Posts Tagged ‘john barleycorn’
I just woke from the strangest dream.
I know there was quite a bit leading up to it, but my recollection starts mid-dream, and my wife and step-daughter are there at a school, Megan’s in her wheelchair and Rayna’s there cheering and we’re in the infield of a track stadium, coaches mulling around, athletes running the track, and I decide to kind of fade away into the crowd and try to discreetly exit the scene.
I remember jogging around handball courts at the school.
My plan is to head to the liquor store. It doesn’t take Freud to interpret this part of the dream, but yes, my wife is a Muslim and I occassionally (perhaps more than occassionally) rebel against her wishes and look to get away from it all and have myself a little rendezvous with John Barleycorn.
My plan was to grab a 40 oz. beer, but I suddenly realize that all my money’s back at home, so I have to turn around and double back around the school and make my way back to our house. The dream is lucid right here, because we do indeed live behind a school.
I’m in the house and I’m running up a flight of stairs and now the dream is turning surreal as I’m in a house that’s no longer the single-level, two-bedroom home we live in and there are five, maybe more bedrooms here.
I’m opening doors, and I’m curious why they have so many bedrooms in this house when half of them are empty. I remember how clean the empty bedrooms look, devoid of furniture, the carpets freshly vacuumed and the vacuum tracks are nice and straight without a single footprint to mar them.
Then I hear a knock at the door. As I scramble back down to the bottom of the stairs, the door is already slightly ajar and I see a big hand coming around and grasping hold of the side of the door. I try feebly to push the door back closed, but I’m not willing to slam the door on this intruder’s hand and I get the sense there’s no point in even trying to overpower the intruder and shut the door.
Through the door step two giant figures, each of which practically fills the door frame on their own. They’re wearing police uniforms, but I barely take notice of the uniforms, I’m transfixed by the angelic face of the one giant police officer in the lead. For all his size, he has the face of an angel and his hair is the slightly curly, cherubic, bushy-type hair you see in the paintings by Rafael.
In the manner of the trained police officer, the two cops are equally soothing and stern as they make it clear it’s in my best interest to just do as they say and lie down peacefully. As much as every fiber of my being wants to resist, no way do I want to fight them and rack up some charges for assaulting a police officer, so they manhandle me (gently) and now I’m on the ground.
In walk the doctors wearing the white lab coats straight from central casting. They tell me everything’s going to be fine, and out comes the needle and I know they want to sedate me so they can take me away. “NO! I don’t want to go!” I try to squirm but the cops have my arms pinned firmly to the floor.
The needle goes in and I can feel the cool fluid entering my veins. I’m determined though, I’m so sane I’ll just keep pleading with them even as the drug kicks in. “This is a mistake, I’m totally fine, just let me be, I’m not harming anyone and I’m not breaking any laws.” And I go on and on. I’m impassioned in my pleas, but I make sure not to come anywhere near to sounding hysterical as I see the doctors are taking notes on my every comment.
Now the drug starts kicking in and I’m trying hard not to slur my speech, telling them that’s not fair, it’s the sedative that’s making me lose control of my lips . . .
This is all a big mistake I tell them. I’m asking them to reconsider, I’m begging them, beseeching them, and then I woke to the sound of my own voice pleading with them not to take me away.
The meaning of life – everyone has their own interpretation, I want to compare two contrasting perspectives from two great writers – Jack London and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Let’s begin with Jack London’s view of existence. At the very beginning of John Barelycorn, he gives us a quick tease, mentioning the “white light of alcohol” and how that alcohol brought forth in him his concept of “White Logic.” He then goes on to share thirty-four engrossing chapters of autobiographical accounts, culminating the book with the philosophical account of White Logic in the final five chapters.
Alcohol tells truth, but its truth is not normal. What is normal is healthful. What is healthful tends toward life. Normal truth is a different order, and a lesser order, of truth. Take a dray horse. Through all the vicissitudes of its life, from first to last, somehow, in unguessably dim ways, it must believe that life is good; that the drudgery in harness is good; that death, no matter how blind-instinctively apprehended, is a dread giant; that life is beneficent and worth while . . . To the last stumble of its stumbling end this dray horse must abide by the mandates of the lesser truth that is the truth of life and that makes life possible to persist.
To man, alone among the animals, has been given the awful privilege of reason. Man, with his brain, can penetrate the intoxicating show of things and look upon the universe brazen with indifference toward him and his dreams. He can do this, but it is not well for him to do it. To live, and live abundantly, to sting with life, to be alive (which is to be what he is), it is good that man be life-blinded and sense-struck. What is good is true. And this is the order of truth, lesser though it be, that man must know and guide his actions by with unswerving certitude that it is absolute truth and that in the universe no other order of truth can obtain.
The White Logic goes on to describe the whole of humanity in this way:
“Dreamers and ghosts,” the White Logic chuckles.
“But surely the striving was not altogether vain,” I contend.
“It was based on illusion and is a lie.”
“A vital lie,” I retort.
“And pray what is a vital lie but a lie?” the White Logic challenges. “Come. Fill your glass and let us examine these vital liars who crowd your bookshelves. Let us dabble in William James a bit.”
Who hasn’t at some point wondered if all the religions are fairy tales and our reality nothing more than a cold, indifferent universe with no God to give us souls and no afterlife to dictate our morality?
If there is no God, if there is no afterlife, if all the universe is a random collection of atoms and chemical reactions and life nothing more than a biological extension of those random chemical reactions, we must blind ourselves to the greater truth of it all and buy into the “vital lie” that there is some meaning to our struggling against inevitable oblivion.
Now here’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov, in a dialog between the wise priest Father Zossima and a lady who has lost her faith:
MADAME HOHLAKOV: “I shut my eyes and ask myself if every one has faith, where did it come from? And then they do say that it all comes from terror at the menacing phenomena of nature, and that none of it’s real. And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How — how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly — deadly!”
FATHER ZOSSIMA: “No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”
There’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.
MADAME HOHLAKOV: “How?”
FATHER ZOSSIMA: “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”
Later in the book . . .
FATHER ZOSSIMA: Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education. Remember, too, every day, and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, “Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee to-day.” For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not! And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that, for him too, there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him too! And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And He will forgive him for your sake.
Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
What an incredible plea from Dostoyevsky to his fellow human beings that love can conquer all and that faith can be achieved by love – if you love, then the fruits of your love will be that the more you love, the more you will see the divine in those you love and all God’s creation around – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but a beautiful kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The logical argument between the nihilists and those who believe in intelligent design is an argument that will never be won, but in my heart, I’ve appreciated the beauty of too many women and too many sunsets, enjoyed the deliciousness of too many beautiful meals, been touched by the works and deeds of too many beautiful hearts and minds to imagine that beauty is a lie in a Godless universe without any meaning.
In searching for the next thing to read, I decided to go through my own personal list of the classic literary giants to see which of their works I had yet to get around to reading. Jack London and his book “John Barleycorn” jumped out at me for two reasons.
The first reason being the fact that Jack London and I go way back, to the seventh grade as a matter of fact, when our class was assigned “White Fang” to read, so I’ve known him for some time and he continued to be a man whose writing I enjoyed as an adult through “Call of the Wild” with a large collection of short stories between.
The second reason being, I always wondered about this quaint, antiquated phrase my father used to drop on me when he used to ask, “How’ve you been doing with John Barleycorn?”
I could’ve said, “John Who?” because when he first said it, I’d never heard of this “John Barleycorn” guy before, but taken in context, I knew exactly who my dad was talking about. John Barleycorn is a literary personification of alcohol.
It was intriguing to me, especially considering that in all the AA meetings I’ve attended before and since, I’ve never heard anyone else reference John Barleycorn (although I do hear he is given mention in “The Big Book” of AA) so on finishing London’s book, I visited Wikipedia to learn where my dad’s reference had come from.
It turns out, John Barleycorn can be dated back to 16th century English folk songs, the general story of the song being that this John Barleycorn character (call him a spirit, I guess you could call him the spirit of spirits) well this John Barleycorn was cut down in the barley fields during the harvest to be turned into whiskey and beer, and in revenge for his slaying he wrecked his vengeance back on mankind through that very same alcohol. The song continued to be passed along for hundreds of years and Mr. Barleycorn even lived on to the electric folk rock of the 20th century, most notably on an album by Traffic called “John Barleycorn Must Die”, but like I said, my only previous knowledge of him was through my dad’s mentions, which made it a uniquely personal reference to me.
To read Jack London detailing the exploits of his own life is to read a story almost beyond belief, except that you know he couldn’t have faked the abject poverty he was raised in without being called on it by later biographers and you know that he must have engaged in these manly adventures against the sea and the wilderness otherwise there’s no way he could have written so many stories of adventure so convincingly.
Jack London is a strange dichotomy of a man. When you read him telling of how he slaved for exploitive bosses ten hours a day, twenty-nine days a month just to earn enough to pay for his room and board, you can understand the grievances he had with the Capitalism of the
late 18th and early 19th late 19th and early 20th centuries and how it led him to become such an ardent Socialist (power to the PEOPLE as he puts it in all caps!) but then when you think of all the Jack London stories you’ve ever read, they’re centered on independent heroes the likes of which even Nietzsche would be proud. London’s characters are individualists triumphing against the odds and you think, these rugged, self-reliant adventurers are all Alaskan frontiersmen at heart, men far removed from any government, men who were precursors to extensions of the lawlessness of the Wild West, men who sound much more like the prototypes for a Tea Party movement than men who would advocate an “It Takes a Village” type of Socialism.
The book was published in 1913, and while it’s often found today with the subtitle of “Alcoholic Memoirs,” this subtitle seems from my searches to be a later addition to the title as it’s not listed on photos of first edition covers that I’ve seen. Just as importantly, throughout the book, the word “alcoholic” is only used a couple times and when it’s used, it’s used in describing a type of drink and not any type of person.
Instead, the habitual drinker is referred to in the book as an “alki-stiff.” The distinction between “alki-stiff” and the word “alcoholic” which came into later usage is a distinction that goes beyond simple verbiage. When you put your mindset back one-hundred years and imagine the widespread conception back then of the alki-stiff being a fall-down, drunken hobo, it’s a conception far removed from today’s wider conception of the alcoholic being someone who could come from any walk of life.
In the narrative, London made painstaking efforts to draw distinction between himself and the alki-stiff, describing how his constitution allowed him to consume incredible quantities of booze without ever getting sloppy or showing any outward signs of drunkenness, but the more he spent so much time explaining how he wasn’t that guy, the more it made him look like the guy in denial, a guy in denial of the possibility he might have more in common with the common drunkard than the distinctions he takes pains to point out.
But then you have to put yourself in the mindset of an incredibly successful author revealing himself to a world one hundred years before us, with that definition of the alki-stiff so narrow and full of distain that what proud man in his great shoes wouldn’t go to such lengths to draw the distinction?
And really, who amongst even the most prodigious and seasoned of drinkers hasn’t imagined that they presented themselves as sober to the world, when to the world, their drinking was often plain to see?
Another part of the book I found fascinating was the sneaking suspicion I began to develop in seemingly seeing glimpses between the lines of London having some homosexual proclivities. There was certainly nothing definitive, but 98% of the book deals with the manly exploits of men among men and I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the long passages describing heart-felt male camaraderie and the scattered line or two of love that he professed to his wife and the way those lines to his wife seemed to be offered in an almost obligatory way.
A teenage man-child in drunken revelry amongst the grown men of the saloons and the oyster pirate sailors? Aye matey, the question isn’t so much if there was an early formative encounter but when. Even with a couple brief scenes of unrequited boy-girl love later in his adolescence, women always seem to be an after thought in his writing. This is, however, just a passing curiosity in a book that’s intriguing on so many levels.
It took a lot of courage for such an esteemed writer to lay himself bare in these alcoholic memoirs, and while not as widely known as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which single-handedly brought about the reform of the meat packing industry, “John Barleycorn” also was instrumental in American history as a cautionary tale and rallying cry for the temperance movement which brought about prohibition six years after the publication of the book.
Whether you’re a friend of Bill W. or not, this is a book that’s well worth the read, and I haven’t even scratched the surface with the final four chapters and the philosophical battle between the “White Logic” of alcohol and the “lesser order of truth” necessary for living.
Jack London is an American treasure, a rags to riches man whose story and voice is uniquely American. I’d always enjoyed his novels and short stories, but to hear him tell of his own story was maybe the most satisfying read of all.
It’s in the public domain and free for the download at Project Gutenberg: John Barleycorn