Alcohol, Death and Poetry: Give the Drunkard’s Words Some Time

“Il y a sur la boule terrestre une foule innombrable, innomée, dont le sommeil n’endormirait pas suffisament les souffrances.  Le vin compose pour eux des chants et des poèmes.”[1]

-Charles Baudelaire, Paradis Artificiels

About a month or two ago, when winter began really to show itself in the Midwest, my circle of friends and I had one last sit around a fire.  Layered-up, we sipped – and gulped – ice-cold beers and smoked cigarettes on a cold Indiana night amidst light, intermittent flurries and chilling gusts of wind that assaulted each of us with billows of reeking smoke one after the other, all the night long.  Good times.

With enough drink, we were able to forget about the cold.  Eventually, the group began to splinter: some went to bed; some stopped drinking; some of us continued.  At one point, I found myself on one side of the fire with the remaining four on the other side.  Beyond tipsy, I wobbled back and forth in place and, hoping for an “instant de lucidité aiguë” that comes “au milieu de l’imprégnation alcoolique, juste avant l’abrutissement,”[2] I posed a question to them: “What’s that one thing, that when you finish it, makes life worth living?”

Seeing that I should probably elaborate, I provided an example: “For example, when I write a poem – a good poem – when it’s finished, it makes me not want to kill myself, it makes life worth living.”  I don’t want to misquote my friends or put words in their mouths, but suffice it to say that none had an answer and I think I recall one or two of them saying they didn’t know what I meant, what I was talking about, what I was getting at.  I gave it up, thinking perhaps I was too drunk to make sense or perhaps just being histrionic.  Whatever.

Then, about a week ago, I was reading a new book of mine, Searching for Cioran by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston when, in the introduction, I read the following: “By giving outward expression to his tormented inner life, Cioran managed to reduce its intensity and avoid a self-destructive internal combustion, for, as he memorably put it: “un livre est un suicide différé” [a book is a postponed suicide][3]” (pg. 14).  Aha! Vindication from the words of a kindred spirit across time! A book is a postponed suicide!

Emil Cioran on what looks to be a slightly chilly day.

My jumbled, drunken ideas couldn’t be expressed in such a clear way at the time, but this was basically what I was getting at.  Sure, maybe this aphorism still wouldn’t resonate with those to whom I originally posed my question, but it was so relieving for me to read a perfect explanation of my own thoughts articulated by another (in this case, Cioran and Zarifopol-Johnston, for his aphorism is just the budding flower on the stem of her explanatory sentence).

Another, purely Cioranian quote that says something similar is to be found early in his first book, Sur les cimes du désepoir [On the Heights of Despair]: “Si l’on continue cepandant à vivre, ce n’est que par la grâce de l’écriture, qui en l’objectivant, soulage cette tension sans bornes.  La création est une préservation temporaire des griffes de la mort [If one continues, however, to live, it is only by the grace of writing, which, in objectifying him [the writer], calms this limitless tension.  Creation is a temporary protection from the talons of death (my translation)]” (pg. 13-14)[4].

Creation is a temporary protection from the talons of death.  There it is.  This is why, for me, writing a poem, an essay or doing a good translation, makes me not want to kill myself, makes life worth living, postpones a suicide.  This sentiment can also explain a quote by Michel Houellebecq from his essay on H.P. Lovecraft: “Quand on aime la vie, on ne lie pas.  On ne va guère au cinéma non plus, d’ailleurs.  Quoi qu’on en dise, l’accès à l’univers artistique est plus ou moins réservé à ceux qui en ont un peu marre [When one loves life, one doesn’t read.  One hardly goes to the cinema either.  Whatever one says about it, access to the artistic universe is more or less reserved for those who have had enough [of life] (my translation)].”[5]  This could explain why my original question – and even these quotes – still wouldn’t resonate with my friends: they haven’t had enough of life.  They do not need any temporary protection from the talons of death.  This could also explain why, to one of my friends, it is so perplexing and illogical that I smoke cigarettes and sometimes drink too much (Houellebecq is well-known as a heavy smoker and drinker; Cioran drank in his youth and used to smoke a lot as well but eventually gave up tobacco, alcohol and coffee in his old age[6]).

houellebecq flanel
Michel Houellebecq lookin’ like he’s about to go sit around a fire.

So, the next time your drunken friend is trying to get a point across, give his words some time, and the next time you drunkenly try to make a point, implore your friends to give your words some time.  For while time, does indeed destroy all things and mange la vie[7], it also has the ability to elucidate things and heal our hangovers.

“Saints live in flames; wise men, next to them.” Cioran in Tears and Saints, translated from the Romanian by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston.

[1] “There is, on the terrestrial ball, an innumerable, unnamed crowd for whom sleep wouldn’t sufficiently lessen their sufferings.  Wine composes for them songs and poems” (My literal translation).

[2]Au milieu de l’imprégnation alcoolique, just avant l’abrutissement, on traverse parfois des instants de lucidité aiguë.” [In the midst of alcoholic impregnation, right before the tipping point (abrutissement – lit. dumbing or dulling of one’s wits), one sometimes comes across moments of acute lucidity. (My translation)] From Platforme by Michel Houellebecq, pg. 233.

[3] Zarifopol-Johnston’s translation.

[4] This book is available in English, translated by Richard Howard.  I hear nothing but good things about his translations of Cioran’s work, but I only own this book in French so I gave my own translation here.

[5] I don’t know a page number because I took this quote from my Kindle edition.  This book is also available in English, but I only own the French.

[6] In Searching for Cioran, Zarifopol-Johnston describes how Cioran used to sit “[a]t a table next to Sartre…[Cioran would sit] chain-smoking cheap Gauloises” (pg. 4).  Later, she writes: “If provincial boredom drove Emil [Cioran] to reading, it also drove him to drinking” (pg. 55).  In an interview from the ‘80s, Cioran talks about quitting coffee, alcohol and cigarettes (which took him five years). Source:

[7]“Eats life”: taken from the last tercet of L’Ennemi, by Charles Baudelaire.

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