Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Metaphysics of the Hangover

We commonly think of hangovers as the next-day result of too much alcohol. We overdo it the night before, and the following morning we pay. We develop flu-like symptoms. We get a headache; our joints hurt; it’s an unpleasant thing to stare too long at the light, which seems all too inclined to stare back—hard. Whatever optimism we might have stored away in the vault of our psyche seems to have disappeared. We’re down, sorry, sad, and grim. We feel as if we have succeeded in poisoning ourselves—and the word is that we have. The word toxic hides in the middle of intoxication, like a rat in gift box. We’ve infected our bodies with toxins, and at first we got a happy ride. Some scientists speculate that the euphoria induced by drinking may come from the way alcohol summons forth energies to fight against the possibility that we’ve been poisoned. Being drunk, or even tipsy, thus understood, is elation as the defenders come roaring into the breach like a wave of charging knights. Banners flap, armor clangs, the hautboys sound in the air.

But then comes the morning, and it is time to pay. We arrive at the downside of the event. As high as we have mounted in delight, as the poet puts it, in dejection do we sink as low. That really does seem to be the case. The higher we’ve flown under the influence, the more down and dirty is the experience of the morning after.

There are a number of memorable literary accounts of the hangover, but none I’ve encountered outdoes Kingsley Amis’s in Lucky Jim. Jim is a young university instructor trying to find a place in the world. But the strain of seeking is considerable. One night Jim drinks more than he should and then quite a bit more after that. The next morning, he faces the hangover. Jim “stood brooding by his bed.… The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Indeed, he did. Generally, one can’t in good taste laugh at someone, even a fictional someone, who feels quite as bad as Jim does. But the hangover is different from most other kinds of suffering. As generations of mothers and fathers have said to their wayward kids about one sorrow or another, “You brought this on yourself.” If you hadn’t filled the third glass, then the fourth and then the—how many were there?—you wouldn’t have that washcloth on your head and it wouldn’t hurt quite so much as it does to look at things.

But really, wasn’t it worth it? The night before, it was a pleasure to look at things. It was a particular pleasure to look at a comely someone, and maybe be looked at in return. The possibilities seemed endless, or at least far improved over what they had been in the afternoon. And everything else you looked at, the barstools and the tables and even the beer glass, didn’t seem quite so alien, quite so other as they usually do. Somehow objects gave off an encouraging, almost amiable glow. And by contrast with that dusty thudding in the head the morning after, the night before there had been a serene and steady kind of subliminal sound—they don’t call it “getting a buzz on” for nothing. Even the thoughts that came through that serenely humming brain were good ones, kind and hopeful and upbeat. Wallace Stevens speaks of “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind”—well, yes, that too. The bad thoughts were evaded, or at least didn’t seem half so bad in the roseate glow of a few drinks. (...)

Has anyone ever taken up the subject of the religious hangover? Is it possible that when the service is over, the spirituals have been sung, and the visitation is at an end, there is a sense of loss? The inner barriers have broken down and the worshiper has been made whole. But maybe the next day there’s also (to borrow from Lenson) a “vengeful rebuilding” of the interior walls not unlike the process that follows a bender. Or maybe that hangover comes only when the communicant has been thoroughly disillusioned with the faith. It does happen—people given to religious ecstasy are well known to move from one spiritual venue to the other in desperate search of inspiration. (One might more cruelly say that they move in desperate search of a fix.) Is there a religious hangover? Is there a morning after of faith?

I’d dare say that there is another area of experience that produces a hangover with some frequency—the experience of sexual love. Perhaps disillusionment in love comes in two doses, reduced and full strength. We’ve all heard about the more modest version. Freud unpleasantly says that every act of sexual enjoyment decreases the value the lover confers upon the beloved. Not uncommon among males, to be sure. But in our world, rife with more sexually adventurous females than Freud could have imagined, it may be the case with some women too. The larger dose comes at the end of an affair—the breakup, and the grief and sorrow that follow. One mourns the loss of the beloved. One mourns the loss of love in one’s life. Might not that be a sort of hangover too?

Once again, boundaries are being cruelly reconstructed. Once you and I were one, now we are, painfully, sadly, no longer united. We are two different nations, perhaps warring, perhaps at aggrieved peace. Does a fractured love affair induce some headaches, some lethargy, despondency, hatred for the world and all it contains? I dare say it often does. All philosophies seek to dominate the world, and often they should simply back off. But the philosophy of the hangover may proudly assert that hangovers are more common and pervasive than most people imagine. And—here is the crucial point—the hangover is not only an aftermath of booze and drugs. The hangover may also pertain to failed idealizations of many sorts: Religious disillusion (or fatigue) may qualify as a sort of hangover; erotic loss or disappointment may also be described with reference to the philosophy of the morning after.

Is there a political hangover? Perhaps the experience of helping to elect a candidate who looks like a redeemer but is simply a skilled player, and who has no more interest in rescuing the world than he does in flying to the moon, is one that ends in something akin to the hangover. Maybe great art leaves a hangover, for producer and consumer alike; maybe battle, even what appeared to be heroic battle, sometimes does.

Any aspiration that takes one out of straight and narrowly normal life may well end in hangover-like disillusion. Not to admire anything, Horace famously said, is the only way to feel really good about yourself. Do you want to live a contented, stable, normal, productive life? Don’t drink. And don’t engage in any of the activities that can be akin to drinking. Don’t fall in love, don’t swoon for God, don’t try to change the world, don’t attempt to dissolve the state and remake it again.

by Mark Edmundson, Hedgehog Review |  Read more:
Image: The Day After by Edvard Munch, 1894-95 via Wikipedia