Making sense of alcohol

Obviously, alcohol affects a number of students in New Zealand in different ways. I therefore found Jane and James Ritchies’ discussion of it interesting. They write:

Throughout human history, alcohol has been associated with festivities and times of emotional release. Its deeper and more mystical use has been in religious sacraments. The consumption of alcohol has been common across cultures and over time but it has, till now, been a relatively scarce commodity. While many might have indulged at times of harvest, solstice or saturnalia, the regular use of quality alcohol was mostly confined to the wealthy or to the religious elite while the peasants drank beer, cider or sack. In Roman times, wine was associated with Bacchus, known by the Greeks as Dionysus, and with Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festivities were times of licentiousness; the last big party before winter was not the only occasion but it was the high point.

In the ancient world alcohol touched off release of exuberance, joy, and the relaxation of sexual inhibitions. Classically there was no particular association with violence.

It is the cultural assumption that alcohol disinhibits, provides for unbridled emotional release, and transforms the individual from his or her usual self, which has influenced the pattern of modern alcohol use in Western societies. Alcohol is ‘timeout’. Alcohol declares a moral holiday. The drunken person is possessed by its spirits, which is why we use that term for alcohol in concentrated forms.

The uses of alcohol are legion, and there are numerous personal variations on the cultural norms. We wish to confine ourselves here to the use of alcohol as a permission for violence, the use of alcohol by those with violent propensities, and the persistence of a strong association between violence and the use or abuse of alcohol.” (p.126)

The authors continue: “The prevailing tendency in alcohol policy has been to reverse the anachronistic legacy of the prohibition movement in the hope that liberalising the drinking hours, increasing the number of liquor outlets, and regionalising licensing will bring alcohol use under social rather than legal control, and increase responsible drinking behaviour.” (p.127)

Under the cultural influence of alcohol

After revising the phisiological effects of alcohol, the Ritchies explain that “In an important study of cultural variation, McAndrew and [-p.128] Egerton report that in some societies drinking is associated with increasingly quiet behaviour, maximising the ‘down phase’ and the stuporous effects of the physiological process. In some societies, noisy, rowdy festive behaviour is very common, often associated with stimulation to sexual behaviour, but not necessarily with violence. In other societies again, violence emerges early and frequently in drunken behaviour. In almost all societies, the domestic, social use of alcohol is distinguished from occasions of heavier alcohol use, which are almost always characterised as times of license when whatever alcohol is expected to do, will dominate the behaviour. Thus, people who normally do not sing become opera stars for the night, the silent become garrulous, the modest obscene, and the meek do battle with the brave. Almost everywhere, the festive use of alcohol is regarded as time for a moral holiday when social mores may be suspended to a greater or lesser degree.

McAndrew and Egerton point out that drunken behaviour remains culturally patterned even when the drunken person ‘goes out of control’. Thus, the expectations which govern drunken behaviour are learned, indeed over-learned, to the point where they are ascribed to nature. The fact that they are not natural but cultural must then be denied or suppressed, otherwise responsibility would rest with society and the individual. This is why it is so common, almost everywhere alcohol is used, for it to be made an excuse for the ensuing behaviour: ‘He couldn’t help it, he fell asleep’; ‘She was so drunk, she couldn’t remember’; ‘Had he not been drunk, he would not have committed the rape’, or murder, or whatever else.

Not every culture in the world had alcohol, or used alcohol. Many had no vessels in which to brew. A good number had other ways of producing altered states of consciousness. Many valued experiences associated with intoxication, however induced, and therefore also the substances associated with them, and patterned use and experience in highly ritualised and socialised ways.

Western patterns of alcohol use brought to the non-Western world the personal use of alcohol, associated with individual stress and strain, and the Western notion that one may drink to get away from something. After contact, alcohol use amongst the American Indians, Polynesians, Maori, and many other groups followed these Western patterns. Alcohol was added to other forces which led to the destruction of cultural controls. Western patterns included strong association between the elevated energy levels from alcohol use and fighting. This is a pattern particularly associated with the military, colonial frontiersmen, and other male associations. It is a gender-linked pattern. Folklore says that when drunk, both women and men may become sexual but some men become savage as well. [I wonder how we look at this these days???] Both reveal in booze their assumed ‘real’ nature.” (p.128)

They conclude this chapter on alcohol by noting “New Year’s Eve is the closest approximation we have to Walpurgisnacht, when the warlocks and the witches of our own violent tendencies are momentarily unleashed as the clock strikes midnight.” (p.131)

Ref: Jane Ritchie and James Ritchie (1993) Violence in New Zealand. Huia Publishers and Daphne Brasell Associates: Wellington

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in education around food and meals, Literate Contexts, Mono- Bi- and Multi-culturalism, social and political contexts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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