In vino veritas
This week, I had the delicious pleasure of re-watching Dr. Strangelove, and reading Roger Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am. Scruton opens his book on philosophy and wine with the line “Throughout recorded history human beings have made life bearable by taking intoxicants.”
He goes on to say:
For if society is sometimes threatened by intoxicants, it is equally threatened by the lack of them. Without their aid we see each other as we are, and no human society can be built on so frail a foundation. The world is besieged by destructive illusions, and recent history has made us aware of them, so wary that we forget that illusions are sometimes beneficial. Where would we be without the belief that human beings can face down disaster and swear undying love? But such a belief persists only if renewed in imagination, and how can this occur if we have no escape route from the evidence? The need for intoxicants is therefore deeply embedded in us, and all attempts to forbid our habits are bound to end in failure. (2)
Wine has long been praised for its ability to open up conversation. It was a staple in the ancient Greek symposium, where wine was used to enhance philosophical discussion and encourage conversation. While Scruton’s quote is overstated to evoke a strong reaction from his readers, and get them to think and respond, I think that he has hit upon a crucial point: humans do not use plain language in plain (i.e. not inebriated) form to talk to each other about what really matters.
In Lance’s excellent post last week, he discussed three types of humour: superiority, relief, and incongruity humour and defended their place in our world. He explained that incongruity humour helps “breed honesty and … see the bigger picture.” In a word, it helps us communicate. Today, I would like to give an apologia for not only humour’s ability to help communicate, but also for allusion, metaphor, satire, and wine. I suggest that these things enable us to communicate in an ‘authentic,’ and deep manner in a way that we cannot do with simple, straightforward speech.
Dr. Stangelove is one of my favourite dark comedy/satirical films. In this Kubrick masterpiece, the great Peter Sellers plays 3 of the main roles in the film. Released in 1964, this film satirizes the Cold War fear in America, and the policy of mutually assured destruction. In the film, America and Russia have each created contingency war machines (Plan R and the Doomsday machine) that are capable of carrying on war no matter what, on the idea that if Washington and Moscow are destroyed in a first strike by the other side, no one will be able to give the order to go to war. So war is set up to happen automatically. With the help of one crazy general, it does. The Russian response is an automatic doomsday machine, an excellent deterrent against a nuclear strike IF anyone had known about it. The film ends with the destruction of the world.
Dr. Strangelove, like all satire, is meant to poke fun at the way things are with the intent of improving things. It’s a sort of constructive shaming, and often accomplishes its goal of improving the person or society much more effectively than plain words. In this case, Dr. Strangelove pointed out the absurdity of mutually assured destruction as a policy in a way that captured people’s attention and imagination.
The Plague, by Albert Camus, is also favourite of mine. On the surface, it is the tale of a man who is infected with a plague but it is actually the story of the Nazi invasion of France (and the complicity of many French officials). Camus wrote the story in a veiled form because he lived in occupied France. Allusion used in this way is common in books written during oppressive regimes, as it allows a sort of ‘safe’ critique of the times. Many nursery rhymes were originally written as allegorical political commentary. This is not the only use of allegory; one of the best examples is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This allegory gave an easier way to understand the idea of the forms, and of the place of the philosopher. In a similar way, allegory is often used in education to explain complex ideas.
There is a push today for authenticity. But why must we think plain language is automatically authentic? Love, hate, desire, heaven, hell, right, and wrong require more complex communication tools to wade through than plain language. The human life is full of complex, abstract, and awkward things. It could be said that plain language is best and that we as humans have just always had social issues, political oppression, and emotional limitations that keep us from such plain expressions of truth. But history does not bear that out. The most brilliant of minds, like Plato, turned to metaphor and wine. Even Jesus offered much of his teaching in the form of metaphor and parable. “The kingdom of God is like…”
I suggest that we need all of these tools because humans are not designed to express our most important thoughts and feelings in straightforward language. Many of the topics that we discuss are ill served by descriptive explanatory language. Instead, we should turn to the powerful tools at our disposal: allegory, metaphor, satire, and alcohol. While there is always the danger that too much allusion leads to a distorted reality, too much satire to cynicism, and too much wine to drunkenness, we also know that in moderation, these enhance our communication, and enrich our relationships. So next time you get together with friends, crack a bottle or two of wine and tell some stories. Who knows, you may communicate much more than you could imagine.
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