Taking the holistic view of a really old habit that just won’t quit
One good reason for alky’s age-old ties with mankind? It can’t be all bad!
LET me start, in the set essay style, with a relevant quote. The only, if standout, difference is that it’s one of my own, coined right here and now for this article! How’s that for cheek? Those who’ve known my Recycled Cliché oeuvre will also know I can’t say no to a pun. So humour this quirk of mine, won’t you, and let me baldly state that — ahem! —alcohol is as old as the stills! Old – hills – stills – pretty lame, I know, but …well … you know.
Anyhow, back to the business at hand, to wit, the upside, if any, of alcohol.
Top of the agenda, to see us off on our jaunt, a mouthful of synonyms to savour: spirits, booze, firewater, grog, hooch, John Barleycorn, juice, liquor, moonshine, sauce, tipple.
Enough to rouse a powerful thirst to wet one’s whistle, eh? Deep breath now, there’s more to come in short order and good measure: bracer, chaser, nightcap, nip, peg, pop, shooter, shot, slug, snifter, snort, tot, cocktail, brew.
Whew! sums all that up in a word.
These lists, though substantial, are but the tip of an iceberg, and that, too, in the English language alone.
The sheer volume of vocabulary for the vice — grave or slight, it’s a weakness and that’s a fact, watertight — bears witness to how deeply imbedded the habit is in the human psyche. We’ve had an age-old love-hate (more the former, less the latter) liaison with alcohol. The classic Leo Tolstoy short story The Imp And The Crust tells a cautionary tale, set in medieval times, of alcohol’s roots and clout, yet barley beer and grape wine are at least as old as the Pyramids of Egypt and Great Wall of China.
Man mastered fire before he did fermentation, but only just, on an anthropological scale. If the find of the Stone Age was the spark that kindled the Iron Man to come, the next big thing would have to be a Trojan Horse gift, largesse of the Agriculture Era. Indeed, jugs dug up in China suggest the spirits that so move us to this day have been around for simply ages, to cite a date — since at least Neolithic times (circa 10,000BC).
Even more so than the many such breakthroughs in store, like penicillin for one, radioactivity another, stumbling across fermentation too was most likely a bit of a fluke. The plot may well have unfolded thus: a pot of broth laid aside in the sun, sits forgotten for a spell, goes off, tastes queer but whoa, what a kick! It’s a Eureka moment that’s one for the books. A test rerun gets the same result; the new knowhow goes viral, for good or bad, maybe both, whatever, we’re hooked.
Chance it was then that set off a chain reaction of accidents that go on to this day. In case you wonder why I use that fortuitous term, ask any traffic cop or victim; DUI’s the name of a now deadly game.
Ironic too how an acquired taste with such humble beginnings has since grown into a multibillion-dollar global industry. Which may also be why it’s a habit so hard to kick, and for reasons more than mere addiction, viz., vested interests.
Yet, in its first flush, alcohol served as a relaxant, a tonic of sorts to the worn-out farmer (and his long suffering wife) after a long hard day out in the fields. If taken in moderation — aye, and there’s the rub — it kept one cocooned for a while from stark reality (a kinda stopgap goodbye-cruel-world getaway), and the sleep that followed was deep and complete.
The culture of alcohol – ancient, extensive and long lasting
THE use, or abuse, as the case may be, of alcohol is multihued, historically speaking: intoxicant, medicine, nutrition, you name it. In one custom from the bad old days, soldiers and sailors got a shot of grog before going into battle or while all at sea. The first for the warrior spirit (Dutch courage, they call it) and the second, one suspects, to get one’s sea legs. Yo, ho, ho, goes the hoary old shanty, and a bottle of rum.
Well documented too is its use in the medical world, for the most part as anaesthetic and antiseptic. One’s lost count of the war movies one’s seen, where a shot of the hard stuff was first sent down the hatch to dull the pain, then more of the same splashed to cleanse an open wound, before some field surgery is done on the injured party.
Beyond the mundane, though —war has since grown routine, and on the silver screen as well — what strikes one is how liquor dropped anchor in the holy waters and to the warm welcome of so many faiths.
Soma (from Vedic times) and ambrosia (of Greek mythology) are perhaps the first recorded potions of divine provenance. Both were ‘drinks of the gods’, and held to bestow immortality, but neither was per se alcohol; no call there to ferment or distil, they’re potable plant extracts, like sugarcane juice, I guess.
Before long, alcohol got religion as well, going on to wear an air of respectability, put to good use in rituals the world over, down to this very day. From spirit to spiritual is but a step and a syllable away, in every sense of the words, semantic and otherwise. That perceived proximity must have earned the practice its seal of approval. Plus too the state of intoxication seemed next of kin, and short cut as well, to the trance state.
In the inimitable and immortal words of the great American bard Ogden Nash:
Candy is dandy
But liquor is quicker.
To be continued
Next Week: Cutting across class lines, alcohol acts as a great equaliser
John Michael Chiramal, Changzamtog, Thimphu