*Note: This was taken from my previous blog, “Poet in a World of Prose,” and I wrote it in my English 104B class.
And They Drank Opaline
The “hour to take absinthe,” as Guy de Maupassant once penned, is upon us. Without alcohol, modern literature has found that love ceases to manifest itself. It is as if Isla Vista’s party culture is a microcosm of decades of modern literature, from the flaneur walking the streets of I.V. during the day and night, trying to find his own identity within a sea of overly zealous alcoholics, to the UCSB Confessions Facebook page that occasionally details the underpinnings of an I.V. romance – centralized around a hearty night of drinking, of course. While the rest of society scowls at its own reflection, modern literature forges ahead to supply the truth with liquor-loosened lips of love’s fatal condition in modernity. And yet, it is not that love has ceased to exist; rather, it is the contemporary ennui that inhibits the expression of even the deepest, most passionate of emotions. And so, we drink. We drink to life, to health, to love, and to prosperity – with alcohol, all these things become possible again as our blasé attitude is lifted in favor of a more raucous and, though chemically induced, more genuine lifestyle. Alcohol and romance, though a previously unacknowledged tandem, now run parallel with one another due to the modernist attitude of apathy, and this is seen in modern literature, film, and music.
From the 1900s to present, the theme of alcoholism and love has seeped into modern literature, which in turn imprinted itself upon the undeveloped consciousness of modern society. Some of T.S. Eliot’s poetry would contain lines where love is intertwined with alcohol; other works, however, place special emphasis on this developing relationship between the two entities. An example of such a work that subtly, yet powerfully voices this emerging truth in romantic interactions is Ulysses, by James Joyce. Before analyzing the scene where Bloom has a sip of wine and remembers the first time he and Molly made love, it is noteworthy to examine Joyce’s own alcoholic tendencies. Joyce himself was a hearty partaker of drink, and would sometimes require the assistance of his friends to help him home after a night of heavy drinking. It is little wonder that someone who indulged occasionally in absinthe would include alcohol in a discreetly salient message on the modernist standard of romance and alcohol. With this knowledge, it makes it much easier for the audience to comprehend the magnitude of importance of the scene in Episode Eight of Ulysses where Leopold Bloom is enjoying a glass of wine with his gorgonzola cheese sandwich, reminiscing on his romance with Molly. This moment, on the surface level, already depicts the modernist relationship between alcohol and love. A sip of wine that directly reminds Leopold Bloom of making love to his wife is a clear depiction of the influence that alcohol has on romance. While the essence of the entire book is to encourage the mindset of pursuing the “ineluctable modality of the visible” that Stephen Dedalus muses upon, the purpose of Joyce writing the memory of when Molly and Bloom made love is to show that we are never truly free of backstories or pre-existing judgments. This notion deepens the extent of the symbolism in the scene because although that wine could have reminded Bloom of a myriad other moments in his life, the one that comes to the forefront of his consciousness is one of romance, again emphasizing the tie between the two concepts in modern literature.
While the passage seems to relate a tender memory in the story, it is quite possibly poking fun at the idea of succumbing to thoughts of romance; the majority of Bloom’s memory seems more focused on receiving the food from her mouth rather than the standard feelings of “love” that modern society would presume to have in mind. It is almost humorous to note that he says, “Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed.” The whole situation bears a faint trace of the ridiculous, as it takes the warmth he gets from the wine and juxtaposes itself onto a fond recollection of when he made love to Molly. Again, the ennui that has enveloped the character of the flaneur practically necessitates alcohol in order to have any kind of show of emotion. Prior to this taste of wine, Bloom comes across as a very reserved character in the story; he contributes to the propagation of advertisements in society as a means of earning his daily bread. In a purely modernist setting, the pressure to attain to the collective level of ennui effectively stifles deep emotions like love from expressing themselves – unless alcohol is involved. And once that alcohol is imbibed, the romance is still not exactly the kind of romance that the pre-modernist writers described to their audiences. From this passage, it is difficult to discern whether Bloom’s stomach or his heart is more satisfied in the romantic exchange – a further blurring of lines between the blasé attitude and the passion of love’s first blossoming.
From Molly’s perspective at the end of Ulysses, the more romantic part of the encounter is on display, but it is also interesting that this shared experience is left out on Bloom’s part; the ennui that Bloom himself subscribes to even inhibited him from sharing fully the details of the experience. Molly’s entire soliloquy, a disaster for staunch grammarians, ends with this: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Here, the love itself is intoxicating to Molly, clearly scrambling her thoughts towards the end as the ecstasy of the moment makes itself evident in her stream of consciousness. This is one of the rare moments in modernist literature where the intoxication and the love come from love and not alcohol; however, the fact that Bloom leaves this part out entirely despite the loosening of alcohol only serves to illustrate the depth to which he clings to the blasé attitude. Alcohol may serve to ignite love, but the depth to which it releases the restraints on emotions is still clearly dictated by the modernist ennui.
In film, ennui is portrayed for audiences in the interactions between characters, oftentimes in romances, comedies, or a mix of both. One particular film that retains the integrity of being a work of art while still offering itself as a medium of entertainment is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The premise of the movie is that, after a more or less failed romance, Clementine and Joel have each other erased from their respective memories, but end up falling in love with each other once again. While the movie itself focuses on the romantic struggles of the two main characters, Clementine and Joel, focusing on every instance of alcohol in the movie reveals how much of that romance is founded upon spirits – and not religious ones at that. In the romantic relationships between various characters in the movie, alcohol plays a role in nearly every scene. Even early on in the film, when Joel sees Clementine, they are in a breakfast diner, and he sees her pouring alcohol into her morning coffee. After filling the mug, Clementine makes eye contact with Joel and raises her cup to acknowledge him, prompting Joel to say, “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” In an utterly modernist setting – a breakfast diner – frequented by the flaneur, romance is sparked – over the brim of a cup of alcohol-spiked coffee. The viewer gets a slight suspicion that Clementine is interested in Joel, and having Joel say that line only serves to fan the potential flame. This love is kept smoldering in the next scene of the movie, where alcohol makes a prominent appearance.
In the attached screenshot of the movie, Clementine just finished saying, “Drink up, young man. It’ll make the whole seduction part less repugnant,” to Joel, who looks slightly mortified by her forwardness. Then, within the second, she laughs and claims that she is only kidding. It is this scene that epitomizes what modern literature is attempting to draw society’s attention to: the fact that our blasé attitude condemns any expression of emotion save through the pretense of inebriation. And often, it is not a pretense outwardly, but an act we put on inwardly to deceive ourselves into stepping out of the cool aloofness and actually expressing ourselves. Though they go on a date before this part of the movie, no actual mention of having romantic feelings towards the other person was witnessed; however, once alcohol is introduced, the true underlying motives come forth, as Clementine gives the half-joking, but half-sincere admission of being attracted to Joel. Just as how Joyce writes the scene in Ulysses where they are making love as both a duality of comedy and romance, so too is this same idea portrayed in a movie decades after in a cinematic rendering of a modernist idea.
Contemporary music also plays a hand in enforcing this concept of ennui-driven alcoholism that precedes a display of romantic interest. As reading takes less of a role in modern society, with about twenty-five percent of Americans reading no books within a year, music plays a larger role as a medium of poetry or literature. While there are certainly audiophiles who listen solely based on aspects of music, such as rhythm and melody, the majority of listeners enjoy music because they can relate to or understand the topic at hand. One particular artist gaining renown within the acoustic music audience is Ed Sheeran, who is an English singer-songwriter. He has two songs in particular that relate to the modernist model of alcohol and romance going together as experiences: “Give Me Love” and “The A Team.” The content of “Give Me Love” is roughly the typical pain-of-the-chase romantic song, and it is very passionately sung; however, the lyrics are what make the song an interesting choice for the topic at hand. In one of the stanzas, Sheeran sings, “And that I’ll fight my corner/Maybe tonight I’ll call ya/After my blood turns into alcohol/No, I just wanna hold ya.” The uncertainty surrounding the next course of action in the song at this point is cured by alcohol, leading him to come to the conclusion of a very sensual desire. There is a sense that he is too worried about breaking form with what modernist apathy constrains him to feel, and that only after he has entirely wiped himself out by tipping the bottle is he able to express what he truly seeks. He sings, “And that I’ll fight my corner,” referring to him holding fast to his position and not letting it bother him, but he gradually consents more and more as the stanza progresses, eventually allowing his emotions to master him. The fact that this song has been viewed and/or listened to close to eighty million times on his YouTube channel alone – not to mention the other postings of the same song by other users – reflects how closely modern society sympathizes with his plight and, indeed, the solution he takes to resolve it.
In his song, “The A Team,” he talks about a cocaine-addicted prostitute and her woes of life and “love.” While it is not exactly the same as alcohol, the same relationship between intoxication and love is present in the lyrics. The latter part of the chorus says, “And in a pipe she flies to the Motherland/Or sells love to another man/It’s too cold outside/For angels to fly.” The song puts the character’s use of cocaine in the same stanza as her selling “love” to clients, taking a further, grimmer step into the modernist ennui of society. Not only does the intoxication lead to “love,” but the “love” is even cheapened by its availability given the right price. The blasé attitude towards all emotions has pushed contemporary society to the fundamental destruction of any importance that love once had. The drug usage is a metaphor for the numbing of feeling, and in that numbness, “love” is drawn forth and doled out without a second’s consideration. While modernism as a literary movement is followed by postmodernism, the lingering themes of the modernist ennui are still present – magnified even – in the forum of contemporary music.
To drink is to love; this is now a factual consequence of our collective blasé culture. Two lines of “Absinthia Taetra,” by Ernest Dowson, read: “He drank opaline. The man had known the obscure night of the soul, and lay even now in the valley of humiliation; and the tiger menace of the things to be was red in the skies. But for a little while he had forgotten.” Dowson’s poem describes the effects of absinthe, a drink that appears in numerous modernist works, and one that many modernist writers indulged in. The key part of the poem is “But for a little while he had forgotten.” That forgetting is nearly the same as the way that alcohol helps us forget our act of being blasé and iterate the emotions that we feel inside. While modernist literature certainly has more to offer in other regards, the connection between alcohol and love that it highlights is undeniable. As mentioned earlier, modernist literature, in this sense, is encapsulating Isla Vista life. They drink for love; whereas this paper examines this phenomena and labels it the modernist relationship between alcohol and love as a consequence of ennui, they merely call this contemporary reality “beer goggles.” Isla Vista has certainly known darkness of the soul, with the college-age flaneur wandering its streets; it must also know the depths of humiliation, for alcohol makes beasts of us all. But, for a little while, I.V., like the rest of modern society soon to follow, has forgotten. To forget is not such a bad thing, however; perhaps it is time that the drama of love and romance retires. Let love come as it may – modernity raises its glass in anticipation of a rollicking good time.