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.

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