Gone Bad, Come to Life

Around 10 pm on December 2, 2020, I sucked down the last mouthful of red wine that must have taken me multiple lifetimes to consume. I’m confident that, unlike the AA partisans, I will never drink alcohol again. Some things I don’t do anymore. For example, I’m not less certain morally that I won’t go skydiving. I have long since lost the part of myself that thought a good life was based on such “fun,” diversionary activities. The “bucket-list” I had in mind is no longer relevant. Instead, the Tibetan Buddhists recommend that you do as little as possible, only sit down and meditate and breathe every few centuries. This way, when it’s time to die, there won’t be much to notice. The only way to answer the question “Is he dead or alive?” in the future will be to say, “Who knows?” You may have the ability to shock me into a new movement, like a fly that has been re-awakened from its long slumber in a jar talc and flicks its wings in reluctant palingenesis. Skydiving and drinking are out. Two years ago, the version of me who drank passed away. The second anniversary is fast approaching.

I’ve been irrationally cautious this past two years. I ordered a jar of mussels in Oostende during the summer of 2021. After they arrived, I tried one and could taste a base of white wine. I refused to eat it, even though the alcohol was presumably burned off during cooking. About a month ago, I bought a packet of pomegranate seeds from Monoprix. They tasted funny when I tried them at home. The fizz was unmistakable, and the spiritousness told me that they were at an early stage of fermenting. I also split them out.

What a strange but familiar quality! Was it that they were rotting or just beginning to reach their perfection? Have they gone bad, or were they only now starting to come alive? The paradox of fermentation is when organic matter goes bad and is brought to life. The sublation of death and life, the state of the living thing that testifies to both its vitality and mortality, is what fermentation represents. Fermentation illustrates this iron law by showing both the vital and mortal sides of life at once.

It is not surprising that we humans aren’t the only ones into it. News stories are constantly telling us about pigs who steal booze from campgrounds and turn belligerent or monkeys who descend on the ClubMed beaches to steal Mai-Tais. Clickbait writers treat these incidents as pure comedy and use the condescending alliteration that is always used to describe animals in the media (e.g., “pugnacious pigs”). These reports reveal the extent of the problem. Drunkenness isn’t a deviant of human culture but a part of our DNA. According to one popular theory, the origins of human alcoholism can be traced back to the frugivory our primate ancestors practiced. Over time, natural selection favored fruits that contained high levels of ethanol. Consumption of fermented food was likely part of unlikely to be a diet even before the agricultural revolution. Beer, wine, mead, and other fermented beverages followed almost immediately after surpluses of grains, fruits, and honey were introduced into social life. There is evidence to suggest that these drinks were the driving force behind, not a mere lucky result, of the radical restructuring of human societies 10,000 years ago when they became settled settlements surrounded by agricultural fields. The theory is that we sedentized to keep ourselves drunk.

We can accept that jaguars are following zoo pharmacognostic philosophies to live their best life. Even if you are a small reindeer, it’s good to know the secrets of the universe and to avoid malaria. What is the good of getting drunk?

Henry More, a Cambridge Platonist, wrote of “the drunken, stupid life of matter” – a description that paired these two adjectives together, but more importantly, described the state of matter as being inert, passive, and dead, the exact opposite of vigor. It’s strange and confirms the paradox that I experienced in the pomegranate seed and that the monkey likely detects in fermented nectarines: You consume spirits at first because it seems to lift your spirits and mingle with them, giving you a boost of life. But you soon realize this was false hope, and they actually brought you closer to the state of dead matter. It’s a simple way to reiterate the familiar lesson that was taught in “Drivers Ed/Sex Ed,” a strange hybrid course that many Americans had to attend in high school (parallel parking in the fall, condoms for the spring). This class also included “Alcohol Ed,” with the drunk-driving accidents that were etched into our minds while watching Red Asphalt.

When we compare fermentation to other culinary practices, such as pickling and curing, it is easy to see the “selective benefit” of this process. These are all techniques to make your food taste bad or even inedible to keep flies away or to preserve it during a time of scarcity. If you have to choose between beer and water from a pond with lily pads, go for the beer. Alcohol is similar to salt in that it can keep you alive when things are tough, even though it can kill you when they are good.

 Georg Ehret from Plantae Selectae ca. 1750

Distillation is a completely different story if we continue to use the same fermentation methods. The chemist, not the farmer, is responsible for this. The apparatus of this laboratory is identical to that used in the alchemical lab. Its motive, as with all science, is fundamentally perverse and Promethean. We want to interfere in natural processes to make them behave the way we wish. The product of alcohol distillation is similar to the substances that alchemists tried to extract from the earth’s bounty: the purest, rarest essences they called the “spirit” of zinc, “spirit” of lead, and “burning spirits of vinegar.” The “spirit of potato,” while it may extract some essence from the dull root, is not comparable to vodka. Crack is also not close to sugarcane stalks, nor is Gobstopper similar to coca leaves. Nature breaks when you keep asking for more and more, even in high doses. It then gives you something that has a causal relationship with the original thing and what you wanted but is opposite and hostile. We are so horrified at what we have created that we use euphemisms in order to hide its true power. “Vodka,” “eau de vie” — “little Water.”

In the late tenth century, al-Zahrawi described a method for producing what the Latins will call>aqua gardens/em>, or “burning water.” However, distillation as an art of beverage-making emerged only in China in the thirteenth century. Al-Zahrawi described a method of producing “burning wine” in the late tenth century. However, distillation, as a beverage-making art, has only emerged in China in the 13th century. The emergence of globalized trading routes in the following centuries led to a demand for fortified wines and other alcohols that could be transported across the ocean.

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