I’ve long believed that alcoholism was more severe, more pandemic during 18th and 19th centuries in “beer countries” such as England, Germany, and the Netherlands than in “wine countries” like France and Italy. The mass production of hard liquors like gin, whiskey, and all those other types of whiskey that are supposed to be different than whiskey combined with urban life is why I think alcoholism became what it did at that time. But why I’m more severe for the beer? I always chalked it up to cultural differences in the way that pre-industrial “soft liquors” were consumed, beer as a drink for the sake of itself and wine usually as part of a meal or event . So, when hard alcohol is introduced in abundance the one group is more likely to drink it frequently, independent of cause, and the other not. Make sense, right? Excellent material for my prejudice against masculine/populist icons like blue jeans and beer.
But today I was reading the wikipedia article about gin and I saw something interesting to add to the theory. Apparently gin was often made from crops grown for beer that failed certain quality standards. The implications are obvious and adds an economic dimension. I could now argue that with the introduction of grain based alcohols the beer countries produced an abundance of hard liquor as a profitable by-product of the brewing process. Throw in means of production and some other Marxist hoo-hah and you are well on your way to a credible piece of historical sociology. I could research this, see if I am right, do up what in the big-city college world we call a “paper” but that is something I will not do.
I feel the social sciences and the natural sciences for that matter suffer from what Nietzsche criticized philosophers for in Beyond Good and Evil: “Collectively they take up a position as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cool, pure, god-like disinterested dialectic… basically they defend with reasons sought out after the fact an assumed principle” Meaning that these sort of ideas don’t arise out of an examination of the world, but does pretend to. The scientific method essentially amounts to picking your favourite idea and then trying to shoehorn in some evidence around it rather than looking objectively at events and then drawing some conclusion. That’s why I love literature, because there is a greater emphasis on hypothesis, on simple claim making. Sure, there is that boorish bit about backing up what you say about a book with examples from the text that I have always hated. If the author is allowed to simply state an idea about the world I have never understood why the student or the critic cannot do the same about a book. Or for that matter why we can’t do the same about chemical reactions, or crime, or whatever.
The best book about alcoholism and the period I described that I’ve read is, ironically, a French novel: Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir (apparently untranslatable but the copy I had was called The Drinking Den, and others might be called The Dram Shop or just use the French title.)