Some Things I've Learned from Booze

The world teaches.  Everything instructs — cement, soap, songs, flowers, smells, glances, books, hobos, movies, golf clubs.  Some things, like some teachers, resonate with you better, more thoroughly, more effectively.  For 30 years, give or take, booze has been a great teacher and me, I've been its less than reluctant pupil (although I've not always been open to its pedagogy). Here are some things I've learned over the years:

1. Everything has its way.  Scotch, after all, is not tequila and neither are gin.This is, of course, obvious. But I still find it profound and this seemingly simple dictum has had enormous repercussions in how and what I think. 

2. The ways of things intersect and overlap.  I love spicy, perhaps a bit mineraly, clean boozes that are a little hot, a little complex, and never sweet: St. George Terroir Gin, Fortaleza Blanco, Glenrothes single malt, Old Potrero Rye. 

3. Things have internal borders that need not unify.  The aforementioned boozes each enjoys, on its own, this fantastic array of flavors, each distinct — sun, fir, honey, black pepper. They don't have to become one.

4. Moods come and go. Over the course of one drink, you may traverse despair, elation, resignation, contemplation, each with an emphatic umph.

5. The now is historical, forwards and backwards.  Drinking lots now can feel good now — then feel very bad the next day.  Sometimes, this is ok; other times, it's not. In any case, there is a distinct correlation between this now and another now. 

6. Everything has its occasion. I like my booze. I have a drink or two most days. But I don't always want a drink — a midday beer or morning shot can be great but more often than not makes me sluggish and dumb.  

7. Some things have diminishing returns. Just because some thing makes you feel great doesn't mean you can enjoy it ceaselessly — some pleasurable things become less pleasurable when consumed in the wrong proportion or quantity.

8. Things can interact in surprising ways. Booze is one thing. Now add this or that — sex, hooch, medication, driving — and the way of booze can be synergistic, a catalyst both good and bad, to say the least.

9. What was once right is not always right.  Starting in my early teens, I drank Jim Beam. A lot of Jim Beam. Now, I can't touch the stuff.  I drink much less in general and rarely imbibe bourbon.  My body has changed, wants different things, needs different things.

10. Categories offer infinite internal diversity. Bourbon is relatively well defined — 51% corn, from Kentucky, I don't know what else.  But try Makers then Buffalo Trace then High West and you'll have three different, even if intimately related, experiences. Now take gin: other than juniper, there are no demands. Infinite variations is not only available but encouraged by the category itself.

11. Pay attention.  One drink too much, or the wrong drink, can be disastrous.  Booze has taught me to pay attention to what's happening, to how I interact with the world.



 "Make no mistake. It's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning." 

In Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and his brothers have a run in with the Cowboys, an organized pack of gangsters who end up killing one of Wyatt's brothers.  In the aftermath, Wyatt goes on a rampage, hunting down every Cowboy and killing him.

In one scene, he seems to overcome all possible odds through sheer will, walking into the open to shoot and kill the Cowboys who shoot at him from the safety of cover. One of Wyatt's cohorts can't believe what he's just seen. To make sense of it — to make sense of such an extreme display of will, to explain what looks like madness — this cohort says, "Well, if they were my brothers, I'd want revenge, too."

To which Doc Holliday, a man beyond good and evil, replies: "Make no mistake. It's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning."

A reckoning can seem like revenge in that it can be read as the settling of a debt — and, as Nietzsche taught, debt is guilt and guilt is revenge.  But I think there is a more interesting way to make sense of a reckoning, the way I think Holliday means it in this instance. A reckoning is a calculating of one's position within a situation and taking the necessary steps, doing what needs to be done, not just coming to terms but settling that which needs settling.

If revenge is a confrontation with another, reckoning is a confrontation with life itself and one's place in it. Acting out of revenge exhausts one's energy — after all, he who seeks revenge spends all his energy thinking about and going after someone else.  What a waste. A reckoning, however, is a revitalization of one's energy, a shifting of alignment into a place of great fecundity, of great power.

Look at Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.  He's married to a junky he doesn't love.  He tries to be a good man, a proper man, earning money for his wife and family. But after his brother is killed by the Cowboys, it's as if he wakes up. He sheds his wife and bourgeois propriety and enters the wild — the wilds of killing, the wilds of uncertainty, the wilds of potential poverty, the wilds of love. Where he was once not just introverted but involuted, closed in on himself, he is now extroverted, exuding vitality. 

A reckoning is an inflection point, a juncture, a turning, a transformative moment that redirects one's flow of energy.  A reckoning shifts the very terms of the apparatus: it is a metabolic realignment.

The brilliant Breaking Bad is the portrait of a reckoning. When Walter White is given his diagnosis of cancer, he realizes that the very manner in which he lives is literally killing him.  He is a weak man. Nice, maybe, but he does little that fuels his health. His teaching is his only thread to life, giving him a flow to his passion, chemistry.  Otherwise, every tic, every decision, every move he makes siphons his vitality. 

He presumably begins to cook meth because he wants to leave money for his family after he's dead. But that turns out just to be a spark that ignites his reckoning, his coming into his power: the show tracks his metabolic transformation, the realigning of his energy distributions.

A reckoning is messy as it disrupts flows long established. Reckoning is painful and loud (even if silent) and sends ripples through the network as this node affects others — Wyatt's wife, Walt's family.

And it can look like revenge. But just as Wyatt does not kill the Cowboys out of revenge, Walt does not beats this asshole kid in the store out of revenge. He's not exhausting his energy: he's igniting it.  Revenge is ugly, always.  Reckoning, on the other hand, even though violent and even grotesque, is beautiful. 


Knowing Things

I like booze.  I've spent dozens of years drinking different whiskeys and tequilas and, recently, gins.  In some sense, I don't know anything about them. I don't know how they're made; I'm not sure where they're made; I'm not even sure what they're always made from. 

And yet I feel, with utter confidence, that I know whiskey, that I know tequila, that I'm coming to know gin.  I know the experience I want — the experience on my tongue, in my throat and belly, the experience I want from my buzz and how I want to feel the next morning.  I love going into bars and describing exactly what I desire to the barkeep who is presumably, and hopefully, thoroughly versed in the various experiences this or that booze offers. Sometimes, they steer me well.

Now, this barkeep of course knows whiskey in a way that I do not — and in a way that I do not care to. The only reason for me to know regions and the production process and the variations of casks and different aging methods is to make the selection of the exact experience I want easier and faster.  And that sounds great. And, over the years, I've certainly acquired more knowledge that has made choosing the right booze for my mood easier.

But, frankly, I like how I know booze. I don't want to know all the genera and species, the regions and vicissitudes of aging.  I enjoy my mode of knowing that begins and ends, more or less, with my experience, an experience that is at once palpable and ethereal.  Because, really, what else matters? I can't make whiskey; I couldn't buy it wholesale at a good price. Oh, but I can drink it and I can enjoy it and I do, yes, I do. 

Am I saying that I know whiskey better than the barkeep? Does she know it better than I?  What counts as better? Is knowledge something we quantify so that one can know more or less?  Sure, sometimes, in some areas, in some circumstances.  My point, I suppose, is this: there are different ways of knowing things and there are some ways of knowing that don't involve what we usually call facts.

When I was in college, over 20 years ago, there was a renowned class, taught by a renowned scholar, on James Joyce's Ulysses. Many of my friends took the course; I did not. They had all these names for each chapter that usually referred to this or that classical reference. It was as if they'd been handed some special decoder ring and could now decipher Joyce's arcane text. And the rest of us were just ignorant.

I read the book the summer after college and loved it — well, most of it. Not being a classicist, I missed the Homeric allusions. I am sure I missed hundreds of other allusions.  On the other hand, I didn't miss anything at all.  There are moments in that book that resonated and resounded in my very cells — and still do. And there are moments that passed me right by. I left the book feeling like I knew it just as I wanted to know it.

I am woefully ignorant of fauna. But when I was 16 and tripping on my first ever hit of acid in the Fall of 1986 and the leaves had vacated their trees leaving my lush little town to sit beneath these branches that were anything but bare, I came to know trees with a certain intensity, a certain intimacy. With nothing to mask their fine and endless articulations, the trees spoke to me. Alternately wise, witty, buffoonish, and deadpan, we conversed. The conversation lasts to this very day — not as intensely but as one might converse with any old friend.

I have plenty of friends who know trees better than I do — and better in every possible sense.  They know the facts and they know the articulation of which I speak and they know so much more. I have a friend who would strip naked in the winter and head into the woods of the Pennsylvania Poconos and make a shelter with these trees.  In a very real way, he made — and makes — love to the trees and to fauna of all sorts. 

What is it to know something? Consider all these different ways of knowing trees: a child who loves climbing them; someone with allergies; a botanist; an environmentalist; a 16 year old stoner Jew on acid; a gardener.

I want to say that to know something, to really know it and not just know of it, is to go with it.  To know, then, is not to know about something but to know with something, to be moved with that thing.

Anyone can look up facts on Wikipedia. And those facts can be great and may be necessary (or not). But to know something is to go with that thing. And there are so many ways of going with, so many ways of knowing.  


The Deed, and Nothing But

Consider seeing. Is seeing active or passive? Do you see the coffee mug? Or does the coffee mug, in a sense, project itself into you — into your head, into your body, the very vision of it filling you just as the coffee itself does as you drink it? Do you come to the world? Or does the world come to you? Or is this a false dichotomy? Is it that we come together, we become together, we are both stuffs of this world and we go and interact as any stuffs in the world go — colliding, harmonizing, snuggling? 

Vision — all perception — is neither active nor passive, is both active and passive.

The place of perspective, of reading, is the middle, between here and there, between you and me. It happens in what we call the middle voice. The middle voice is difficult to speak, at least in English. English has subjects of sentences that stand separate from their actions — the verbs — which in turn act upon objects. “I kiss you”: in this simple construction there is a distinct I, a distinct kiss, and a distinct you. There is an implied, and obligatory, distinction between who I am and the actions I take, as if there were an I that stands apart from the world, that comes before, or outside, action — as if there were a kiss that did not involve me and you.

In some sense, all there is is kissing — there is no I, no kiss, no you, just this cooperative event (hopefully!) of me, kiss, desire, love, you.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes that when we say “lightning strikes,” we are being redundant. Of course lightning strikes. What is lightning if it doesn’t strike? Lightning is that which strikes; it is striking, always and already. Take away the striking and you have nothing. When we say “lightning strikes,” we put a doer behind the deed when, for Nietzsche, all there is is the deed. Nietzsche argues that one of the great moves made by the slaves was to posit a subject behind the action who could be held eternally responsible for his actions — the bird of prey becomes guilty for eating the little lamb, as if the bird had a choice, as if the bird were not always and already a bird that preys. The invention of this doer is the invention of Judeo-Christian morality and its arsenal of ego, morality, guilt, and judgment.

Our grammar rests on such a subject who is distinct from both his actions and the world. And so here we posit a middle voice, a way to speak that is neither active nor passive. In English, this demands that we make language perform in such a way that the distinctions between doer, deed, and object are intertwined. We have to make language enmesh and touch and palpate.



I never cease to be amazed by the magic of words — these contrived scrawls, these guttural mutterings that somehow conjure, entice, explain, seduce, confound, convey, reveal. Well, I suppose sometimes I do cease to be amazed but that's only because I'm not paying any attention, am distracted by the obnoxious din of my own blabbering brain.

One of my favorite philosophers of language is Maurice Merleau-Ponty (a melodious name I do enjoy saying — it's somehow perverse and exquisitely so): "...language never says anything; it invents a series of gestures which between them present differences clear enough for the conduct of language to the degree that it repeats itself, recovers and affirms itself, and purveys to us the palpable flows and contours of a universe of meaning." 

I love that: "language never says anything."  To think than language is a vehicle that carries our ideas, our facts, our messages is not just to reduce language but to miss it all together.  A word does not stand in for something, for a real thing that exists elsewhere. A word is real, too.  

Take any word, say, dog. The word dog does not stand in for the idea of dog or even for the asshole dogs who bark incessantly in my backyard. The word dog, the idea of dog, every dog I've ever known, the smell of dog, my faint dog allergy, my cynophobia, the movie Cujo, chien, mut, wolf: all these terms, and more, form a network.  They exist in various and complex relations with each other (these relationships can be considered tropes — but that's another topic).  

A word is a body — and a strange body at that.  It's visible, in some sense, but its visible components do not convey very much.  It is invisible, as well, drenched in affect, memory, and meaning. But its invisible components would be nothing without its visible ones, its marks and sounds. 

A word, then, is this incredible assemblage point that is also a condensation point.  After all, words are so pithy. Melodious. Cloying. Flabbergast. This. Hi. Foment. Singe. Fecund. So much in so little, each an entire world (pace Lohren Green). 

And I love the different shapes they make — they can flow so softly, so gently, then turn on a dime and fuck your face, hard and angular before becoming knotted clumsy stumble. Think of Nabokov, then Bukowski, then Garcia Marquez, then Celine, then Ashbery....all these constellations, all these possible configurations, all these ways of distributing emotion, mood, affect, meaning.

We reach for a word, says Merleau-Ponty, as we reach for an itch. Language is not a tool we use. It's an element we prehend just as we prehend air and food.  A word has a body, a density, a weight, an inclination.  A word is a strange fluttering (or not) creature that houses an entire cosmos, suspended (or not) in the ether. When we declare or proclaim or inscribe, we enter its world.  And then, it some sense, it speaks us.

But language, while insidiously coercive, is rarely so dictatorial.  Words move with us, go with us. In fact, William Burroughs says they're a virus and humans, their host. There is a creepy aspect to this but there is also something beautiful, a symbiosis, a giving and taking — even if it's a relation rife with tension. We all know this tension — so-called writers all the more: we wrestle words and they wrestle back.

And then, sometimes, you find a beautiful rhythm with them — you reach, they reach back, they offer themselves to you and you offer yourself back, receptive to their fluttering, a mutual generosity, an intertwining of bodies human and linguistic. Oh, these are glorious moments, profoundly erotic, a making love — yes, love — with words, surfing the undulations of this strange body we call language.  

Take a Peek

Apropos of nothing, for those more philosophically minded among you, check out this podcast — smart, thorough, excited: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/

And, well, they linked to my podcast on Bergson, too: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2011/12/06/daniel-coffeen-on-bergsons-matter-and-memory/.


Examples and Repetition

We use examples all the time. But what is the logic of an example?

Well, an example is an instance of something — a something that is presumably bigger or broader such a concept, genre, ideology, or idea.  This model of exemplarity is hierarchical as the master term determines the identity of the particular.

Here’s an example of an example: “The books of William Burroughs are postmodern.” In this case, the oddity and tics and particularity of Burroughs are explained by, and reduced to, a meta-category: the postmodern. One could, on the other hand, say that his books are not postmodern, in which case, Burroughs is defined in a negative relationship to a category — which is to say, not defined at all. Or one could take another example of postmodernity — say, Thomas Pynchon — and talk about how Burroughs’ paranoia differs from Pynchon’s in that Burroughs is not paranoid at all: to him, the world is at war hence one had better keep a good lookout. In any case, in this model of the example, a particular thing is in a relationship with a category either as an instantiation, a rebel, or a modifier: Burroughs is postmodern; Burroughs is not postmodern; Burroughs shifts the terms of postmodernity.  

This model of exemplarity takes all sorts of forms such as ideology critique in which we read something in light of a predefined “cultural” or “ideological” category such as gender, race, sexuality, Marxism, psychoanalysis. This is a common assignment in college classes as Freudian readings of Vertigo, feminist critiques of Deep Throat, and Marxist analyses of The Wire abound. 

What matters in this model of the example is the category as the difference of Burroughs is minimized or wiped away.  This is a way of domesticating knowledge, of taming ideas that might tear at familiar and comforting categories.  Because, in this model, the categories themselves remain unquestioned, assumed as givens rather than tossed into the fray with all the other muck. And the difference of this or that is ignored.

Now, I could say that there is no such thing as a category and that all there is is difference, particulars ad infinitum. And, to some extent, this is no doubt true (but in a different way for different folks). But it seems to me that things do coalesce, that difference does not mark isolation but a relationship. The question is: how can we speak about such points of assemblage without falling into the hierarchy of exemplarity?

Repetition. With repetition, each thing recasts all the others in its various networks, including the categories.  Every chair is both the idea of chair and the instance of chair: it is both Chair and chair, chair again and anew, chair recast, reconfigured, recategorized.  Occasionally, a chair takes leave of chair all together and becomes something else — a couch, a table, a cat's house.  With repetition, there is no up or down, no firm vertical axis on which a hierarchy could establish itself.  

With repetition, each thing is the center of its category (and of its world).  Each thing is both category and instantiation.  Each thing is an example of itself.  And this is how I like to read the world — examples, nothing but examples, examples all the way up and all the way down, everything an example of itself — a world of pure exemplarity.  

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...