Night Before: An Anatomy of Intoxication
by Marty Roth
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
229 pp. Trade, $ 29.95
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
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
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.