Swearing, when judiciously employed, is brilliant. Sometimes, there’s simply no non-cuss word that will do, no mild alternative that can add the same perfect spice and flavor to a sentence. Arguably, one of the sweariest – and certainly one of the most quotable – films of all time is the Brit cult comedy Withnail and I. And some of its best swearing relates to the after-effects of booze. The titular Withnail, an out-of-work actor, spends three-quarters of the film drunk, and the rest of the time dealing with the fallout. His potty-mouthed evocations of alcohol-induced suffering are nothing short of poetic.
After drinking constantly through a long car journey, he comes round in the middle of a storm at a dark, countryside cottage. “I’ve got a bastard behind the eyes,” he moans, looking for more whiskey with which to take some aspirin. “I feel like a pig shat in my head,” he whimpers when no whiskey is forthcoming.
And finally, in a desperate, broken-voiced plea, “There must and shall be aspirin. If I don’t get aspirin I shall die here on this fucking mountainside.”
Withnail’s self-pitying is simply a more visceral inheritor of a tradition of morning-after-fueled poetry. In 1819, in the classic poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ John Keats complained, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.”
Personally I’m fondest of quoting the one about the pig poop, but for most of us whose lives are not scripted by wordsmiths, “never again” is the commoner, more prosaic utterance of suffering. But we know we don’t mean that, even as the voices crack with suffering and heartfelt sincerity. The physical reality of this jaded state makes for uncomfortable reading, but then, masochism is the soul of the hangover. To metabolize an excess of alcohol, the liver must draw on reserves of water. It sucks a lot of it out of the brain, causing the brain to actually shrink. The tiny filaments connecting the brain to the skull get stretched. That’ll be the headache then. Alcohol also irritates the stomach lining, causing nausea. And alcohols generally poison the blood. Where the clamminess, general heaviness of limb, inability to concentrate, guilt, paranoia and self-loathing come from is unclear, and doctors seem unwilling to to do much exploration into causes, effects or cures, smugly reiterating that the only way to avoid a hangover is to not to drink (because doctors never drink, right?).
Personally, while I’ve failed to find a cure, I’ve found that either a Bloody Mary or miso soup (depending on the specific levels of guilt, self-loathing etc.) do a least suggest the possibility that there may be life after the morning after. And some sources claim Coca Cola was invented to cure imbibing. But there really is no immediate escape from a day of angst and recrimination.
Or is there?
The world is different, the morning after the night before. It’s not just you – physics has changed. There’s a filter, a gel on the world, that makes colors grayer, and yet the same time more vivid and painful. Not only is that just not possible; it’s just not fair. Or at least – it’s not if you’re trying to operate normally.
In his book How to be Idle, professional slacker Tom Hodgkinson puts forward the radical suggestion that we actually attempt to enjoy this altered state, this yang (or perhaps yuck) to inebbriation’s euphoric yin. “The hangover cannot be cured,” he writes, “it can only be lived with in different ways.” He experiments with accepting the mental hangover, ‘floating through the day in quite an enjoyable fashion,’ refusing to ‘admit to comfort of self-admonishment and guilt.’ He recommends Zoolander as the perfect film for the ‘flaccid post-party condition.’
I should go on, but I had a few too many last night and the DVD sounds like just the ticket.