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Drinking with Proust

Image: Un bar aux Folies Bergère (Manet, 1882)

Excerpted from:

 Drinking with Proust (Leanpub)

We have of the universe only formless, fragmentary visions, which we complete by the association of arbitrary ideas, creative of dangerous suggestions.[1]

For a long time hominids were tree-lovers, swinging from branch to branch in the great tropical forests of east Africa. Then the climate changed: temperatures increased, tropical forests dried up and thinned out. Our ancestors were forced to spend more time on the forest floors. They began scavenging for fallen fruit rather than picking it fresh from the source.

Our relationship with alcohol is ten-million years old.

You can’t avoid alcohol, your body produces it naturally. Your digestive system hosts a complex community of microorganisms. Some of these organisms are just like the yeasts and bacteria that turn grape-sugar into wine, or grain-starch into beer. They allow your body to make use of complex carbohydrates that are indigestible unless they’re fermented. Like it or not, you have a mini-brewery under your belt and yes, this has been used as a defence against drink-driving charges: “I haven’t had a single drink. My endogenous alcohol production is out of control!”[2]

A healthy hominid gut flora takes care of the alcohol it produces. Enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenases, ADH for short, break it down. As long as our ancestors were eating fresh fruit from the trees, the enzymes didn’t have to do much work. But when riper fruit became a ready source of energy, hominids were overwhelmed: when fruit begins to rot, natural fermentation turns the sugars into alcohol. Some of our ancestors had better enzymes than others and an evolutionary advantage in dealing with the headaches of rotten fruit.

Under the new living conditions, a tolerance for alcohol was an advantage. A drunk hominid can be taken for a fool: you might lose your territory or your mate to someone with a greater tolerance for rottenness. It turns out that a mutation of the ADH4 enzyme, which improved alcohol metabolism, can be traced back to the time when our ancestors descended from the trees to make a living on the forest floor. Perhaps this was when alcohol became linked with pleasure. The hominids who binged on rotten fruit for a buzz had a calorific advantage over their pickier contemporaries.[3]

The records of human culture begin with wine. Alcohol residues dating back over ten-thousand years have been found on pottery fragments excavated in Jiahu in China’s Henan province. Wild grapes, rice, honey and Chinese hawthorn were used as base material in the ancient brew.

Patrick McGovern, the molecular archaeologist who made the discoveries collaborated with an American brewery to re-create the beverage and named it
Chateau Jiahu:

Fresh whole hawthorn fruit, muscatel grapes…, orange blossom honey and gelatinized rice malt with their hulls were brewed together and fermented with an American ale yeast… the beverage has a marked sweet-and-sour profile, which goes extremely well with Asian cuisine.[4]

You cannot separate the history of alcohol from the history of humanity. Wine consumption has been on a roll for at least ten-thousand years, building on evolutionary proclivities dating back ten-million years.

Intoxication is an experience that ties us to our ancestors. But instead of treating alcohol on an evolutionary time-scale, this project focuses on how it chimes with our internal clocks.

We all know that once alcohol is in your system, only the passage of time will get it out again. A proportion of the alcohol you drink passes directly into your blood-stream. A Blood-Alcohol-Chart will tell you how long you must wait. So you do not need to go back ten-million years to understand that alcohol is liquid time. This is something you’ve known ever since your first hangover.

Alcohol is an important part of Drinking with Proust, but it’s not the only part. Before we appreciate wine, we enjoy fruit juice. Before we discover whiskey, we quaff beer. If you consider yourself a wine-buff, consider tea. Chinese tea masters of the 9th century developed tea ceremonies around the Daoist principle of living in the moment. A Japanese chaji, which is a formal Japanese tea gathering, proceeds according to a sequence of at least ten formal steps and lasts for several hours; this too is “liquid time.”

Perhaps the most famous tea drinking scene is due to Marcel Proust. In À la recherche du temps perdu, which has been translated either as In Search for Lost Time orRemembrance of Things Past, Proust’s narrator dips a pastry called madeleine into lime tea. The taste of tea mixed with pastry crumbs triggers a sense of familiarity, which develops into a vivid childhood memory through the narrator’s careful introspection. Time regained through drink: that is our aim.

In this project we apprentice ourselves to Proust. Be it the welcome sensation of cold water coursing down your throat on a hot and dusty day, or a dreamy diffusion of sunlight in a glass of Cognac, Proust shows us that the significance of our drinking lies neither wholly in ourselves nor in the drink. If there’s a lesson in Drinking with Proust, that is it.

Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that. To drink with Proust is to be aware of the dangers and anxieties associated with alcohol. For some, the risk is too high. Indeed, some cultures discourage or prohibit alcohol prophylactically. Yes, there may be advantages to a teetotal life. But there is such inspiration, fellowship and pure joy in fermented juice. Why give it up? To live a good life is to find a balance. Drinking with Proust is about finding the quantity that suits you.

We sometimes forget to examine the pleasures of drinking because they are difficult to describe. Our senses of taste and smell can seem primitive when compared to the rich worlds of sound and vision— most professions do not require us to develop a skilled palate. And then there’s the question of how to communicate our impressions. Words fail us all too often and our descriptions sound like the words of museum curators in stale catalogues.

Like thirsty travellers in a desert we need someone to show us the path to the springs. Let’s chart a middle way between the too-much and the too-little. Like life, drinking is a balancing act between present joy and future hangover. Think of Proust as an experienced buddy who has seen it all. Understand him, learn from him, fight with him, drink with him.


1 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, The Sweet Cheat Gone: London, Chatto & Windus

2 Logan, B., and A. Jones, 2000, Endogenous ethanol ‘auto-brewery syndrome’ as a drunk-driving defence challenge: Med Sci Law, v. 40, p. 206-215.

3 See for instance Williams, S., 2014, Ability to consume alcohol may have shaped primate   evolution, Science, AAAS.

4 McGovern, P., Chateau Jiahu.

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