I was six years old when I first saw Santa, comatose on our kitchen floor beside a bottle of brandy he’d drained to within a half-inch of empty. Santa left the mince pie unblemished. His reindeer neglected the carrot, which my siblings and I diligently placed beside the offerings. As memory serves, my father earlier that day was strangely insistent on the type of brandy Santa would most appreciate.
The prospect of Christmas appalls me. It’s always a relief to get to January.
Or at least it used to be. After almost enjoying themselves over Christmas, the prigs and the puritans and the purifiers relish the prospect of January. They cannot conceal their joy in imposing their pathologies upon the rest of us.
January is now the month of abstinence and temperance and purification. In Great Britain and the United States, burgeoning swathes spend the remorseless month “doing Dry January.”
Dry January offers those so inclined an impassable opportunity to record, and recite their very public sacrifice for the entire month. They’ve stopped drinking those three glasses of red they nurse each week. They’re “raising awareness.”
What excites most my chagrin is the shopworn claims of the newly-converted. “I have just as much fun without drinking!” You’re supposed to humor this, just as you’re supposed to humor those “doing Veganuary,” and claiming their burger slapped together from plant gunge and E numbers is “just as tasty” as your bleeding Aberdeen Angus. The irony: without meat, humans wouldn’t have evolved the brainpower to debate the merits and demerits of eating meat.
Given such a reflexive statement is uniform across continents and cultures, clocks, and climates, there is good reason to suspect its veracity.
Perhaps it is a mental tic brought on by a brain parched of the lubricating effects of alcohol, or the ennobling effects of meat.
If you’d like to discover the detail of someone’s most potent insecurities, listen to what they tell themselves in public.
We all do it. I quit smoking for four years, mutating into the faux-coughing puritan who loathed smoking with such fervor I talked about nothing else except the pity I felt for those still enslaved. “So glad I quit . . . so glad. Feel so much better!” I’d recant as I sucked up the seductive second-hand smoke of strangers.
Ah. I’ve done it again. I didn’t quit for four years. That’s a comforting little porky I like to tell myself. I quit for three-and-a-half years, and for six months told myself “I only smoke with a drink,” a drink which I ordered in nerve-fraying desperation each day at no later than 11:30 a.m.
Such is the reassuring folly of human nature.
I have a primitive desire to stop this kind of thing because this kind of thing doesn’t stop. From Dry January will spawn Dry February, indeed, the hydra has already sprung Sober Spring. Before we know it, we’ll be brewing prison hooch in an internment camp for unbelievers.
Alarmingly, an editor of mine—seasoned carouser, literary man, and true gentleman of the swig, is “doing Dry February.” Perhaps he’s lost his marbles, I thought. If he’s vincible, then there’s no hope for us mortals. Perhaps I have a problem.
Looking for harm of which I hoped someone with a sociology degree would all too willingly aim to prevent, I poured a glass and glanced at the Dry January website. Amid the ironic color scheme of malbec purples, cabernet reds, and therapy-speak, I took their little quiz to learn my “drinking personality,” hoping to score “Professional Carouser” or “Barfly” or “Shaman of The Sauce.” No. It turns out that I am . . . an emotional drinker. Apparently, I drink to heighten emotions, which is as revelatory as the reason I shower unclothed is that it’s more effective that way.
There wasn’t a consideration for us professional writers. Anthony Storr’s book, Solitude, enlightened long ago that those employed in the arts aren’t just cliché troubled. Booze and melancholy are, for the writer, kith and kin. For some of us, booze is not only a condition of fruitful employment but a condition of relative sanity.
Writing, as Georges Simenon said, is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness, which is rather melodramatic. Happiness is a childish desire for all but the luckily imperceptive few.
Besides, if one is not drinking to alter one’s emotions, then why is anyone drinking at all?
Perhaps I drink because I like the taste, the mental enhancements, the succor to laughter, the dousing of a brain that rabbit-holes every detail in a circus of nonsense and loathing.
Perhaps drinking is an improvement on that state of fabricated emergency.
No doubt, my now-sober editor would have occasion to deem me what the Dry January literature calls a “sober shamer.”
Sober shamers are those who “make someone feel uncomfortable for not drinking.” They sober-shame to “mask their discomfort with their own relationship with alcohol.” Ah. How delightfully Freudian.
The irony: Freud worried ceaselessly about people stirring his ideas in simplistic concentrations to form intoxicating cocktails of self-delusion.
Dry January, like all charities, does just that. Their hamster wheel of self-justification goes like this: Charities define victims to save and then set about saving those victims. If, by some miraculous accident they achieve their mission, the charity, and its well-paid bosses who’ve little desire to trade their fat salaries for something else, find new victims to save. Fish don’t vote for dry land.
Such professional redeemers seek to victimize all with their therapy-speak, like a black hole sucking up all before it.
Doubtless, I drink to cover up emotions which form a vicious circle as I fall into the wrong crowd because I’m easily led.
This is, of course, all nonsense. We are forever meeting those who fall into the wrong crowd without ever meeting any member of the wrong crowd. Not once have I met someone easily led into studying 17th-century satire, or sucked unwillingly into a vicious circle of kettlebell swings and ribeye steak. Perhaps I’m projecting.
The beneficiaries of such missionary work are always the downtrodden. The voiceless! Those who “suffer in silence” beneath the yoke of shame and imagined stigma, or better yet, beneath the repression of a taboo.
A culture that encourages female students toward the empowerment it sanitizes as “sex work,” obsesses over taboo, and discovers it everywhere, like a sloppy drunk finds a fight in an empty phone box.
Or maybe I’m in denial. In our confessional culture, all emotions must be displayed, ready for a professional compassionista to approve noddingly of our indelible trauma.
We carefully sift through our biographies in the hope of uncovering some misfortunate event that explains in entirety our flaws and imperfections, a foundation myth which we, the heroes of our own story, must then publicly overcome.
Never has a culture so empty been so full of itself.
Our culture of public self-sacrifice is not steeped in virtue but vice.
Giving a homeless guy $10 is an act of humility. Filming oneself doing so to juice Facebook “likes” is the opposite—an act of vanity. Such performative self-sacrifice isn’t sacrificial. The irony: what humility glues together, vanity rips apart.
Dry January, like Veganuary, like most modern pathologies, wouldn’t exist without social media’s bottomless dose of dopamine. Few would sacrifice a month’s worth of booze and few, if any, would know what a vegan did or was. Now we drain our offline lives curating “content” for our online lives—our own reality TV show.
We may claim to be “raising awareness” of this plight or of the next: we are raising awareness of ourselves.
What the purifiers and puritans seek most can be found at the bottom of a bottle.
Scientists in Spain discovered that red wine is the closest thing we lapsarians have to a philosopher’s stone.
Those who outsource their emotions and their human imperfections—the qualities that make you interesting—to marketeers and advertising psychopaths would do well to read The New Scientist.
In a heartening study, researchers found:
Red wine increased pleasure and arousal, decreased the awareness of time, slowed the subjective passage of time, increased the attentional focus on the present moment, decreased body awareness, slowed thought speed, turned imagination more vivid, and made the environment become more fascinating . . . Red wine increased insightfulness and originality of thoughts, increased sensations of oneness with the environment, spiritual feelings, all-encompassing love, and profound peace. All changes in consciousness occurred regardless of volunteers drinking alone, in dyad or in group.
In post-yuppie Great Britain, everyone my age is a personal corporation. They’re building their brand, “manifesting” this or that, in some soulless puppetry of Silicon Valley narcissism.
Across the drink, the French have it right as usual.
Just before the world went mad in 2020, the French branded Dry January “an affront to French culture.”
More than 40 figures of French high society signed an open letter published in Le Figaro, deriding the specter as “an Anglo Saxon and puritan obsession.”
Gérard Idoux, a chef at the venerable Le Récamier restaurant in Paris, joined the French resistance, condemning Dry January as battery acid to buttery French culture.
“These days,” Monsieur Idoux said, “We are not allowed to drink, to smoke, or even to have a mistress. It’s just prohibition, prohibition, prohibition.”
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Oxford Sour. Subscribe to Christopher Gage’s substack here.