One of the most dizzying pieces that I have ever read is Walker Percy’s essay “Bourbon,” most easily found in his book Signposts in a Strange Land. Reading this essay will provoke the trifecta of mind, heart, and soul to come together to revel in a timeless truth modulated into a late Twentieth century context. Percy’s essay is dark, tongue-in-cheek, trenchant, and delicious. I would suggest it to all who are concerned with truth and the nature of reality, but, in the meantime, I believe a proper proclamation for my sweet love, bourbon, is long overdue.
In response to why Percy drinks bourbon despite all its predictable and attendant dangers, he writes: What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”
Percy does not advocate an idiotic absorption of bourbon in order to effect a mind-numbing state of dissipation and disordered freedom. Instead, he touts the inherent ability of this corn-derived whisky “to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century.” Percy is not concerned with the latent bacchanalian tendencies that bourbon tends to release from below the earth/belly but the “virtue of [an] evocation of time and memory and the recovery of self and past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world.”
For me, drinking bourbon goes far beyond the mere act of ingesting ingredients that will eventually work their way towards my cerebral cortex, acting as a calefacient; rather, drinking is my act of defiance against this stupid and blind day and age that no longer knows what questions to ask in its attempts to understand what it means to be human. What does it mean that we are creatures who traffic and trade in symbols in order to convey our thoughts about reality? What does it mean that we are creatures who respond to the most favorable of environments in the most inconsistent and unpredictable ways? Why do we seem to be born to trouble as sparks are bound to fly upwards? Why are we willing to expend all our efforts and energies in the creation of that which is without very much pragmatic and industrial value—art? Why do brief sunsets, stolen kisses, Greek and Southern tragedies, irritating but faithful friends, addictive relationships, and immoderately-consumed bourbon still inspire us to create? My God, what does it mean to create? These questions I ask myself as I shoot back my bourbon in a seamless motion that involves my entire right arm as I reverently bring the consecrated glass to my mouth. My left arm, not to be overlooked in this sacramental act, allows me to rub off into the crevices of my palm what remains on my lips. As I feel the smooth stream of fire slither down my throat and the afterglow work its way over my bones and through to the pores of my skin, I believe that I am drawing closer to the center of Being. I could simply be drawing closer to the ground.
Bourbon, she is indeed a hard mistress, and, because I am a jealous person both by nature and by habit, I like for us to be alone. But afterwards! How I want to share the fruits of our creative love with all. I realize that I do love life because of its tragically comic nature and that we are truly set apart for something great and that I want all to be forgiven. William Faulkner once said that between his choice of scotch and water, he would choose scotch any day. Well, between my choice of wallowing in the anomie of a burgeoning twenty-first century, a day and age that refuses to consider humanity and its implicated fullness, and bourbon as my milk of mercy and the liquid of ontological awareness, I will choose bourbon. Western civilization is crumbling, you tell me? We all know that, don’t we? Do we still have time, though, before it all ends, for a little bourbon and a cigarette?