In Vino Veritas

Harvard’s pathological Puritanism and furtive drinking culture forbodes decline

Walk into a typical dorm-room party on a weekend night and you will observe the remnants of our civilization, smashed into shards and strewn across the floor.

The throb of European techno music or, worse, the deafening bass of the latest hip-hop beats, laden with profane and misogynistic lyrics, issue out from iPod speakers unimaginatively arranged in the corner. The guests, deprived of any seating and crowded in such numbers as the suite common room cannot comfortably accommodate, avoid futile attempts at conversation above the musical ruckus and instead, gyrating and flailing, awkwardly imitate the choreographic styles fashionable on MTV. And alcohol, the great midwife of this mise en scène, oversees the proceedings, ashamed and self-deprecating, peering out from plastic handles before being consumed in garish red Solo cups mixed with cranberry juice or diet cola.

How far collegiate conviviality has fallen from the civility of a kinder and gentler era. Where once the university quadrangles resounded with the tipsy warbling of De Brevitate Vitae or other commercium songs, now only the echoes of mass-market electronic recordings disturb the silence of Saturday evenings. Beer pong has replaced banter, courtship has yielded to hook-ups, pot is preferred to pipe tobacco. The choice of drink, and the style in which it is quaffed, is likewise illustrative: watery beer or cheap liquor, impurities masked by the syrupy sweetness of sodas and juices, downed in furtive binges. The goal is not to lubricate conversation or ease the inhibitions of awkward adolescence, but to induce a stuporous haze, under which the typical expectations of dignity and decorum may be safely withdrawn.

The way in which students choose to divert themselves is not an arbitrary and meaningless decision, but rather intimately related to their highest aspirations, principles, and conception of the good life.

The cultivation of the intellect indeed requires leisure. College years, devoted theoretically to intellectual pursuits, for the most part offer undergraduates time free from quotidian and worldly concerns to engage actively in the life of the mind. Yet the necessity of evaluations and deadlines imposes a sort of business mentality even on the languorous otium of college life. Thus arises the need for those welcome diversions of the weekend.

Alcohol traditionally has featured prominently in these moments of repose from the cares and concerns of life. It drives conversation, accentuates wit, entreats laughter, makes melodious the otherwise shrill and tone-deaf, assuages old grudges, and initiates strangers into easy friendship. It makes possible what, under normal conditions of reality, would be improbable. For that very reason, as well, it poses such a danger if used irresponsibly and excessively. But, when enjoyed properly, drink has served to unite—not to divide—society.

In recent years, Harvard has enacted stringent measures to prevent underage drinking and the sort of dangerous excess that unfortunately has characterized collegiate antics of our generation. But, in banishing wine seminars and mandating BAT teams at House formals, the administration has only encouraged that any actual drinking be furtive and irresponsible. Today, conditioned by the Puritanism of university administrators and society’s moralists to see drinking as an evil—although permissible under certain circumstances—college students expectedly will treat it as such. Intoxication promises an easy high, a cover for actions that otherwise would not be permissible or excusable and that afterward would not be necessary or desirable to remember. All for the small price of a nauseated Saturday morning abed.

Practiced accordingly, drinking serves only anti-social ends: a collection of unconnected individuals, stumbling out crudely in search of a good time, each alone to enjoy his pleasure and his pain, as long as his own thirst for amusement has been slaked. The popular preference—a cheap and tasteless spirit like vodka, which lends its intoxicating power but not its taste to whatever accompaniment—is indicative. Alcohol has become a mere drug.

In an earlier age, when sources of clean water were more scarce and precious, all men, women, and children drank wine and beer at every meal. The first miracle of Christianity, indeed, was the transformation of water into wine. This powerful and pleasant elixir, truly a precondition of civilization, deserves to be appreciated and used responsibly and appropriately.

This Lent, sacrifice the vulgar bibulous customs of your college peers. Turn down the boom box and raise the lights. Sip, do not chug. And let the drink in your hand nurse, not eliminate the need for, conversation and charm. Soon, form will follow function. Trade your mass-produced American lager for a Trappist brew, crafted lovingly in a monastery according to a recipe perfected over the centuries. Instead of insipid vodka, open a bottle of aromatic and complex gin—a challenge, indeed, but a meet reward for those with patience and perseverance. And, finally, put down the shot glass—better to stop, for once, and smell the whiskey.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.