Monday, June 4, 2012

Listening To Pinot Grigio

Dionysus mosaic, via Wikimedia Commons.
About a million years ago when I was simultaneously a bored bookstore employee, a disaffected mathematics graduate student, and a watcher of television, I happened to read Peter Kramer's book Listening To Prozac.  In all kinds of ways it was a weird choice.  I hadn't yet studied any philosophy; I never did study psychology; I usually find non-fiction books tedious. 

But there was something about the idea of the book that fascinated me.  That idea is that anti-depressants like Prozac don't just alleviate serious depression in people who have it; they also affect the personalities of people who have mild depression or even none.  Shy people become more extroverted, nervous people become more confident.  One patient reported feeling "unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic."

Perhaps most interestingly, Kramer reported that the patients who experienced this felt not like they had new selves or identities, but rather that they were more the self they were before.  They were able to cast off something that was getting in the way of them being themselves, in order not to change, but to be fully themselves.

It's to Kramer's credit that there's no drama aspect to all this.  There's no "OMFG drugs change people's selves it's time to give it all up for raw foods, Tai Chi, and no electricity."  Even though Kramer admits to being somewhat disconcerted, he doesn't offer any simple answers.

I got to thinking about the book recently, because I was thinking about drinking.  I'm a person who -- let's say I'm a person who enjoys a glass of wine.  For me, the transformation induced by drinking is almost always X -> X+.

That is, drinking I go from being Me to being Me+, a better version of me.  I'm not only a bit more cheerful.  I'm eager instead of discouraged; I'm confident instead of daunted; I'm interested instead of bored.  I think more interesting things; I like people.  Pretty much everything is improved.

It's funny, because often when you hear people who like to drink a little too much talk about drinking there's this standard narrative which is like Oh, It's Great Until It's Not and Since You Can't Stop you inevitable Pass That Point and end up Crying Into Your Beer.

Not me -- I mean, I don't really have the Crying Into Your Beer phase of drinking.  Because -- have I mentioned?  for me drinking is X -> X+.  I don't drink beer, but whatever I'm drinking, I'm laughing into it, not crying into it.

This does give rise to a practical problem:  one doesn't want to drink too much.  But for me that really is a practical problem:  alcohol has a lot of calories, and it's not good for you in large amounts.  If the gods of consumer culture could just get cracking on solving those problems, I'd be good to go (see production suggestion #2 in my previous post on designer drugs).

So of course you can see why I started thinking about Listening to Pinot Grigio.  It's like, I'm me, only better.  "Unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic" -- that's it, exactly.  

In  the "most helpful" book review of Listening to Prozac on Amazon, a psychotherapist points out two interesting things about how the book seems today.  One is that Kramer didn't foresee that the side effects of Prozac would stand in the way of it becoming The People's Drug.  Some of those side effects are sexual, and the reviewer wryly notes that "the real stampede, ironically, has been toward Viagra" -- though why it seems ironic that people want more and better sex is obscure to me.  What could be more predictable than that?

The other is that "when push comes to shove, the past decade indicates that, bottom line, Americans continue to entertain a pharmaceutical Calvinism, a suspicion of medicine, and more recently, of the companies that make them."  That is, we retain a sense that there's something wrong with taking pills to feel good.

I think that is true, and it's also true that people have weirdly puritanical attitudes about alcohol.  They often talk as if there's some moral problem with drinking for fun:  Oh No, You Might Not Be Able to Drive, Won't Someone Think of The Children? 

As far as I'm concerned, the problem with recreational and non-recreational drugs are the same: it's not that there's something bad with mood-alteration, it's just that we're not very good at it yet.  In fact, when I'm Listening to Pinot Grigio, I'm often struck by how little we've improved on the basic experience of wine drinking.

Sure, alcohol has its side effects, and taken immoderately it's not good for you.  But sadly that's true of everything, still.

And now, let me end this post with a quotation from the Wikipedia entry on Dionysus, god of wine:
He is also the Liberator (Eleutherios), whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverts the oppressive restraints of the powerful.
Freedom from self-conscious fear and care! That is it.

1 comment:

Buy Pinot Grigio said...

Really good post, I couldn't agree more!