In Defense of Intoxication
Hold my drink: I’m going to make the case for intoxication.
There’s a significant historical precedent for the use of mind-altering substances. While the use of mushrooms by the druids of pre-Roman Europe is debated, although not implausible, there’s solid evidence of the use of all manner of psychedelics in the Americas dating as far back as 1500 B.C. There are even those who have argued that our religious impulses stem from prehistorical tripping.
Outside of ritual and medicinal use of substances, alcohol emerged as a way of allowing ordinary people some kind of release from their daily drudgery, and as a social lubricant. Five thousand years ago, Mesopotamian laborers were paid in beer, while halfway across the world, saliva-fermented drink chicha straddled both ritual and drink-of-the-people roles in South American cultures.
We have long associated various degrees of intoxication with creativity. While something of a cliché, there’s no denying the intertwined histories of altered mind states and artistic endeavor — no Apollonian without the Dionysian, and all that. Names like Baudelaire, Coleridge, or Poe possess almost narcotic qualities, evoking the mystic and visionary elements of their work.
Intoxication helped modernist artists see the overfamiliar world anew, as Eugene Brennan and Russell Williams describe in Literature and Intoxication: Writing, Politics and the Experience of Excess, referencing Walter Benjamin’s experiences with hashish. We might trace this through to Hunter S. Thompson, who used the lens of intoxication to lay bare the rampant absurdity of the modern world — although it should be noted that Brennan and Williams take issue with this brand of “countercultural valorization of intoxication.”
Intoxicating substances can afford us a wonderful sort of escape — from our habit-worn perception of the world around us, from our inhibitions, from our nagging everyday problems, and sometimes just from monotony.