Habitual Drunkards and Metaphysics : Four Case Studies from the Victorian Period

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Earnshaw, Steven (2016)
  • Publisher: Alcohol and Drugs History Society

The article considers four examples from the nineteenth century when the stereotype of the habitual drunkard appears to give way to a figure that bears closer resemblance to the twentieth century’s “Existential\ud drinker.” These case studies offer different illustrations of a newly emerging metaphysical landscape around heavy drinking. First, in the 1872 Select Committee on Habitual Drunkards, the panel cannot understand why a repeat offender would choose to drink rather than be cared for. Second, the heroine of George Eliot’s tale “Janet’s Repentance” encounters a spiritual “despair” through her drinking habit. Third, a group of pictures by the artist Honoré Daumier features two drinkers in what are here interpreted as Existential tableaux. Fourth, Émile Zola’s novel L’Assommoir is read as one of the first sustained accounts of excessive drinking that is both a visceral response to conditions under industrial capitalism, while also latching onto a type of metaphysical unsettling prompted by such drinking.
  • References (46)
    46 references, page 1 of 5

    1. Jack London, John Barleycorn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

    2. Later twentieth-century igures include the heroines of Jean Rhys's interwar nov,els Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (Charles B. Jackson, 1944), Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry, 1947), Fred Exley in A Fan's Notes (Frederick Exley, 1968), and Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas (John O'Brien, 1990). There is often a blurring in these books between the life of the author and the main character.

    3. London, John Barleycorn, 7.

    4. “The story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one ine morning, he wakes up tomsienldf hi dead,” William Barrett, Irrational Man. A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York: Anchor Books, 1958), 3.

    5. “'[London] claimed that he had “been more stimulated by Nietzsche than any other writer in the world,'” Per Serritslev Petersen, “Jack London's Dialectical Philosophy between Nietzsche's Radical Nihilism and Jules de Gaultier's Bovarysme,” Partial Answers 9, No. 1 (2011), 67.

    6. In doing so it is largely contrary to Mariana Valverde's argument in Diseases of the Will, which urges historians to see the idea of “habit” as a pragmatic guide to understanding alcoholism, e.g. 68-69. Mariana Valverde, Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

    7. See Anya Taylor, Bacchus in Romantic England (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), and James Nicholls, especially on the emergence of confessional drinker narratives, Drink, Modernity and Modernism. Representations of drinking and intoxication in James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Jean Rhys. (PhD Diss., Liverpool John Moores University, 2002).

    8. George Cruikshank, The Bottle (London: Cowans & Gray, 1906.) Available at archive. org

    9. Report from the Select Committee on Habitual Drunkards, Together with the Proceedings, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and Index (1872) (Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1968), iii.

    10. Report (1872), 24 (qn. 464).

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