Tonight I have selected a topic on which, modesty aside, I can claim a degree of authority, on account of my long and careful immersion in it over many years.
The question at the top is the title of an essay by Tolstoy. It’s not one of his better works, but I always loved that title.
It’s a good question. And why isn’t it given the attention it deserves in university departments of philosophy, psychology, and sociology? It seems to me one of the central questions of existence.
I find it weird that our histories, philosophical studies, and newspapers act as though all the actors were stone cold sober, whereas in fact we know that many human activities take place under the influence of some drug or other.
I don’t like Tolstoy’s moralizing tone, but he did get it right here:
The consequences must naturally be terrible, admitting the fact, which must be admitted, that the guiding activities of society—political, official, scientific, literary, and artistic—are carried on for the most part by people in an abnormal state: by people who are drunk.
And nowhere more than in Britain.
Drug use and alcoholism (in the charmless modern phrase “substance abuse”) are addressed in newspapers and universities of course, but in wholly negative terms: “he took to drugs to escape the misery of his home life … after getting sacked she took to the bottle … drugs helped him forget about his insecurities”.
There’s something in all that, but drinking and taking drugs is also fun. Where is that in the literature? Here’s Bob summing it up as usual:
Well, ask me why I'm drunk alla time
It levels my head and eases my mind
I just walk along and stroll and sing
I see better days and I do better things
Go Bob! (The terrific movie “Drugstore Cowboy” also did a good job of showing that drug use is not all shivering junkies searching for that last vein.)
In fact, stupefying yourself seems not so much good or bad as innate. The British novelist Will Self once said something along the lines of: if you burned every poppy plant, razed every distillery, and destroyed every vineyard and marijuana plant, people would just climb the nearest hill and roll down it, just to experience the thrill of being “out of it”.
So why the silence?
This post was prompted by the death this week of Fiona Jones, a former British Labour Member of Parliament, from "alcoholic liver disease". Jones was one of the bright young MPs elected in the Labour landslide of 1997.
Her career, it seems, began to unravel almost from the moment she was pictured at the left shoulder of Tony Blair on the steps of Church House in the triumphant aftermath of Labour's election victory. For Fiona Jones, that heady photocall in 1997, when she appeared with her leader and almost all 101 of her fellow women Labour MPs, was the zenith of [her] political journey.The “unraveling” of Fiona Jones is clinically described in this Guardian article, which ends in a chilling fashion.
By the end, she was just drinking and sleeping, nursed by her husband and her two sons, now teenagers. "It sounds odd, but sadly we had got used to that kind of thing," he says.
Fiona Jones was two months younger than me. So if you feel inclined to berate me for glorifying alcohol and drug use, don’t bother. I have plenty of personal experience of the damage booze and dope have done to my generation. All I am asking for is some acknowledgement that: (i) human beings are “stupefied” for much of the time, and (ii) we are not that dumb—in addition to their many and well documented negative effects, drink and drugs bring great pleasure to many people. I am also interested in a serious discussion of the central question: (iii) why do men stupefy themselves?
To be continued at opening time tomorrow.