Baltimore Evening Sun (23 December 1911): 6.
The free use of alcohol at the Christmas season, whatever its drawbacks otherwise, has at least this one great merit: that it induces in mankind a degree of sentimentality unattainable by any other means. By sentimentality I mean the inbibition of prejudices, and particularly of those prejudices which are founded upon sound considerations. For instance, the prejudice against the personal habits of children, that against the Czerny piano exercises and that against sentimentality itself.
A sentimental man is simply one who believes (or, at all events, maintains) that the unpleasant thing is pleasant. If you point out to him that his mother-in-law constantly invades his dignity, he will reply that she has a kind and solicitous heart. If you point out to him that his wife overdoes the “brightening” of her hair, he will tell you that he likes ber as she is. And if you point out to him (and prove with abundant logic) that Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is maudlin balderdash, he will answer that it makes him cry, and that crying is exquisite.
Such is the sentimental man. The same definition, it quickly appears, will also serve for the boozy man—not the downright drunken man, remember, but the man gently mellowed and etherized by the fumes. The two are brothers. The sole difference between them is that the congenitally sentimental man is sentimental always, while the artificially—i. e., the alcoholically—sentimental man is sentimental only so long as the stuff he has swallowed is in his veins. Give him 10 hours’ sleep or plunge him into ice water, or let him drink a gallon of black coffee, and he will see things once more in their true aspect. His liquorish geniality, his unintelligent toleration will vanish and he will be again the cold critic, the alert foe.
All this explains, I believe, the rather fluent wine-bibbing of the holidays. Men drink more than usual at such times, not because they want to get drunk—only the coward and the gross sensualist drink to get drunk—but because they want to grow humane. Sentimentality is in the air. It is the time of burying hatchets, of declaring truces, of laughing at facts. And since it is impossible for the reflective man, without loss of self-respect, to laugh at a fact while perfectly sober, he approaches the business by first ameliorating and conditioning the normal perfection of his sobriety. Thus it is that he is able to be agreeable to his wife’s relatives at Christmas, to give thanks for presents which astound and insult him, to eat the heavy and bad food of the season, to exchange the insincere good wishes, and—perhaps most important of all—to drink the bad liquor.
Not that sentimentality, in itself, is to be despised. On the contrary, it has, like all other things, its high and legitimate uses. At the man who is sentimental day in and day out—in two words, at the chronic sentimentalist—all healthy men make their mock. He is an old maid in pantaloons, a merchant of nonsense, a believer in the untrue, an ignoramus. But, all the same, it still remains a fact that an occasional excursion into sentimentality, if it be deliberate, well-timed and properly limited, does no harm. A spree now and then, as the late Prof. William James used to say, is relished by the best of men—and not only relished, but actually demanded. It does us all good to get out of our customary ruts, to break away from our customary habits and processes of thought, to shelve for a while our dearest convictions.
Moralists make the mistake of denying that plain fact—or, to be more accurate, of admitting it in one application and denying it in another. All of them gran, I take it, that it is a good thing, ever and anon, for a sinful man to practice virtue. But not many of them grant the contrary. And yet that contrary is undoubtedly equally true. Virtue, like any other habit, may easily become a vice. If it is not downright wrong, then it is at least extremely dangerous for a man to toe the line too assiduously. Once in a great while he should swerve a bit, zigzag a bit, stagger a bit. And whether the line he toes be sobriety, or kindness to children, or social climbing, or tenor-singing, or scandalmongering, or the composition of sonnets, or the pursuit of truth, it is all one. The important thing is that he should run amuck now and then.
The business, of course, is not always easy. A man’s habits become so much a part of him that he cannot shake them off without painful effort. If, for example, he is by nature a realist—if his mind is constantly concentrated upon indubitable facts—if his life is devoted to combating pretense and error—then it is hard for him, even temporarily, to make himself believe that a hawk is a handsaw, that his wife’s mother’s brother’s anecdotes are new, that the sticky fingers of his sister’s children make beautiful fylfots upon his mahogany, that the works of Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth are literature, that “Martha” is a great opera, that the boomers really boom, that Baltimore is a healthful town, that the City Council is not a witless jest and a nuisance.
Here comes in alcohol, that greatest of lubricants, opsonins and anæsthetics. Two drinks—and the thing is easy. Old jokes become new jokes. A palpably bogus chignon takes root in the scalp. Children become as cleanly as cats. Relatives-in-law take on the aspect of friends. Boomery ceases to disgust. The City Council appears almost intelligent. Eveb the Chopin nocturnes, “The Rosary” (book or song) and the second act of “Il Trovatore” become bearable—nay, agreeable. Sentiment, in brief, enters the heart, dissipates and neutralizes the bile, caresses the liver and the lights. The truth-seeker, softened at his core, takes the lovely fraud, the genial sophistication, to his bosom. So long as the fumes fill him he is humane and happy.
Thus I speak my modest word for alcohol—a benefactor reviled at all seasons—even at this Christmas season, when gentleness and toleration throw a glamour around all worse evil-doers—the moralist, the politician, the murderer waiting to be hanged. But let your sentimentality, if it steers that way, be of short term! Beware excess! Beware the vice lurking in the harmless spree! Two drinks—or maybe three—but no more!