Christopher Buckley and Dipsomania: Apparently Hard To Let It Go

The writers of great literature often supply us mere mortals with memorable lines, especially if they serve as the openers for their works. Thus, for instance, Tolstoy‘s Taxonomy of the Family, which kicks off Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This serves as raw material for endless variations which then embellish our own–lazy–conversation and writing:

All successful sports teams are alike; every unsuccessful sports team fails in its own way

Or,

All good movies are alike; every bad movie is terrible in its own way.

And so on. You catch my drift.

Or to consider another example, consider Jane Austen‘s unforgettable opening for Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Armed with this line, one can, with some facility, provide a suitable response to Christopher Buckley‘s homage to dipsography, the art of drinking, and, as it turns out, his drinking buddies, the slogan for which reads, ‘Alcohol makes other people less tedious. And food less bland.’ (‘Booze as Muse‘, The New York Times, 30 June 2013):

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boring drunk’s boring drunk friends will write chapter and verse–boring ones–about their drinking exploits and their love of the bottle.

In this tedious jaunt through the flagon-and-Boy’s Club-infested shelves of his life, Buckley describes ‘three-martini lunch’ dreams involving Tom Wolfe, writing assignments involving Bloody Mary recipes, works in the obligatory Kingsley Amis reference (among several others to–mostly male, I think–writers), before leading up to what surely was the central motivation for writing this piece, the opportunity to let us readers know that he, too, like many before him, had tried to, but failed to keep pace with, that writer’s writer, that drinker’s drinker, Christopher Hitchens:

I mentioned Christopher Hitchens a moment ago. It seems fitting that he should provide our nightcap. He and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he made a solid case for liquidity.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

Unfortunately, very little could have made less tedious the increasingly unhinged rantings of Hitchens as his expiry date loomed, and on the evidence available to us, the same goes for this considerably-less-than-novel paean to alcohol of Buckley’s. Men musing about their alcoholic recipes and proclivities is boring enough, but my tolerance runs out especially quickly when confronted with boastful tales of consumption marathons in the company of equally uninteresting hacks.

The next time Buckley feels the ‘entheos’ to write about his alcoholic adventures and adventurers, he should respond to it in the only way possible: drink himself to sleep, and spare us the details.

Geertz, Trilling and Fussell on the Transformation of the Moral Imagination

In ‘Found in Translation: Social History of Moral Imagination’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 44-45), Clifford Geertz writes,

Whatever use the imagination productions of other peoples–predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins–can have for our moral lives, then, it cannot be to simplify them. The image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of material wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life–an image that has governed a great deal of humanist thought and education–is mischievous because it leads us to expect our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied….the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one, as powerful or more, comes only at the expense of its inward ease.

Geertz wrote this in response to not just anthropological theorizing and speculation, both amateur and professional–about ‘other peoples’–but to the worries expressed by Lionel Trilling about ‘the basic assumption of humanistic literary pedagogy’  (in ”Why We Read Jane Austen’ Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976, pp 250-252) that no matter how great the distance in place, period and sensibility between us and those that inhabit the pages of literature, the author could  bring us closer, illuminate our lives, and make us aware of who we ‘already were.’ Trilling’s discomfort with this assumption arose from his feeling–as Geertz notes–that

[T]he significant works of the human imagination…speak with equal power to the consoling piety that we are all alike to one another and to the worrying suspicion that we are not.

So the ‘social history of the moral imagination’ is a task of considerable hermeneutic difficulty, one that must confront the difficulties it poses in the ‘instabilities’ it creates, all in an effort to make them relevant to the ‘social frame’ we inhabit.

The working example of such an engagement that Geertz provides is the recently departed Paul Fussell‘s The Great War and Modern Memory, which took on the archaic literary frameworks that were first utilized in perceiving and recollecting the First World War, and then later, were extensively reconfigured to amend–and give shape to–the modern imagination. Fussell’s ambitious conclusion was that the predominance of the ‘ironic’ in the modern was a painful reaction to the Great War, that what we call the ‘modern understanding’  is a sensibility that had found pre-existing literary, poetic and imaginative resources inadequate to do justice to the physical and emotional realities of the Great War’s torn and foul landscapes, soaked by the blood of millions of young men, sent to their deaths by incompetent war pigs.  This imagination was ‘shattered into thousand pieces of sour irony’ by this encounter; the modern imagination was the result of putting these pieces back together, over an extended period of time, painfully and slowly, by those who were present, and those who were not.

Geertz uses this history to suggest that,

[T]his is how anything imaginational grows in our minds, is transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or the other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness.

In remembering Paul Fussell, we should thank him for having documented such a transformation as vividly and powerfully as he did.

Note: I intend to write a few more notes here in response to Geertz’s collection.