In Vino Veritas

 

If you’ve ever been just a little too honest with a friend after a few alcoholic drinks, then you’ll find truth in the phrase “most men are disguised by sobriety.” (de Quincey, 46). There is evidently a deep-seated connection between intoxication and the inner self. When our inhibitions are down, we confess the “disguised” machinations of our everyday minds. But, rightly, we often associate intoxication with a loss of faculties and a general feeling that the intoxicated person “isn’t himself” in a drunken stupor. Our question then arises: Does intoxication, in fact, bring about truth?

In his Artificial Paradises, Baudelaire snidely remarked that “A man who drinks only water has a secret to keep from his peers.” (9). We now have reason to become skeptical of the sober self. A secret being held in sobriety suggests an open falsehood is normally at play. The implication of Baudelaire’s quip about water is that wine would procure this secret, and would unmask the otherwise hidden truth. In fact, this intuition was so strong that Baudelaire took care to give wine its own personality. Wine, as characterized by Baudelaire, acknowledges this connection between truth and intoxication: “I would sooner dwell in the stomach of an honest man, a cheerful grave where I enthusiastically fulfill my destiny” (7). This reads as though wine’s singular, preordained destiny is to seek or bring about truth. Additionally, the word “grave” here further underscores truth as the teleological thrust that wine provides. Thus, we have reached coterminous with the perennial Latin aphorism, in vino veritas, or “in wine there is truth.”

In addition to his remarks about men being “disguised by sobriety”, Thomas de Quincey detailed an account of the ways in which sobriety is inauthentic: “So thick a curtain of manners is drawn over the features and expression of men’s natures, that to the ordinary observer, the two extremities [“goodness” and “vileness”], and the infinite field of varieties which lie between them, are all confounded” (32). Human nature, understood by de Quincey, is predominantly socially mediated. There is a “curtain” of manners and social norms between our authentic selves and the selves we operate through in everyday life. We can now see how just about everything about the sober self is calculated. That is, unlike the intoxicated self, the sober self always predicates its actions on a social outcome. In sobriety, we will deliberate to withhold information about ourselves that might obfuscate the outcome we are trying to bring about. These “manners” de Quincey is critiquing are the means we employ to achieve our anticipated social ends. In sobriety, it seems that we are simply manipulating others by acting disingenuously towards them. Intoxication, in some ways, remediates this inauthentic behavior towards others. But de Quincey has only palliated the sober condition; intoxication, here, might be a panacea.

Further evidence for intoxication as an antidote to the inauthenticity and falseness of sobriety is to be found in the writings of Theophile Gautier. In recounting his experiences on Hashish, he wrote, “I was so absent, so free from myself (that detestable witness ever dogging one’s footsteps)” (58). In the action of becoming “free” from himself, evidently, he has had a revelation that he wasn’t free before. The curious manner in which Gautier subsequently extends this revelation is that, in freeing him of his “self,” he is at last emancipated from “that detestable witness ever dogging one’s footsteps”. Gautier’s diction suggests how the self shadows one’s actual participation in the world; it follows one’s own “footsteps,” so to speak. One’s very sense of self as primary, then, is called into question. Not only is the self “detestable,” here, it is clearly an afterthought, it is secondary. Intoxication, it seems, restores primacy to one’s core being; it sheds the cloak of “self” and identity. This, I would argue, is intoxication attaining truth of a kind.

Thus, we have warrant to scrutinize the consequences of sobriety in the human condition. Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” provides additional insight into this affinity between intoxication and the self. In the third stanza, the speaker calls the reader to “Ascend beyond the sickly atmosphere / to a higher plane, and purify yourself / by drinking as if it were ambrosia” (20). This passage clearly validates the unmitigated connection between truth and intoxication. Here, the speaker is speaking to us frankly, as though anyone in the world could pick this poem up and feel as though this advice applies to them. The speaker invokes the claim that our default “atmosphere” is “sickly”–a rather undesirable place to be–but it also invites the reader to traverse the path of purification and exaltation “by drinking as if it were ambrosia”. If our normal state is impure, then intoxication seems to be the way to bring about purity. We can find further evidence of this in Gautier’s writings: “The thirst of the Ideal is so strong in man that he must strive, as far as lies in his power, to relax the bonds that fetter the soul to the body…A little red liquor, a puff of smoke, a teaspoonful of greenish paste and that impalpable essence, the soul, is transformed on the instant” (56). Here, Gautier does not presume to discriminate amongst one’s method of intoxication. It seems that all kinds of intoxication are aimed at achieving an “Ideal” within oneself. This loudly echoes Baudelaire’s poem; intoxication is aimed at a “higher plane” to “purify” oneself. Both authors seem in harmony on this subject.

We’ve seen how wine procures secrets, how hashish conjures authenticity, and how our normal state of being is impure. The pivotal insight here is that intoxication is a tool to restore one’s sense of truth. Intoxication momentarily reacquaints us with truth, and enables us to accordingly act. It’s crucial to note, however, that intoxication is temporary. If we are to spend our lives chasing after truth, then it would seem to follow that we’d live as alcoholics. But the real implication of reading these authors in sync allows for a more positive perspective on the effects occasional intoxication can have: A renewal of truth, authenticity, and purity.

 

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publ. Group, 1996. Print.

Baudelaire, Charles, and Laurence Lerner. Baudelaire. Phoenix ed. London: Phoenix Poetry,
2003. Print.

Gautier, Theophile, and Charles Baudelaire. Hashish, Wine, Opium. London: Calder and Boyars,
1972. Print.

Quincey, Thomas, and Alethea Hayter. Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Harmondsworth [England: Penguin, 1971. Print.

 

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