Alcohol the cause of, and solution to, all the world’s problems

University professor sees the good, and lies, surrounding alcohol

Erin Adler

Despite the availability of alcohol on campus, the University has a tendency to frown upon binge drinking, underage drinking and, well, just about any sort of drinking.

However, University professor emeritus of English Marty Roth, said students who spend their nights in a drunken stupor are engaging in a behavior that was essential to the creation of Western culture.

This assertion is central to his new book, “Drunk the Night Before: An Anatomy of Intoxication.”

In 153 pages, Roth traces alcohol through various periods of Western history as well as through the fields of art, philosophy and religion. With chapters devoted to such lofty works as Plato’s “Symposium” and Euripides’ “Bacchae,” Roth also connects intoxication to the artist’s process, linking the importance of drunkenness to art production.

Roth observes several trends in the wider cultural perception of alcohol, namely its association with binaries, or opposites. Strong drink has long been either celebrated or scourged, cited as responsible for either ecstasy or misery, but never anything in between.

In addition, he calls into question Western culture’s “terror” or fear of literal interpretation, noting that in a majority of religious and secular texts and works of art, critics assume obvious instances of drunkenness to be metaphorical.

Certainly, a strength of Roth’s work is his subject matter, a topic both commonplace and scandalous in its own way.

Hardly a special case, “Drunk the Night Before” follows a recent academic fixation with routine human activities, many of them biological; Roth cites recent scholarly works relaying the history of crying, dust, feces, menstruation, breastfeeding and the penis.

In fact, in 2002, Stuart Walton wrote a similar book called, “Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication.” Though it also aimed to legitimize inebriation, its thesis was slightly different and its focus broader, including other types of mind-altering substances.

That said, Roth’s book draws readers in because of its specific focus on alcohol alone. Further, the book’s brevity makes its academic style and language palatable even to readers who would not ordinarily flock to such a text for pleasure reading.

Roth’s thorough examination of the topic is extremely compelling; in some chapters, he references so many examples of a phenomenon (multiple literary allusions to “magic potions,” or elixirs bearing a striking resemblance to alcoholic beverages) that he becomes a broken record, his point illustrated so completely it seems second nature. 

What isn’t immediately obvious, though, is what Roth sees as the ideal “result” of his scholarship, other than an increased awareness of what he calls “the deep structure of culture.”

Does he want academia to fundamentally change the way it teaches works like “Symposium”?

Or does his intent fall closer to that of the magazine Modern Drunkard – wanting only to legitimize the Friday night binge drinking of first-year dorm-dwellers?