Thursday, March 10, 2005


Writing about drunkenness is notoriously difficult. Perhaps the sexual act is the only other subject to so confront the writer with its incommunicability. With drunkenness in fiction, you tend to get certain adjectives ("fuzzy", "unsteady", "woozy") and speech slips into a kind of Dickensian dialect of slurred vowels and dropped consonants. As in real life, the inebriated are often keen on talking politics:
Boyle: The counthry'll have to steady's hell...Where'r all...the chairs...gone to....steady itself, Joxer...Chairs'll...have to...steady themselves...No matther...what any one may...say...Irelan' Irelan'

- Sean O'Casey (Juno and the Paycock)
This is really nothing more than an impression of drunken behavior. Drunks are everywhere in prose - from Hemingway to Bukowski to Patrick Hamilton - but being a drunk is different to simply being drunk, and it doesn't assist one's ability to describe inebriation. Drunks are joyless, miserable. They've drunk all the fun out of being pissed.

"Always be drunk" advises Baudelaire:
In order not to feel
Time's horrid fardel
bruise your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
Well, who would want time's horrid fardel bruising their shoulders? Not me, and certainly not Charles. But what are we to get drunk on? "On wine, poetry, virtue, whatever." (Presumably James Boag Premium falls under "whatever".) This is excellent advice, picking up on one of the truths of intoxication, that time becomes condensed to its present moment, the past slips away, and the future is non-existent. It is a fleeting taste of immortality, just as the resulting hangover is a little death, and as powerful a refutation of Cartesian dualism as any in philosophy or science - for if the mind is a distinct substance, why does it hurt so much?

D.H. Lawrence gives us "Drunk" which tells us nothing, Pablo Neruda serves up "Drunk as Drunk", which would be good to whisper drunkenly in the ear of a drunken lover ("Drunk as drunk on turpentine/From your open kisses"), but offers little insight into the drunken mind.

Finally we turn to Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". It begins:
I amma fou sae muckle as tired deid dune
It's gey and hard wark coupin gless for gless
Wi Cruvie and Gilsanquar and the like,
And I'm no juist as bauld as aince I wes.
There's little chance Hugh's feeling time's fardel bruising his shoulder. While there is no doubt some deep meaning behind this mess of whiskey-soaked Scots dialect, the poem works best as a kind of virtual reality machine: just reading it aloud makes you feel as though you're off your tits. MacDiarmid's must be the poetry Baudelaire wants us to get drunk on. "I ken it tae - the truth's in wine!" writes MacDiarmid. I'm with him. Wearth me...hath and coath? I'm...goin' to...the pubth.

Hock and soda water: a postscript

Was rather drunk last night, and so find myself in the grip of a modest hangover, which may help explain why the preceding article has no point, and was simply an excuse to type the words "drunken literature" into Google. Or it may not. I shall now lie down with my fingers held lightly to my temples and ruminate on my regrets.


Anonymous said...

I was searching for "drunken dialect" in google and directed to here. My questions is how much truth is in the durnken dialect?

Jon said...

Yez anonyonymous yez craaap, yez drunken Irish pootato eatin' fekkers is pure true, so it is. I never can but think of the bonny wee isle but that I think o' William Butler standin' on yez soap box eatin' a kebab an' recitin' Danny Boy to a dead sheep while schollin' a bottle o' Kil'sporan. Feck me wi' a ferret if it ain't true

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jon. That totally make sense...

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