Here’s a puzzle.
Most of what’s oldest about us humans is still younger than drinking. From China to Iran to Turkey, the story is in the residue scraped from the insides of broken and buried clay vessels: Before we knew how to build a wheel or stitch a sail, and maybe even before we knew how to bake a loaf of bread, we knew how to make ourselves drunk. And on the earliest tablets of Greek writing, alongside all the other gods, there is Dionysus, god of wine: He seems to be as old as it gets, and with as much claim as any god in the pantheon to be a native.
The puzzle is that whenever the Greeks told themselves stories about the god of wine, they told stories about a god who was new and who was foreign. In myth, Dionysus is always in the process of arriving. He’s the newest of the gods, the half-human god with the shakiest title to divinity, the one with the weakest claim to be “one of us.” “I was in Phrygia before I came here,” the playwright Euripides has him say in The Bacchae,
and Lydia, where the earth flows gold. I passed
the broiling plains of Persia, and Bactria’s
walled towns. The Medes then, their freezing winters,
then opulent Arabia and down
along the bitter, salt-sea coast of Asia
where Hellenes and barbarians mingle.
Maybe there’s a deep cultural memory recorded here, the creeping progress of vines. But maybe there’s also a common personal memory. Why new? Because we remember our first drink. Why foreign? Because enough drinks make us foreign to ourselves. And no one has captured that sense of strangeness better than Euripides, whose greatest tragedy imagined a time before history when intoxication simply appeared one day in a sober world, like a dangerous half-god who has just danced into town. I’m sure it’s a coincidence that I learned about The Bacchae at just about the same time as I learned how to drink. But I’m fortunate I did.
Across the street from me is another place where drinking is new. Many of the freshmen who wheeled their things across Broadway and into the Columbia dorms just a few months ago brought some experience of drinking with them—but probably not in the volume or freedom that started for them this fall. Universities’ engagement with these things is mostly limited to fear of 18-year-olds drinking themselves into the hospital. But fear blinds: How to be intoxicated—not just with alcohol, but with politics, religion, sex, or any of the other kinds of drunkenness that are part of being young—is as much a practice to be learned as any other skill taught in the curriculum, and yet it’s one that’s almost always taught by accident.
When colleges pick the one book that every new student should read (as they increasingly do through required summer reading programs), they tend to choose something of the recent-social-ills variety. One study found that 97 percent of those common readings come from 1990 or later. There’s value, certainly, in many of those choices. But colleges should consider the value in The Bacchae, something much older and, in its way, much more uncomfortable. Euripides’ play still matters after some 2,500 years because it is the product of a culture and a poet who were far better than we are at imagining themselves into a time when drunkenness was new. There’s a refusal in this play to take intoxication for granted. There is an insistence, instead, on seeing it as literally awesome—wonderful and frightening—in a way that seems to join our own adolescence and the far-off adolescence of our culture.
As Euripides tells it, Dionysus is not a god who offers friendship; he is a god who demands recognition. He owns a familiar kind of divine insecurity (compare the God of the Hebrew Bible, so obsessed with ensuring that everyone in a radius of hundreds of miles will “know that I am the Lord”). Dionysus, too, needs it known that “I am truly god,” and so he has returned to his birthplace after a life of exile that has left him more alien than Greek. He has come back to the city of Thebes, where his mother’s family still believes that he is a human bastard rather than the son of Zeus. In the foreground, his mother’s tomb is still smoldering: She was destroyed in lightning as she gave birth, and the grave goes on smoking through everything that follows, a visible token, writes Martha Nussbaum, “of a contact between civilized human life and what is other than, outside of, civilization.”
The Bacchae begins with madness in Thebes. In the town below, the god’s horde of dancing followers shatters the peace; on the mountain above, the town’s women have been struck by what looks like insanity, “stung by Dionysus, from themselves.” The words Euripides puts in their mouths are hallucinatory: “The earth flows, flows beneath us, then / milk flows, and wine flows / and nectar flows, like flame, / like the fire.”
The beardless young man who comes out of the town citadel to stand against Dionysus is Pentheus, the newly crowned king of Thebes. He is the god’s cousin on the human side of the family, though he refuses to acknowledge their kinship. He is also, as one translator noted, the age of a college freshman. He is new to manhood and new to authority, and he wears both uneasily. He speaks the language of obsessive control, over himself and others. “I’ll track them down, all of them,” he blusters about the women. “I’ll have them all in cages.”
Of all the kinds of authority that Dionysus has deranged, it’s control over women that most dominates the young king’s mind. Again and again, in his increasingly feverish sobriety, he imagines how “they fill great bowls of wine, then they creep into the bushes and lie down for lusting men.” “I can see them now, in the bushes,” he tells Dionysus, “little birds, trapped in the toils of love.” He is captivated and repulsed by alcohol, women, and sex—he can’t keep the three distinct in his mind—especially by the fear and the wish that sex might be happening outside his own strictures, outside the right angles of the city and its walls. (A report from the mountain reveals, unsurprisingly, that the sex is happening only in Pentheus’ imagination.) He wants to stop it, to crush it with his army; he wants to join it, to see it with his own eyes. He wants to not be himself.
And that is what the god offers him. Under the thin pretext of strategy—Pentheus should gather intelligence on the women before he destroys them—Dionysus promises to dress him up as a woman and smuggle him into their midst. After a bit of prodding, Pentheus exits with the god, and when he returns, he is smashed (a good time to recall that our metaphors for this sort of thing bear more truth than we think). Pentheus sees two suns and two cities, he sees Dionysus changing shape from a man to a horned animal, and he stands unsteadily in his full-length dress and wig. The scene isn’t meant to be played for comedy: What we and Dionysus know, but the king doesn’t, is that he is also being dressed as a human sacrifice.
And this, by the way, is another reason to read old books: Just when the play is most likely to offend us moderns—in the suggestion that a man is humiliated by being dressed as a woman—it’s also at its most interesting. Here is a standing reminder that “progressive” and “regressive” fail to come in neat boxes. On the one hand, we have one of the oldest portrayals of political repression as tied to the repression of women’s sexuality, along with Euripides’ insight that the men demanding that repression are terrified. On the other, we have his sneaking suspicion that the terrified king is right: Intoxication, in this play, does turn a man into a woman; it does turn a Greek into a barbarian. I can only suggest that the playwright is falling here into the same error that he wants to attribute to the king. In those moments when he paints intoxication as something fit only for women and men who have “become” women, he is thinking like Pentheus, a young man who can imagine drunkenness only as something that destroys a specific kind of manliness, as a cataclysmic force that threatens to wipe out his identity for good and all. At its best, I think the play can tell us something more humane than that.
What Euripides gets exactly right is a kind of drunken fear that our own memories of adolescence tend to edit out. It’s only old people who say that young people feel “invincible”; it takes a writer of some wisdom to see that youth looks invincible only in retrospect, from the outside. And yes, Dionysus is still the god of this fear. Here’s what David Foster Wallace wrote about his time teaching college English:
You think it’s a coincidence that it’s in college that most Americans do their most serious falling-down drinking and drugging and reckless driving … and mindless general Dionysian-type reveling? It’s not. They’re adolescents, and they’re terrified, and they’re dealing with their terror in a distinctively American way. Those naked boys hanging upside down out of their frat-house’s windows on Friday night are simply trying to get a few hours’ escape from the stuff that any decent college has forced them to think about all week.
I’d add only that this is all something more than distinctively American. Think of what Pentheus is forced to think about. All of his certainties have fallen to pieces: Of course he wants to go to pieces himself.
When the king re-enters, it is as a basket of limbs. He has been torn apart by the Bacchae on the mountain—including, horribly, his own mother—who imagined together that he was a wild lion. Dionysus appears one more time to justify himself: “I am a god!” The king’s grandfather answers—and at that moment of confronting the power that has destroyed his family, he is more godlike than the god himself—“Gods should not resemble mortals.”
But, of course, Dionysus does. The god will not stay still. He looks both male and female, both alien and native, both man-shaped and animal: At the height of his drunkenness, Pentheus says, “the double horns sprouting on your forehead: were you an animal before, the way now you’re a bull?” And just as Dionysus is a kind of walking blur, he dissolves the lines that keep one human personality distinct from another. This is why, in The Bacchae, intoxicated people claim that the god has freed them, and sober people claim that the god wants to destroy them. Of course, he wants both. His worshipers sing, “I have soared and soar, still, for [him], in / the labor, difficult, difficult and sweet, the / sweet, exacting labor of exalting him, of crying / out for him”—and they sing that he “joyfully devours the living flesh.” He says himself that he is the “fiercest and most sweet” of all the gods.
He is telling the truth. In all of the flux, the single lasting fact about Dionysus remains the one with which the play started: He demands recognition. This is not, in the world of the play, something to celebrate or mourn, it just is. It is a fact about the world. Pentheus is a young man who tries to live against that fact, and living against it tears him apart.
This is not the kind of cautionary tale about drinking that we’re used to, nor is it the familiar reverse-cautionary tale of the Puritan hypocrite. It is harder than those. It’s a story about lives so attached to control that the smallest loss of control destroys them. Against the happily paradoxical god, Pentheus is a man of certainties and fear. Of course he gets smashed offstage, hidden from everyone but the god—have you noticed how much of that fearful kind of drinking happens in dark rooms? There is no middle ground for him: He can conceive of intoxication (of whatever kind) only as a thing that destroys. When intoxication inevitably comes, then, it comes in its destructive aspect, Dionysus as the devourer of flesh rather than the bringer of peace. And I can’t read about Pentheus without thinking of myself at his age, and about the students across the street: Which of their projects of self-control and risk-aversion will turn brittle and come apart at the lightest touch? Which of them will drink for fear instead of joy?
But in the more hopeful words of the god’s followers, there is the possibility that we can live with the grain of his fact about the world. The best hope of The Bacchae is not that we can escape intoxication in all of its forms, but that we can manage it: That applied insanity can keep us sane, open to others, open to wonder—which is, as Plato taught, the beginning of wisdom.
Plato was about the age of Pentheus when The Bacchae premiered, and he could well have been in the audience. He seems to have been channeling the play when he taught that “in reality, the greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods.” And yet that qualifier is crucial: Sometimes madness is a saving gift; and sometimes it is just madness. We disorder our brains to keep them in order, with no promise from anyone that this time it will work. All intoxication happens on the edge of a knife, and The Bacchae is too honest to tell us otherwise.
So The Bacchae is a tragedy. And though our talk about intoxication is usually limited to the cautionary tale or the drinking song, one extreme or another, it is tragedy that is exactly the right register for talking about these things. Not because intoxication is tragic. Not because tragedy means “a bad thing happened”—many bad things happen that are not tragic, and some tragic things happen that fill our hearts with more than grief. But because tragedy so often happens on the ground where irreconcilables collide, and we are forced to choose even in the sure and certain knowledge that all of our choices are flawed. There is a kind of life so closed to intoxication that, even if it could be lived out successfully, would be a constant loss; and there is the openness that brings no guarantees. As Nussbaum puts it, The Bacchae teaches us that “any reasonably rich and complete life, sexual or social, is lived in a complex tension between control and yielding, risking always the loss of order.”
How to live inside this tension, how to manage intoxication, is one of the hardest lessons that mark adulthood. It’s also one of the richest. It’s work for the brain and not just the gullet. To divorce that kind of lesson from what’s taught and learned in college is to drive a wedge between what we know and who we are: to relegate thinking about the latter to the world of horrible skits at orientation and Afterschool Specials, or just to leave it unthought as we go on accumulating information. Yet thinking together about how to be adults in the world is “sweet, exacting labor,” if anything is.