Joan Acocella's piece on a cure for alcohol hangovers will find an audience amongst the most of us. I know I devoure d each word eagerly, fully empathizing, fully delighted at having someone articulate the pain I feel the morning after a night of too many cosmopolitans with the girls.
In her piece for The New Yorker (which I discovered several years after publication through longform.org) entitled 'A Few Too Many,' she puzzles over how some of mankind's most common miseries are yet to be remedied. While one might accept that a cure for cancer could be a while in the making, how can it be that the common cold, the menstrual cramp and the hangover do not yet have a cure?
She accepts that while the most obvious solution to this calamity is to simply avoid drinking altogether, she puts up a strong defence as to why it is that people are drawn to the power of alcohol nonetheless: disinhibition, and the thought that we may have finally found the truth about life. She quotes Gorge Jean Nathan, "I drink to make other people interesting."
Acocella traces the science of a hangover, its symptoms and possible causes, explaining the "light-headedness and muscle weakness, the feeling that one's bones have turned to jello" — a sentiment confirmed by my mother, often after a single glass of wine. She goes on to illuminate that hangover symptoms are not just physical, but extend into the cognitive and emotional realms as well. She then consults with Kingsley Amis on the "metaphysical hangover," a most comforting passage: "When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. . . . You have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is." He then goes on to re-confirm your suspicion that the opening of Kafka's Metamorphosis where the hero discovers he has been changed into a bug, is in fact, the best literary representation of a hangover.
As Acocella examines the stomach of an alcohol consumer, her research points at several determinants - darker drinks versus light-coloured drinks, your gender, even your gene pool are key factors of your reaction to alcohol, and the amount you can consume without succumbing to its hold. She traces the history of alcohol, and it is interesting to note that some anthropologists believe alcohol production may have predated agriculture, and even hurried along earlier societies on their way to organized religion. Back in the 15th century, alcohol was believed to cure a (now very amusing) range of ailments, from flatulence to dog bites.
In a piece peppered with wonderfully researched material, Acocella traces the etymology and vocabulary of various societies in describing a hangover. She compares remedies for a hangover across cultures, with several variations of the hair of the dog, non-alcoholic fixes, breakfast cures, even a vinyl statue of St. Vivian, the patron saint of the hung over. There is also mention of RU-21 and the accidental discovery of the closest thing to a cure for a hangover.
While accepting that a successful cure will probably be a while in the making, Acocella makes a good argument for why, despite hazards of the morning after, alcohol will continue to remain far more popular than its alternative — sobriety. "Also questionable is the moral emphasis of the temperance folk, their belief that drinking is a lapse, a sin, as if getting to work on time, or living a hundred years, were the crown of life. They forget alcohol's relationship to camaraderie, sharing, toasts. Those, too, are moral matters."
Indeed. And till such time, let us drink in the hope that moderation will temper our hangovers, and merriment not be dulled by sobriety.