Brother, I was drunk when I swore it

From the 12th century Parabolae of Odo of Cheriton (no.56):

Contra non implentes uotum.
Mus semel cecidit in spumam uini uel cervisie, quando bul[l]iuit. Catus transiens audiuit Murem pipantem eo quod exire non potuit. Et ait Catus: Quare clamas? Respondit: Quia exire non ualeo. Ait Catus: Quid dabis mihi, si te extraxero? Ait Mus: Quicquid postulaueris? Et ait Catus: Si te hac uice liberauero, uenies ad me cum te uocauero? Et ait Mus: Firmiter hoc promitto. Ait Catus: Iura mihi. Et Mus iurauit. Catus Murem extraxit et ire permisit. Semel Catus esuriuit et uenit ad foramen Muris, et dixit ei quod ad ipsum exiret. Dixit Mus: Non faciam. Ait Catus: Nonne iurasti mihi? Dixit: Frater, ebria fui, quando iuraui.
Sic plerique, quando infirmi uel in carcere uel in periculo, proponunt et promittunt uitam emendare, ieiunare uel huiusmodi. Sed cum periculum euaserunt, uotum implere non curant, dicentes: In periculo fui et ideo non teneor.

Against not filling a vow:

A mouse once fell into a cask of wine or beer while he was drinking from it. A cat happening to pass by heard the mouse squeaking because he was not able to get out.
-And the cat said: Why are you crying?
-He answered: Since I’m not strong enough to get out.
-The cat said: What will you give me if I pull you out?
-The mouse replied: What will you demand?
-And the cat said: If I free you from this plight, will you come to me when I call you?
-And the mouse said: Solemnly do I promise it.
-The cat said: Swear to me.
And the mouse swore to him. The cat pulled out the mouse and allowed him to leave.
Some time later the cat grew hungry and came to the door of the mouse, and said to him that he should come out.
-The mouse said: I will not do it.
-The cat said: Didn’t you swear to me?
-He said: Brother, I was drunk when I swore

Thus many, when sick or in prison or in danger, propose or promise to improve thier life, to fast, or something else. But when they have escaped the danger they have no concern with filling the vow, saying : I was in danger and so I’m not held by it.

But as so much duckweed on a river

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn, in London’s inner dialogue with what he terms the White Logic – the brutal insight of drunkenness:

“Your clear white light is sickness,” I tell the White Logic. “You lie.”

“By telling too strong a truth,” he quips back.

“Alas, yes, so topsy-turvy is existence,” I acknowledge sadly.

“Ah, well, Liu Ling was wiser than you,” the White Logic girds. “You remember him?”

I nod my head—Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.

“It was Liu Ling,” prompts the White Logic, “who declared that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river. Very well. Have another Scotch, and let semblance and deception become duck-weed on a river.”

The sentiment comes from Liu Ling’s In Praise of the Virtues of Wine (trans. Jennifer Oldstone-Moore):

There is Mr. Great Man:

He takes Heaven and Earth to be one day,

Ten thousand years to be one moment

The sun and moon are his windows;

The eight barren places are his palaces.

He travels without tracks or traces

He lives without room or cottage

Heaven is his curtain, the earth his mat

Self-indulgent, he does what he pleases….

No worries, no brooding,

He is content and well pleased.

He becomes intoxicated without moving;

All of a sudden, he awakens from his drunkenness…

He doesn’t know the feeling of flesh hurt by bitter cold or searing heat,

Or the sensations of covetousness

Gazing down, he watches the rest of the world agitated and unsettled

Like bits of duckweed borne on the Yangtze and Han rivers.




The hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn.  I’m curious to know whether Malcolm Lowry had read this work.  He references Sea Wolf, Valley of the Moon, and The Jacket in Under the Volcano but does so when speaking of Hugh’s roving life  – ‘he had been reading too much Jack London’ – rather than the Consul’s alcoholism.  Given the so perfect correspondences of thought, however, it almost seems an instance of Lowry – always fiercely insistent on the originality of his work – hiding a possibly influential predecessor.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.

The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled, he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see intellectual spectres and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition that he strips away the husks of life’s healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the neck of his soul. This is the hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power. It is easy for any man to roll in the gutter. But it is a terrible ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for himself but one freedom—namely, the anticipating of the day of his death. With this man this is the hour of the white logic (of which more anon), when he knows that he may know only the laws of things—the meaning of things never. This is his danger hour. His feet are taking hold of the pathway that leads down into the grave.