotches and brandies she'd save to down at a rate of one bottle per night. A budget indeed outside the realm of the middle class but an outing worthy of even the most down and out wino's admiration.

This is one of Knapp's most enduring observations. We have in our minds a caricature of the alcoholic. You know it too, no matter what country or time you live in. It is a man, typically older, wearing shabby clothes and drinking cheap hooch. Think MD 20/20 and Thunderbird (Wild Irish Rose and Cisco for those that have first hand knowledge). Maybe a pint of Nikolai for cold nights. In any case this old transient will stare too long at the young ladies, smell like the floor of the subway and mutter insanities to himself. If you don't want to go that far you could conjure the down-and-out salesman complete with honest to goodness gin blossoms. Or the haggard looking dive grandmother. Every dive grandmother has a spot on her arm where a cigarette has been put out.

Or you can have the lithe, athletic Caroline Knapp who is a celebrated columnist and whose sensibly ironic humor belies someone who not only "has it" but also knows how to not show off. Sweet funny Caroline who took up sculling earlier this year, eats sensible healthy lunches and who goes to the gym four days a week. Sweet funny Caroline who has to sneak a beer or Bloody Mary at midday in order to keep the hangover from totally ruining her article. Sweet funny Caroline Knapp who hides a bottle of Old Granddad behind a toilet.

That's how the alcoholic lies to themselves for such long periods of time. They drink and drink yet function wonderfully. Until its too late. Knapp's is a story of loss and gain. She loved her alcohol. In reading her writing you can't help but wonder how she could describe a sweaty bottle of cold white wine and not want to pop the cork, breathe deep its perfumed chill and then guzzle, glug, glug, glug the crisp and refreshing contents.

She overcame her demon lover. She stopped drinking. This is a book that will force the alcoholic (whether in denial or not) to question if they could do it. I know I'm questioning that right now, as I think about hitting a bar for a cold one. Ah, John Barleycorn, why did I ever make you acquaintance?

John Barleycorn by Jack London. Introduction by Pete Hamill. The Modern Library. ISBN: 0375757929. 220 pp. $12.95. Buy it here and support The Devil's Accountant.

But to the imaginative man, John Barleycorn sends the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic. He looks upon life and all its affairs with the jaundiced eye of a pessimistic German philosopher. He sees through all illusions. He transvalues all values. God is bad, truth is a cheat, and life is a joke. From his calm-mad heights, with the certitude of a god, he beholds all life as evil.

Those are London's words on the latest stage of alcoholism he endured. A time he wrestled what he calls the "White Logic" and indeed he at times capitalizes the name of this presence.

To London alcohol was an ancient god who moved amongst men mostly, a sallow lord of the harvest who bestowed certain benefits to his devotees and who in the end must claim a hard coin from all who enjoyed his benevolences.

Yet suicide, quick or slow, a sudden spill or a gradual oozing away through the years, is the price John Barleycorn exacts. No friend of his ever escapes the just, due payment.

Jack London's only memoir is a staggering one. The bone-aching poverty he was born into and the rough and tumble existence of his teenage years make for page-turning reading. In this book we are given a glimpse of 10 cents an hour in a Oakland cannery, ten hour days, one pair of clothes to wear each day, everyday, and all at the tender age of thirteen. By fourteen London was a oyster pirate, sailing his own boat and learning to fight hard and drink harder along the Oakland waterfront.

By 18 he has traveled the world in the forecastle of a sealing vessel, getting rambunctiously loaded with rowdy sailors from every corner of the world. He has felt the weakness of spending $180 over a weekend leave and has celebrated the fact that this rowdy life of dissipation and grueling labor has cured him of the thriftiness born of his youthful penury. He celebrates being freed from the valuation of money, something obviously colored by his socialism.

The book takes us all the way to the slightly addled London of his later years (as late as his years were allowed to get - London died at the age 40). He is conscious of his growing paunch and diminishing athleticism. He drinks too much and too early. John Barleycorn is now interfering with his regimen of 1,000 words a day. London paints the picture clearly. He wants you to see it. Death stands with him. Despite his great successes he is depressed, suicidal. There is always that present. John Barleycorn is a poison after all, and much of the heavy drinker's life exists on that narrow high wire walk of "living" vs. "dying."

His decision to write John Barleycorn is interesting on its own. In his writings it is easy to gather that London was clearly egotistical, and yet he decided to make his only piece of autobiographical writing an "Alcoholic Memoir," as his wife described it. Sure, the subject allowed London to elaborate on all prodigious drinking he did with "man-grown" and "chesty" fellows older than he. As Pete Hamill puts it in his Introduction to the Modern Library edition, London wanted to portray himself as the "a manly boy among boyish men." Indeed, his descriptions of the drinking bouts make one thirsty and want to get in some trouble of their own. Still though, he is more honest yet when it comes time to be ravaged by John Barleycorn, having his mind and youthful physique destroyed by booze.

London was a staunch socialist and was known in European circles as America's "Boy Socialist," mainly because of his boyish good looks and somewhat petulant (but heartfelt) political arguments. He was also a racist and sexist, despite his otherwise enlightened opinions when it came to people of all walks of life. The decision to write John Barleycorn came following his decision to vote "yes" to women's suffrage. His wife asked him why now, after all the years he'd been against it, he'd vote yes.

London's response was as strange as it was accurate. London explained to his wife that he had no philosophical qualms with women voting. He saw them as equals. He said that in the past he had voted no to their right to vote because of one issue: temperance. Women had suffered so long at the hands of John Barleycorn and that if given the right to vote it would be only a short time before they'd put some form of prohibition into place. The growing temperance movement was filled with women. London might have been wrong to have denied women his vote all those years for such a selfish issue, but he was not wrong in the outcome. Prohibition came about shortly after, and in many ways because of, women gaining a political voice.

London explained to his wife his strange relationship with his friend John Barleycorn. He elaborates on JB's nefarious tools, the insidious "white logic" and how unavoidable the power of JB is. His wife suggested to London that he ought to write a memoir of his alcoholism as a manual or guidebook for other young men. London liked the idea. The product was John Barleycorn, an impressive work of psychoanalysis and fantasy. It was the first self-conscious American piece of writing on alcohol.

Yes, fantasy. Jack London is a legend. A mythic figure. A walking contradiction: Partly truth and partly fiction, to borrow Kris Kristofferson's words about his legendary friend, Johnny Cash. The mythology of the American celebrity (especially ones cloaked in the olden times) is a common thread in the fabric of the American Dream. It is a dream though, and much of it is the stuff of bedtime story.

Much of it is not too. There is that. London is still the most widely read American author in the world. Many of his adventure-laden stories are based on his own amazing life. Yet as you read his memoir you begin to realize that London was colored with the belief, faith might be the better word, in the success implicit in adventure stories. A daring life at sea would always reward the young man who charged headlong into it. In this belief London is often willing to stretch the truth in order to accommodate the fantasy. Even the final passages of John Barleycorn, full with the nefarious white logic (which in London's able prose becomes an almost Lovecraftian monstrosity) there is the denial of just what alcoholism is. London with a cursory statement proclaims he is done with the drink. Future generations will never have to endure the hardships of the dark magic of John Barleycorn because temperance is coming and London himself will lead the charge.

Yeah, and I can have just two drinks when I go out.

Denial is written all over this book and London is open about this. It is only when he buys his own snake oils, concoctions of manliness and supposed will to power that London loses sight of his own frailty before his personal demon. John Barleycorn is a marvelous invention. A fable in three dimensions and one we all might get to know all too well.

In the end, both through clear argument and muddled implication, there is a moral to London's fable. The lesson John Barleycorn imparts is a simple one: One can't casually be friends with John Barleycorn. It's one or the other.

Being that we're on our way into April, which is National Poetry Month in the U.S., I decided to finish with a poem. Perhaps, when you see the Promethean treatment John Barleycorn receives at the hands of those who seek his blood and marrow you will better understand why he repays us in kind. Only we are not fables. Each year John Barleycorn, the ancient sallow god of harvests, may return and prepare for another death, but the whiskey and beer begotten of his ground body deal us a more permanent hand.

John Barleycorn

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and plough'd him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show'rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris'd them all.

The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel arm'd wi' pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.

The sober Autumn enter'd mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show'd he began to fail.

His colour sicken'd more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They've taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.

They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell'd him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turn'd him o'er and o'er.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him further woe;
And still, as signs of life appear'd,
They toss'd him to and fro.

They wasted, o'er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us'd him worst of all,
For he crush'd him between two stones.

And they hae taen his very heart's blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
'Twill make your courage rise.

'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'Twill heighten all his joy;
'Twill make the widow's heart to sing,
Tho' the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!

-Robert Burns

Cheers, everyone. May your cups be as full as you need them to be.

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