The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2017)

The Metaphysics of the Hangover

Mark Edmundson

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

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.

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Mark Edmundson is University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why It Matters (2016) and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals (2015).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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