On Drinking Alone

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

from The Rubaiyat by Omar Kayyam

Don’t try this at home…

From Persia poets to modern mores, there is a definite (multi)cultural prejudice against solo drinking. Kayyam’s loaf of bread and jug of wine are meaningless without thou.

Several centuries later, William Yeats sang a refrain:

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.

from ‘A Drinking Song

Drinking alone is viewed with suspicion in many circles (possibly the same circles that disparage masturbation?) Solo imbibing is seen as problematic, a precursor to or symptom of addiction; emblem of greed; proof positive of a moribund social life.

Women drinking alone in public are sitting ducks for criticism and worse. Surely only a man-hungry harridan and/or raving alcoholic would venture into a bar for a drink without the social camouflage of a date or friend. “You may want to try a coffee house” one man on Reddit member advised, “women alone in coffee houses are less obvious.” Less obviously what? A woman? Not attached to a man? Not being chaperoned?

There is no doubt a streak of plain puritanism at work, especially in some cultural circles. But the misogynistic overtones of women-drinking-alone censure date back millennia. In ancient Greece, which invented democracy while enslaving up to 40% of its population, drinking was explicitly a communal activity for men.

“The Greek symposium was a male aristocratic activity, a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere,” the Metropolitan Museum notes. The only women who attended symposiums were “courtesans”. So far, an average day out with the International Monetary Fund, or Prince Andrew.

While men were making merry at symposiums, women were kept indoors weaving or tending children. “Contact with non-family males was discouraged,” World History.org notes. They also weren’t allowed to drink wine. Come to think of it, ancient Greece was a lot closer to the modern Taliban than to modern liberal democracies (insofar as such a thing exists).

Perhaps that is part of the reason ‘classical civilization’ has always been so appealing to powerful white men. It gives a faint philosophical gloss to their baser instincts while allowing them to pretend they are enlightened.

Women drinking, much less drinking alone, has been proscribed in Western culture for over 2,000 years. No wonder a gal gets side-eye when she bellies up to a bar.

This morning, I drive 45 minutes into the countryside, parked on the edge of a rocky track, and hiked to a prehistoric cave dwelling. My mind was half on the splendid valley view and the deepening blue of the morning sky; the other half was thinking Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, thinking how entirely I could disappear.

I wasn’t afraid, though I considered how much damage a car key could do to a potential attacker; I wasn’t afraid because the thought is too familiar. It crosses my mind every time I walk alone, whether in the middle of open country or down a street.

Drinking alone gets twisted into a ‘high risk’ activity for women. Folks of all genders and persuasions, from well-intentioned to woman-hating, urge us to be cautious, stay together, not let our guard down, stay alert. We should be “streetwise” according to UK police chief Philip Allott (since resigned) who blamed Everard’s murder on the fact she wasn’t. This definition of streetwise would include not walking on busy city streets at half-past nine in the evening. Time we were home weaving, I guess

Moralistic, pseudo-pragmatic or anywhere in-between, the opprobrium against women who drink alone is more wearying, unsolicited proof that ye old patriarchy is in rudest health.

This complicates wine for me. Much as I’d enjoy not having to think about my violent death every time I go for a walk, I’d appreciate the decision to have a glass of wine not being politicized. If I drink alone, am I falling into disrepute and disrepair? If I don’t, am I cravenly accepting someone else’s standards?

Truth is, I prefer drinking in good company. There are few purer pleasures than opening a bottle with someone I love. The act of uncorking, the splash in the glass, the savor, evokes concrete moments — sitting in my friends’ living room singing along to ‘Regret’, splashing through the rain on a North London night to get one more bottle from the off-licence, snuggling into a hotel bed with my husband and a bottle of wine.

Drinking alone doesn’t have the same emotional resonance; it carries less weight. What it does, though, should cease to be negative. A solo glass of wine, like masturbation, should be value-neutral; a thing people do, to quote Jim Casy.


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