The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Essays

The Metaphysics of the Hangover

Mark Edmundson

Le Buveur, Le père Mathias (detail), 1882, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901); private collection, © Christie’s Images, Bridgeman Images.

Alcohol is a muse of fire. It burns away what is mucky and slothful in us. It takes what is airy within and turns it to crackling potential power.

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.

Sure, on the morning after, the mouth—that oh-so-sensitive organ—can be a particular torment. Amis may go over the top, but still: A small woodland creature of the night voids himself there, then finds it a convenient place to end its days. (Elvis Presley, stepping to the mic in Vegas, complaining, maybe, of his own hangover, once growled, “My mouth feels like Bob Dylan’s been sleeping in it.”) But the night before—ah, the night before—the mouth was a source of great pleasure—the marvelous taste and scent of the wine, the beer, or the spirits.

And there were perhaps other oral pleasures too—the pleasure of talk, for one. Liquor pushes the conversational needle out of the conventional zone, or it can. We hear wonderful words from our friends; we say good things that we never could have if not for the influence of the drinks and the company. Wine makes poets of us all, or at least sends us farther into the poetic seas than we usually sail, being for the most part conversational shore huggers. We begin finishing other people’s sentences—and they like it, love it. Our memory goes into blissful overdrive—back come old stories, woven together with new words. We make metaphors like never yet. Robert Frost said he wanted a kind of literary criticism that would praise feats of verbal connection: He wanted praise for the ability to be reminded of this by that, and for the connection to be stunningly apt. (He wanted praise, say, for the way a boy swinging on birches could remind him of how to write a poem: Elevate only so far, only so far—but farther than you thought you could—then most gracefully descend back to earth.) And in our cups, with the help of our cups, we are reminded of this by that, and the marriage of the two is often stunningly right.

In his bender-induced agony, Amis’s Jim felt like a man who’d been on a cross-country run and then been beaten up by the police, secret police at that. It’s not surprising that the cops would want to get at Jim after his night of debauchery. For we might say that the intoxicated mind is often the un-policed mind. Thoughts run free: There is no longer anyone directing the mind’s traffic. But the result is not always mental snarl or even accidents, but often a free flow of thinking (and sometimes doing) that goes outside the bounds of the normal. After a drink or two, the internal lines blur; we transgress, or at least we’re tempted to. We disobey the standard rules and regulations, or we can imagine doing so. What Freud calls the superego and Christians call conscience clamors less: You can’t quite hear the old parental voice calling from the backbench, Don’t! Cut it out! We’ll have no more of that around here!

But then in the morning, the police are back again, in force, to retake the territory they were compelled to cede the night before. Your body hurts too! And your mind doesn’t work quite right today. Ah me, alas—pain ever, forever, as the poet says—or at least until tomorrow morning. Or maybe this afternoon, the hair of the dog that bit you being the only remedy I know of that ever helps much.

The god most closely associated with intoxication is Dionysus, and he seems to have the power to assume almost any shape. Just so, there are numberless words for alcohol—booze, hooch, tipple, toddy, juice. The names for being drunk are perhaps even more plentiful: smashed, loaded, stiff, bombed, pickled, plastered, ripped—they never stop. But if I were to select a single synonym for alcohol, it would be one of the most common and surely one of the more sedate. Spirits seems to me to come closer than any other term to getting to the core of the experience, at least as I’ve had it.

Isn’t that ultimately what alcohol confers? Spirits. It elevates our vitality, plumps our vigor, gives us more juice and jam. Alcohol is a muse of fire. It burns away what is mucky and slothful in us. It takes what is airy within and turns it to crackling potential power. Spirits: It’s not for nothing that Homer’s warriors and many fighters thereafter fortified themselves with wine. It raises the intensity of the passions. It restores courage. It re-ignites the desire for ascendancy after it’s been subdued by the rough resistance of the world. Sometimes alcohol raises the spirits too high. Then what we have is mayhem: broken bottles, busted knuckles, a face-down in the street, a car wrapped around a telephone pole.

But most of the time, alcohol gives us more guts and more gumption, more confidence. It pushes us across the room to talk to him, talk to her. It lets us pop off in public—at a sedate dinner, maybe—surprising our friends (and often ourselves) with the artful exuberance of our opinions. (Has there ever been anyone—with the possible exception of Plato—who knew all of what he thought on a given subject until he heard what, under the influence of a warming glass or two, he actually had to say?) Dionysus is also known as Luscious, Eleutherios (“the Liberator”), and alcohol can be exactly that, a breaker of the bars of the self-constructed jails that too many of us inhabit too much of the time. And for that reason, as Lucky Jim discovered, the police often take an interest.

A hangover is about being poisoned, no doubt. The toxins linger in the body and must be expelled, or waited out. We’re sick with a mini-flu and need to get better. But isn’t a hangover about more than physical toxins, at least some of the time? I’ll wager that a hangover is frequently about shame as well. What did I do? Why did I do it? And why was it with him, with her? The hung-over mind is often taken up with the movie of the past night’s misadventures. We sit in the audience, unable to move, jammed in our seat and bearing grim witness to what we should not have said and done. We’ve danced and even in some measure paid the piper—those drinks weren’t free. But now it’s time to look at ourselves in our shame. Even minor transgressions—talking too much, talking too loud, too candidly—can come back to bedevil us. We’re in the theater of our own clownish excess; we’ve become the antihero of our private flick.

Last night we were whole, and now we’re split at least in half—the part that acted and the part that, now, renders judgment. As David Lenson puts it in his impossibly good book On Drugs (1995), “The aftermath of the high is therefore more than a physiological reaction, more than headache and nausea. It is also the vengeful rebuilding of all those barriers the drug was able momentarily to dissolve.” Alcohol dissolves the barriers between desire and modulation, between aspiration and judgment and sometimes between the I and another. Come morning, though, those barriers need to be rebuilt, and what we feel is the loud and ugly clanking of the reconstruction, of jagged walls being raised up again.

Alcohol might be said to traffic in the same territory that religion does. Religion often means to put us in contact with the spirit or to let the spirit rise up inside us. “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray,” the old song says. And the song, of course, is what’s called a spiritual. The spirit within moves, and we move with it.

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. Hangovers hurt. And sometimes of course they are well deserved. The people of Germany will be nursing theirs for a long time. And when their morning after is over, what then?

But never to venture anything grand—never to attempt to reach the heights: Is that a life worth living? How can we exist without aspiration? For there is the danger that we would, quite simply, bore ourselves to death. No, many of us are willing to chance it and pursue La Belle Dame sans Merci, whatever shape she takes, and then, as Keats claims he does, wake up on that hillside, “alone and palely loitering.”

“I can’t be satisfied,” the bluesman wails. “I can’t be satisfied.” In those lines, I hear the voice of Muddy Waters, and almost every other Chicago or Delta crooner who held a juke joint in suspense or sent it leaping and lunging. I can’t be satisfied. That is, there’s not enough liquor in the world for me and not enough love—surely there isn’t enough sex. Whatever there might be that stokes my spirit is in too short supply, and if there were more and much more, that wouldn’t be enough, because I’m hungry all the time.

But most of the time the blues are about lamentation. The blues, as everyone knows, are about sorrow and about loss. They’re particularly about the loss of love, of course. The singer has always fallen in love with the wrong woman or the wrong man, and there were glorious days, sure, but now it’s over and it’s time to pay. Or, almost as bad, the bluesman has fallen out of love himself and is now cast down. The thrill is gone, as B.B. King sings. The thrill is gone away for good. Thousands of others spin it in a thousand ways: The thrill is gone away for good. The blues are often the song of the morning after. The blues are frequently the song of the loss that may never be repaired, the love that won’t be restored. So many women and so many men have done each other wrong—so much erotic suffering in the world.

But it’s about more than erotic suffering in the literal sense. For the blues singer is often one for whom the erotic life has become the spiritual life. “Stormy weather,” Billie Holiday sings, “Since my man and I ain’t together, / Keeps rainin’ all the time.” Inner weather determines the weather of the outside world. Everything seems to have been invested in the beloved, the one who now has betrayed trust, gone off with another, broken faith. And the blues singer cries out against the betrayal. But there’s something muted about the cry. The blues aren’t generally histrionic or shocked. They tend rather to be melancholy, resigned, with an occasional touch of self-mockery: This isn’t the first time. It’s happened before. I’ve been betrayed and busted more than once.

The blues, one might say, are the accompaniment to mourning—or, rather, they’re an attempt to help a man or woman traverse the heavy seas of grief. In describing the work of mourning, Freud says that every hope and desire that has attached to what we have lost is brought up in the psyche, embraced, and finally dismissed—and thus the disengagement of the spirit is achieved in time. The blues singer says farewell to her hopes about love by bringing up in her song what was most dear to her and saying goodbye to it. She brings the work of mourning into the foreground and makes it melodious—in the strange way that the blues are melodious—and so, by the enchantment that is music, gathers others into her circle of grief and (eventually) the liberation from grief. For at some point the last song will be sung, the last farewell spoken; the ego will be free and uninhibited again. As Stanley Crouch puts it, “The blues is played to get rid of the blues.”

The hangover has a physical dimension, no doubt about that. You’ve gone and poisoned yourself. But it’s something else as well. The hangover is mourning for the feeling of wholeness that you had the night before. You look back at a time when you attained—or stole—the experience Jean-Paul Sartre calls being in itself. (Though Sartre does not approve of this condition, not a bit. It’s fine for plants and animals, but not for humans.) You had made yourself fully present to life and fully at ease within it. You weren’t oppressed by the past and you weren’t worried about the future. But now that time’s gone and you feel the loss. There’s nothing to do, then, but make your way to the end of your grief, and return to the habitual self. Singing the blues may help a bit, like singing a rowing chantey as we pull and pull and the boat slowly makes its way back out to sea. Then we’re back into time and back into being for in itself—when we’re awake to death and awake to limits—when we have again become anxious and partial beings, entering the state that Heidegger and Sartre think our most authentic.

The blues are often the song of mourning and the song of the hangover, a hangover sometimes being essentially no more than a case of mourning—mourning for the night before. But one often feels that when the work of mourning is over, when the hangover has passed, the singer will be off pursuing love and joy once again. Truth is truth: She can’t be satisfied. And that’s a sad enough condition. But those who can be satisfied on this earth, what’s there to say for them? Perhaps they are not asking for enough.