[Originally published on The Best American Poetry, April 16, 2020; lightly updated here]
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
That’s Diogenes up above, the Greek philosopher who famously lived in a wine barrel.
Nietzsche said it first, but Kelly Clarkson said it better:
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
She’s right, and if you don’t believe it, then lifting heavy or running a couple dozen sprints will remind you. (I’ll come back to that topic tomorrow.)
In the meantime, Clarkson goes a long way toward answering an ancient question, namely, where do good ideas come from?
As you’ll see below, Vincent Obsopoeus is the first person in world history to write a How-to manual for drinking alcohol.
Strange as it now seems, nobody had ever thought to do that before. How did he come up with the idea?
Start with Hollywood. In 2006 a dark comedy came out called Smokin’ Aces. It’s a terrible movie but it features a brilliant performance by Jeremy Piven.
Piven plays a Las Vegas card illusionist who gets tangled up with the mob, and in every scene — no matter what’s happening, even when he’s getting beaten up — he keeps fiddling with his playing cards and pulling tricks. Those cards are an obsession, a part of him. “They’re kind of like worry beads for the character that I kind of incorporated,” said Piven at the time.
That’s exactly the kind of guy Obsopoeus was, only with wine instead of cards.
When an influential man once offered to help Obsopoeus get a prestigious job, he replied that the advertised salary was so low, “it won’t even quench my thirst.”
And when Obsopoeus asked Joachim Camerarius to blurb The Art of Drinking, Camerarius replied,
If you publish this book, you won’t easily convince everyone of your sobriety (as you claim). … People assume speech tracks one’s true feelings.
In other words, thought Camerarius, everyone would assume Obsopoeus was an alcoholic because he wrote a poem in praise of drinking wine. It’s inevitable.
Events proved Camerarius right. A couple years later, Obsopoeus wrote another book and in it, he tucked away a tiny comment about drinking games:
I wrote a lot about that topic in The Art of Drinking, and I hear a lot of people are trashing me behind my back for publishing it. They say I went too far. Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care. They can go on hating and criticizing me until they explode.
The tell is the phrase I translated here as “Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care.”
In Latin it’s Haec non sunt curae Obsopoeo et Hippoclidi, literally, “Obsopoeus and Hippoclides don’t care.”
In time that response became the classic ancient Greek expression for “f#ck it.” (That’s actually how I’d originally translated it for How to Drink, but wiser heads prevailed.)
And it shows that even at the very moment he was accused of drinking too much, Obsopoeus couldn’t resist making a joke about drinking too much.
That brings me to the letter I’d like to share with you.
Because of space restrictions, I didn’t have room to include Obsopoeus’ original preface in How to Drink. It’s a gem, though, and I’m pleased to publish it here online among fellow lovers of literature, instead of burying it in some specialist journal.
Even better, it’s now generously seeded with hyperlinks for the curious and indulgent to follow. It’s the first translation into any language, and it’s a fascinating insight into how and why Obsopoeus came to write his poem on The Art of Drinking – the very first, as he points out, that anyone had ever thought of.
Specifically, the preface reveals how great literature can spring from a combination of disappointment, resentment, a lot of wine, and a determination to prove all the bastards wrong.
In it we learn that Obsopoeus – a gifted translator – had recently lost out on some commissions to translate classical literature, apparently on the grounds that he wasn’t a serious enough person to handle great “works of art.” And that’s why, he says, he turned his attention to the one “art” that everyone thought he was worthy of: the art of drinking.
It all goes to show that Kelly Clarkson was right. What didn’t kill Obsopoeus, made him stronger.
The Preface to The Art of Drinking
To John Hartung,
the illustrious and humane gentleman, and
Judge of Heilsbronn Abbey,
Vincent Obsopoeus sends his warmest greetings
Then, though, they all kicked into high gear, competing to make all necessary preparations to defend their homeland. One started furbishing weapons, another was gathering stones, a third was patching the city walls and fixing portions that had collapsed or that were weak with age; yet another was erecting towers and battlements. In short, everyone everywhere was working their tails off to do whatever the situation demanded.
Diogenes the Cynic saw all this energy in action. And, since he didn’t have anything to do (nobody was asking him for help!), he hitched up his tunic and started frantically rolling his dolium—the wine “barrel” he lived in — up and down the streets of his neighborhood.
When a friend asked him why, he answered,
“I’m rolling my barrel so I won’t look like the only one here who’s a slacker!”
* * *
What’s the point of this story, my good Hartung?
It’s this: that given the tidal wave of authors writing and publishing books—well, the same thing’s happening to me that happened to Diogenes back then.
You see, there’s no shortage of people writing and publishing endless books (good ones, too!) every single day and on every topic under the sun, and certain people are so gripped with the irresistible urge to write something that ¡they’re shamelessly “decanting” the Greek and Latin classics into modern languages! And by doing that, they’re whoring out all their humanistic education and even the Muses themselves, whoring them no different than a disgraceful pimp exploits naïve young women. ¡As if—thanks to the behavior of certain loudmouths—the Classics weren’t already in crisis, and suffering plenty as it is!
(By contrast, when philosophers in the ancient world transmitted their dunderheaded philosophy to their students, they wrapped it up in certain secret signs and symbols so that none of it would accidentally get shared with the uninitiated!)
And that’s why—given this huge throng of writers and mass of popularizing translations — I thought it was a good idea for me to roll my barrel with Diogenes for a while. I don’t want to be the only one sitting around doing nothing!
(here comes the sarcasm…)
Because I know I’m “not up to writing up a systematic treatise” on those truly great works of literary art, and because nobody really needs my help to translate them, I’ve settled on just one “art”—yes, it does sound funny at first glance, but it’s probably the richest and most popular—namely, the Art of Drinking: because who doesn’t see how widespread drinking is?
Still, for an art that virtually everyone on planet Earth is eager for, it’s regrettable that until now, there haven’t been any guidelines or recommendations for people to follow, and hence learn to drink with greater knowledge, moderation, and sophistication.
I guarantee you that people ignorant of grammar don’t make as many mistakes in language on any given day as the number of gross mistakes you see made every single day by drinkers who get tripped up because they aren’t educated in the art of drinking.
It’s also pretty well established that as institutions, the Greeks had designated roles for those who dictate how much wine to drink and those who have to drink it, and the Romans had their own “symposiarchs” and “dictators” and the custom of appointing “kings” for their parties.
If an Art of Drinking was ever taught by anyone at any point, though, I haven’t found it. You see, in the various Convivial Questions and Symposiums written by Plutarch, Athenaeus, and even Plato and Xenophon — and by Macrobius on the Latin side — people tend to be long-winded and talkative, not alcoholics.
Only a crackpot, however, could have the temerity to deny that specific guidelines for the art of drinking can be found the same way they can for other arts. Because I realized this, and because I pitied the human race for being left helpless in this one exclusive domain, I quietly made notes of certain observations I’d stumbled upon through frequent experimentation.
I organized them into the three books that follow, and published them in order to equip people that are smarter and better educated than me with a more expansive reason and opportunity for reflecting and writing on the subject.
I’m content myself to have blazed some trails to the Art of Drinking; if others can come refine and enlarge it as their abilities allow, I won’t resent it.
And so, as I said, given the whirlpool not only of people writing, but also of people binging and emptying out wine barrels night and day, it’s been a pleasure to roll this Diogenes-barrel of mine: unlike everyone else, it’s not my fate (</sarc>) to serve a Corinthian crisis or greater literature—no, not with the “cold blood in my breast limiting my inspiration.”
I’m also glad to realize what I can and can’t do, having taken a good hard look at the financial straits my family is in. That’s why I have willingly followed Horace’s recommendation and undertaken to write about a subject matter that isn’t completely beyond my strengths.
(here comes the venom)
My other reason for “rolling this barrel” is the false opinion some people have of me, and the smears that certain trash talkers have put out there.
When they go accusing me to one and all of being a “world-champion wine drinker” (which isn’t true, and nothing I’ve ever done to them ever provoked them to say that, other than their being unable to live without blackening someone else’s good name); — those stupid idiots don’t understand that they’re actually “insulting” me in the most honorably way possible.
You see, the famous Plato, prince of philosophers, doesn’t think it’s absurd for the most beautiful reward for virtue to be being drunk for all eternity, even though I’m not aiming at that reward for my virtues (they’re far too small, you see, to be graced with so incredible a prize </sarc>).
You see, I do like wine more than water, but I’ve always controlled my enjoyment of it with such moderation that I’ve made sure that no one’s ever gotten misled or hurt by my drinking.
Meanwhile, those sobriety-worshippers who are slandering me—who go around signaling their virtue in public while binging in private—they’ll surely spell the doom of no few people with their destructive teaching, contaminated as they are by far more disgraceful sins and behavior.
Besides, I’d rather get called a slightly immoderate wine drinker than be accused — and rightly so — of being a riot-starter or teacher of evil or blasphemer or ghostwriter or perverter of scripture or disturber of the gospel’s peace and harmony or the author or abettor of a pernicious heresy or a church robber and nefarious Sacramentarian or an Anabaptist fanatic or, I might add, a disgraceful man-whore or imposter or plagiarist.
But enough—I’ll respond to my slanderers in a separate essay, and I’ll make sure they haven’t caught “a cicada by the wing.”
Still, if they do want to see how with what “fairness” and virulence they’ve been traducing my name, then allow them to direct their malicious eyes at me. Keep maligning me, and I’ll make sure they hear plenty about the malfeasance of their actions!
* * *
I dedicate this dabbling of mine to you, my dear Hartung — the majority of which I dashed off riotously and off the cuff, over drinks. Although your excellence deserves a greater gift, I had to limit myself not to what you deserve, but to what I could provide. And if I can’t honor you with a golden statue as you deserve, then please be content in the circumstances with this marble one—or rather, mud or clay—I’ve set up for you. If it’s modest and beneath your dignity, please consider that “God, too, looks fondly on our best efforts.”
Please don’t assume, though, that I dedicated these books on How to Drink to you because I think you’re getting debauched night and day in whorehouses overflowing with wine (nobody is more temperate than you are, and there’s no need to haul you back to a more productive life), or because even when the circumstances don’t require it, you’re a pro at playing the part of a friendly dinner companion, wherein, on account of your affability and poise, you deserve to be called a “man for all seasons.”
No, the only reason I’ve dedicated How to Drink to you is so that this poor, little homeless book of mine will have you for their patron. Under your patronage, it’ll fly free among the hands of women and men, protected from all the backbiting, smirks, and sneers of sycophants. I know it.
Please commend me to the Reverend Father, Abbot John. Pass my greetings on to Mr. Sebastian Hamaxurgus, the grain supervisor. In the past, we often—well, we didn’t roll Diogenes’ barrel together, but we did empty a few barrels of Bacchus…
Ansbach, January 1536
Notes in the Margin
- Obsopoeus’ preface is modeled on the start of a delightful essay called The Way to Write History by Lucian, the latest and greatest author of the ancient world. In Obsopoeus’ time his Greek texts had been rediscovered and translated into Latin, and they were widely read in schools. In other words, pretty much everyone would have recognized Obsopoeus’ model for the preface.
- Plagiarism goes a long way back. In 1577 a man name Franciscus Iunctinus of Florence ripped off Obsopoeus’ preface entirely – verbatim! Little did he know he’d get exposed by Google Books in 2020. There’s a lesson there…