Drunk the Night Before is a sweeping and innovative study of convivial drinking and its impact on Western cultural history. Its author, Marty Roth, is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Minnesota. By placing himself at the crossroad of two traditions -- Roger Forseth and Tom Gilmore in the field of addiction and culture studies and Roy Porter, Marcel Détienne and Alain Corbin in cultural history -- Roth opens new paths of inquiry into the concept of altered consciousness and redefines the relations between intoxication and creativity from antiquity to the 20th century.
Roth's examination of the borderline between intoxication and addiction provides the reader with a useful interpretative key to grasp the aims of the book and appreciate its wide-ranging scope. Addiction is a concept that emerged only in the mid-nineteenth century and the effect of which was to overshadow the creative and spiritual force behind intoxication. Roth classifies intoxication as "a 'lost object' of social and cultural history" (xvii), because it is "visible and untheorized", whereas addiction is "invisible and overtheorized" (xvii).
The book comprises eight chapters, each devoted to a manifestation of creative thought examined in its relations with intoxication. In chapter 1, Roth reconstructs "the mysteries of intoxication" in cultural history. The chapter stresses the polarity between moderation and excess, which constitutes a central theme of the book and is formulated in terms of the dichotomy between drink as a potion that triggers creativity, intelligence and wit, and drink as a poison, that drives humans into possession and violence.
Chapter 2 explores the relations between intoxication and poetry. Drink poetry in Greek antiquity reflected a genuine literary fascination for the creative effects of intoxication. Roth focuses in particular on the poet Anacreon of Teos (c. 570-485 BC), whose verses opened the path to a whole literary tradition in Western poetry. A comparative study of intoxication exceeds the scope of the book; nevertheless, Roth engages in an insightful cross-cultural discussion of drink poetry in Eastern culture, that includes, among others, the Persian poets Omar Kayyám and Hafiz of Shiraz, the Arabian Abu Nuwas and the Chinese poets Li Po and T'ao Ch'ien.
Intoxication in Euripides' Bacchae is the theme of chapter 3. No drinks and drugs are ingested during the play, and references to intoxication appear exclusively as insinuations by the puritan Pentheus, king of Thebes. Traditional readings of the Bacchae stress its religious connotations, whereby ecstasy and possession are meant to anticipate afterlife behaviour. Yet, according to Roth, Euripides' tragedy does evoke material intoxication. The divinity that dominates the play is Dyonisus, god of wine, theatre, ritual madness and a happy afterlife. Metaphors of drunkenness in the Bacchae describe the ecstatic union with a god who is wine: "Dyonisus is drink, and this understanding brings the play to the edge of a narrow allegorical reading, whereby everything that occurs is also happening in the register of material intoxication" (40).
"Socrates Undrunk" is the title of chapter 4, which deals with the correlations between literature, philosophy and intoxication in Plato's Symposium. Roth presents an overview of the many and often discordant interpretative readings of the Platonic dialogue, in which, he claims, "only the twenty-one pages of Socrates' speech are read as 'philosophy'"(47). Conventional readings of the Symposium seem to convey the idea that philosophy has a protective function against intoxication. Roth, conversely, stresses the dramatic and literary origins of the dialogue and argues that in the Symposium intoxication produces philosophy. Paraphrasing Jack London, he defines the effects of alcohol as "white logic" (55), a temporary and yet compelling philosophical power granted by intoxication.
Literature is treated in greater detail in chapter 5, in which intoxication is explored in its broadest possible connotations. Roth's dichotomy between drink as a potion and poison becomes especially relevant when read within the context of his informative analysis of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both presented as fictions that revolve around magical and transformative drinks.
In chapter 6, Roth evaluates the lasting presence of intoxication in all forms of religious and spiritual life. Statements about intoxication, just like religious discourse, have profoundly metaphorical connotations. It would thus seem that the language of intoxication is a privileged vehicle to convey otherwise inexpressible states of spiritual ecstasy and contemplation. Roth reverts the directionality of this metaphorical mechanism and insightfully shows that "rather than intoxication being used to characterize heaven or ecstasy, ecstasy and heaven were originally carved out of the experience of intoxication" (78).
Chapters 7 and 8 are devoted to intoxication as a catalyst for creative insight. Once again, Roth explores the blurred boundaries between intoxication and addiction and proposes a broad account of intoxication that ranges from wine to narcotics and psychedelic drugs. He groups the literature on intoxication and creativity under the definition of "Horatian Aesthetics" (from a famous epistle by the Latin poet Horace to Maecenas), and uses it as an interpretative key to investigate artistic inspiration. Roth proposes a broad exploration of various forms of art ranging from literature and poetry to music, theatre, painting and cinema. The picture of intoxication that emerges from these chapters is a deliberately ambivalent one, which mirrors the two-fold nature of the concept -- a creative medium and a corrupting state that results in degenerate aesthetic outcomes.
Roth's remarkable work is susceptible only of one criticism, which concerns the richness of its contents. The non-specialised reader may sometimes feel disoriented by the large amount of information condensed in the space of two hundred pages. Nevertheless, Roth's critical congeniality will satisfy the philosopher, his accuracy and erudition will delight the historian, and his accessible prose will take an intellectually curious audience on a memorable journey throughout the history of alcohol as potion, poison and creative catalyst in Western cultural history.
© 2008 Chiara Ambrosio
Chiara Ambrosio, PhD, Teaching Fellow in Philosophy of,Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London