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Ovi Symposium; Thirty-sixth Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2014-10-09 10:59:28
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Ms Abigail George, Drs. Paolozzi, Paparella and Mr. Rywalt
Thirty-fifth Meeting: 9 October 2014



Symposium's regular participants (in alphabetical order)

abigailAbigail George is an African activist for human rights, a feminist, writer and poet. She has received writing grants from the National Arts Council, Centre for the Book, and ECPACC (Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council). She is not purely devoted to poetry but to pursuing writing fulltime. She has written two volumes of poetry, and her latest book is titled Winter in Johannesburg. Storytelling for her has always been a phenomenal way of communicating and making a connection with other people. All About My Mother (a collection of short stories) was published by Ovi magazine in July 2012.

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

rywaltEdwin Rywalt is a computer specialist living in Pennsylvania with his family. He is a talented and accomplished pianist with a college education from Columbia University and a life---long scholarly interest in the nexus between science, technology, and the liberal arts. Beginning in May 2014 he will be offering pro bono services to the Ovi Symposium with typo correction editing and other useful suggestions aiming at improving the overall format of the twice a month section of Ovi magazine. Perhaps in the future, if his commitments allow it, he may decide to join the Symposium’s ongoing dialogue.


Subtheme of session 36: Alcoholism as sickness of the soul: the acknowledging of the dark side of human nature.

Indirect Participants within the Great Conversation across the ages: Wilson, Silkworth, Holbrook, Baudelaire, Myers, Hegel, Freud, Allport, Clifford, Farber, Jung, Putnam, Prince, Pound, Hemingway, Sharma, Prentiss, Capote, Chandler, Laing, Kucera.


Table of Contents for the 36th Session of the Ovi Symposium (9 October 2014)

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Section 1: “William James on Alcoholism as Sickness of the Soul.” A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella, followed by a response by George and a comment by Paparella.

Section 2: “Thirst: The Glass Half Full or Half Empty. An essay on Sobriety and Alcoholism.” A presentation by Abigail George.


Preamble by the Symposium’s Coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

In this session 36th of the Ovi Symposium we explore the link betwen alcoholism and spirituality. In the first more theoretical section Emanuel L. Paparella presents the thought on the subject of the great psychologist-philosopher William James and how his insights inspired the founding of Alcoholic Anonymous by Bill Wilson. Alcoholism is not analyzed by James as a mere medical or psychological addiction and disease but as a spiritual sickness of sort, the sickness of the soul, which can only be cured with another more positive addiction. As Baudelaire quipped: “Be drunk, be drunk all the time, whether with wine, with poetry or with love.” The first insight of James is that alcohol fulfils a need for spirituality in human nature, albeit in an abnormal way. The second is that without an acknowledgment of the dark side of human nature in each one of us, we will end up with a very shallow and superficial kind of spirituality as espoused by the New Age movement. We will think that we have superseded religion but in reality we will have thrown the baby out the window together with the dirty water. The third is that a negative addiction (a vice) can only be conquered by a positive addiction (a virtue). For a more thorough analysis of the link between James and Wilson see John D. Mc Peake’s essay (from which I have quoted briefly at the beginning of my presentation) titled “William James, Bill Wilson and the Development of Alcoholics Anonymous” in the Dublin Group at this site http://www.dubgrp.com/content/william-james-bill-wilson-and-development-alcoholics-anonymous-aa.  

In section two Abigail George presents us with some existential examples of the experience of alcoholism and does so in her usual literary poetic prose style. That is the beauty of Art and Poetry. It transforms even the ugly and the perverse into beautiful forms. George is able to perform such a transformation without sugar coating the dark side of the experience and the awful things it does to people. In effect she is giving us an example of what it means to be drunk with poetry and suggesting to us that to be drunk with poetry is the more healthy and beneficial option. But ultimately, as the Baudelarian hierarchy would suggest, even the poetical must give way to love, at the cost of becoming sterile aestheticism. In Christian theology another name for love (understood as agape love) is charity. Charity is one of the cardinal theological virtues of the Christian faith. As Paul put it in naming them: “there is faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is charity.” Indeed, charity and forgiveness have healing powers and cover a multitude of sins and transgressions.


William James on Alcoholism as Sickness of the Soul:
Acknowledging the Dark Side of Human Nature

Emanuel L. Paparella


William James (1842-1910)

The only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania
                                                                    --William James

In Varieties of Religious Experiences: a Study of Human Nature, psychologist-philosopher William James describes a link between alcohol and mysticism which may at first appear strange to the reader. He wrote that “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning.”

Notice the stark juxtaposition of drunkenness and sobriety. What James is implying in that passage is that nobody likes alcohol per se, people like it not for itself  and its negative effects (the physical degradation, the loss of control, the subsequent hangover), but what it does for them: the stimulation of their mystical faculties, the feeling of oneness with the universe. That is to say, alcohol is in reality a cheap materialistic substitution for poetry and spirituality. I suppose that is what Baudelaire meant in Le Fleur du Mal when he advised to “be drunk, be drunk all the time/ whether with wine, with poetry or with love.” So, we are back to Socrates and Nietzsche’s observation that some kind of Dionysian intoxication is integral part of the act of artistic creation, that the drunk looks despicable and funny to us because he dances to a music that we don’t hear. The crucial question however remains how we decide to be drunk, given the three options suggested by Baudelaire.

Those insights of James on alcoholism were enthusiastically picked up by the founder of Alcoholic Anonymous Bill Wilson. When he began his mission of helping drunkards recuperate their sobriety, he realized that he would cure precious few by preaching an optimistic spirituality emphasizing what is good and healthy and neglecting the awareness of what is evil, the problem of evil as it is called in natural theology. He came to realize that what was also needed was the plumbing of the depths, the drags, the hitting of rock bottom; that one addiction, that of alcohol, needed to be substituted with another more positive addiction, that of the Spirit. I have always found it intriguing that the story of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel does not begin with the creation of light, as most tourists suppose when they enter it, but with the drunkenness of Noah on the other side of the ceiling; the famous Biblical event of Noah degrading his body with wine and made fun by his own children. What Michelangelo is saying is that before returning to the light, the darkness of the degradation of the body (the abode of the soul) has to be acknowledged and experienced. One has to realize that the affirmation of light and goodness without the acknowledgment of the evil one is capable of doing, is equivalent to the creation of a spiritual desert. The Moslems, are very much aware that too much light without darkness creates a desert.

In the introduction to his essay “William James, Bill Wilson, and the development of Alchoholics Anonymous, John D. Mc Peake has an illuminating passage on how Wilson came upon James: “In December of 1934 Bill Wilson was in Towns Hospital off Central Park in NYC for what would be his last detoxification.  During this hospitalization Bill had a dramatic ‘spiritual experience.’  Bill describes this dramatic experience in his history of A.A. (1957, p.63): ‘My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit.  I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed.  All at once I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let Him show Himself!  I am ready to do anything, anything!’ Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light.  I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe.  It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing.  And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.  Slowly the ecstasy subsided.  I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness.  All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’  A great peace stole over me and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right.  Things are all right with God and His world.’”

In section 2 of the same introduction Mc Peake has a note of the importance of William James for those who may be unfamiliar with him or may misguidedly think of him as some sort of secondary mediocre philosopher from the US. It is worth quoting that note in full: For the reader familiar with William James, no introduction is needed.  For the reader unfamiliar with William James these two paragraphs from one of the many recent biographies of James (Richardson, 2006) may be helpful in appreciating James’ significance: Alfred North Whitehead said, ‘In Western Literature there are four great thinkers, whose services to civilized thought rest largely on their achievements in philosophical assemblage; though each of them made important contributions to the structure of philosophical system.  These men are Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, and William James.’  John McDermott says, ‘William James is to classic American philosophy as Plato was to Greek and Roman philosophy, an originating and inspirational fountainhead.’  James is famous for pragmatism (which he sometimes felt he should have called humanism), though he should be remembered for his radical empiricism (which could be called phenomenology); that is, his belief that reality is confined to what we experience, with the crucial proviso that nothing we experience can be excluded. His book The Will to Believe was about the right to believe, and his Varieties of Religious Experience made religion possible for many educated moderns who are uncomfortable with the authority of churches and dogmas.  The book is also a cornerstone of the modern field of comparative religion.  Though it is nearly a hundred years since James died, his thought is still very much alive.  ‘I find him visibly and testably right,’ says Jacques Barzun.  ‘He is for me the most inclusive mind I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles. (2006, p. xiv)”

With that illuminating preamble we may now proceed with a comparison of A.A. and New Age spirituality. A.A. has at times been defined as another branch of New Age Spirituality but A.A. is radically different from “New Age” approaches in its acceptance of the reality of “the dark side” of human experience. A.A. members, that is to say, in their embrace of the identity “sober alcoholic,” accept in that vocabulary the reality that they are – in Jamesian terms – “sick souls.” The thin spirituality of the New Age, on the other hand, is emphatically the religion of “healthy mindedness,” of light without darkness.


The Varieties of Religious Experiences: a Study in Human Nature
by William James (1902)

Two key passages in co-founder Bill Wilson’s telling of A.A.’s story detail his debt to William James. Describing how he came to understand his own “spiritual experience,” Wilson tells of reading in Varieties of Religious Experiences “the great common denominators of pain, suffering, calamity. Complete hopelessness and deflation at depth were almost always required.” Then it was that “The significance of all this burst upon me. Deflation at depth – yes, that was it. Exactly that had happened to me.” Six months later, Wilson went on to record, after the total failure of all his efforts to sober up even one other drunk, his physician, Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, “again reminded” Wilson “of Professor William James’ observation that truly transforming spiritual experiences are nearly always founded on calamity and collapse.”

That insight, Wilson always felt, undergirded his first successful approach, a month later, in Akron, Ohio, to the person who would become A.A.’s other co-founder, Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith. Alcoholics Anonymous thus learned, from the very beginning, the importance of acknowledging “the dark side.” The often echoed axiom “Remember When” combines with the repeated profession of the identification, “I am an alcoholic,” to ensure embrace of identity as, in Jamesian terms, a “sick soul.” The insight is that one can be sober while remaining an alcoholic. There is no reason to deny or cover-up the reality of evil, as so many contemporary New Age spiritualities tend to do. The acceptance, the insistence, on the identity, “sober alcoholic,” both signals and teaches acceptance of the reality of human duality. What was new in the A.A. vision at its birth in 1935, the element of the A.A. vision that still confuses so many of the modern “once-born,” is that one can be sober and yet still “alcoholic.”

What James termed “the religion of healthy-mindedness” is a vigorous, full-bodied, optimistic type of spiritual sensibility that sees nature as beneficent and God as intimately, affirmatively, related to all His creatures. Characterized by the “inability to feel evil,” this spirituality “looks on all things and sees that they are good.” This is the “simpler” view, and it is aptly captured by the spiritualities of the New Age. The problem with this uncomplicated affirmation of the goodness of creation, as James points out with an uncharacteristic restraint that perhaps reflects his own continuing tussles with “melancholy,” is that it is bought at the cost of a certain amount of blindness to the reality of evil in life.

James’s description of twice-born religion, the spirituality of the sick soul, runs far differently. These individuals remain ever aware of the sense of risk, danger, and pervasive moral evil running through the world. They are people possessed by a divided self – knowing an inner instability, tension, and conflict between the various elements of their lives. James’s “sick-souled” express in vivid relief the traditional insight that the self of every human being is an unstable, even conflicted phenomenon. It should be mentioned here that that other genius who took religion seriously was Carl Jung who broke with his mentor Freud on that very subject. He too fought reductionism: human nature he asserted is not “nothing but…,” it is “more than” because it has a spiritual foundation which is higher than the natural life of all animals. To reduce the human being to the mere natural is to ultimately degrade his nature.  

James’s vaunted tolerance and open-mindedness were rooted in and sprang from precisely his awareness of human duality. From the recognition of human duality and the ability of the human to do good or evil flows the understanding that the line between good and evil, between brilliance and stupidity, runs not between nations or peoples or classes or individuals, but through each individual human being. With this insight Jung arrived at the conclusion that the duality applies to gender too: there is something of the feminine in every man, and there is something of the man in every woman. The issue then becomes: how to integrate and harmonize the two. James’s key insight of homo duplex affords the only sure undergirding of true tolerance, of the capacity for that forgiveness that heals.”


The Principles of Psychology by William James (1890)

Not unrelated to James the popularizer was James the staunch adversary of all forms of reductionism. In decrying what he saw as a tendency to “medical materialism,” William James was taking the larger stance of opposing all reducing of any reality to “nothing but.” More than his explicitly labeled “Progressive” contemporaries, James recognized the anti-democratic implications of the nascent modernist tendency to identify the “hidden” with the real. This was, indeed, one reason for his wariness of the thought of Sigmund Freud. James “wanted psychologists to confront the fundamental moral fact that by their own theories of human nature they have the power of elevating or degrading this same human nature. Debasing assumptions debase the mind; generous assumptions exalt the mind.” For James, “health” was a term that took on full meaning only when placed in the context of broader concepts about the meaning of the good in ethical terms. For James, “religious experience” was an undeniable part of “the whole life” actually lived by most people. When positivists denied religion a place in this whole, they in effect were presenting a truncated human nature. Empiricism applied to “religious experiences” too and not only to scientific discoveries and projects.

The Jamesian war on all forms of reductionism and “medical materialism” is important not least because it once again helps to distinguish between Jamesian insight and New Age distortions of that insight. There is a world of difference between tolerant open-mindedness and the insipidness that flows from the absence of

principles. James emphasized the “strenuous mood” as the opposite of the “easygoing mood” – the “laid back” attitude of “I don’t care.” James’s “strenuous mood,” then, involves not the blasé labeling of every inclination to responsibility a manifestation of “co dependence,” but urges precisely the opposite: a positive and active attitude of care –care for oneself, for one’s family, for the wider community, for possible future communities that may extend beyond the limits of one’s own individual life.

Central to James’s treatment of will was his understanding of attention: although some of our behaviors may appear “determined,” we shape that very “determination,” for we can choose that to which we will attend, at least to the extent of naming it. William James knew the nature of obsession. But even more powerful is his description of the “drunkard’s” games of naming, in a passage that shows sufficient insight to qualify James posthumously as an alcoholism counselor, if not a member of Alcoholics Anonymous: “How many excuses does the drunkard find when each new temptation comes! It is a new brand of liquor which the interests of intellectual culture in such matters oblige him to test; moreover it is poured out and it is sin to waste it; or others are drinking and it would be churlishness to refuse; or it is but to enable him to sleep, or just to get through this job of work; or it isn’t drinking, it is because he feels so cold; or it is Christmas-day; or it is a means of stimulating him to make a more powerful resolution in favor of abstinence than any he has hitherto made; or it is just this once, and once doesn’t count, etc., etc., – it is, in fact, anything you like except being a drunkard. That is the conception that will not stay before the poor soul’s attention. But if he once gets able to pick out that way of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving the various opportunities which occur, if through thick and thin he holds to it that this is being a drunkard and is nothing else, he is not likely to remain one long.”


A humorous take on Baudelaire’s “Be drunk all the times…”

On the topic of “spirituality,” William James was less scientist and philosopher than artist. Art describes rather than explains, it is intuited rather than reasoned as Croce has well taught us, and as William James and the storytelling members of Alcoholics Anonymous also knew.


References (For those readers who’d like to deepen their knowledge of the philosophical issue of alchoolism):

Anonymous (1952)  Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.  New York: Alcoholic Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Anonymous (1957) Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Anonymous. (2001) Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Bridgers, L. (2005) Contemporary Varieties of Religious Experience. Lanham MD: Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

James, W. (2002) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library.

Richardson, R.D. (2006) William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Robertson, N. (1988) Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: William Morrow

Taylor, C. (2002) Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, W.G. (1988) The Language of the Heart. New York: The A.A. Grapevine, Inc.


 A Response by Abigail George

Alcoholism is a disease like heart disease, like diabetes, like depression, and like any other mental illness. I have seen it affect loved ones. Watch their behaviour change before my eyes. Cringed with embarrassment. Felt their humiliation for them. Watched a woman who was kind, concerned, and perhaps the only mother figure in my life 'wasted' from over the counter medication and alcohol. But then again I've seen maladjusted behaviour my whole life. Strangers, family, immediate and estranged. It 'speaks' to me mostly in my writing life. I hated the alcoholism but I loved my aunt.

I hated the drinking but I loved my uncle. I hated the binge-drinking over the weekend with his friends but I loved my brother. Of course I felt concern but how do you put love and concern into words. What is the philosophy behind drinking but shame and to forget that shame or just to forget. For a long time it didn't make any sense to me. My father never drank. We never drank wine even as adult children in our childhood home with our meals as a family home for the holidays. Now getting wasted is cool. It has become more than an addiction, a cry for help, a cry for rehabilitation, for family life.

Now wherever I go I see this condition. Of how we are systematically brainwashing youth and how this is already in the system. It is already accepted by the establishment. I look at my sister. She has everything going for her. She is smart. She has a good job. Her career is all set. She is independent but she drinks at the weekend. I think she drinks too much. She works hard. She parties hard too. It is nothing new like the class system, wealth and extreme poverty, foreign policies, war, politics and education. There is not anything pretty about alcoholism or any kind of addiction.

It taught me a lot of really beautiful things of substance though that really stand out for me. It taught me how to pray. It taught me how to embrace the people I really loved and personally liked the most in the world and to forgive them no matter how hard they were hurting me because of how much they were hurting deep down inside of themselves or the acute pain in their minds. Call it soul or spirit or their humanity. I still had this vision, this awareness that I was going to learn from this experience even though the present wasn't lovely in any way. Even though I thought it was wounding my spirit.

It taught me in a way too how to write. It taught me that I had to go within myself and express myself. I always struggled with my aunt's battle with alcoholism and how she could never rid herself of those unworldly demons that I imagine a million other people also live with on a daily basis. In my eyes she will always be beautiful. She will always be my 'second mother'. I feel blessed to have known her because I know her intentions, her passion, her advice, the hours we spent in each other's company came from the best part of herself. She was epic.

I know her spirit will always be with me especially in my darkest hours. She's my lighthouse.

A Comment by Emanuel Paparella by way of a dialogue

Thank you for the response, Abigail. I have a few comments as a clarification to my own thoughts in this matter. In fact, the solution to the conundrum about alcoholism, whether it is some sort of disease that one catches like a virus and for which one is not responsible, or something that is the consequence of the exercise of one’s free will, may well lie in the semantic clarification of the meaning of the  terms: disease, illness, and addiction. They are often confused. To be sure, medicine as a science began in ancient Greece when physical and mental disease were no longer conceived as some sort of punishment by the angry offended gods, but as a mere natural phenomenon. On the other hand the task of any good physician is to do no harm (the Hippocratic oath that every doctor takes even today) and to  recognize that disease is not natural and violates the wholeness and well being of human nature; that is to say, there is something not natural and not normal with any disease which renders one a slave to one’s vices and takes away one’s autonomy and rationality by the temporary loss of control over one’s natural endowments, and this is so even when in an initial responsibility is not acknowledged. St. Augustine, in fact, saw sin as a spiritual disease but one which involved human responsibility and acknowledgment: without acknowledgment of the undesirability of sin (i.e., repentance and confession of it) no forgiveness from God and no healing process can even begin. Indeed, not to be conscious of one’s freedom is not to be free. One can only confess to sins one is conscious of assuming one is free to choose the good and avoid what is evil. Christian charity and forgiveness can only take place, as you correctly point out in your response, when we love the sinner without condoning or rationalizing his transgressions.

Nietzsche and Baudelaire mention that the creative act and inspiration takes place in a state of intoxication and euphoria, but they were hardly thinking of wine or drugs. The image they had in mind is that of a dancer to music that only she/he hears. When intoxication has become addictive it will slowly rob one of  one’s creativity and degrade one’s body and soul. It appears that creativity and freedom go together.  St. Augustine, in fact, sees sin as a sort of slavery to one’s vices. Baudelaire says “be drunk all the times” but then he lists three way to be drunk: with wine, with knowledge, or  with love, intimating that the highest of them is love. Indeed charity is the highest of the theological virtues. What is being advocated is excellence which cannot possibly be reached via mediocrity and indifference to everything that is true, good and beautiful. In short there seems to be an urgent need for us moderns and post-moderns to return to the holistic approach of the ancient Greeks and Romans who understood the nexus between the person’s soul (the spirit), mind (the intellectual), and body, and postulated no Cartesian duality between  body and mind.

The first insight of William James and Bill Wilson in regard to alcoholism consists in recognizing that alcoholism is an illness, but one that belongs to the soul as much as to the body. For indeed, nobody likes alcohol for its own sake and its own taste, for the sake of the degradation it produces in one’s body, but for the activation it induces to one’s intellectual, mystical and spiritual powers. As is well known, the first step to recovery and health of a member of Alcoholics Anonymous is the recognition that he/she is a sick soul as well as a sick body, desires to get well and recover health of mind and body and soul, but needs the help of a higher power than one’s puny self; that is to say, the recognition of the dark side of human nature is as important as the recognition of light and grace. That even if one has not touched a drop of alcohol for forty years or so, one remains an alcoholic, just as in the spiritual realm even a saint would  acknowledge being a sinner, be it only original sin. The problem here, as Jung has pointed out, is that modern man is in desperate search of a soul. In his mechanistic deterministic materialism and positivism he has lost the very concept of soul or spirit, well known to the ancients. He is in the tragic position of those who are sick and do not even know it; what Kirkegaard, that other philosopher who like Jung and James took religion very seriously, dubs “the sickness unto death.”

The second important insight of William James, adopted by Bill Wilson’s A.A. which is founded on mostly Jamesian principles, is that the only working antidote for the sickness of the soul is religion, in the best sense of that often abused word. That is to say, if the disease is psycho-spiritual and is acknowledged as something negative (a vice), its antidote can only be something that is acknowledged as positive (a virtue), that is to say, a positive habit or addiction. Intrinsically, a good habit or a good addiction is something spiritual but, far from damaging human nature it enhanced it , it is concerned with the theoretical Socratic question of what it means to be a human being and to live as one such in practice. 



Thirst: The Glass Half Full or Half Empty
An Essay on Sobriety and Alcoholism

A Presentation by Abigail George


I am not coping because I am not the doctor. Because I am not the one who is fluent in the doctor’s language no matter how hard I try. How will I be able to benefit from wearing that white laboratory coat, stethoscope around the neck, with that particular bedside manner?  Where is my infinite piano? Watch this. Watch this romance. It is clever math, no, it is elegant math with all of its violent alertness under my fingertips. What is the weather like in Los Angeles? What is a winter like in Los Angeles? What will my head say to my heart as I walk on that beach?

Or breathe in that valid air from that Parisian meadow with my moral compass to navigate me on those open roads, the wide open spaces of the Midwest? What will my limbs say to each other in London if I ever get around to having that London experience forgoing all my responsibilities as a writer and a poet in South Africa? For isn’t that what I am first and foremost. A South African writer and poet living in a post-apartheid apocalyptic city. City life as opposed to life in the rural countryside. Searching for greener pastures in the asphalt garden where everything is golden and chameleon-like. I have never wanted the experience of loss.

The measure of loss but life has given me that responsibility. Sutures too. And they all come with the sanity and the vanity of sobriety and alcoholism that will obliterate you if you dare. And panic and I have had to thread both against threadbare knuckles. I have covered myself up with an American quilt. It has become my shroud. It has become my cover in other poetry. But I feel it all the time now. The warmth of anxiety. I feel it humming, humming, and humming in my bones. Singing to the leaves on the winter trees. Guests every one. They’re like bees. They’re a rapturous swarm.


The terrible consequences of Alcoholism

What do I know without having a sophisticated culture, a knowledge and education beyond this tidal moon and sun and then I think of the planets. How like the planets I am? I know my place. I know my place so well now that I cannot give it up. And why would I? There will never be a case of mistaken identity. All I will ever know about life is the predictions of Sappho, poetry and writing. And how sometimes how beautifully unpredictable life can be otherwise. There are storms in the dark and we need to speak about the acute pain from those storms in beautiful and wonderful ways. Mostly the image of depression is that of a wild thing.


The alluring Euphoria of Intoxication

When I’m crazy I know that is when I am most alive. When I am not crazy, when I am most sober is also when I am most alive but I don’t know it. All feeling leaves me and I long for the stress of crazy. I long for someone to tell me I’m beautiful like I long for the familiar child’s world again, to be nature’s bride and Ezra Pound’s Alba. Sobriety will only consume all your waking thoughts if there is spiritual poverty on your side. You are mine. The pain of Sarajevo is in my blood. Mingled there in my blood. Staring back at me in my blood and but what can I do but stare back at it? The door was somehow left ajar for me and my heart was bursting.

It ready to be split open like a pomegranate. Seeds everywhere like seawater. I found wild oblivion, the safe passage from suffering in those seeds. At first I could not speak of the fantasy that I held in my hands and that my head wished for so ardently. I could not interpret those promised lands that my mocking husband returned from. I needed land and yet I needed to be reborn as well. I needed stress, a tour of the flesh like I needed the back of my hand. I flickered and then I was buried once again amongst the flowers. And with dirt upon my head I soon realised that I was supposed to be the beautiful keeper of the vanished and the unexamined.

Being addicted to alcohol coddles you like your own mother coddled you. If you are an alcoholic you are constantly craving alcohol. It is your medicine. Your love medicine. You most of all you thirst for the love of that perfect human being who will complete you, take away all your despair, suffering and your pain. You will want that person to erase and diminish that lack of mother-love and the feeling that your dad abandoned you or neglected you. Alcoholism sustains your loneliness. The bottle is a lethal combination of killer good looks. That is powerful imagery there. It might slow you down though like any pharmaceutical would.

Alcoholism and sobriety. There’s a leap of faith involved in both. Both have a mind of their own. What you fail to realise is that alcohol is your addiction if you are an alcoholic and you are slowly being drugged out of your damaged mind. You want sanity but the designs behind the insanity of alcoholism does not only make you feel wild and free, younger than your years, it also makes you feel highly inspired to wuthering heights. It makes you feel electric. As if an electric current is running through you. It’s an insane trip. A rollercoaster trip. It is also a vision of loveliness. Everything in the world becomes tinged with that vision especially you.


A Party Animal

The writer is no different from the housewife who is also an alcoholic. They are too busy trying to save themselves on a daily basis. They are too busy trying to keep up appearances for appearances’ sake, keeping that Pandora’s Box on childhood closed because that is what etiquette requires from them. Alcoholism wounds primitively. In that case does it make it the most primitive of the arts? Its effects are magical like art, it illuminates the world around you like art and yet it also wounds. Skills and discipline. This is what a father can give his children. Also the key to the unlocked drawer where he hides his bottle of single malt whisky.


Hiding the Bottle

Watching people drink always makes me feel nervous. Almost as if I’m waiting for Death to show up. Almost as if I am sitting behind the wheel of their car with them as they make their way back home. For the female alcoholic she waits for the unquiet anxiety to show up and make waves. Men are built differently. They don’t need to wait for anything to show up. Reality is enough for them. What really haunted Hemingway so? This is what grown up people do. They play house and buy furniture. Have those children so that their kids can follow in their footsteps? People take pills for a variety of whatever ails them every day before they dress for the day. The reason why people drink is too simple for words. They drink to forget. It’s bliss sublime.

Alcohol ages you. I do not want to age. To age means to give up your mortality like an artist giving up their brushes. To age means to give up everything. To age means that you are not bold anymore and that you don’t have anything to be brave over. It just happens to be in your blood to think these things. Never mind how you try not to. I need to write to you of the quiet courage of our mothers and our grandmothers. So pay attention. And in closing I have this to say about alcoholism. There is nothing beautiful about it. It can rain on your parade though, make you feel beautiful and deserving. It is a sad indictment on humanity measured in losses.



Reflections on some Writer’s Quotes regarding Alcoholism

 “An elderly black man with gray hair said, "Every bottle should come with a warning: 'This bottle may cause you to lose your job. This bottle may cause you to get a divorce. This bottle may cause you to become homeless.”

                                                                                                 ― Akhil Sharma, Family Life


Family Life (2014) by Akhil Sharma (2014)

“Think about the stigma that is attached to the idea that alcoholism is a disease, an incurable illness, and you have it. That's a terrible thing to inflict on someone. Labeling alcoholism as a disease, a cause unto itself, simply no longer fits with what we know today about its causes.”

                                                                          ― Chris Prentiss, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure


The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure (2005)

“But I'm not a saint yet. I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm homosexual. I'm a genius.”

                                                                  ― Truman Capote, Music for Chameleons


Music for Chameleons (1994)

“Some things just couldn't be protected from storms. Some things simply needed to be broken off. Once old things were broken off, amazingly beautiful things could grow in their place.”

                                                                    ― Denise Hildreth Jones

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”

                                                                   ― Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)


“People don't like to talk about alcohol. They don't like to think about it, except in the most superficial of ways. They don't like to examine the damage it does and I don't blame them. I don't like it either. I know that desire for denial with every bone in my body: clavicle, sternum, femur and phalanx.”

                                                                                         ― Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring


Tennessee Williams, one of the six drunk writers,
featured in Olivia Laing's  The Trip to Echo Spring (2013)

“I felt empty and sad for years, and for a long, long time, alcohol worked. I’d drink, and all the sadness would go away. Not only did the sadness go away, but I was fantastic. I was beautiful, funny, I had a great figure, and I could do math. But at some point, the booze stopped working. That’s when drinking started sucking. Every time I drank, I could feel pieces of me leaving. I continued to drink until there was nothing left. Just emptiness.”

            ― Dina Kucera, Everything I Never Wanted to Be: A Memoir of Alcoholism and Addiction, Faith
                                                                                                           and Family, Hope and Humor


Everything I Never Wanted to Be: A Memoir of Alcoholism and Addiction,
Faith and Family, Hope and Humor by Dina Kucera


Creative Writing Countryside Fragment

They lay on the couch with their shoes on almost as if they were one person. The bottles of liquor on the floor beside them open, breathing. Their breaths were already sour with the taste of drinking for hours since the afternoon. They only stopped drinking to neck furiously as if they were in danger of dying of thirst from it or from being removed physically from one another. Afterwards they would take turns in sucking at the lip of the bottle as if they were feeding from their mother’s breast, as if the vile taste of it was sweet instead of bitter, purified them instead of removing them of their senses. This was my aunt’s idea. It was her idea to walk in the dark to the flats on the opposite side of the road to ‘these’ people.

I conform. I am conservative. I am a teetotaller. I do not smoke. I do not want to be in the company of people who do not believe in the things that I hold dear to my heart; my principles but this was my aunt’s idea so I went along with it. And so we navigated our way through the dark to make our way to Archie’s house or where he had set up house with his kids after his wife’s death.

Instead of entering a house (which was actually a small flat that would cramp any widower’s style as he finally came out and was being allowed to see other women, even date them, horrors of future stepmoms filling his children’s heads), the flat in reality was filled with the noise of four children and a widower (with his new lover in tow; that was who we really came to see for my aunt’s sake for her heart was slain at the thought of what ‘was really going on in that mind of his, for God’s sake’ and ‘what about those poor children’ who were now wrecked for life) we found these two hanging onto each other on the couch for dear life both drinking in response to the tragic circumstances of poverty they found themselves in and to being stupidly in love, head over heels in love with each other.

The flats were not pretty in daylight. They were vandalised. Graffiti was scrawled against the walls. It was a gangland where all the people that lived there were permanently on edge, partying until dawn even if there were children in the flat going to school the next day, going on all night drinking binges, taking lovers, making babies out of wedlock, bastard children or where the mentally ill inhabitants of the flats threw their medication from the hospital’s doctor down the toilet bowl. And that feeling seeped into your pores and made you feel dirty. Instead of flowers, leading up to the doors there was rubbish. This became the children that lived there playground after school. In the darkness they were formidable. They seemed ominous like the cave of a rat or rather they seemed to be hiding rats that took on the demeanour and shape of a human being.

So all night while we sat there waiting for the widower, his four children (two of whom were twins) and his stupidly lovely lover who was Coloured and blonde, a minx of mixed race who had all the makings of trouble because she also had children but she had never been married. My aunt had just come out to see this magic woman that Archie had fallen under the spell of. This was not the time to do anything silly like walk into a stabbing or a mugging or a killing. I mean, this was not the time of night to go walkabout as if you were on a hike in the Drakensburg following a footpath that was carved out by the traffic of other groups or clubs of hikers from banks or advertising companies. But my aunt was a fearless kind of woman.

No doubt, they had been all over each and not in mock seriousness either before we; my aunt, my cousin who was older than me by two years and me had stepped into their cauldron where they had been fondling each other, kissing, grabbing at each other. They had taken this opportunity to go wild on this Saturday night before the tiny flat was filled with the constant, erratic noise of other people’s children, of other people’s growing children being put to bed. Their response to us being there was to suddenly turn into wide-eyed innocents. Suddenly there were two chronic angels where before there had been two alcoholics drowning their sorrows in cheap beer. Suddenly everyone in the room had turned devout Christian including my aunt who did not attend church and who did not valiantly encourage us to attend one on a Sunday morning.

The conversation in the room then began to centre on mundane things. We talked fiercely about the weather, how downtrodden we were about the rain that we prayed for but did not come, the water restrictions, where the hell Archie was out that, time of night ‘met die kleingoed’. The bottles of poison became invisible but it was still taking a huge and fierce chunk out of our eyesight. They were an eyesore. Everything in the room was soiled, was dirty, was cheap, poor but considering how many small children lived there the room was relatively spruced up. Yet there was still a smell that hung in the air that clung to everything from the armchairs to the sofa, to the people on the sofa staring out to us as if the three of us were beacons. The smell was like cat pee, dirty washing, dishes that had lain in the sink for days, food changing colours in the pots that no water was poured into to soften the bottom of it, all food scraped out of it.

I looked at the girl who was a woman, a lady and I despised her because she drank. She did not drink alone. There still would be some respite in that but she drank with her boyfriend who did not have a job and who rested on his laurels all day while she washed dishes for a white lady that did catering on certain days in the week. I despised my aunt as well for bringing us here to watch this scene. The rich got drunk too on wine and spirits but theirs were scenes of hedonism and decadence. While this scene in front of me was propagated by the forced removals and politics past and present. ‘What about your baby?’ I wanted to ask when I saw her belly and that completely gutted me. Had she not heard about foetal alcohol syndrome? Oh, these people needed to be educated badly. It felt as if I was hallucinating. These two monkeys badly needed it looking at us all starry-eyed, loved-up and sex-crazed in each other’s arms. They were just waiting for us to leave so they could get at it again; rubbing their bodies against each other seeking sustenance and heat. I could not wait to get out of this mad roost. Escape these alcoholics but especially my ageing, curious worm of an aunt who had the audacity to always put me in unnerving positions where I would be forced to be social when I did not want to be.

They did not stir even when we got up. The message was clear. We were killing their buzz. I was tired so I felt I had to say something.

Archie was made to have a brood including twin girls. He was just built like that to be a sturdy beast committed to working for his family like a labourer somewhat like taking a pickaxe dutifully to a quarry and knocking with a shimmering omnipresence those stones into bits and pieces with power only to surface hours later with a white paste on his face. Somewhat like Robben Island would have been for the men imprisoned there. The ones who survived it at all costs where the ones who were suitable for it were not only physically well-built but also had a cover of emotionally wellbeing. Archie also liked women. Pretty women with shiny hair that he could run his chunky fingers through; his smallest finger adorned with gold ring. With a mouth stained with the colour of lipstick, eyes peacock blue, feet and fingers neat and clean – immaculate.

He liked women who were perfumed, who he could smell coming from a mile away, who doused themselves with the stuff, who were leggy and stunners, real lookers and who looked as if they were White, women who turned heads. What they saw him I really could not say. Above all this he loved Yes Women who surrendered easily to his charm. There was no food in the flat for his children but he had his woman and that was enough for him. His children were always an afterthought. Just like the bills and that song on the radio that he knew the words too. I could see why my aunt liked him and called him a friend. And then there was that other thing about how he loved to make babies completely by accident; as if it was his God-given talent, his right to bite his teeth every so often into a new relationship every few months or so. That was a brief tour of Archie’s higher consciousness. He had no intuition, no real magic to dispel, no care to feed that into the relationships he had with his children that he fobbed off on relatives. 

A child is a gift and proper people (married people in a church with a minister and close friends and family present, a bride in virginal white) bringing children into the world would be responsible and not drink the money they made when they were employed away. My cousin said nothing. She had perfected that and looking serene like the Mona Lisa when bored to an art. My hunger for theatrics and being social was easily sated with a book. However, I could not stand hypocrites or people who were sly and on the sly corrupted others especially when it was a man who wanted to drag a woman like a rag doll, kicking and screaming down to his level. Bullying her with his fists and then taunting her with scenes from his own dysfunctional background and then after what to him would be a sublime act as he now would have stripped her of all of her self-esteem they would then become drinking buddies.

When he raised his voice, she would raise her voice and she would follow and do everything in tandem with him. Only now would they be a suitable fit. The man would see it as such because she had been brought down to his level. He had no concerns now that she would become high and mighty with him because now she was also inferior, she was conscious of that, and perhaps she was unemployed.

So I said I was broody. (I was making conversation with these two grown brats who were going to bring a kid onto their warped planet and something in me just woke up as if from a deep sleep) like any intelligent person would say to someone who was a decent, married lady and expecting and my aunt said afterwards, ‘Are you mad! Those kinds of people will rape you if you talk like that.’ She behaved as if I was the one who was mad. As if walking into the dark territories of barbarians and tattooed savages who ruled ganglands were a normal daytrip for us. My aunt spoke now as if Johannesburg were an entire novel countryside very far and quite unlike the safe English countryside of Keats and Wordsworth. As if it was countryside saturated with a Stanley Kubrick weirdness and we were just experiencing a fragment of it.




Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting - 26th Meeting - 27th Meeting -

28th Meeting -29th Meeting - 30th Meeting - 31st Meeting - 32nd Meeting - 33rd Meeting -

34th Meeting -35th Meeting - 36th Meeting -



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Abigail George2014-10-09 17:51:18
Binge drinking is not unlike an eating disorder. The body is at war with itself. It is both a profound tragedy and madness. It is a wasteland and any personality in that wasteland's aftermath you will soon find that there is no humanity, things of the spirit, sanity, vision, and soul left. Alcoholism I'm afraid makes victims out of all of us. Especially if you are an outsider looking in.

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