Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of James Runciman > Text of Drink

An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Drink
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

I have no intention of imitating those intemperate advocates of temperance who frighten people by their thunderous and extravagant denunciations; I leave high moral considerations on one side for the present, and our discussion will be purely practical, and, if possible, helpful. The duty of helpful men and women is not to rave about horrors and failures and misfortunes, but to aim coolly at remedial measures; and I am firmly convinced that such remedial measures can be employed only by private effort. State interference is always to be deprecated; individual action alone has power to better the condition of our sorely-tempted race. With sorrow too keen for words, I hear of blighted homes, intellects abased, children starved, careers wrecked, wives made wretched, crime fostered; and I fully sympathize with the men and women who are stung into wild speech by the sight of a curse that seems all-powerful in Britain. But I prefer to cultivate a sedate and scientific attitude of mind; I do not want to repeat catalogues of evils; I want to point out ways whereby the intemperate may be cured. Above all, I wish to abate the panic which paralyzes the minds of some afflicted people, and which causes them to regard a drunkard or even a tippler as a hopeless victim. "Hopeless" is a word used by ignorant persons, by cowards, and by fools. When I hear some mourner say, "Alas! we can do nothing with him--he is a slave!" I feel impelled to reply, "What do you know about it? Have you given yourself the trouble to do more than preach? Listen, and follow the simple directions which I lay down for you."

First, I deal with the unhappy beings who are called periodical drinkers. These are generally men who possess great ability and a capacity for severe stretches of labour. They may be artists, writers, men of business, mechanicians--anything; but in nearly every case some special faculty of brain is developed to an extraordinary degree, and the man is able to put forth the most strenuous exertions at a pinch. Let us name some typical examples. Turner was a man of phenomenal industry, but at intervals his temperament craved for some excitement more violent and distracting than any that he could get from the steady strain of daily work. He used to go away to Wapping, and spend weeks in the filthiest debauch with the lowest characters in London. None of his companions guessed who he was; they only knew that he had more money than they had, and that he behaved in a more bestial manner than any of those who frequented the "Fox under the Hill" and other pleasing hostelries. Turner pursued his reckless career, till his money was gone, and then he returned to his gruesome den and proceeded to turn out artistic prodigies until the fit came upon him once more. Benvenuto Cellini was subject to similar paroxysms, during which he behaved like a maniac. Our own novelist Bulwer Lytton disappeared at times, and plunged into the wildest excesses among wretches whom he would have loathed when he was in his normal state of mind. He used to dress himself as a navvy, or as a sailor, and no one would have recognized the weird intellectual face when the great writer was clad in rags, and when the brutal mask of intoxication had fallen over his face. It was during his recovery from one of these terrible visitations that he drove the woman whom he most loved from his house, and brought on that breach which resulted in irreparable misery. Poor George Morland, the painter, had wild spells of debauch, during which he spent his time in boxing-saloons among ruffianly prize-fighters and jockeys. His vice grew upon him, his mad fits became more and more frequent, and at last his exquisite work could be produced only when his nerve was temporarily steadied by copious doses of brandy. Keats, who "worshipped Beauty," was afflicted by seizures like those of Turner and Morland. On one occasion he remained in a state of drunkenness for six weeks; and it is a wonder that his marvellous mind retained its freshness at all after the poison had passed from amid the delicate tissues of the brain. He conquered himself at last; but I fear that his health was impaired by his few mad outbursts. Charles Lamb, who is dear to us all, reduced himself to a pitiable state by giving way to outbreaks of alcoholic craving. When Carlyle saw him, the unhappy essayist was semi-imbecile from the effects of drink; and the savage Scotsman wrote some cruel words which will unfortunately cleave to Lamb's cherished memory for long. Lamb fought against his failing; he suffered agonies of remorse; he bitterly blamed himself for "buying days of misery by nights of madness;" but the sweet soul was enchained, and no struggles availed to work a blessed transformation. Read his "Confessions of a Drunkard." It is the most awful chapter in English literature, for it is written out of the agony of a pure and well-meaning mind, and its tortured phrases seem to cry out from the page that holds their misery. We are placed face to face with a dread aspect of life, and the remorseless artist paints his own pitiable case as though he longed to save his fellow-creatures even at the expense of his own self-abasement. All these afflicted creatures sought the wrong remedy for the exhaustion and the nameless craving that beset them when they were spent with toil. The periodic drinker takes his dive into the sensual mud-bath just at the times when eager exertion has brought on lassitude of body and mind. He begins by timidly drinking a little of the deleterious stuff, and he finds that his mental images grow bright and pleasant. A moment comes to him when he would not change places with the princes of the earth, and he endeavours to make that moment last long. He fails, and only succeeds in dropping into drunkenness. On the morning after his first day he feels depressed; but his biliary processes are undisturbed, and he is able to begin again without any sense of nausea. His quantity is increased until he gradually reaches the point when glasses of spirits are poured down with feverish rapidity. His appetite is sometimes voracious, sometimes capricious, sometimes absent altogether. His stomach becomes ulcerated, and he can obtain release from the grinding uneasiness only by feeding the inflamed organ with more and more alcohol. The liver ceases to act healthily, the blood becomes charged with bile, and one morning the wretch awakes feeling that life is not worth having. He has slept like a log; but all night through his outraged brain has avenged itself by calling up crowds of hideous dreams. The blood-vessels of the eye are charged with bilious particles, and these intruding specks give rise to fearful, exaggerated images of things that never yet were seen on sea or land. Grim faces leer at the dreamer and make mock of him; frightful animals pass in procession before him; and hosts of incoherent words are jabbered in his ear by unholy voices. He wakes, limp, exhausted, trembling, nauseated, and he feels as if he must choose between suicide and--more drink. If he drinks at this stage, he is lost; and then is the time to fix upon him and draw him by main force from the slough.

Now some practitioners say, "Let him drop it gradually;" and they proceed to stir every molecule of alcohol in the system into vile activity by adding small doses of wine or spirit to the deadly accumulation. The man's brain is impoverished, and the mistaken doctors proceed to impoverish it more, so that a patient who should be cured in forty-eight hours is kept in dragging misery for a month or more. The proper mode of treatment is widely different. You want to nourish the brain speedily, and at any cost, ere the ghastly depression drives the agonized wretch to the arms of Circe once more. First, then, give him milk. If you try milk alone, the stomach will not retain it long, so you must mix the nourishing fluid with soda-water. Half an hour afterwards administer a spoonful of meat-essence. Beware of giving the patient any hot fluid, for that will damage him almost as much as alcohol. Continue with alternate half-hourly instalments of milk and meat-essence; supply no solid food whatever; and do not be tempted by the growing good spirits of your charge to let him go out of doors amid temptation. At night, after some eight hours of this rapid feeding, you must take a risky step. Make sure that the drinker is calm, and then prepare him for sleep. That preparation is accomplished thus. Get a draught of hydrate of chloral made up, and be sure that you describe your man's physique--this is most important--to the apothecary who serves you. A very light dose will suffice, and, when it is swallowed, the drugged man should be left in quietude. He will sleep heavily, perhaps for as much as twelve hours, and no noise must be allowed to come near him. If he is waked suddenly, the consequences may be bad, so that those who go to look at him must use precautions to ensure silence. In the morning he will awake with his brain invigorated, his muscles unagitated, and his craving utterly gone. It is like magic; for a man who was prostrate on Sunday morning is brisk and eager for work on Monday at noon. Whenever the cured man feels his craving arise after a spell of labour, he should at once recuperate his brain by rapidly-repeated doses of the easily-assimilated meat-essence, and this, with a little strong black coffee taken at short intervals, will tide him over the evil time. He saves money, he keeps his working power, and he gives no shock to his health. Since a beneficent doctor first described this cure to the British Medical Association, hundreds have been restored and ultimately reclaimed.

And now as to the persons who are called "soakers." Scattered over the country are thousands of men and women who do not go to bestial excesses, but who steadily undermine their constitutions by persistent tippling. Such a man as a commercial traveller imbibes twenty or thirty nips in the course of the day; he eats well in the evening, though he is usually repelled by the sight of food in the morning, and he preserves an outward appearance of ruddy health. Then there are the female soakers, whom doctors find to be the most troublesome of all their patients. There is not a medical man in large practice who has not a shocking percentage of lady inebriates on his list, and the cases are hard to manage. An ill-starred woman, whose well-to-do husband is engaged in business all day, finds that a dull life-weariness overtakes her. If she has many children, her enforced activity preserves her from danger; but, if she is childless, the subtle temptation is apt to overcome her. She seeks unnatural exaltation, and the very secrecy which is necessary lends a strange zest to the pursuit of a numbing vice. Then we have such busy men as auctioneers, ship-brokers, water-clerks, ship-captains, buyers for great firms--all of whom are more or less a prey to the custom of "standing liquors."

The soaker goes on without meeting any startling check for a good while; but, by slow degrees, the main organs of the body suffer, and a chronic state of alcoholic irritation is set up. A man becomes suspected by his employers and slighted by his abstemious friends; he loses health, character, prospects; and yet he is invariably ready to declare that no one ever saw him the worse for drink. The tippling goes on till the resultant irritation reaches an acute stage, and the faintest disturbing cause brings on _delirium tremens_. There is only one way with people thus afflicted. They must be made to loathe alcohol, and their nerves must at the same time be artificially stimulated. The cure is not precisely easy, but it is certain. If my directions are followed out, then a man who is in the last stage of alcoholic debility will not only regain a certain measure of health, but he will turn with horror from the stuff that fascinated him. In the case of the soaker a little wine may be given at meal-times during the first stages of the cure; but he (or she) will soon reject even wine. Strong black coffee, or tea, should be given as often as possible--the oftener the better--and iced soda-water should be administered after a heavy meal. Take this prescription and let it be made up--Rx Acid. Acet. eight ounces. Sponge down the patient's spine with this fluid until the parts moistened tingle smartly; and let this be done night and morning. Also get the following from your chemist--Rx Ext. Cinch. Rub. Liq. four ounces--and give one teaspoonful in water after each meal. In a week the drinker will cease to desire alcohol, and in a month he will refuse it with disgust. His nerves will resume their healthy action, and, if he has not reached the stage of cirrhosis of the liver, he will become well and clear-headed. Recollect that this remedy is almost infallible, and then even the most greedy of literary students will hardly reproach me for placing a kind of medical chapter in the quarter usually devoted to disquisitions of another kind. From every side rises the bitter cry of those who see their loved ones falling victims to the seductive scourge; from all quarters the voices of earnest men are raised in passionate pleading; and in every great city there are noble workers who strive to rescue their fellow-creatures from drink as from a gulf of doom. My words are not addressed to the happy beings who can rejoice in the cheerfulness bestowed by wine; I have before me only the fortunes of those to whom wine is a mocker. Far be it from me to find fault with the good and sound-hearted men and women who are never scathed by their innocent potations; my attempt is directed toward saving the wreckages of civilization who perish in the grasp of the destroyer.

_March, 1886._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Drink