Elaine Scarry has suggested that ‘physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.’ This happens most obviously in our resorting to ‘ow’s, non-verbal cries and groans. It also manifests itself in the frequency with which pain is described metaphorically. Unable to describe the sensory experience of pain, we turn to concrete objects that we can see and so more easily describe. These objects – Scarry points out – fall into two categories: the ‘first specifies an external agent of the pain, a weapon that is pictured as producing the pain; and the second specifies bodily damage that is pictured as accompanying the pain.’
Think of a headache that is ‘pinching,’ a stomach cramp that is ‘stabbing,’ a fever that is ‘burning.’ These metaphors ‘externalize, objectify, and make sharable what is originally an interior and unsharable experience.’
Scarry’s writing is interesting when applied to inebriation, itself an interior physical experience. Our propensity to describe it metaphorically is therefore unsurprising. Consider, too, some frequently used metaphors: drunk people are ‘hammered,’ providing a weapon, an external agent for the pain they may feel. It suggests the wound too, the pounding – note another metaphor here – headache of the hangover. Similarly wrecked, smashed, legless, and – horribly – pissed, all suggest the possible after-effects of one too many drinks.
Why, when drunkenness has a very clear external agent, the alcohol itself, is this so rarely used as a descriptive tool? ‘Tanked’ and ‘sloshed’ admittedly suggest an excess of liquids, but I have never heard anyone describing a night out on the tiles, when they were really ‘tequila-ed,’ nor lamenting their ‘winey’ state at Christmas lunch. Even ‘drunk,’ while clearly signposting the act of drinking, excludes the nature of the chosen potions. There is a remove from the straightforward facts in the way we discuss drinking.
This is also clear in our resort – even desire – to use metaphors. This remove from reality is, if you think about it, incredibly appropriate. It shows descriptions of drunkenness linguistically mimicking the effects – wounds and wonders – of drunkenness. Drinking leaves one removed from straightforward facts, from concrete objects to hold on to, from reality, and from clear wording.
Drunkenness leads to transformations.‘ Metaphor’ originates from the Greek metapherein – ‘to transfer’ – and is etymologically linked to metamorphosis, which suggests transformations.
We can return to our initial example whereby a drunk man might become a daffodil—this, if found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses say, could be read as a literal metamorphosis. Read as such, the transformation might become problematic. Does the drunk man want to be a daffodil? Does it hurt to suddenly become a daffodil?
In the case of metaphor, the transformations bring with them other questions: What is this transformation telling us? Novelist and critic, Alain Robbe-Grillet states that metaphor is ‘never an innocent figure of speech’: ‘supposed to express only comparison without concealed meaning, [it] always introduces in fact a subterranean communication, a movement of sympathy – or of antipathy.’ The didacticism that creeps into words like ‘hammered’ and ‘smashed’ exemplifies this ‘subterranean communication.’ There is an added didacticism in the suggestion of change—inebriation removes you from your right mind.
Furthermore, metaphor suggests a need to uncover a ‘concealed meaning,’ to dig beneath the surface, or embellish our everyday language. Pain leaves us ‘ow’ing and groaning, but drunkenness leaves us – at good points – spouting tipsy nonsense that isn’t that far from poetry…
‘Wine is bottled poetry’ declared Robert Louis Stevenson. One can turn this unconventional recipe on its head—poetry is unbottled wine. Poetry – language let loose from everyday constraints – is remarkably close to the language of the inebriated, with the drug prompting the speaker to break linguistic rules. Stevenson’s phrase is exemplary: it gives us a metaphor and forces us to break from literal meaning. There are not poetry books stuffed into wine bottles.
We are happy to accept such fantastical phrases within poetry:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
We are used to accepting Byron’s love poem as poetic genius, but it teeters dangerously close to the incomprehensible ramblings of Withnail or Falstaff: of a man besotted with a woman he is too drunk to be able to see clearly.
‘She Walks in Beauty’ was – we know – written after Byron had been to a party. Webster, a friend, records that Bryon finished the night with ‘a tumbler of brandy, which he drank at one to Mrs. Wilmot’s health.’ Mrs. Wilmot was his beautiful cousin, and by the next day the poem was written.
The resulting poem shows the stain of red wine and brandy. It resembles a drinking song—indeed it was originally written as lyrics. It’s simple rhymes invite us to take up the tune. We are in the territory (without the worrying hints of paedophilia) of Jim Morrison’s whiskey bar.
Crucially, its metaphors ask us to make leaps of understanding that need some Dutch courage to stomach. How do you walk in beauty? How is beauty like the night? Viewing it like a sober friend fed-up with inebriated slurs, the poem is easily criticised. Byron asks for perhaps a similarly drunk / poetic listener, for someone that will sing with him.
Drunkeness is widely regarded as a state that should be entered into only in willing company. The same is true of poetry, and of metaphor. Both depend upon a reader or recipient willing to see that beauty is like the night, and that she is simultaneously like that beauty, and that all tumbles together in a glorious booze-sodden, poetic blur, bound by the transformations of metaphor.
‘Seeing stars’ is one of our nicer metaphors for drunkenness, and Byron employs just the same for the feeling of magic he wishes to capture. This is a magic of transformation: from the banal reality of an evening drinks party to a feeling of otherworldliness. Of transformation from earth to starry skies within one person. Forget Robbe-Grillet’s ‘subterranean communication’; Byron wants celestial transportation. He has the confidence of a man who has downed a brandy, and will leap from object to metaphor—from one girl to the stars.
Thus, drunkeneness is expressed metaphorically for various reasons. Because there are no other options, language forces us to turn to metaphor. Because drunkenness is a process of transformation: man is transformed into drunk man by one drink, just as Lewis Caroll’s Alice is – following a bottle’s instruction to ‘Drink Me’ – transformed into a much smaller Alice. And because metaphorical, poetic language, differing from everyday, prosaic, ‘sober’ language, is not far from the language of drunkards. From drunkard to Byron, from woman to stars, from drunkenness to daffodils (maybe)—it is these leaps that only the best poets, the best metaphors and the best brandies facilitate.