Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
—Anima Christi, traditional Catholic prayer
The first addicts to stumble across the threshold of the English language, refugees from Latin, were not only drunks or gamblers. Their ranks included devout Christians and scholars. Today we argue about whether addiction is a sin or a sickness, but when the term first entered our language it could name a virtue and an accomplishment: In the 16th century “addiction” covered many forms of “service, debt, and dedication,” including the pious Christian’s zeal to obey God’s every command. Rebecca Lemon’s new study, Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England, does not merely trace an etymological development. She takes the earliest meanings of “addiction” not as a cute quirk of linguistic history, but as a challenge to our contemporary shared understandings of substance abuse, political sovereignty, religious faith, and love.
Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, 304 pp., $65
Lemon looks at a range of sources, from translations of John Calvin’s sermons to pamphlets promoting anti-drunkenness laws, but her primary focus is on plays and poetry. The first chapter looks at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; then we get Twelfth Night, the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and Othello; and lastly, literary portrayals of the custom of “health-drinking.” Throughout, Lemon uses other sources to explore the artistic works’ portrayals of addiction: For Faustus we get religious texts on God’s grace as the power determining whether someone is addicted to God or to vice; for Othello, with its crimes of passion, shifting legal rulings on the culpability of people who commit crimes while drunk.
Lemon begins in the 1530s, when “addiction” begins to appear in English to designate both distorted desire for wine or riches and properly exclusive, single-minded desire for Christ. In 1534 George Joye asks God to “make faste thye promises to thy servant which is addicte unto thy worshyppe.” For these Protestant writers, Catholics were “addict to their supersticyons,” whereas they should be “addict unto none but to christ,” “addicted to praiers,” to “the meaneynge of the scripture.” Lemon’s Protestant sources share a suspicion of anything too material, too embodied—fasting, kneeling—as if Catholic sacraments were the original substance abuse. Lemon quotes a translation of the Letter of St. Paul to Titus which opens, “I Paule my selfe the addict servant & obeyer, not of Moses lawe as I was once, but of God the father, and ambassador of his sonne Jesus Christ.” That Paul should be an addict is obvious to his English readers; the important question is to whom he ought addict himself.
By contrast, Lemon is not much interested in this question of to whom. She’s fascinated by the hunger to give up control of one’s life and dedicate oneself entirely to another’s purposes. The book’s only real flaw is a result of its great strength. Lemon was so startled by her sources’ defense of “addiction,” of selfless and self-abasing love, that she often refuses to acknowledge that some loves are better than others. Lemon’s discussion of Twelfth Night beautifully, incisively separates Toby and Andrew’s drunken excess, Orsino’s “self-absorbed vulnerability,” and Viola’s selfless, transforming love. But elsewhere she can be too clever, too quick to make all addictions equal: “Indeed, one might argue that Faustus should express even more commitment to Mephastophilis than he does,” since all forms of “radical faith” are the outcome of the same kind of devotion. She euphemizes Othello’s murderous jealousy as his “desire for union,” his “expansive notion of self.”
She’s keenly alive to the joys of ecstatic self-surrender, but tends to treat the debilitating isolation and destructiveness of alcoholism as an abstraction, something found in “puritan pamphlets.” Everybody loves Falstaff (Shakespeare scholars love him too much, though I guess too much is never enough) but his descent into physical illness, mistreatment of his friends, and isolation is a trajectory familiar to most alcoholics from our own lives, not from pamphlets or sermons. Lemon’s comments on the Henriad are often acute (contrasting Falstaff’s dialogue scenes with Hal’s lonely meditations; showing that Hal learned anti-addictive, utilitarian self-mastery from his father). She is right that Falstaff is addicted to Hal, and at least plausible when she suggests he turned to sack to soothe the loss of his friend. But she’s so determined to make Falstaff a hero of addicted love that she comes across as arguing that ruining your friends is just a social construct. The greatest addicted love on display in this chapter is every audience’s irrational, helpless love for Falstaff, for whom we always, as Lemon says, “desperately wish it were otherwise.”
Lenny Bruce supposedly defended his heroin use with, “I know I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God”; the English Catholic martyr Edmund Campion defended his defiance of the Crown in the name of the Church with, “We knew that we were not lords of our own lives.” It’s a trivial task to explore the ways in which these two men’s addictions differ. But after reading Lemon we can see that both are addicts, in the term’s oldest and richest meaning: men who have handed themselves over to something outside the self; who have been transformed by their love; who will leave friends and family, safety and prior loyalties for it; who will suffer and die for it.
Addiction, Lemon notes, offers both self-surrender and community. Addiction is tightly linked to camaraderie and friendship, whether it’s Falstaff’s addiction to Hal or the Cavalier poets’ addiction to drinking “healths” and singing patriotic songs among their tavern brothers. Addiction promises union—the believer’s union with God, the suitor’s union with his beloved, even Faustus’s creepy contractual bond with Mephastophilis. The great tragedy is how often addiction to an idol leads to isolation.
It would be a mistake to think all people who struggle with what we now call “addiction,” or substance misuse, are “addicts” in this early modern sense. For some people the struggle with alcohol or other drugs is best understood in more prosaic terms. But Lemon’s work illuminates the appeal of the “spiritual solution” found in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous—what does AA offer more blatantly than self-surrender and community? For those of us who do respond to the 12-step language of unconditional surrender and companionship, Addiction and Devotion offers a stirring defense of the longings which shape both our addiction and our recovery.
These longings, as Lemon shows, challenge the concept of the sovereign self which grounds much liberal political philosophy. Both early and contemporary writing on alcohol and drug addiction often call our beloved drugs “tyrants,” the “usurpers” of man’s reason, threats to his sovereignty over himself. But of course this sovereignty is precisely what many people long to get rid of. Lemon is refreshingly willing to praise helplessness and swooning self-abasement. She names not only community but ecstatic surrender as goals, achievements, the to-do list of the addicted self.
Lemon argues, “The legal preoccupation with…self-possession or sovereignty ironically secures only isolation as the fundamental human right.” The addicted self is not individual and doesn’t want to be. The addicted self longs for—will die for, and will die without—community, obligations, and the utter relief of ceding self-control. The addicted self prefers love to mere freedom, and knows that they are opposed.
This is a dangerous view. The addicted self is owned, and so paeans to her self-abasement can come across as defenses of “natural slavery,” or domestic violence. That line about “isolation as the fundamental human right” comes right after Lemon has made excuses for Desdemona’s murder, and forms part of a defense of Othello’s “mode of living based in addiction’s transformative and connecting power.” He kills his wife and then himself! How much more isolated and self-possessed can you get? Lemon addresses this problem by defending Desdemona’s devotion—“does her death diminish her right to love?”—and noting that the alternative to self-surrendering loyalty is “Iago’s hyper-exercise of the will.” At last she admits that “Othello…chooses the wrong relationship,” addicts himself to the wrong person. It matters, more than literary criticism can easily accommodate, whether you’ve handed over the keys of your self to a friend or a bottle, to a jealous husband or to the God Who handed Himself over to be sacrificed for you, out of shattering, transforming, self-surrendering love.
Lemon writes as someone who has only recently discovered the joys of addiction. In a charming concluding note, she describes how becoming a mother caused her to rewrite earlier, more baffled and moralizing drafts of this book:
[I]n writing a research monograph about early modern addiction, I came eerily to hear how many of the terms of addiction that I chronicled as pathological and diseased in my book resonated with my condition as the parent of a newborn: I lived in a state of compulsion, pushed from the outside and pulled from the inside. I existed in an innovative relationship to another, a relationship at once decided for me, and embraced by myself. In this imperative and reflexive state, I chose to love in the face of behavior I would previously have deemed unacceptable and dismaying: I offered devotion to a needy, irritable, unsympathetic person who cried through the night, ate every two hours, and had little if any concern for my own wellbeing.
She discovers, “What had seemed entirely clear—the desirability and valor of self-possession, the horror of dependency and compulsive behavior, the nightmare of being subjected to or controlled by another—was now muddied.”
Trained to pursue success, happiness, and personal well-being, she found herself sleepless, tied to the whims of a tiny tyrant, and lost in love. Trained to be an individual—that plastic Lego person who can be plugged in to any job or community interchangeably—she discovered herself as a gift. Addiction and Devotion is a creative, vivacious exploration of characterization in early modern English drama and poetry. It’s also a hint that if we want to escape modern isolation, purposelessness, and distraction, the central question is not, “How can I earn success?” but, “Where do I surrender?”