Gone Bad, Come to Life
Edvard Munch, In the Tavern, 1890
by Justin E.H. Smith
On Fermentation, Distillation, and Sobriety
Is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood
And whichever it may be, is it mine?
—Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (1937)
On the evening of December 2, 2020, around 10pm, I swallowed the last of what must have been multiple lifetimes’ worth of mouthsful of red wine. Unlike the partisans of AA, I am confident in saying that I will never again in my life consume alcohol. There are things I just don’t do anymore. I am no less morally certain, for example, that I will never go sky-diving. The version of me that believed a good life is constituted from such “fun” diversions as this died a long time ago. Far from having a “bucket list”, I now understand that the proper conduct of the second half of life is to approach something like what the Tibetan Buddhists call tukdam, to do less and less, but only to sit and meditate, and to breathe once every century or so, so that by the time you actually die there will be scarcely any change to register. I can picture a future not so far from now when, to the question, “Is he alive or dead?”, the only fitting response will be: “Who can say?” You might be able to jolt me into some new movement, like a fly removed from its long sleep in a jar of talc that flicks its wing in reluctant palingenesis (the phenomenon of being “born again”, which by the law of nomen est omen has long tricked me into thinking that Sarah Palin must be destined for a comeback); then again you might not. So, yeah, sky-diving’s out, along with drinking. The version of me that drank died two years ago. We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of his death.
I have been, some might say, irrationally vigilant these past two years. In the summer of 2021 we were in Oostende, and I ordered a marmite full of mussels. When they arrived, I tasted one and sensed that the broth had a white-wine base. I spit it out and refused to eat the rest, even though presumably all of the alcohol had been burned off in cooking. A month or so ago I bought a package of pomegranate seeds from Monoprix. When I got home and tasted them, they seemed funny. They had an unmistakable fizz, a kind of spirituousness that told me they were in some early stage of fermentation. I spit them out too.
But what a strange quality that was, and one that I used to know so well! Were they rotting, or were they just now beginning to achieve their perfection? Had they gone bad, or were they just now coming to life? This is the paradox of fermentation — it is the moment when organic matter both goes bad and comes to life. It is the sublation of life and death, the state of living stuff that testifies equally to its mortality and its vitality. To be vital just is to be mortal — that’s an iron law, and fermentation illustrates it by displaying both of these faces of earthly being, perfectly, at once.
Not surprisingly, we human beings are not the only ones who are into it. There is a steady stream of news stories telling us of pigs that steal campground booze and become belligerent, monkeys that descend onto the beaches of ClubMed to swipe Mai-Tais. The clickbait writers always treat these events as sheer comedy, as occasions for the condescending alliteration that always accompanies animals in the media (“pugnacious porkers”, etc.). But these reports also testify to the depth of the problem: drunkenness is not some deviation of decadent human culture, but is part of who we always have been. One prominent theory finds the roots of human alcoholism in the frugivory of our primate ancestors, to whom over time natural selection gave a particular preference for fruits with high ethanol content. Even if refined traditions of fermentation only began with the agricultural revolution, it seems likely that opportunistic use of fermented foods was part of our suite of dietary practices already in prehistory. After surpluses of grain, fruit, and honey became a part of social life, beer, wine, and mead followed almost automatically, and indeed there is at least some evidence that these beverages were a driving cause, rather than a fortuitous consequence, of the radical reorganization of human societies around 10,000 years ago into fixed settlements surrounded by agricultural fields. We sedentized, the theory goes, in order to stay drunk all the time.
When jaguars gnaw the quinine from the bark of a red cinchona tree, and perhaps even when reindeer seek out mushrooms on the tundra with a high psilocybin content, we may grant that they are pursuing rational zoopharmacognostic strategies for living their best lives. It is good to avoid malaria, and it is good to see the universe crack open and reveal its secrets, even if only to your small reindeer brain. But what is good about getting drunk?
The Cambridge Platonist Henry More wrote about “the stupid, drunken life of matter”, evidently pairing these two adjectives as synonyms, but also, more importantly, describing the condition of matter itself —inert, passive, dead, in every way the opposite of vital spirit— as akin to what we experience when drunk. This is strange, and again attests to the paradox I tasted in the pomegranate seeds, and that even the monkey probably detects in its fermented nectarine: you consume the spirits because they seem on first encounter to raise your own spirits, to mingle with them and to give you an extra dose of life, but then you quickly realize that this was a false hope and what they have in fact done is brought you closer to the condition of dead matter. This is really just a way of making the very familiar point, iterated countless times in that strange hybrid class known as “Drivers Ed / Sex Ed” that so many of us had to take in American public high schools (parallel parking in the fall semester, condoms in the spring), which also included a bit of “Alcohol Ed” in the scenes of drunk-driving tragedies seared into our brains while watching Red Asphalt (they would have done better to just call the whole year-long sequence “Death Ed”): another way of making the point, I was saying, that alcohol, notwithstanding how fun it is, is technically a depressant.
We can at least understand the “selective” benefit of fermentation when we place it alongside other culinary traditions such as curing and pickling. All of these are techniques for making your food a bit bad, or pushing it right up to the boundary of inedibility, in order to keep the flies and microorganisms away so that you may have it for yourself throughout the season of scarcity or over the course of a long voyage. Beer might be “unhealthy”, but if your choice is between that and the water from a pond covered with lily-pads, then take the beer. Alcohol is surprisingly similar to salt in this regard: it is easy to see how it can help to keep us alive, when times are hard, even if it helps to kill us when times are easy (or hard, but in another way).
Georg Ehret, from Plantae Selectae, c. 1750
If all fermentation techniques are continuous with what we have always done, distillation is another story altogether. It is the business not of the farmer, but of the chemist. Its apparatus is the same as that of the alchemical laboratory. As with science in general, its motive is fundamentally perverse, and Promethean: to intrude into natural processes and make them do what we will them to do. The resulting product of alcoholic distillation is analogous to all the other substances the alchemists sought to squeeze out of the natural bounty of the earth: the purest and most rarefied essences of things that they called “spirit of zinc”, “spirit of lead”, “burning spirit of vinegar”. “Spirit of potato” does perhaps draw out some essence latent in the dull root itself, but everyone knows that vodka is no more “like” a potato than crack is like a coca leaf, or a Gobstopper is like a stalk of sugarcane. You keep pushing nature to give you more of what it has, in higher doses, and eventually it breaks, and gives you something with a causal history rooted in the thing you started with and the thing you wanted more of, but with an opposite and hostile nature. And then we’re so horrified by what we’ve produced that we come up with euphemisms to ironize and conceal its true power: “eau de vie”, or “vodka” — “little water”.
We have some evidence of distillation from classical India and from the Roman Empire, but in both cases the purpose seems to have been mostly alchemical, and at times also extending out to include innovations in the art of perfumery. In the late tenth century al-Zahrawi describes a method for producing what the Latins will call aqua ardens, or “burning water”, but distillation as an art of beverage-making seems to have emerged only in the thirteenth century, in China, and it is in the early fifteenth century that we have the first mention in Europe of Branntwein — which we render in English as “brandy”, but which is literally “burnt wine”. It seems to have been the emergence of globalized trade routes over the next few centuries that precipitated a new demand for fortified wine and other forms of alcohol that could travel across the ocean, packing as much potential drunkenness into the smallest spaces possible.
Hard liquor, in this light, is just one of the many scourges imposed on us with the rise of global capitalism, a centuries-long epidemic, a legal poison, normalized, for the most part, by the efficiency of its cultural laundering — cocktail recipes, jokes, advertisements, the eternal promise of “fun”. When I was thirteen a bottle of this medieval alchemical potion, in the form of bottom-end Smirnoff vodka, came into my secret possession. Convinced that it could not be that bad, since I had seen it in advertisements alongside Swiss fondue sets in a ski lodge and in other such happy settings as these, I drank it. I woke up some time later covered in vomit, and somehow naked. This was perhaps the first time I died.
I haven’t had any hard liquor for many years now. I can recall some ridiculous “early career” jaunts, conferences in places where you’re supposed to feel free to “cut loose”, to “let it all hang out”, getting shit-faced on local varieties of moonshine (самогон, they call it in some of the places my conferences took me, literally “self-fire”, the burnt water you make in your bathtub), with academic philosophers who thought they were living the good life, singing songs together in different languages, waking up with blood matted in our hair and no memory of how it got there. That ended by my early thirties, but what remained, day after day and year after year, was the red red wine.
Living in France gave me an extra layer of cover for the habit. It’s the good life, after all! I have been told more than once over the past two years that the French authorities would do well to reject my currently pending bid for citizenship in view of my non-drinking alone. But the truth is my wine habit was always extremely un-French. I only ever pretended to listen, and sometimes didn’t even pretend, when some wine merchant was droning on about terroir and so on. I never believed for a second that one wine might be more appropriately “paired” with a given dish than another. I never believed that any wine could have hints of “berry” or “persimmon” or “beeswax”, or, if it could, that this would have any relevance to my desire to drink it. Nothing was worse than sharing a bottle with others over dinner — before even realizing what had happened, I would glance around the table and see the other glasses at exactly the same level at which the waiter had poured them, and then my own, covered with fingerprints as if it had been mauled and molested, completely empty. I could never tell if I was furious at them, or at myself, for being built so differently; but furious I was. Then the waiter would come back and refill everyone’s glasses, as if my alien companions, who hadn’t yet taken a sip, needed more. I grew to hate restaurant drinking, and even before our first lockdowns had in any case become a practitioner of what the Finns call kalsarikännit — “pantsdrinking”, as in, underwear, as in, drinking in a setting where you are permitted to remain in your undies; as in, home. I always preferred to get my wine anonymously, at Franprix, rather than at Le Repaire de Bacchus or some other speciality shop where I would have to endure the oenological orations of the salesman. I probably learned more about wine from my Grandpa Von than I ever did from any Frenchman — Grandpa Von, who liked to take his enormous cardboard box full of Ernest and Julio Gallo rosé up on the roof with him as he worked for hours in the hot sun, mixing the tar, replacing the shingles, until one day he he fell off and got a whole mouthful of terroir.
I find I am not yet done bemoaning our society’s cult of “experience”.
Is any product of bourgeois consumer ideology more noxious than the “bucket list”? At just the moment a person should be adjusting their orientation, in conformity with their true nature, to focus exclusively on the horizon of mortality, they are rudely solicited one last time, before it’s really too late, for a final blow-out tour of the amusement parks and spectacles that still held out some plausible hope of providing satisfaction back in ignorant youth, when life could still be imagined to be made up of such things. “Travel is a meat thing”, William Gibson wrote, to which we might add that the quest for new experiences in general is really only fitting for those whose meat is still fresh.
But our economic order cannot accept this. Capitalism obscures from view first the meaning of life, which properly understood is a preparation for death, and then it obscures the meaning of death, which properly understood is the all-surrounding horizon of a mortal life. Instead it portrays life as an opportunity to go to amusement parks and accumulate novelty foam hats and so on, which is silly enough, but then, at the end of it all, it has the audacity to portray death itself as an event of life, at which you would do best to arrive with all the right “souvenirs” (what a word: memory congealed into artifact!), all the right photos of the Grand Canyon or your Kenyan safari or whatever stored for you in your personal space in the “cloud”… stored for whom, now? For what? I will not venture any dogmatic claims here about the existence or non-existence of an afterlife, whether conceived as infinite duration or as a state outside of time. What I will say, with as much certainty as I have about anything, is that death is not an event of life, it is not something you pass through and then keep going, and it certainly is not going to matter to you, when you’re dead, if you ever rode a camel or not. It might matter whether you loved another person with all your heart, whether you attained any lucidity about your mortal condition or only lived like a puffed-up fool (you will certainly not be riding your camel through the eye of any needle); it will not matter whether you fed a watermelon to a hippopotamus.
The bucket list is only a final swan-song in an order that keeps most of us in its thrall our whole lives, in which we are expected to ascribe the same value to the collection of new experiences at every age, rather than seeing experience as something whose role in life evolves. Ironically, the uniform value placed on experiences at every age suggests there is nothing really transformative about them at any age — if there were, then it would be difficult to understand the urgency of continually replenishing your stock of them. How many hot-sauces do you need to try, really? In how many different accents, in how many open-air markets around the world, do you need to hear someone say: “Yes please, you like, I make special deal”? At some point, you get the idea. You figure it out. You even start to worry that it’s all staged, not just the sales pitch, not just the market, but everything, for no matter how many different paths you take, no matter how many side-quests you go on, it all keeps coming out the same.
At the same time as I was writing a long and angry philippic against the “simulation argument” a year or so ago, my depression was dictating to me a conclusion exactly opposite to the one I was publicly pursuing: the world is a simulation, it said. It might once have been real but is not anymore. My philosophy colleague Kieran Setiya has written a very nice book about midlife, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t fully comprehended just how bad the crisis of this period can get. For me it has been not just a realization that I already am who I am and will never be anything radically different, that I’ve used up most of the becoming allotted to me. At its worst it has been the realization that I already am nothing, a ghost stalking the world.
This is how it was for me in the first year or so after I quit drinking — which was the solution to one problem, but the beginning of another. For most of 2021 I was indescribably depressed. I tried to describe it to a psychiatrist anyway. “I think I’m a ghost,” I said. “I mean I literally think I’m the ghost of a person who used to live but no longer does.” He didn’t seem to believe me. “I think I died in March, 2020,” I said. “My body was stored in one of the refrigerated trucks outside of Brooklyn General Hospital.” He asked me if I really believe that. “I guess not,” I replied. “But it seems true.”
It would have been more correct to say that I had felt as if the world itself died, and I was still stuck in it. The pandemic, the lockdowns, the sudden collapse of all of the meanings that had kept my life propped up — they were fictions all along, it turned out, but they managed to keep me going, until everything changed. Having already been a non-drinker for several months upon arriving in New York in the summer of 2019, at the beginning of the spring lockdown the first thing I did was to order $600 worth of cheap wine from our neighborhood liquor store on Flatbush Ave. That didn’t last very long, and we replenished it, as best we could, amid the sirens, and the uncertainty, and the refrigerated trucks. Back in Paris by the end of that summer, I kept up with the drinking routine for a few months longer, and then it stopped. How did it stop? I can only invoke a variation of the anthropic principle to account for this transformation: if it hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t be here writing about it.
Edvard Munch, In the Tavern, 1890 (detail)
Drinking is, in the end, a vain effort to break out of all the immanence and predictability I have attempted to describe, and to secure a bit of transcendence. This is the same thought Dean Martin expressed dimly when he said he feels sorry for people who don’t drink. “When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” It’s hard to say whether the feeling in question is “good”, but it is one that can move a person outside of himself, or give a person a dim glimpse of the parallel existence of another order of reality, which overlaps this one and charges it with a quality the sober cannot know. Or at least this is what Dino and other drunks tell themselves. In fact the experience is not all that unique — music, for example, is particularly good at disclosing the reality of heaven, or at least of what you might take to be heaven when you’re listening to music.
I never liked the French habit of referring not to “depression”, but to “a depression” —“Il a subi une dépression”—, as if this were the sort of thing that could be counted. To say that one may experience “a depression” in life is somewhat like saying that a river may have “a water” flowing in it. And yet I can’t deny that there was something punctuated, événementiel, about what I lived through for the year or so after I quit drinking. As I see it now, what happened is that I was cut off from my long-familiar source of hope, however meager, for transcendence, and was dismally under-practiced in detecting other sources. I got better at that, am still getting better at it.
Yet life now is in certain respects undeniably “less”. It is with the subtraction of alcohol that my new disposition to experience in general took hold of me. I no longer live, as Czesław Miłosz put it, “under orders from the erotic imagination” (he managed to stay in that mode well into his nineties, at least if he is telling the truth in his poetry — chapeau to him, but I personally have no idea how that is possible). To put this another way, I no longer see the world as frothing with possibility, as “open”. That’s what it is, I think, to survive past midlife: your life is not done, yet it is, as we say, “a done deal”.
Can it still, under such circumstances, hold out the hope of being “good”? Hell yes, life is good. It’s a gift, it’s a miracle, &c. And it is surely a blessing to live long enough to learn to stop searching in vain for sources of transcendence in the common substances of this world, however rarefied they are made, however spirit-like, by the long art of men.
About the Author
Justin E.H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.
A version of essay was first published in Justin E. H. Smith’s Hinternet. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.