“I wish I could drink like a lady,” Dorothy Parker laments in one of her immortal little poems, “I can take one or two at the most./ Three and I’m under the table/ Four and I’m under the host.” How, one wonders, did she think back, the morning after, to this surrender to inebriation? It does become the stuff of a delicious limerick, but in her soberer moments, did she think of her behaviour as an embarrassing lapse, or as an instance of “creative problem-solving”? After all, what nicer way than a few glasses of wine to compromise one’s virtue? How lovely, too, for Miss Parker’s hosts to have ‘known’ a New Yorker in whom beauty, wit and accessibility came together so brilliantly.
Almost a century later, and in Chicago — a city that may not have been quite to Miss Parker’s taste — researchers seem to have come to certain ‘scientific’ conclusions about the effects of alcohol that are close to her aperçu regarding the freeing powers of wine. Tests — of a seriousness that would have baffled Miss Parker — have shown that two glasses of wine enhance what the makers of the tests call “creative problem-solving”. That fleeting and pleasurable stage of Bacchic abandon when one is neither drunk nor sober, but in a state of high sharpness, or sharp highness, makes one see things with heightened clarity as well as improvize and manipulate situations to greater advantage. This is, presumably, what “creative problem-solving” means — although a moderately decadent lifestyle, rather than years of painstaking research, should be enough for the discovery of this, undoubtedly earth-shattering, fact.
Alcohol helps in shedding inhibitions. This makes it easier not only to find oneself under one’s host, but also to confront truths that are more successfully resisted in a state of sobriety. Also, the genial fuzziness induced by alcohol broadens and distracts the mind into a less focused and more flexible vision of life. It makes people more adventurous, until, of course, they start feeling sick and throwing up violently. Hence, the Chicago scientists are most particular about keeping to two glasses — and not more.
In classical Athens, a lot of what is now called philosophy used to happen at dinner-parties, now solemnly translated as symposia. Socrates would do most of the talking and wine flowed freely, although people found it disconcerting that he never got drunk, no matter how much he drank. There is a Fellini moment at the end of Plato’s Symposium, when, after an extravagant night of drinking and talking, everybody has either passed out or left; only Socrates and two other hardy Athenians are holding out and holding forth, and still drinking from a large goblet. Then, at first cock-crow, Socrates suddenly starts explaining to his boon companions that the truly tragic artist had to be a great writer of comedies too. Creative problem-solving at its most sublime.