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Drunk the Night Before: An Anatomy of Intoxication

by Marty Roth
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005
229 pp. Trade, $ 29.95
ISBN: 1-8166-4397-0.

Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center


Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) included absinthe among his own vices but got an exaggerated rap for the oft-quoted "be drunk always" because he actually added some lines later "with wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please," which I feel is a wholesome choice by any standard! Professor Roth exudes a similar tolerance, and, moreover, revels in the social and cultural nuances (and, in his hands, ambiguity) of words such as "drinking" and "drugs." Chapter titles such as "Drink poetry; or the art of feeling very very good" and "Spiritual intoxication and the metaphorics of heaven" indicate the range.

Although Roth declares from the start that he is writing about intoxication and not addiction, a remarkable amount of his text is occupied with comparisons. His summary is confusing: "Professional opinion repeatedly claims that drugs are not intoxicating, just addicting" and, in the same paragraph, confounding: "[D]rink and drugs thus exemplify the distinction between intoxication and addiction." Alas, in science and medicine (and for a good share of the educated population, I hope) alcohol is, indeed, identified as a drug.

Roth's choice of words will often send a sympathetic reader to the dictionary for justifications via archaic meanings. Thus, in the very first sentence he talks about a shift in the "valence" of alcohol, wherein he must be following the Latin for "strength" (valens) rather than 20th century usage in chemistry or biology. Roth also likes to identify with the ancient Greek definition of "symposium" as an entertainment characterized by drinking, music, and intellectual discussion. Most readers of Leonardo will surely associate this word more simply with an organized discussion. None of this is so bad except that there is little or no attempt to meet us halfway.

The author explains himself:

"This book is a study of attitudes and beliefs, and I [Roth] am neither capable of or interested in sifting the mythology of intoxication from its truth . . . . [I] try to seize this evanescent discourse as I found it, follow it through the twist and turns of individual texts, and get the several texts talking to one another. [According to its author] Drunk the Night Before is more than a series of studies but less than an argument."

More's the pity; and that should have done it for me, but I pressed on to see if I might enjoy his treatments of specific items with which I profess some expertise.

I have publications on absinthe and alcohol (including papers in Scientific American, British Medical Journal, JAMA, Journal of the History Neurosciences; and a book on Vincent van Gogh), but they slipped through the net of Roth's survey of the literature. His index also left much to be desired: Items such as 'alcohol' and 'absinthe' were not to be found, even though mentioned enough in the text. The unkindest cut of all for this reviewer came in his statement "other artists, like Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Athol Fugard, and Vincent van Gogh, felt they could not produce art at all without drink." Two unfamiliar sources were offered by Roth for this unjustified opinion. It flies in the face of much reasoned and documented argument to the contrary, i.e. that while some creative people have resorted to alcohol as a depressant after the high of prolonged and exacting work, they never produce their best work while inebriated. Van Gogh, in particular, was concerned about the negative effects of alcohol and wrote about it in his letters to his brother.

The book is nicely produced on good quality paper. On the other hand, some of the nuts and bolts of editorial production detract from its utility. For example, attributions in the text are quirky and difficult. Thus, a name is followed by a number, which is the page at which to start reading. Only when a quoted author has more than one work in this book is the year of his publication also given in the text [which is one of the more useful and standard formats]. And in other cases there is just a stand-alone page number, so that the reader must scurry back to find an earlier mention of a name floating in the text. To add to the confusion, the footnotes have superscript numbers and are, then, ganged towards the end of the book.

Some artistic reproductions would have been welcome. They would help to justify the price tag for this modestly-sized book. There are neither illustrations nor hints of quantification in the form of tables or graphs. For example, a list of the constituents that are incidentally imbibed beyond ethanol would have been useful. Given the engaging title, we might have expected a chemical explanation of hangovers.

Marty Roth is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, his publisher. He is also on the editorial board of Dionysos, a journal of addiction and culture.



Updated 1st February 2006

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