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The Mortal Arts of Pleasure

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The 1994 compilation of poetry, essays and excerpts from novels entitled Drinking, Smoking & Screwing: Great Writers On Good Times is worth the investment even if you’ve read every last entry, if only for the fabulous introduction by Bob Sacochis alone. “I should like to elbow aside the established pieties,” he toasts “and raise my martini glass in salute to the mortal arts of pleasure.” In an age where temperance Nazis seem to pervade every avenue of sinful gratification, it’s something of a relief to come across a book devoted entirely to the celebration of vice.

We have Spalding Gray recounting his days at Emerson College, noting his fright for urinating when girls were around for fear they judged penis side by “the sound of the flow”. Then there’s an excerpt from Charles Bukowski’s fabulous novel Women, where his recurring hero, Henry Chinaski, actually consults a doctor to learn the cost of having a limb amputated so that he might claim the title of “greatest one-legged poet in the world”. There are portions of the originally scandalous works like Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita and Anaïs Nin’s Henry and June. In Fran Lebowitz’s superb essay from Social Studies, she remarks on the suffusion of anti-smoking legislation: “I do not like after-shave lotion, adults who roller-skate, children who speak French, or anyone who is unduly tan. I do not, however, go around enacting legislation and putting up signs.” That was in 1981. She had no idea what lay ahead. Today, even uttering the words “When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes … Shut Them” could result in possible arrest. The prudes of moral authority are running the show, and they’re doing their damndest to see to it that we don’t have any fun.

In “The Vocabulary of the Drinking Chamber”, H.L. Mencken wonders on the origin of barkeep-speak, noting “Highball is listed in nearly all the dictionaries published since 1930, but not one of them attempts its etymology. Nor does any of them try to unravel the mystery of cocktail.” I myself have no idea why a cocktail is called a cocktail, and to be honest, it had never occurred to me before to ask the question. Now it will nag me to the end of my life. I’ve never been to Paris, but if Henry Miller’s description from Tropic of Cancer is anything to go by, I have nothing to regret. “Paris is like a whore,” he writes. “From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.”

Of course, no compilation such as this is complete without the likes of Dorothy Parker, Tom Robbins, Sam Shepard, and Anne Sexton, all of whom you will find included, along with many others. Each excerpt offers a glimpse at moral depravity that manages to justify indulgences as a God-given right. We should not regard the low brow “drinkers, smokers, and [beep]ers”, as Sacochis has called them, as cultural measuring sticks or role models for children, but as he concluded in his introduction “they take the joy and sometimes the pain of living to the very edge and shout back instructions, dire caveats, titillating weather reports … without them, the world might be simple and clean, but it wouldn’t be deliciously, fascinatingly, pathetically human, would it?”

Indeed, it would not. Cheers.

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About Emily Jones

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    This sounds like a pretty good book.Any
    book celebrating hedonism(destructive or
    not)is okey-dokey by me.HL Mencken,Henry
    Miller,Nabokov,Bukowski in the same tome
    huh? That makes it worth the $$$price of
    admission to me.It’s got so many great writers,inking on a subject near & dear
    to me,that it looks like you can’t lose
    with this one. Cool post,Emily.

  • Eric Olsen

    Yes, very nice review – our most self-indulgent (and talented) writing on indulgence – hedonism with style.

  • Emily

    Thank you both very much!