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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Mysticisme de la Biere:
Fermentation, Inebriation & Navigation

by Bart Plantenga
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"Freedom knows no propaganda more effective than people calmly enjoying themselves."
      - Raoul Vaneigm, The Revolution of Everyday Life

"sees bliss in ale
and can with wine dispense;
whose head proud fancy
never thought to steer
beyond the muddy ecstasies of beer."
George Crabbe, English poet, 1754-1838

1.     I inhale the head of a beer the way others breathe oxygen. And then I walk. And when I walk I think, and when I think I become a genius; beer bottle reserves in breast pockets, tracing enigmas to their source, noting incidents of autumnal light, imbuing jails, detention centers and chopshops with the ecstasy of its collapsing light.
     I wander around, discover hints of being in the lucent light, a celestial, bedouin, navigational starlight. Not your average horrendous watt overkill, households lit like sagging jack-o-lanterns, overlit to barricade the cellmates inside against all fear, all curiosity.
     Here, at the frontier of where light goes limp and darkness blossoms, one becomes privy to chance discoveries; scuffling through dingy snow as grey as the gray matter that no longer matters, to find the roving ghosts of Stephen Crane, Henry Miller, Hart Crane, Hubert Selby, Jose Padua, and Carson McCullers--their presence like watermarks on forgotten stationery.
     I discover the knowledge of perfection like an alchemist with a 6-pack coursing through my alimentary canal--colon and rectum--ancient phantom stops along the Rockaway-bound A train. Brew is the sextant of elixir, an alchemy that transforms sharp objects, projectiles of control, architectures of neglect and belligerent light strategies into a soft contoured womb, spinning everything of mind and blur, of environ and reverie, into its non-spatial and non-temporal delirious core. This state (migration inside stasis, daydreams of the stoneface) is attained, some say, as we move from light beer to dark, where the blood becomes aqua vitae and the conscious will becomes flooded with personal lumen naturae or psycho-magnetic bio-luminescence.

2.     Alcohol was the first liquid known to alchemists which actually initiated the metamorphosis and dissolution of organic compounds such as fat (enemy of aesthetic prowess, inhibitor of mobility), substance (placeholder of value), façade (simulation of appearing to mean), and all the other cultural ballast that clings to spirit.
     The delicious and delirious recognition of the effects of airborne yeasts which convert sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol was made long ago--even before the Mesopotamians domesticated barley (8000 B.C.). Evidence reveals that beer probably came before bread (or more succinctly, inebriation preceded substance).
     Recent discoveries of beer crocks in the Zagros Mountains of Iran and a seal from the Royal Cemetery in Ur (see ref. 5) reveal that the complex Sumerians may have developed a very unusual method of imbibing--the seal "depicts people seated around a large vessel, drinking something out of it, presumably beer, with long straws." In fact, "one of the most common pictographs in Sumerian ruins is the sign for 'beer,' which shows linear markings within a jar."
     The desirable effects--release from the constrictures of reason and convention, dissociation, euphoria, social lubrication--were observed from the start and point to an inherent (genetic?) need for humans to escape, get wasted, transcend, vacate the mundane limitations of sobriety, or as Lord Byron put it, "Man being reasonable, must get drunk, / The best of life is but intoxication."
     And so wherever humans are bound by employment and engage in other spirit-deadening activities there is alcohol--often in the form of beer. "In the case of starchy vegetation [barley], quite primitive agriculturists learned how to convert the starch to fermentable sugar by providing the necessary zymase from their saliva through such a simple process as preliminary mastication."
     Sumerian pharmacists prescribed beer (1200 B.C.); Egyptian physicians included beer in over 100 of their prescriptions. Beer and wine quickly replaced water as an offering because of "its capacity to help the shaman or priest and other participants reach a state of ecstasy."
     Africans made beer and wine from corn, millet, bananas, bamboo and palm sap. Asians used rice and barley; Central Americans had cactus wine and beers made from corn and agave; South Americans managed to discover the confluence of spirit and inebriation in corn, tubers, flowers and various saps.
     Monks in the Dark Ages knew much about the yeasty marvels of beer--as blessing, sacrament, and magical substance that gladdened the saddened heart. That's why monks brewed beer and allotted themselves and peripatetic guests up to 4 liters per day. They knew beer had become intertwined with sacred--but suddenly social and even personal ceremonies as well. They not only made beer from barley, but oatmeal, burdock, dandelions, nettles, and even spruce. The availability and abundance of substances necessary for inebriation was to them a sign from god that inebriation was a sacred state of beyond mind--a taste of divinity. They KNEW; and that's why the earliest breweries were also places of worship. That's why beer was poured onto fields--to bless harvests. Afterward, farmers would masturbate on these blessed fields to doubly assure abundant harvests.
     Beer saved the lives of the Mayflower Puritans. It's why they ironically--considering their subsequent aescetic argument that abstinence was somehow a signal to god of one's devotion--called beer "'the Good Creature of God.'"
     During American colonial times inebriatory necessities led the early settlers to ferment just about anything from beets to spinach, parsnips to gooseberries, in the name of intoxication. Benjamin Franklin even compiled a "Drinker's Dictionary."
     Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence with beer in hand, Paul Revere fortified his ride through darkness with a strong rum drink called Flip. The Founding Fathers might as well have been called the Founding Brewers (Sam Adams) & Dipsomaniacs because "alcohol and public drinking houses were the key to successful rebellion against the British during the American Revolution. Taverns functioned as nurturing wombs where...camraderie developed and subversive plots for independence were hatched. True patriots considered taverns nurseries of freedom..."

3.     I find bars that offer respite from the cumulative insanity outside. Taverns with Coltrane and candles. Bowers of timelessness, quiet temples, Amsterdam's "brown cafes," Prague's rowdy pivnices (Old One Eye), the neon-lineamented zinc bars of Paris (Bar Iguan), NYC's outpost dives (Sally's, the Shandon Star) where clocks are all a mess; where play time doesn't pass so much as nourish; where one doesn't age so much as beam.
     It is the mouth to mouth, the intimacy, spittle entering the glass as beer enters you, clocks losing their tick, hearts losing their beat, "a playful continuity," a hum, the hum inside the humerus; where the ruddy-cheeked smile embodies essential theories of ecstasy's architecture. Where eyes sit in the smile's crescent like warm eggs, oblivious to the idio-tautological, er, ideological tricks of the time managers.
     Convivial bars where barkeeps intuit your desires, where you can stare at a wall and they can sense you are watching the filmstrip that is already inside yourself. Where you manufacture your own fanfare, lean back into your own character, where you cannot depend on a logothematic backdrop (Harley Davidson Cafe), festive psycho-diorama (TGIF), or some simulacrum saloon (Hard Rock Cafe) where MTV-enhanced waitpersons memorize jokes to "entertain" tips out of you and your wallet. Or offer you pithy correctives like "smile and the whole world smiles back."
     Sometimes I take my acolyte Nielle along. Nielle loves being called "acolyte" because of the "light" in "acolyte." I was pretty sure it wasn't spelled that way but wasn't about to point that out and risk breaking our spell. The more confused things got the more I managed to make a lovely sense of it.
     We fasted and deprived our bodies of sleep. Our bowels, our muscularis mucosae and our unicellular slime glands (coincidentally called goblet cells) prepared for maximized absorption of alcohol. We welcomed the excitement of the unexpected into the pores of our souls. Transporter becoming transportee becomes transported.
     The famished adrenalin-driven anticipation, hyperaesthesia, isolation, debilitation, and narcotic ale, ex lupulis confectam, a lovely bouquet replaced make-up, jewelry, and fashion as we headed out into the night. Adventure was the throb in the blood, the beer in the glass, the light in the bulb.
     We were in search of that brackish crepescule, that grey zone, that netherland where beer meets dark, where soul floats into alignment with ale, where I "encounter darkness as a bride and hug her in my arms." Because "it is obvious enough that the sexual life flourishes better in a dim murky light; it is at home in the chiaroscuro and not in the glare of neon light."
     Law enforcement, social architects, and bureaucrats understand that light is a tool of surveillance and control. Light makes conscious what is better left UN. Light leaves humans squeamish, camera-shy, blinded; it circumscribes instinct, clips the wings off fancy, defines the parameters of lust and behavior so that erogenous zones are renovated as trade zones.
     And they know that in order to control society and its collective unconscious they must control fear, regulate the consumption of palliatives and annex darkness. Their frontline defense is streetlights--manifest destiny in the shape of 175--watt unshielded mercury vapor lamps or the common 150-watt cobra-head fixtures. That's why to disperse a potentially unruly scrum of festivity-seekers management always turns up the lights after a concert to send its revellers scurrying home like Blatta Americana, common cockroaches. That's why cops patrol the dark sectors carrying flashlights, scarring the fields of night with vectors of light, to contain its squalor and ecstasy.
     Beer offers us a repertoire of insouciance to take back the night, resist curfews, and re-occupy this no-mans-land so that "the sense of order and organization of time and space gives way to uncontrollable chaos."

4.     I visited the site of the old Bedford Brewery on Dean Street in Bedford--Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, "borough of breweries." The master brewer in his day, made a pilgrimage all the way to Czechoslovakia, to the town where they made Budvar/Budweis, the original Budweiser, to learn the secrets of beer which involves "some of the subtlest processes of life," a nexus of micro-biology and metaphysics.
     It was impossible to imagine that a brewery had once thrived here. As I looked out across this lot (a plot at once empty and full) filled with debris, discarded auto parts, mangled baby carriages and a 9-foot mound of Pampers, some fix-faced black teens taunted me because they could not figure out why I was staring at this empty lot.
     "They used to make beer here." They looked at me as if this tour guide voice had ventriloquilly emerged from my rectum.
     "The Dutch settlers of Brooklyn were exuberant beer drinkers." I added to their perplexity. And that exuberance was matched by other exuberances, which was consummated in the temple of yeasty effervescences, the tavern. The settlers went to their own founts to refill their own receptacles. A community that integrated production, thirst and consumption with the temporal displacement of the body; in the tavern where the body was hung from a hook at the door.
     By the late 1800s there were some 40 brewers in Brooklyn. "In 1907...Brooklynites consumed 2 barrels of beer...a year." But the brewers wanted "to get away from their crumbling neighborhoods" and abandoned the drinkers, dreamers, and downtimers because of cost considerations, "economic imperatives [which] seek to impose on the whole of human activity the standardized measuring system of the market."      
     Schlitz, Piels, Rheingold, Schaefer (all aesthetic betrayals of beer anyway--good riddance to bad garbage) fled to other regions where workers could be had for lower wages and less trouble. They left, in their wake, as a result of their alienated mediations, an empty lot of brick and dust, the detritus of exhausted people who could no longer negotiate the paths to their own dreams.
     And with the knowledge that "fermentation and civilization are inseparable" I uncap a Lambic, an old Belgian beer fermented with wild yeasts, matured in wood from Bordeaux, something special from the surreptitious confines of a paper sack! "to feel a euphoria steal over [me] that effectively blots out the harsh realities of life."
     A paper sack so that those whose function is defined by how well they contain vision and funnel yearning through the various official and constrictive sphincters. They tinker this zeitgeist into shapes that will allow them to flatter themselves. This is not unlike the way statues of soldiers in parks begin to define heroism.
     Don't guzzle a Lambic. Let this most unusual beer linger on the taste buds. The Lambic aligns itself with anarchist thought because it invites wild microflora to spontaneously ferment. And its surprising taste is capable of convincing me to totally rethink financial priorities--I spend rent money on it.
     A Belge Lambic can be traced, in the etymological sense, to the Middle English alambic, now alembic, meaning anything that transforms, purifies, or refines. An alembic lamp, for instance, provides heat but also light, a special kind of light, a light that purifies and more. The word "alembic" continues back to the Arabic word for still; stillness and tranquility or perhaps still; as in distilling device consisting of a vessel--the Greek ámbix means cup--in which a fluid is heated and vaporized and a cooling coil condenses the vapor.

5.     But like every fine invention, beer's liberating effects can easily be harnassed to oppress and control (see priests and warriors). For with inebriation comes liberty; with liberty comes responsibility; and withholding responsibility produces enslavement.
     And the same way that masturbation passed from accepted animistic ritual into condemned and punishable act, so did the consumption of beer become "troublesome to government"--both civil and ecclisiastical. Onanism and alcohol both left the "abuser" unemployable, useless, insane, lazy and without commodity value. It was suddenly bridled to somber occasions and sanctimonious ceremonies. Priests condemned the "common" intake of beer and its peculiar exaltations. The move from sacred to secular--where pleasure might have its way with purpose--being a noticeable deterioration of their power as the supreme intermediaries between god and imbiber, gut and soul. Comparable to the dictator who outlaws opposition parties to remain in power.
     Popes, priests, kings, industrialists and generals all attempted to systematically curb the pub crawl, temper it to their own ends while circumscribing its anarchistic aspects of personal jollification. Autonomous imbibery came too close to suggesting nonhierarchical and self-determined divinity.      
     And so, as easily as beer might be the shoe horn into the divine, it could also mutate into the powder horn used "to help rub out aborigines who dared resist"; fortifying the foot soldiers in their "empire building and indian killing." This is because, like priests and kings, "the rich snobs who subsequently emerged to rule [the USA] didn't like this independence at all [see again, personal jollification, Bacchus, et al.] and started the long terrible process of strictly regulating alcohol consumption" [see Puritans, Moslems, Hindus, Catholics, U.S. Army, rum as motivator in the British Navy, Buddhists, Dutch Courage, et al.] This "orgy of temperance" managed to hone the effects away from "the defiance of controls and...drunken insubordination" and toward a more streamlined and nefarious "endurance of the tedium and discomfort of barrack life" and "was expected to sustain the soldiers' powers of endurance."
     Beer then, like all somas, is both source of liberation and subjugation, autonomy and hegemony. It plays a crucial role in both allowing one to see the limitlessness of consciousness and in tolerating the thick dense walls of the office, factory and barrack and "maintaining a stable class society." "Widespread alcohol use in proper doses regulated by benevolent authorities has proven to be an extremely effective way to control the population, defuse social tensions and protect the status quo." Frederick Douglas observed in 1846 that, "masters give them the stupefying draught which paralyzes their intellect, and in this way prevents their seeking emancipation." Witness the cynical niche targeting of ghetto populations by manufacturers of malt liquors, high alcohol-content beers. Obviously, these liquors are not meant to aid awareness but to bludgeon and obliterate all signs of curiosity and resistance.
     As Ben Hamper observed in his Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, "Go to any General Motors plant in Flint. Turn your back to the building and gaze directly across the roadway. I guarantee you'll be peering at a tavern, perhaps several of them...Find a factory you'll find a bar."
     But let's not forget that "alcoholic beverages...in primitive societies...had important nutritional value...were the best medicine available...facilitated religious ecstasy and communion with the mystical super-mundane power thought to control tribal and individual fate. They enabled periodic social festivity...thus also serving as the mediator of popular recreation...drunkenness could be approved or even mandatory and still serve an integrative social function. In short, the most general effect of alcohol, suggested by its very equivocal uses, appears to be as facilitator of mood change in any desired direction."

6.     Solace and resignation or resistance and transformation: what is that fine slackwire balance between abstention and obliteration?
     As a mental zymurgist, a kind of "aquanaut of the subjective" and mnemonic alchemist one can convert the merest memory of beer, its aftertaste into that delirious oracular spiraling which is the pinnacle of the inebriatory cycle.
     At 0.4% blood alcohol concentrations an anesthetic state is attained--unarousable sleep, incapacitated voluntary actions. This is the black-out, that rare blackhole, of one's own digging, a shallow coma, dug just deep enough by too-much-is-just-enough beer so that it allows the body to levitate off the coathanger of the bones, to hover there among the elusive ripples in the fabric of space time. Where the body is the thing most absent--manifestation in absence. Alcohol oxidizes in the blood not unlike how the blackhole postulated in space disperses--it's very disappearance causing its effect. Absence makes a heart feel fondness.
     This place where one gets down below and outside the commodity of self, lawless and pathetic, tranquilized beyond stress and strain--unconscious, is where up no longer means the place one could fall from. Where one begins to eat of the bodily self; a solipsistic excavation among the entre jambes, hidden just below the ribs, delectable pouches of fat, stashed there for just such a journey into personal darkness as an acolyte aligning and allying beer with soul.
     When I came to I felt like a Breugel, lithe and prostrate. Nielle helped me to my feet and there I stood, staring at a moving daguerreotype of affection. She placed beer in hand and I managed to rig a second-nature, necessity-determined, physics-enhanced feeding crane: my right arm reached across solar plexus, clung to an anchoring fold of flesh under crux of left armpit, upon which my left elbow could rest; this allowed my left hand (holding beer) to pivot like a metronome toward and away from my mouth so that the feeding of "sudstenance" could remain intimately linked to essential breathing patterns.
     "Beer is tantric, arousing senses, sex, and smarts to their highest pitch so that memories and responses can be reconverted into the pure energy from which they all originated."
     "OH." She said. A signal I presumed, that Nielle comprehended how a hydrogen atom in a hydrocarbon is replaced by the OH hydroxyl group-producing alcohol. The alchemy of OH, premier phoneme of OM, the OH of oralized ecstasy, joins a gas, a spirit, to become liquor, comestible spirit.
     Inebriation allows one to extract this "OM," this noctambulist's foot in the door of transcendence, from a LindeboOM or a DOMinion Beer. Because beer in its early mashy state secretes a coded, cheesy, viscous goo to initiate the yeast's very own mating processes. This coded gooey chain of tiny fungus organisms somehow replicates the human sex hormone--gonadatrophin--as it converts sugars into alcohol. Its almost as if the yeast does this to ingratiate itself into our lives--imitation as the sincerest and most deterministic form of biological flattery. The yeast emerges as the life of the party, the central cog (keg?) in our psyche's processing of amorous, inebriatory and illuminational data like a "liquor vitae," ch'i, the life energy, that electric fluid which flows through blood and nerves, carrying our essence to every cell--and beyond. As we perspire the pores dispatch endorphin-laden signals, enhancing our magnetic core so that we can attract other human vessels into our midst. This is how the body transfuses beauty, lust and beer in the neuro-comedy we call life.
     Sometimes I do the checkerboard thing; mix 40 oz. of Budweiser with 12 oz. of dark Mackeson--so that low cost can taste good and reverse, in some small way, the spin of the earth. I'm suddenly up, up and around my queersome gnarled podiacal digit, like some ballet "Bierishnakov" whirling in that stark yet magnificent checkerboard linoleum instant. And if the fever works right it wrings reveries and vision from the tangled entrails of mind. And with utter amazement (balanced on big toe of all consequence) I begin to reverse all the damage the spin of the earth has ever caused us.      
     Beer (and its adherents) must surmount the requisite disorder, seek supreme integration, enhance the interface between the shifting territories of mind and environment. Beer has magnitude but no location--brain alcohol concentrations cannot be measured accurately--fumes of spiritus, an unfixed point of energy, a long stream of deep-in-thought urine. Like there is no end except in nausea, the nausea of knowing. And knowing that the result of discovery is just more discovery. In awe of this immensity we discover the collapse of all phenomena around each morsel of knowledge with a million more concentric circles of knowledge spinning wildly about it and just as many spinning concentrically within it. Vertigo is the physical manifestation of this knowledge, this location.
     There's a map on the back of the beer label which guides my nocturnal circumambulations. I keep it in my breast pocket.

End Notes

1. Who stares "wide-eyed into the darkness" to "dream a new blazingly magnificent world which collapses as soon as the light is turned on." Henry Miller. Henry Miller on Writing. New Directions, NY, 1965.
2. "John Dos Passos...frequently passed Crane tramping across the [Brooklyn] Bridge late at night, usually in a drunken state." Brooklyn: People & Places, Past & Present. Grace Glueck & Paul Gardner. Harry N. Abrams, NY ,1991.
3. "I used to take long walks at dawn in New York." Jose Padua. "New York." Unpublished poem, 1997.
4. The word "urquell" in Pilsner Urquell, the Czech beer from Plzen, is based on the German word ur meaning "the source of."
5. "The eruption of lived pleasure [which] is such that in losing myself, I find myself; forgetting that I exist, I realize myself." Guy Debord. Panegyric. Verso, London, 1991.
6. Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus 1494-1541 was an alchemist who died from alcohol poisoning, his alleged elixir of life. But then again people have always died of excesses and deprivations of almost anything and everything.
7. "Jar in Iranian Ruins Betrays Beer Drinkers of 3500 B.C." John Noble Wilford. New York Times, 1994. Additionally, the drinking of beer through straws was revived in the 1970s when some amateur ale strategists claimed this tactic increased the inebriatory effects; something about less oxygen and more efficiency of internal organ absorption.
8. Wilford.
9. "Alcohol Consumption." Mark Keller. Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1974.
10. Keller.
11. Bruce Clifton. "Alcohol: America's Secret Weapon," from Exercise with Alcohol. Skull Varnish Press, Portland, OR. 1994
12. Clifton.
13. "Temporizing," Jordan Zinovich. ALLey TRACts, Brooklyn, 1997.
14. The long bone in a human's arm extending from thirst to shoulder, to elbow, ulna, radius, carpus, metacarpus, phalanx, and around the circumference of the beer glass. Palm, the Belgian beer, is properly poured into a glass seemingly cast from the perfect breast.
15. A composite of several real people.
16. "If the flower [uneven beerhead] is sufficiently beautiful, it will not quickly fade." Michael Jackson. The New World Guide to Beer. Courage Books, Philadelphia, 1988.
17. William Shakespeare.
18. Henry Miller.
19. "Light doth seize my brain / With frantic pain." William Blake.
20. Something that relieves without curing.
21. Vaneigm.
22. Glueck & Gardner.
23. Budweis was the "beer of kings" while Anheiser-Busch's Budweiser became the "king of beers."
24. Anthony Rose in a 1959 Scientific American, quoted in Jackson.
25. Glueck & Gardner.
26. "...intoxication is called on to provide an imitation of a state that the shaman is no longer capable of attaining otherwise." Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Mircea Eliade. Rutledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1964.
27. Glueck & Gardner.
28. Glueck & Gardner.
29. Vaneigm.
30. John Ciardi, 1916-1986, American poet, critic and translator of Dante.
31. George Bishop, The Booze Reader, Sherbourne Press, Los Angeles, 1965.
32. New York City law prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages from open receptacles on public streets. To imitate tolerance police officers would--until 1994 (when suddenly enforcement of so-called quality of life regulations became imperative)--turn a blind eye as long as one kept the beer bottles sheathed in a paper sack. Bottles were covered in visual prophylactics in much the same way that Islamic women's faces are veiled; to prevent temptation from infecting the souls of those devoted to the immaculate machinations of control.
33. Keller.
34. "My people must drink beer...Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer." Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, quoted in "Alcohol: America's Secret Weapon." Clifton.
35. Clifton.
36. Clifton.
37. David Arnold. Colonizing the Body. University of California Press. Berkeley, 1993.
38. Arnold.
39. Arnold.
40. Clifton.
41. Clifton.
42. Clifton.
43. I "lived" for several years in Flint, Michigan, a ruthless, sad, ugly place, where I too observed necklaces of brightly lit bars wrapped around the fat necks of auto plants.
44. As quoted in Clifton.
45. Although Eliade in Shamanism insists "intoxication is a mechanical and corrupt method of reproducing 'ecstasy,' being 'carried out of one self." In other words, a sad imitation of shamanism.
46. Keller.
47. Zymurgy is the "branch of applied chemistry dealing with fermentation, as in...breweing." Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Random House, NY, 1995 48. "Cannibalism & Amnesia," Rob Hardin. ALLey TRACts, Brooklyn, 1997.
49. One beer may contain as many as 60 taste extracts.
50. This phase "results from an indirect effect of alcohol in suppressing the function of inhibitory brain centres...The physical counterparts...are unsteady gait, disturbed sensory perceptions and inability to make fine discriminations." Keller.
51. Which "produces a sense of spaciousness, purity and clarity." Jan Hoogstad, Space-Time-Motion. SDU Uitgeverij, Gravenhage, 1990.

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