Ebriety is a very uncommon term in English now, even though it appears in the Webster's Dictionary, defined as: "1.Drunkenness, habitual intoxication", and "2.Exhilaration". My intention is understanding ebriety as an experience of the human spirit, so allow me to start with a distinction between inebriation -methe in old greek, ebrietas in latin- and drunkenness (habitual or not).

In the city of Rome, for example, wheat flour and opium were subsidized by the public Treasury, to avoid speculation on the prices, and in the epoch of Augustus -the first emperor- nearly one thousand shops sold this substance all around town. Curiously enough, the drunkards were known as temulenti (and also in more crude terms), while the opium users simply had no particular name, just like aspirin or valium users today; in fact, no case of opium-mania is recorded in the annals of Roman history, and the same can be said of the classical Greek and Hellenistic period.

If we turn our eyes towards the East, very old hymns of the Rig Veda condemn alcoholic beverages as sura, obscurity, but mention ebriety as something released from the burden of gravitation, that "lifts us to the carriage of the winds". We can observe similar attitudes in many aboriginal cultures of America, where ebriety is described with a great number of words, though wine and liquors were imported from Europe, after Discovery. This doesn't mean that alcoholic drinks will not produce inebriation; it simply means that drunkenness is the smaller group, and ebriety the bigger group.

Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish-platonic philosopher who inspired the fourth Gospel, wrote also De ebrietate, a short treatise that defines ebriety as "sacramental joy", tracing the word back to "the old habit of performing religious sacrifices". According to him, methe (inebriation) comes from methíemi, a verb that means to release, to permit; and finally from thyein, that means "giving the god his own".

Ritual ebriety suggests a distinction between possession and visionary trance. With drugs like alcohol, tobacco and other psychoactive solanaceae, certain possession experiences (like vudu, candomblé, or the Semana Santa of Seville) provoke fits of physical frenzy that erase the critical aspect of consciousness. Aided by music and strenuous dancing, the goal is always an opposite of lucidity. On the other hand, visionary trances are catalysed by drugs that enhance perception and do not erase lucidity; they may be used with dance and music, but instead of deaf and mute exhaustion, the normal outcome is a psychic trip, sooner or later introspective.

Besides their sacramental function, all tipes of drugs have been used in therapeutic and recreative contexts. In the sixth century B.C. Hippocrates, the founder of scientific medicine, recomended opium as a good remedy for "hysterical suffocations", and Theophrastus -the pupil of Aristotle- analysed different doses of datura metel for amusement, for hallucination and for euthanasia. Prior to the establishment of Christianity as state religion, psychoactive substances were "neutral spirits", timely or untimely, good or bad, in accordance only with the person and the occasion. Medical practitioners of different kinds considered euphoria -from eu-foría:"the right mood"- to be something healthy and therapeutic in itself. Then came the orthodox sacrifice of Mass; sex and drugs were branded as suspect, and soon after subjected to police action. Books and libraries were burned, the pharmacological knowledge destroyed; euthanasia, understood as a sign of ethical excellence, became a crime against God.

Long after, when a portion of classical knowledge was recovered through the Arabs, and fissures appeared in the Church/State monolith, drugs also returned. In the sixteenth century Michel de Montaigne proposes something systematically silenced for more than one thousand years: "it is better to drink like the heathens, so as to relax the soul". That was, in fact, the heathen program: to relax the soul, and at the same time to avoid inconvenience. Inconvenience betrayed a wound inflicted by Dyonisus-Bacchus, the drug god, and the Dialogues of Plato despise mostly three of them: clumsiness, insensibility and greed. On the other hand, relaxing the soul leads to pleasure and communication. Having the latter, without the former, is the art of sobria ebrietas ("sober inebriation"), an art that demands a certain degree of mastery over nakedness, for ebriety might expose us to the eyes of others -like it did with Noah, supposedly the first drinker-, but at the same time eases the rigidity and sterness of character, unveiling innocence: the infant may then reappear, and see things under a new light.

Dependence, addiction, was not considered an inconvenience. It would have been considered a mixture of clumsiness, insensibility and greed (the inconveniences of simple ebriety), but addiction did not exist as a word -for our heathen ancestors resented much more the dependence on status, money, sex and a great number of other general things, like diet or hygiene, than the dependence on fungi, vineyards, poppy fields or hemp plants. In matters of inebriation, what counted most for them was "familiarity", a degree of acquaintance with each drug, combined with the principle that sola dosis facit venenum ("only dose creates a poison"). If safe levels were not surpassed, any drug would probably intensify the natural inclinations, for better or worse. According to our ancestors, that was nearly all a person needed as abstract or prior information.

This notion of sobria ebrietas can be contrasted with the abstemious creed, as do relative and absolute moderation. Nevertheless, philosophers, physicians and poets thought that drinking soberly, tripping honestly, displayed a surplus of self-esteem and rationality. Sober drinkers, honest trippers, behave with or without drugs; abstemious people must avoid them in order to behave. The first kind of persons will enjoy inner and outer nudity, guided by the Dyonisian enthusiasm. The second kind of persons will avoid inebriation, fearing their own or others dissaproval. Drugs threaten their masks of composure.

In his first book, Nietzsche defined ebriety as "nature's game with man". Playing is not working or building. It is not performed out of necessity; there's always some form of pleasure as fuel: we play because we play, gratuituosly. Let me add that this play includes two elements in perpetual association: the what and the who. Divided into somebody (that is) feeling, and something (that is) felt, we find that knowledge is our fate, because we are the who, the rest is the what, and the shuttling back and forth of subject and object makes science. Undivided, the what and the who happen to be life, simple life. Knowledge tends to separate, analysing, just as life tends to incorporate, synthezising.

But we are normally on one side, sustained by memory. For a personal or exclusive identity, memory is like the thread linking beads in a necklace. Amnesia is just the opposite, a random scattering of impressions. Ebriety, inebriation, plays with us because memory is still there, recording what we thought and did in an altered state of consciousness ... but such a state of mind blurrs the boundaries between this and that. Forsaken by routine, a horizon of literal orgy -orguía means confusion, blending-, seems to conspire against common sense. Will we be able to come back intact, avoiding ridiculous situations, avoiding horror -even crime?

Our identity is a collection of mirrors, and when ebriety opens other landscapes to our view the usual reflection becomes flexion, a sort of oozing, inside out, perceived as loss of limits. My experience (in such cases) is that subjective feelings will not lastingly overcome an objective feeling -call it being, nature, love or life. This feeling is not grounded in memory, and says yes, go ahead. That's why an amnesic person can forget his name, his passport number, his profession, but remembers perfectly well how to move, to talk, to think. His ego may be a hollow shell, but he is as full of objectivity (of himself) as he was before the amnesia. In a parallel way, ebriety broaches a relationship with the world that can be alien to domination and submission. Instead of this, we play. The rules of the game are invented by a world suddenly released of conventions. Regressing us to childhood, the lesson is how to learn by playing, how to play again.

We hear that psychoactive drugs lead human beings astray, abandoning them to miserable hovels -physical, mental or both. But I haven't met a man or a woman that became doomed because of drugs. To be sure, I've known unhappy people, people who never knew this feeling of unconditional yes, go ahead, and -quite understandably- wanted an alibi, a pretext for their fundamental melancholy. These people, who certainly deserve our compassion, are now used as a statistical universe to prove the legend that most souls will be thwarted by one alkaloid or another. This legend is not only fallacious; it's an insult to humankind at large, just as human reason was insulted when the Holy See decreed that the Bible will be better understood if it is kept in a language unknown to the public, and explained by clergymen only. We are generally weak and base, according to our official interpreters and protectors.

Besides being motivated by profit and political ambition, the modern legend about psychoactive substances is rooted in self-deception and fraud. Baudelaire, who invented the expression "artificial paradises", mentions the case of a very uptight French judge who wanted to prohibit can-can, and after ingesting haschisch himself strutted an obscene dance. Many contemporary drugabusesologists will probably not limit themselves to some indecent dancing, in a similar situation; they might well collapse in sheer paranoia. We can say that haschish is psychotoxic, but the real psychotoxic substance involved here is the authoritarian personality, the "hidden monster" that Baudelaire and his friends discovered in the uptight judge.

Twenty years ago some friends and I endured a young psychiatrist, who tried to ruin a mescalin session by pretending that all of us would go mad. So somebody joked with him, saying that the tea he had drunk had also mescalin. Of course, the tea was just tea, as I hastened to explain to him. But the truth was not enough, and our drugabusesologist entered on a fit commencing with fears of liver, heart and neural collapse, that ended up with the man running half naked and barefoot through the fields -it was a peasant house in Ibiza, quite isolated-, endeavouring to reach the nearest police station and the relief of valiums. He makes a lot of money now, apparently curing mental illness, and has been appointed as an Expert by the International Narcotics Board, the United Nations agency.

Nevertheless, what about real bad trips? Experienced people know that the degree of anxiety, pain and disorientation may be extraordinary, and that perceiving our poverty and impotence in so many things could be even worse. I dare add that scarcely any deep psychic excursion will be free of a disquieting edge -and that includes even the most glorious ones. One way or the other, we are sent back to states of strangeness, and there is too much intensity to avoid a feeling of awe. But when the bad trip -or simply the difficult part of any trip- comes, nothing is more useless than to pretend we've been poisoned, attacked by external forces. It will be better to endure the certainty: "I feel bad" -and a little later the realization that there is no justice, no fairness in the world. These recognitions set us is the road of discovery, for one extreme provokes the other, and we are then in a state where reconciliation, gratitude, may also be extraordinary. In 1959, talking about LSD, Aldous Huxley said:

"We get to know through experience the sense of 'God is love', realizing that death and suffering certainly exist, but that even so everything is, some way or other and finally, perfectly in order".

This feeling is what I call objective mood, objectivity, and being in contact with it is the only health I know. Then we understand that a chemical compound has taken us to a place where others were, or are, by using other means. But if this feeling is missing, instead of health we'll have a hybrid of fear, fury and stupor. In my opinion, the value of drugs -visionary drugs especially- lies in their capacity to diagnose our degree of contact with gaiety ("alegría" we say in Spanish, with a far stronger word), understood as a combination of courage, tenderness and lucidity.

At this point, we could ask ourselves if this tool is democratically useful, estimating how many people might be introduced to magnanimity via inebriation, and how many to less desirable moods. Some people have awful lives, from birth or subsequent acquisition, and their reduced horizons seem precarious for the orgy of experience induced by psychic excursions. The same does not apply to those who are very sick or dying -but dare to look ahead, and still respect life. In fact, chemical tripping would seem to be completely unadvisable only for those who worship moral duplicity, for authoritarian and pusilanimous souls, aghast at any prospect of revealing nudity -physical or not.

With a coarse-grained perspective, I'd say that around 5 per cent of human beings have lives so awful they should avoid all psychic excursions, and that around 20% are born trippers -say, psychonauts, a better term- that are nourished (or would be nourished) by neural travelling. Maybe 10 or 15% -hopefully, less- have big things to hide (from themselves or from others), and will probably scream bloody murder in the event those things come out of hiding. The rest, let's say around 60 or 70%, has ignored the art of sobria ebrietas in consequence of prohibitionist propaganda, fearing illness and lunacy, but could nourish their spirits with psychonautics -in case that activity might be recognised as such, and their mind field could be perused under conditions of security, having access to reliable information concerning dosage, as well as to high quality samples of each substance.

As old and modern heathens, I consider ebriety to be a remedy against the contraction of our ego, which brings us back, once and again, to a basically "transpersonal" health. In healthy people, when ebriety pushes away the masks the usual outcome is explosions of laughter, followed by different insights.

I wrote a great part of these notes some time ago, the night my wife and I decided to baptize our bed in a newly rented appartment, lubricated by a combination of metilendioximetanfetamine (MDMA) and 4-bromo,2.5-dimetoxifenetilamine (2C-B). While we performed our sacrifice to Eros, and unambiguous she felt, some faint illusions blocked the full expression of venereal piety in me; the corner of my eyes sometimes caught a glimpse of this very unpleasant being called Alien. This being never came close enough, so the tribute to Eros was performed with basic devotion, but as soon as it was over I rushed into my study, expecting new encounters with such a visitor. And I waited in vain, till the silence of early dawn made me realize that it was -again- an occasion for diagnosis, self-diagnosis, measuring the degree of yes implicit in my life. Life protects no one, though it might produce a feeling of unconditional acceptance, and I felt that this holy yes was still there. Haunted by gusts of a monster, right in front of Aphrodite's altar, I was forced to consider myself a comedian. It's not so simple to interact with an alien, a real stranger. Reaching strangeness demands that we go quite far, to regions where all the angles change, and no certainty holds for long. But precisely there -bumping into the unknown- ebriety shakes hands with the striving for knowledge.

Allow me to end with a not so personal statement. Prohibition might be considered “the greatest moral experiment of our time”, as F.D.Roosevelt stated in 1932. But banishing drugs from human life is, in fact, a war against self-induced euphoria, and also a war against chemistry and human invention. Such an enterprise was born in the USA, and has been exported by this country at the very same rhythm in which it became the world's superpower. The effect of this American crusade is identical to the general effect of crusades, and especially of the crusade against witchcraft: aggravating to unheard extremes a hypothetical evil, justifiying the destruction and plundering of countless persons, promoting the ill-gotten wealth of corrupt inquisitors, and creating a prosperous black market for all the forbidden items -which in the seventeenth century were sorcerer's concoctions, and today are heroin, cocaine, crack, etc.

We will not break the crusade's vicious circle, unless the standards of barbaric obscurantism are replaced by principles of enlightenment, focused on the spreading of knowledge among the populations. Drugs have always been around, and they will certainly ever remain. To pretend that both users and non-users will be better protected because some of them are impure, very expensive and sold by criminals (who are, by the way, indistinguishable from undercover police and plain businessmen) is simply ridiculous, and yet more so when the street supply grows year after year. The obvious result is a growing output of crimes and illiterate youngsters, who use the illicit substances partly as an adulthood initiation rite, and partly as an alibi that suggests declaring oneself irresponsable, unfree, victim of a chemical devil. This is very comfortable at such a critical moment of life, in which they should rather learn responsability, imitating the abnegation displayed by their elders with them. So the true option is not vice as opposed to law and order. The real choice is between an irrational consumption of adulterated products, compared to an informed use of pure drugs.

Demonizing them has only made us more helpless, more cruel towards our fellowmen and more idiotic in the original sense of the word -for idiotés means in classical Greek a person who blindly delegates to others the care of public things. Not only our well-being, but the well-being of our sons and grandsons, depends on disseminating patterns of sobria ebrietas, which reconsider the use of psychoactive drugs as a moral and aesthetical challenge, essentially related to the adventure of knowledge -and also as a palliative for difficult parts of our existence, and for bitter lives. In other words, we should dignify what is now debased, in order to cope with the generalized delusion and abuse created by the prohibitionist experiment.

Let us not forget the lessons of History, old and modern, concerning the varieties of religious, therapeutic and recreative use of very different types of drugs. The experiment is not to reform our laws and present attitude concerning them. The experiment is prohibition itself, a unique enterprise in the universal annals. The fact is that experiments constitute an interrogation directed to nature, to understand more precisely its fabric, and the war against drugs is a particular experiment that sooner or later will serve the basic purpose of experimental reason. In other words, it will be stored as a rich source of psychological, social and economic consequences, enhancing the perception of our world, and the inherent limits of coertion. This is the positive result adscribed to any failure.


1Opening lecture for a multi-disciplinary conference held at the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 18 October, 1996.

Antonio Escohotado
Artículos publicados 2003

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