Abstaining from alchohol in January?
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January 06, 2018

Ah, January. Season of diets and fasts and cleanses, of "Drynuary" and "Veganuary." Why does being virtuous always seem to mean giving up pleasure? This hour, we explore the concept of renunciation and our complicated feelings about it. Giving something up — whether a glass of wine or a way of life — can be hard and painful. The experience can change people in ways they don't expect — for better and for worse.

One last drink

Could you give up alcohol for a whole month? No cocktails with friends, wine with dinner, or beer after a game. Ten years ago, John Ore and his wife started a new tradition and named it "Dry- nuary ." Today, people all over the world observe it. John says even after a decade, it's still a challenge — but worth it.

Cabin in the woods

Howard Axelrod was accidentally blinded in one eye in a freak accident when he was in college. Disoriented and depressed, he retreated to an off-the-grid cabin in the Vermont wilderness. 

Shulem Deen

Shulem Deen was a Skverer— a member of one of the most insular Hasidic sects in the U.S.  Then he got curious about secular life and the world outside his small village in Rockland County, NY.  The community branded him a heretic and expelled him.

A discarded pen of a poet.

Renunciation can be a creative force. American scholar Ross Posnock tells stories of writers, philosophers and artists who've committed "acts of abandonment," leaving careers and creative lives behind. They weren't failures, Posnock says — they were necessary departures that led to creative and intellectual breakthroughs.

"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace wrote memorably about AA in his famous novel "Infinite Jest." Writer Marshall Boswell reads one of his favorite passages.

A serious backbar

Prohibition gave us speakeasies, jazz clubs and bathtub gin. But a new revisionist history uncovers a more disturbing legacy: campaigns against immigrants, the War on Drugs, and the rise of America's "incarceration nation," says historian Lisa McGirr.


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January 04, 2015
January 17, 2016
January 01, 2017
January 04, 2018
January 05, 2019
January 06, 2024
Writer, Senior VP of Product for Business Insider
Writer and Professor
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Full Transcript 📄

- Hi, I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's January and the holidays are over. The giving season is done and instead it's time to give things up. January is the season of diets on treadmills and juice fasts, of extra pushups and no dessert. In fact, name, pleasure, and this month somebody's probably going without it.

- I'm John Orr and I started practicing Drynuary about 10 years ago. This is my 10th January.

- There's Drynuary, 31 days of forced sobriety.

- Not a cocktail, not a glass of wine with dinner or anything like that. Not a beer after a football game or anything.

- There's also veganuary, no animal products for the month today on to the best of our knowledge, renunciation. Giving up, going without abstaining, refraining, restraining. Doesn't sound like much fun, does it?

- The first week is the easiest, quite honestly. You're still coasting on the novelty of it. By the third week of Drynuary I'm so sick of club soda, I can't even stand it. So I got some cold days ahead.

- That's John Ora. He's not a big heavy drinker, but he and his wife like wine with dinner and cocktails with friends and a beer after a game, and it all adds up. So 10 years ago they dared themselves to go cold Turkey for a month. And now Drynuary is a tradition, not just for them, but for thousands of other people around the world. But it's still not easy.

- Honestly, the social aspects of it. My company's holiday party actually is in January this year.

- That would be hard.

- Yeah. I'll be hanging out with seltzer water and I play beer league ice hockey. And certainly after a hockey game, it's normal for us to crack a couple of cold ones in the locker room. Now it's, hey, it's a nice cold Powerade after hockey while my teammates laugh at me.

- And do they laugh at you? I mean, how do your friends respond?

- Oh, yeah, they absolutely, I mean, for the first couple of years it was more novel to them. So there was a lot of ribbing, a lot of laughing, a lot of like, hey, don't you want this now? Wouldn't you like a nice glass of wine or a beer or something like that? Ha ha ha. You know, the sort of like bro chugging in your face kind of thing. And now they just like, look at me and they know I do it, and it is kind of normal to them, which is kind of funny.

- How do you deal with the craving? Or do you feel craving? I mean, I can't personally, this is maybe, maybe more than you wanna know about me, but I actually can't quite imagine getting through a month without at least a couple of bottles of wine.

- And I've gotta tell you that sentiment is really gratifying because 10 years in we've got our sort of coping mechanisms down. We know week three is really hard because we're bored by that time.

- So this must have made you think a little more deeply about your relationship with alcohol. What have you learned?

- Well, I think the first year when we sat there and said, hey, can we actually do that? That was really when you sort of stare yourself in the face and say, wait a minute, is asking that question the right question? I should, of course I should be able to do that. And you know, you find out that in American society we're a bit puritanical about our views about substance abuse and alcohol, and we're very binary about things. And you're either a substance abuser or you're not. There's no in-between. And so we use Drynuary as a bit of a reset and you take a step back and you say, hey, this is great. Look look how great I feel. Yes, I absolutely would love to have a great glass of wine with this great meal that I prepared, that seltzer water just isn't doing justice to. So I'm looking forward to that in February, but I'm also looking forward to taking the willpower and the muscle memory that we've developed during the month of January and carrying that forward in those situations where I need it.

- Okay, well, I hope you enjoy your month of tonic water and club soda.

- Thank you so much.

- That was a week ago. John Ora and his wife are about to begin the dreaded week three of their 10th annual Drynuary. Wish them luck. We're talking about renunciation in this hour, thinking about what a powerful force it can be in people's lives for better and for worse. And giving something up, whether it's a glass of wine or a way of life, can be really hard and painful, and it can change people in ways they don't expect. This is Howard Axelrod's story.

- It was two weeks before the end of my junior year. I went to play some pickup basketball. I had played high school basketball, and it was, I loved going to the court to play just as a way to relax. And there was just a freak accident. A boy's finger went into my eye and it severed the optic nerve, which is the cable that connects the back of the eye to the brain. So I was blinded in my right eye.

- Howard Axelrod was a student at Harvard when that happened. It seemed like he had everything going for him. And then suddenly he was blind in one eye. He had trouble seeing, no peripheral vision, no depth perception. He felt permanently disoriented and vulnerable and depressed. And after a while, he decided he would just leave his old life behind. So he went to Vermont. He found a tiny remote cabin pretty close to being off the grid. And he stayed there alone for two years. He wrote a beautiful memoir about it, called "The Point of Vanishing." Steve Paulson asked him to describe the place.

- So the cabin was pretty ramshackle. It did have a wood stove for heat. In the morning when I would wake up and I'm remembering winter now, 'cause it seemed like it was always winter. And when I would wake up, I could see my breath because the fire would've burnt down. So I would get the wood stove going again. And mostly what I did was just go for walks. I mean, outwardly, it looked like I probably wasn't doing all that much, but what I was doing on my walks was actually, to me was pretty important. I was seeing more. I felt more at ease. I began to feel less like an intrusion on the landscape and more just like I was part of the woods.

- And just to put this in perspective, I mean, you were really isolated at this point. I mean, yes, you had your landline, but no cell phone, no computer, no TV. You went days at a time without seeing anyone, without talking to anyone. I mean, did it actually start to get hard to interact with other people?

- It did. You forget how much you're filtering out on a daily basis when you walk down the street in a city, your senses, to pay attention to the person you're talking to or even to whatever you're focusing on. There's so much you're blocking out. And in the woods, the filters on my senses just dropped because there's nothing you don't wanna see and there's nothing you don't want to hear. So then when I would go into the small town miles, it was maybe a 15 minute drive from where I lived, I would be overwhelmed. I mean, this was just a eight aisle market, but they would sometimes be playing on their overhead speakers the local pop radio station. And to hear Elton John, or Whitney Houston, which it seems is just sort of always what they're playing in supermarkets incidentally, would be overwhelming. I couldn't because I hadn't been listening to any music. I hadn't been listening to anything really, other than the snow falling or occasionally a bird. And I had a hard time just navigating a small town market.

- Well, I got the sense that your parents started getting kind of worried about you. And you write about this time when you'd been living in the woods for over a year, and they can convinced you to come down to see them for Thanksgiving. And so you went to see them and there were a whole pile of relatives there. And it turned into kind of a disaster, didn't it? That that visit at Thanksgiving.

- It did. It's one thing to be overwhelmed in a supermarket by Eldon John's "Rocket Man," it's another thing entirely to have to see your whole family in the suburbs of New York City. And it was very hard for me. And then maybe part of what you're referring to is the morning after that Thanksgiving I was go, I slept in my aunt and uncle's backyard in a tent just to give myself a little more room. And I went for a walk in their neighborhood and policemen stopped me, two cop cars 'cause apparently I was such a threat. And what they said was that some, a neighbor had been looking out her window and had seen a strange man. I mean, at this point I had a long bushy beard. And I also had realized once they stopped me, that I was just wearing long johns on for pants. I didn't even have, I didn't even have pants on. So yeah.

- You sort of had kind of forgotten how to function in regular society.

- I really, yeah. A number of things had slipped, so to speak. I was really telling what they said was this woman looked out her window and saw a strange man. I said yes. And they said what was so strange was that she said, you were just walking very slowly and looking at things and that, I don't know, that seems so odd to me that that would be such an aberration, for someone to be walking slowly and looking as a cause for suspicion. Now, of course, I was probably also a cause for suspicion because of my bushy beard and 'cause I wasn't wearing pants. But I guess the combination.

- Once you visited your relatives at Thanksgiving, you went back to Vermont, winter came again, and you read about one night where you probably came pretty close to dying, collapsed in the snow, even fell asleep out there. Can you tell me about that?

- Yeah, so every once in a while I would get a really bad headache behind my right eye. And I was in a lot of pain. So I went outside into the snow just to lie in the snow. I don't know, I guess it was my version of Tylenol and I fell asleep in the snow. I mean, I don't quite know how that happened, but I did, and I fell asleep and I had this very disturbing dream about being back in my high school and knowing that I had killed somebody and I couldn't remember who I had killed. I only knew that the body was hidden somewhere. And I had to make sure it stayed hidden. And so I searched through my high school and then found in this locker. I knew the body was in a locker, and I finally found the locker, and I opened the locker. And what I saw was my own corpse. So it was so, and then I woke up.

- Talk about symbolism.

- Talk about symbolism. Yeah. I mean, it's funny. It's as though my subconscious was saying to me, listen, we're gonna break it down for you really slowly, and we're gonna make it really obvious. 'Cause we don't want you to miss this. We think you're not paying attention to what you should be paying attention to. We're gonna make it as clear as we can. And also then I woke up and of course, I'd fallen asleep in the snow. So now I was extremely, I mean, more than cold. I mean, I was, my teeth were chattering and my feet were numb and my hands were numb. And I had just seen this vision of myself as a corpse with my face all white. And I finally, I got, I got the picture.

- Yeah.

- You have a passage, a beautiful passage where you write about sort of the outcome of that evening. I mean, you sort of were desperately trying to warm up again, but I'm wondering if you could, if you could read a bit from your book.

- Sure. "The shaking slowed down and I felt impossibly lighter, fatigued, almost nothing but bones. I stood up in the shower, made the water hotter. Feeling was coming back in my feet, in my hands. My blood was running like it hadn't for a long time. Later, after I dressed in my warmest clothes, I carried the wool blanket from the bed downstairs and laid down in front of the fire. By morning, it had burned down to embers, just a few glowing coals hidden under ash. But I was still there with the morning light on the floorboards, the snow falling outside. And I felt something I hadn't felt for a long time. The desire for the future, a feeling that good days might be ahead, days with other people, days to look forward to, days I might allow myself to trust.

- So this whole experience happened about 15 years ago. And I mean, obviously you've been spending a lot of time thinking about it as you wrote the memoir, but is it still with you in some way? I mean, is the person that you are today to some degree, shaped by those two years of isolation in the woods?

- Very much so. I mean still every morning, just this morning too, I go for a walk and I'm not miles from the nearest person. I'm not wearing snow shoes, but I'm still going for a walk and I'm still walking just to see what I see, to look at the trees in the park near my house and to try to let my mind go quiet. And then when I sit down at my desk to write, I hope to be listening. Sometimes when I'm writing, it feels a little bit like teaching and how there's always a student in the front row waving our hands or waving his hands ready to have the answer to every question. And you have to call on them sometimes, but you're really waiting for that, that quiet kid in the back who rarely says anything, who suddenly raises her hand and then says something true. When I'm sitting on my desk, I'm trying to wait for that one quiet true thing that that person in the back or that thought all the way in the back of my mind has just offered. So I do think that's all in some ways a result of the time I spent in the woods. I hope that when I'm also when I'm listening to other people, that I listen in a way that maybe I wasn't capable of before. So yes, I think it's all stayed with me. Although I now do remember to wear pants if I go for a walk, and I hope I'm not frightening neighbors and school children anymore.

- Howard Axelrod's memoir of his two years in solitude is called "The Point of Vanishing." Steve Paulson talked with him. We're talking about renunciation in this hour, sometimes, of course, you wind up on the receiving end of someone else's act of renunciation, and that's not a good place to be. Shulem Deen was branded a heretic and kicked out of his Hasidic community. He lost his wife and his children. We'll hear his story next. I'm Ann Strange Champs. It's to the best of our knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. In Rockland County, New York, there's a village called New Square. The people who live there don't mix much with the world outside their village borders. They're the Skvers, one of the most insular sects of Hasidic Jews in the US. So insular that if you grow up a Skever, you can spend your entire life inside the village. Shulem Deen wasn't born there, but he moved to New Square when he was about 13. He married a girl from the community. They had five children, and then he got curious about the world outside those village limits.

- At the entrance to the village, there's a yellow sign with village law number three, which prohibits entry into the village if you're wearing immodest clothing, shorts or sleeveless clothes, or a list of things. And it's an actual law on the books of the village.

- And so in daily life, of course, no television, no radio.

- Oh, of course not.

- No computers?

- No newspapers.

- Computers. They consider computers a very, very quote, terrible danger.

- So this is a community you chose to live in. You weren't born into it. So there were things about it that appealed at least.

- Right.

- At least initially.

- And you also as a young man, like as a Yeshiva student, you kind of joined in trying to help police other students' behavior.

- Yeah, absolutely.

- What happened was that we were sort of the elite group within our, sort of like our cohort, our age group. There was an elite group within that I was part of. And we would gather at dawn to study mystical texts. And it was this one Friday morning when our leader got worked up into a really sort of passionate screed about rumors he'd been hearing about students who are watching television and reading newspapers and reading secular news magazines and listening to secular music. And that this is destroying our souls and destroying everything that our old rebi had worked to preserve within this shtetl. And it was basically a call to action. And we said, well, what do we do? He said, do something, anything. And so we got together and we drew up a list and we summoned some of our peers and we sat them down and we told them that in no uncertain terms, that they will be beaten physically if we ever caught them doing any of these things.

- And do you think any of them had actually been doing that?

- I think some might've. Yeah, it's possible. And then one of the students we summoned didn't show. And so we went to the dorm, broke open the door, and then just ripped apart everything in his room. We sort of overturned his dresser, ripped the linen off the mattresses, overturned the mattresses to see if we can find something. And that was a terrible, terrible, terribly shameful episode for me for many, many years after. It didn't take long for me to realize that what we did was wrong.

- Well, and fast forward a bunch of years and in your mid twenties and you got curious about the outside world and you became what you were afraid of back as a Yeshiva student, you became somebody who was sneaking and listening to the radio and reading forbidden books.

- Right.

- How did that even start?

- It started with really small things that didn't feel like much. And there's one episode that actually is really meaningful. My friend, I had a friend, his name was his name I call in the book, I call him Husky. He was what we called an Alta Bahar, which is Yiddish for an old bachelor. He was 22. And so he came to me once and said that they're, he's been listening to the radio. He started listening to the radio before I did. And he said they were playing this baseball game. The New York Yankees were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks in game seven of the World Series. And apparently the people in the radio were saying that this is a really big deal. And so he and I were sort of curious, what is this a baseball game? And I knew there were bars, but I didn't quite know what bars were for. But I knew that some bars had televisions in them, but it felt really strange. We were like two Hasidic men walking into a bar. It felt like that could be, without knowing that could be the start of a joke. That sort of felt kind of weird and strange. In the end, we found a sort of little local hotel and we saw the bluish lights flickering through the curtains of the lobby. And so, I mean, this was probably the first time in her life that the receptionist had two Hasidic men come in and ask permission to watch TV in her lobby. And she had no objections. And we sat there and by the end of three hours, one team won, I forget, which we didn't know why. I mean, frankly, it was really baffling.

- But you did then after that, it's like a slippery slope, right? Because you did then begin reading books that I'm sure nobody in your community would've wanted you to read. And you listened to radio shows and you went to Blockbuster video,

- Right, right. And so these were all small steps that I took to sort of open to create a little world of freedom for myself. Although it wasn't really a world of freedom, it was a world of intense secrecy. My wife, who I call Gitty in the book, Gitty, knew about some of the things I was doing, and she was not happy about it. And we had a lot of tension about it. But she tried, she tried to go along with this crazy husband of hers who was just not content to be a regular Hasid like everyone else.

- Well, so you were trying to live with that tension, compartmentalizing or whatever you were doing, but you actually wound up in the end getting kicked out. I mean, the elders suspected something. They called you in, rejected you, branded you as a heretic.

- Yep, yep. That's what they called me, a heretic, a sinner who causes others to sin. And yeah, they kicked me out. They expelled me, which was, not just, it's not that they revoked my synagogue membership. they ordered me to sell my house, pack up my things and move.

- What did your wife say? You had five children

- Five children, yeah, yeah. So it was very difficult because she would be allowed to stay. She was not ordered to leave. I was ordered to leave. So she could either come along with me or she could stay and we would split. In the end, it just couldn't work. We had grown too far apart religiously. And I couldn't stay in a world that I didn't wanna live. And I couldn't stay in a world where I was hiding who I really was. And I was lying about myself every day, lying to my wife plenty, lying to my kids, lying to my friends, to the community. And that takes a really, it takes a real psychic toll. It can drag you down into such a really dark place.

- Well, unfortunately, it got darker. The pressure on her and the children to stay away from you was kind of overwhelming. And in the end, you wound up losing your kids too.

- Right, right. Once we were split, they really did not want me to have much to do with the children. And they were really indoctrinating the children with things about me. One of my sons at some point told me that mommy says you wanna turn us into hadim. She started to see me as just this evil, wicked person. And that came off onto the children and the children started to withdraw. And that was, yeah, that was, that was a really, really dark place.

- I can't imagine having your own children turn against you to the point that even though you had a legal right to continue to see them.

- Yeah.

- They just didn't wanna see you.

- Yeah. Yeah.

- How long has it been since you've seen them?

- Well, it's been eight years since they were in my life. Each one was different. My oldest daughter I haven't seen in eight years. And that was, or like seven years. 'cause I'd seen her briefly, a judge had ordered her to come and so she would come, but she wouldn't say a word. And that just lasted a few weeks. And my second daughter, I saw by chance a couple years ago, I had come up to New Square for something or other, and I saw her and I stopped and I sort of waved to her and she recognized me and she came into the car and we had a conversation. It was clearly very difficult for her, but she wasn't sure if she was allowed to get into the car or not. But then I gave her my phone number and my address and hope that she might call, but she didn't,

- Are you angry that they don't wanna see you?

- You know, I am, I am, to some degree. I'm angry at the indoctrination. It is clear to me that they've been indoctrinated with ideas about who I am. But the question is to what degree can I expect or can I ask for them to reject what they've been taught when they are still living within a community that expects a very, very high level of conformity and uniformity of thought. It would have consequences for them if they chose to reject what they've been taught and to reach out to me. So they're complicated feelings.

- Yeah.

- Yeah.

- Maybe because we're talking about this in the context of thinking about renunciation, but it seems to me the most terrible kind of painful thing about this story is the way religion has been used to separate people from one another. Most of the world's religions teach love primarily. But there's something about this concept of the path to virtue being a path of renunciation, of giving things up that seems like it leads to not such a good place, and yet every religion has that path.

- Yeah, I mean, you know, religions have the potential for something incredibly good and incredibly damaging. I mean, I tend to see religion as another form of ideology, but just something that is grounded in truth claims that demand so much of you and can move you to do incredible acts of kindness and incredible acts of humanity. But it can also move people to do really, really terrible damaging and hurtful things. And someone is considered evil within a religious context. And the religion is what informs your life in every way, and maybe mostly in good ways. But if someone is cleared by your religion to be evil, it is very hard to renounce that.

- Shulem Deen, his memoir is called "All Who Go Do Not Return." So, one reason we wanted to explore the concept of renunciation today is that Steve's been reading a new book by the American Scholar Ross Pozak, it's called "Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists."

- Maybe the most notorious renouncer was Rimbaud, the French poet, who in the 1870s suddenly renounced and never gave any reason and went off to Africa, Ethiopia, parts of the world that barely anybody had been to. And he basically was never heard from again in terms of a literary career.

- Well, and then a more recent example is JD Salinger, who not that long after he became one of the most famous writers in America, he not only became a recluse, of course, but he stopped writing or at least stopped publishing. We don't know if he stopped writing.

- He stopped publishing. But according to everyone and certainly himself, he was always writing even obsessively. He would spend eight, 10 hours a day writing.

- So we know a few things about Salinger that he was very attracted to Zen Buddhism. Was this a creative act to renounce?

- I think that's a good way to put it. I think you're right though. Most people view Salinger's renunciation as a terrible thing for his work. Basically a self exile that created sterility in his art. I think very much the opposite that he turned his desire to renounce and his fascination with Zen Buddhism and Tarantism and other eastern mysticism into the subject of his work. Something like "Seymour: An Introduction," the last full work he wrote in 65 is very much a meditation on the desire both to write and to stop writing.

- There's a sense in a lot of the people you've written about, I mean, these renunciate that language becomes somehow inadequate, even though that's what they do. I mean, if they're writers, I mean, this is their medium, and yet for some reason they think that putting words on paper is not a good way to render the truth.

- Well, they feel frustrated. William James, for instance, in 1908, 2 years before he died, he said, I'd like to deafen you to talk and let life teach the lesson. But he said that unfortunately in the middle of a lecture, where he of course was using a lot of words. So it was a kind of quixotic effort.

- Well, and William James, of course, the famous American philosopher and psychologist he taught at Harvard. He grew up in a very cultured family, but he also complained about what he called vicious intellectualism. Which kind of makes you wonder what exactly was he reacting against.

- He just couldn't stand how stultifying concepts were that a concept means this and no other, that it basically devours particularity, specificity, uniqueness into a general classification. And a lot of these renunciations are fascinated by behavior that's without why.

- Without explanation.

- Right.

- Well, and then there are other philosophers who seem to share these sentiments of William James Wittgenstein, you know, one of the great 20th century philosophers who seem to have an inherent suspicion of concepts and of language itself.

- Exactly, and Wittgenstein was a great enthusiast of James', "The Varieties of Religious Experience." At one point, late in that book, James speaks of the attraction of poverty, of simply throwing everything away and starting over. James was disgusted by the kind of Wall Street mentality we know today. He couldn't stand the rampant materialism surrounding him at Harvard. And Wittgenstein, in effect took him very literally by renouncing part of his enormous family fortune. Wittgenstein's father was one of the great Viennese industrialists who amassed an enormous amount of money, and Wittgenstein eventually gave it all up.

- Now, one thing that's striking about both William James and Wittgenstein, this spareness of how they wrote and their values, I mean, it sort of hearkens back to a certain religious asceticism. I mean, the monks and nuns who go off and renounce worldly comforts and leave their families, vow celibacy. And it's sort of like, this is the intellectual version of that.

- Yeah, definitely. I really wasn't prepared for, in writing the book, I wasn't prepared for that deeply mystical or spiritual or aesthetic dimension. You're exactly right. Talking about Wittgenstein, for instance, is deeply spiritual. He said, I'd like to be a saint. In fact, he had huge ambition, but because that was impossible, he spent a lot of time lacerating himself and others about his imperfections.

- There are more recent cultural figures, artists you write about as well. For instance, the pianist, Glenn Gould, who became world famous and then at 31 stopped performing in public. Do we know why?

- Yeah, with Gould, unlike Rimbaud, for instance, there's no mystery. He was sick and tired, given his very strange nervous temperament, sick and tired of live concerts. He couldn't stand the audiences coughing and clapping and throat clearing. And he wanted the sanctuary of the recording studio to ward off any undue interference to perfect his music. So that required him renouncing public life. His turning his back on live performance, still rankles people because liveness is considered to be so precious for most people. The place of spontaneity of anything can happen. That's what we love. But for Gould, that was just treachery and trouble.

- And we expect performers to be out there in public performing for us. And whenever anyone doesn't do that, when they renounce that, we kind of get angry at them, don't we?

- Yeah, that's a good point. I think anger attends a lot of annunciation. Certainly Salinger, Gould, Rimbaud. It seems like a slap in the face to us.

- And there's a more recent example of that. The comedian Dave Chappelle back in 2005, I mean, he had just gotten a $50 million contract, had a hit TV show. He chucked it all, went off to Africa, disappeared basically for eight years.

- Left a lot of people scratching their heads. There was an interesting description of it in the New York Times. They said that first he was a renegade and then he was a lunatic. But above all, he became an enigma. And I use that quote in my book because I think it's sums up a lot of these renunciations. They really assault our ways of making sense of things. And so they get under our skin.

- Do we know why Dave Chappelle did this?

- He said he wanted to stop shuffling and start dancing. That's the kind of enigmatic comment in itself. But it's interesting, and then he reversed his renunciation a couple years ago, I think, one or two years ago.

- That's right. He's back doing big shows.

- Yeah, that's another version. Renouncing the renunciation.

- Now the last artist you profile is the abstract painter, Agnes Martin, who left the center of the art world, New York City, moved to New Mexico, and she also had a reputation for being reclusive.

- Yeah, she became basically a desert hermit. That ancient Christian tradition. She outlived her generation. She was born right around the time of Jackson, but she outlived him by 50 years and died in her late nineties and just kept developing her art in a perfect seclusion, exactly how she wanted to do it.

- How did the seclusion influence her art?

- She was very much a mystic. She combined Zen and Daoism and Emerson and John Dewey. She loved art as experience. She basically had a kind of homegrown mysticism that basically made her deeply skeptical of the notion of having a self in the first place, having appetites, being a creator. She would never, for instance, accept honorary degrees from colleges because she said she was just the nexus, the meeting point where creativity occurred. She didn't initiate it. She heard voices, and it turned out that she had suffered from acute schizophrenia. So she wasn't kidding when she said she heard voices.

- It's fascinating to hear you describe her. I mean, because if she lived in the 14th century, I can very easily see that she would've been one of those Christian mystics. But in the modern age, she became an artist, a painter.

- She couldn't even stand stopping for lunch or going to the bathroom. She would simply spend eight, 10 hours in front of the canvas because she felt that was living in her mind. She said anything else would break the silver cord of concentration.

- What I find interesting about all of these examples really is, I mean, I guess just when we start to think about the concept of renouncing worldly comforts, fame, success, whatever, you think, oh, you're giving up so much. But then when you start hearing about this, you think, no, actually, it's just, those are illusions in many way. Those are seductions. Those are actually not especially fulfilling. I mean, for at least those people.

- And that's part of the affront I was mentioning about renunciation. That it gets under our skin and that it suggests to us that we're pursuing frivolous things or the wrong things, or addicted to the more, rather than the less, or seeing the virtues of the less. So they're challenging our basic assumptions or convictions that rule us.

- Ross Poznak teaches American literature at Columbia University. His new book is called, "Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists." Steve Paulson talked with him. So far this hour, we have been talking about personal acts of renunciation and abstention. After the break, we're gonna talk about one of the most famous episodes of collective renunciation in American history, Prohibition. I'm Ann Strange Champ. It's to the Best of our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. It's about the time every week when we get a writer to recommend a book. Today, since we're about to talk about national sobriety, this seemed appropriate.

- I'm Marshall Boswell. I teach American literature at Rhodes College in Memphis, and I'm also the author of Understanding David Foster Wallace. I'm gonna read a passage from Infinite Jest that is set in Boston Alcoholics Anonymous community and concerns a character named Don Gately, who is one of the heroes of the novel, a former football star, heroin addict and recovering substance abuser. "And then, the palsy newcomers who taught her in desperate and miserable enough to hang in and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of the thing, Don Gale's found, get united by a second common experience, the shocking discovery that the thing AA actually does seem to work, does keep you substance free. It's improbable and shocking. When Gately finally snapped to the fact, one day, about four months into his in-house residency, that quite a few days seemed to have gone by without his playing with the usual idea of slipping over to unit number seven and getting loaded in some non-eurinic way, the courts couldn't prove, that several days had gone by without us even thinking of oral narcotics or a tightly rolled dubois or a cold foamer on a hot day. When he realized that the various substances he didn't use to be able to go a day without absorbing, hadn't even like occurred to him in almost a week, Gately hadn't so much, felt grateful or joyful, as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap, some new sort of trap. At this stage, he and the other enit residents who were still there and starting to snap to the fact that AA might work began to sit around together late at night, going back crazy together because it seemed impossible to figure out just how AA worked. It did, yes, tentatively seem maybe actually to be working, but Gately couldn't for the life of him figure out how just sitting on hemorrhoid hostile folding chairs every night looking at nose pores and listening to cliches could work. Nobody's ever been able to figure AA, out is another binding commonality. And the folks with serious time in AA are infuriating about questions starting with how? You ask the scary old guys how AA works and they smile their chilly smiles and say just fine. It just works is all, end of story."

- That's Marshall Boswell reading a favorite passage from "Infinite Jest" by the great David Foster Wallace. So America has had a love-hate relationship with alcohol for, well, maybe since the nation was founded and since we've been talking about renunciation in this hour, we thought it would be interesting to look back at America's brief experiment with collective state-sponsored and enforced sobriety prohibition. Historian Lisa McGirr has just come out with a revisionist history in which she traces the war on drugs, big government and the penal industrial complex back to yep, Prohibition. Raymond Tangecar's reading the book.

- Hey, how are you?

- Hi Raymond,

- Thank you so much for coming in today. I read your book over the weekend and it's fascinating. I had no, I mean, when I think of Prohibition, I think of Flappers and the roaring twenties and like speakeasies, but I had no idea that there's this dark underside.

- Yes, I mean, that is kind of what the book reveals is the side of Prohibition that we've known so little about, because what we've largely seen is this, flapper side, which is not an incorrect portrait, just a very partial one. So my book tries to tell the other part of the story that's been missing.

- I'm curious, where did the inspiration of prohibition even come from? I mean, what led the US to try out this incredibly ambitious state-sponsored legal renunciation of alcohol?

- Well, in order to understand that, you have to understand that Prohibition came out of a far deeper and longer temperance movement to discipline oneself and to control one's own drinking, to renounce or to abstain from imbibing. But the Prohibitionist crusade at its core was led by religious men and women who approached it with a very absolutist sensibility, and they targeted no longer so much personal drink and this notion of self-discipline, but rather increasingly the drinking of others, and particularly in the urban saloon.

- Well, and what explains this shift? I mean, how come it went from being an individual responsibility to something that would require government intervention?

- Well, it's multifaceted. I mean, first of all, you have to remember that the period in which prohibition gains traction is a moment where there are enormous amounts of problems of industrial capitalism that are under discussion. And it's the high wave of the progressive era reform ethos. So at that moment, men and women are looking toward the state, looking toward the federal government for solutions. So it's also important to remember this is a moment where there's massive waves of immigration transforming the core of urban centers. So overnight, it seems like Chicago, New York are becoming unfamiliar places to many of the men and women who had inhabited them earlier because of these massive waves of largely European and often Catholic men and women who shared habits of drink as part of their rituals of family and culture.

- So you're saying that alcohol and the saloon basically became a symbol for a whole set of social problems in ways to tackle changing demographics?

- In some ways it's a real social problem, right? Labor men are stopping on their way home in saloons, and they're on tight, very tight wages. Of course, there's many other reasons that there's a lot of poverty, but it's an easily identifiable issue. And so it comes as a stand-in, I think, for many issues. And it's exactly right that it has very much to do with the fact that these are sort of, this laboring class is largely a sort of immigrant working class with different sets of rituals, different sets of culture and values than many of those middle class Protestant elites.

- Okay, so the 18th Amendment gets ratified, prohibition becomes law and the Volstead Act is passed to enforce it. Well, what effect did this have in the prison population? I mean, how would you compare the prison population before prohibition and afterwards?

- Prohibition vastly expands the federal prison population and vastly expands the federal government's role in crime control across the board. There is about a doubling of the prison population in both federal and state prisons. Now, the numbers are not comparable at all in terms of today when we think about this absolutely colossal prison state or carceral state as some have called it. But you see the way in which a campaign against a recreational substance in this early moment where the state is far weaker and far less muscular, has all sorts of ramifications, a, in rising prison numbers, but also in terms of sort of muscling the penal state at the federal level.

- Well, and I should just point out right now that this was an incredibly ambitious policing effort, right? I mean, the country had not seen anything like it up to that point.

- It's absolutely correct that there was a exponential growth in policing. But of course, given the absolute sort of ambitions and really one could say relatively impossible ambitions of eradicating liquor traffics from shore to shore, they came nowhere near to success. So one of the things I talk about in the book is what I call the emergence of a dry enforcement army, partly the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which is still very much working for enforcement, the Anti Saloon League, but also the Ku Klux Klan.

- Well, how does that work though? I mean, how are those citizen enforcement groups able to actually apply the law? I mean, can they just like organize and say, okay, we're going to protect this neighborhood?

- One of the stories I tell is the series of raids that occurred in Williamson County in southern Illinois, where you had local sort of clan exalted cyclops and also a county booster concerned about the new Italian Catholic population that was competing for jobs in a very tight labor market who basically goes to Washington to meet Roy Haynes who is the prohibition commissioner at the time. And to say, we want your support to clean up conditions in Williamson County. And Hayne says, I would love to help out, but I don't have an army to do so. And the response is, well, we do. And that army are really the foot soldiers of the campaign, largely Ku Klux Klan men who conduct a series of raids, which are first authorized, they're deputized by prohibition bureau officials. And there's a series about four or five raids in which essentially the local immigrant community is targeted and also terrorized. And the drink issue is used instrumentally as a campaign of terror against their communities.

- And I gotta say, when I read this book, frankly, I was flabbergasted. I had no idea that there were all these unintended consequences. And I think that's because we seem to view the prohibition era as this like really unique blip in our nation's history, that it's kind of this laughable failure and an a prime example of government overreach and the perils of regulating behavior. But ultimately, that was in our history, that was in our past and we've moved on and we're essentially a different country. Do you think there's anything wrong with thinking of that, thinking of prohibition as some kind of unique outlier?

- Absolutely, I mean, I think that is one of the central problems and the ways that prohibition has been misunderstood is partly, I think this, notion that it was driven by these kind of puritanical zealots of another era. And thank God, we put that in the past. And I think that in reality that has been a huge mistake because, in fact, it is the origin point of many campaigns that are still ongoing. And we still have this kind of penal approach toward other recreational narcotic substances. And the implications have been devastating for many communities. And so I do think one, a revisit of prohibition can really help us better understand both our past as well as our present.

- There's also, I mean, it strikes me that this whole era also is kind of romanticized in a way, right? I mean, bars that fashion themselves after speakeasy are making a comeback. Flapper culture is highly regarded. Do you see our current culture being nostalgic about prohibition in some way?

- I do think that there is a lot of nostalgia around prohibition, and I understand it in a certain way, in part because what we have focused on is the rebelliousness that it generated, the flappers, the speakeasies, the avant garde, adventurous world of subterranean, nightlife, leisure, that flouted directly the law. And I think that is not an incorrect portrait. I mean, in places like Harlem and the south side of Chicago saw these amazingly new rich worlds of experimental leisure often cross-racial worlds in which jazz found new venues. But it's just that I think that nostalgia needs to be tempered with the other side of that reality, which is that a very small segment of elite men and women could participate in those protected spaces, and it came at the cost to the neighborhoods surrounding those underground worlds of leisure.

- Well, Lisa, thank you so much. This has been fascinating.

- You're welcome, take care.

- Lisa McGirr and Raymond Tangacar. Lisa's a historian at Harvard and they were talking about her new book, "The War on Alcohol." That's it for this hour, but there's more in our podcast stream. To sign up, visit iTunes or Stitcher or visit our website at To the best of our knowledge comes to you from Madison and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Our show is produced by Charles Monroe Kane Doug Gordon and Mark Riechers. Joe Hartdke is our technical director. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Until next time.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
December 26, 2023