John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 2
And, ere I begin, I must ask the reader to walk with me in all sympathy; and, since
sympathy is merely understanding, begin by understanding me and whom and what I
write about. In the first place, I am a seasoned drinker. I have no constitutional
predisposition for alcohol. I am not stupid. I am not a swine. I know the drinking game
from A to Z, and I have used my judgment in drinking. I never have to be put to bed. Nor
do I stagger. In short, I am a normal, average man; and I drink in the normal, average
way, as drinking goes. And this is the very point: I am writing of the effects of alcohol on
the normal, average man. I have no word to say for or about the microscopically
unimportant excessivist, the dipsomaniac.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know,
stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks
generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees,
in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise
to the jokes in the funny papers.
The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled, he
walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and
what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may bubble with wit,
or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see intellectual spectres and phantoms that
are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition
that he strips away the husks of life's healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron
collar of necessity welded about the neck of his soul. This is the hour of John
Barleycorn's subtlest power. It is easy for any man to roll in the gutter. But it is a terrible
ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs unswaying, and decide that in all the
universe he finds for himself but one freedom--namely, the anticipating of the day of his
death. With this man this is the hour of the white logic (of which more anon), when he
knows that he may know only the laws of things--the meaning of things never. This is his
danger hour. His feet are taking hold of the pathway that leads down into the grave.
All is clear to him. All these baffling head-reaches after immortality are but the panics of
souls frightened by the fear of death, and cursed with the thrice-cursed gift of
imagination. They have not the instinct for death; they lack the will to die when the time
to die is at hand. They trick themselves into believing they will outwit the game and win
to a future, leaving the other animals to the darkness of the grave or the annihilating heats
of the crematory. But he, this man in the hour of his white logic, knows that they trick
and outwit themselves. The one event happeneth to all alike. There is no new thing under
the sun, not even that yearned-for bauble of feeble souls--immortality. But he knows, HE
knows, standing upright on his two legs unswaying. He is compounded of meat and wine
and sparkle, of sun-mote and world- dust, a frail mechanism made to run for a span, to be
tinkered at by doctors of divinity and doctors of physic, and to be flung into the scrap-
heap at the end.