Monday, April 29, 2013

Lapham's Quarterly :: Intoxication

Still valiantly chopping down the pile of unread books, journals and magazines. Finally got to Volume VI, Number 1, Winter 2013 'Intoxication' of Lapham's Quarterly. Backlogged. If I had known about the theme, I'd have gotten to it earlier. Extremely tickled by the bright yellow warning sticker that stated "UNSUITABLE FOR THE YOUNG".  :P Right underneath this, the Spring 2013 volume 'Animals' is mocking me.

Is it all about drugs, sex, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, stimulants, and various levels of intoxication and human depravity? Naaah. The 'Preamble' by Lewis H. Lapham began the journal beautifully, highlighting the current social issues and leaving the individual articles written by writers both contemporary and of a bygone era to link it back to history.

The question that tempts mankind to the use of substances controlled and uncontrolled is next of kin to Hamlet's: to be, or not to be, someone or somewhere else.

In addition to the 'Preamble', and 'Further Remarks' at the beginning and the end, stories have been grouped into themes of 'The Urge', 'The High', and 'The Hangover'. The illustrations and prints, contemporary and historical, are beautiful. There're too many good lines to quote. The stories span cities and ages. Needless to say, the writing is excellent. I'll just tease out three.

1839 Paris. Honoré de Balzac Praises Coffee, from 'The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee'.

The state coffee puts one in when it is drunk on an empty stomach under these magisterial conditions produces a kind of animation that looks like anger: one's voice rises, one's gestures suggest unhealthy impatience; one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque, ill-tempered about nothing. One actually becomes that fickle character, the Poet, condemned by grocers and their like. One assumes that everyone is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public. I discovered this singular state through a series of accidents which made me lose, without any effort, the ecstasy I had been feeling. Some friends, with whom I had gone out to the country, witnessed me arguing about everything, haranguing with monumental bad faith. The following day, I recognized my wrongdoing and we searched the cause. My friends were wise men of the first rank, and we found the problem soon enough: coffee wanted its victim.

1833 Maryland. Crowd Control, from 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass'.

Their object seems to disgust their slaves with freedom by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is to make bets on their slaves as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk, and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed - many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field - feeling upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.

1997 Connecticut. Michael Pollan Bleeds A Poppy, from 'Opium Made Easy'.

What if instead I had planted "breadseed poppies", or the poppyseeds on a poppyseed bagel? What if I had planted only the P.paeoniflorum I'd ordered, the one I'd had no idea was really somniferum? As I stood there admiring the extravagantly doubled blooms of this poppy, I realized that growing it was no more felonious than growing asters or marigolds- for as long, that is, as I remained ignorant of the fact that this poppy, too, was somniferum. But it's too late for me now; I know too much. And so, dear reader, so you. 
It was precisely this knowledge that inspired the slightly cracked logic behind what I now decided to do. I had not planned to slit even one of my poppies, for fear that it was the step that would take me across the line into criminality. But now I knew I had already taken the fateful step. In for a dime, in for a dollar. I know, this wasn't even a remotely rational approach to the situation: a slit seedpod in my garden would constitute proof that I knew exactly what kind of poppies I had. Yet that particular summer afternoon, as I stood there alone with my ravishing poppies, in what, after all, was my garden, this logic seemed strangely compelling.

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