A Rough Mentality Sketch of the Alcoholic
November 2008, a university professorial office. RODICA CESEREANU, PH.D., mid 40s, with a bob haircut, dressed in a black, tightly fitting wool pullover and long skirt. She punctuates with her fingers, as if lecturing.
I can answer your questions, sure I can, only I’m not a specialist in issues of alcoholism, but I can share a few ideas. Okay then: my name is Ruxandra Cesereanu. I am a lecturer at the Language and Literature Department at the Cluj University, the Universal and Comparative Literature Wing. I consider myself first of all a poet and a fiction and essay writer. I’m also part of the Center for Research on the Imaginary, where I coordinate the program for research of the imaginary in social political matters, and the Creative Writing Workshop in Fiction, Poetry and Psychedelic Music.
During 2003-2005 I was part of the Social and Political Studies faculty as a journalist. I lectured on reporting on social issues, with a very hands-on fieldwork component during which I sent my students to work on the streets with the marginalized.
I created with my journalism students four books of reports and mentality studies. The first, Crumbs, Shards and Splinters from the Miracle Courtyard described that marginalized population. The second volume was named The Second Miracle Courtyard, on the same topic, but with various other nuances. The third book had a more provokative title, Made In Romania, Urban Subcultures at the End of 20th, Beginning of 21st Century. It contained reports and analyses of the manele culture—a low quality, kitsch oriental-like songs plagued by primitive, misogynistic lyrics, similar to Rap music, exhibiting equally flashy fashions—and Romanian Hip-Hop, and on the mentalities of “hommies”, “homeboys” and “homegirls”. The last book published two years ago, in 2006, called Crowded Romania talks about happenstance ghettoisation during communism and post-communism. It contains social reporting and fiction writing on life in the apartment blocks during and post communism.
It sold like hot bread/cakes/crazy.
I was telling you about the writer Aleksandr Zinovyev. He has a famous anti-utopia novel, On The Threshold of Paradise, about communism during Leonid Brezhnev’s time. In this novel he presents the surveillance of the Russian population by a new version of KGB—not the old repressive one that threw people in jail, but a new one that tried to reeducate people through various psychological methods.
He constructs a category of dissidents that he calls The Different Ones. Why? Because they were different from the modern Homo Sovieticus, the brainwashed. Well, within the category of The Different Ones he defines the subcategory of the drunkards. He sees them as constituting a kind of an anti-communist, anti-establishment brotherhood, a kind of raisonneurs, bouffe, farcical, satiric commentators of quotidian communism. The pub becomes—in a metaphoric way—like church steps, or courthouse steps, a semi-public arena, where politics are discussed without the interference of those who monitored the Soviet society. The characters of the drunkards—which, I repeat, he uses as ludic, mock, ironical dissidents—create collectively the Gospel of Ivan that is essentially an anti-communist pamphlet!
The description that Zinovyev makes in this novel applies also to Soviet satellite states. For example, I remember that in Cluj there was a café-bar named Arizona—now closed—where the bohemia gathered, just like in the book, to comment on the various political news that reached them either through Radio Free Europe or Voice of America. What else were they doing there? Imbibing alcohol. They were not necessarily alcoholics but they’d drink till the small hours.
It’s true there were informers infiltrated among them, who’d report to the Secret Police what was being discussed, but the pub in Romania was one of the few spaces where one could have open discussions against the regime, even if, I repeat, they snitched to the Secret Police.
But when we talk about alcoholism, we have to also consider the various types of ghettoisation created during the Ceauşescu era. By chasing the population from the rural villages, by forcing the peasants to migrate to the city, a new social stratum appeared, extremely hybrid, one that was uprooted, cut off from its peasant, rustic origins, yet which didn’t manage to completely urbanize its ways. It was from this extremely hybrid social class that later during post-communism was born the “hood” mentality with its “homeboys” and “homegirls”, with the peripheral music of marginalization, of Hip-Hopand Rap, finding a subcultural niche that itself is a hybrid between rural and urban. What happened is that many of these peasants chased away from villages, moved out from their homes, losing their lands and forced to live in urban huts—in match boxes, isn’t it? in birdcages, the way the apartments were then—they went through a form of alienation. The majority were workers; they worked in the large industrial areas where they had no sense of fulfillment. To survive their new life style they led, an alienation, especially in the working class milieu, there was a massive consumption of vodka, of distilled alcohol. They found the “Way of Alcohol” because they didn’t have anything else.
Alcohol I’d say under communism was not specific to the ouvrière class, to just the workers. It also reigned among the intelligentsia, intellectuals too, because during communism, let’s not forget, the censorship system was ubiquitous. You couldn’t publish anything without a censorial authority reading the text, eliminating whatever didn’t suit the regime. Or if the text was not eliminated in its entirety, words would be cut out. Words like blood, torture, prison, inmate, rape, knife, were all taboo. Thus, the intellectual who couldn’t express himself professionally, could instead reconstruct himself and resort to a form of bohemian escapism thru alcohol.
A notorious example of someone who became an alcoholic is the poet Nichita Stănescu, but in what sense?! Stănescu is actually a special case, a complicated case, because he was a great poet, an extremely talented poet, but at the same time, he became a protégé of the regime. The regime legitimized, promoted him, and not unjustly. He was, I repeat, a very deep, profound poet, but he was the anointed poet of the regime. He wasn’t a collaborator per se, but even though he wasn’t an informant or a secret policeman he was a protégé/darling of the regime. To be able to live with himself and survive, I think that’s where his alcoholism started. Probably, inside himself, there were some battles between accepting himself as a man of the regime, the officially consecrated poet, or being a poet true to his own nature. It seems to me he found the “Way of Alcohol” to survive the conflicts of reality.
During post-communism things changed a bit. Why do I say only a bit? Because during communism the alcoholics were not very visible. They were gathered in pubs and bars and private homes. You couldn’t see them on street. If one of them fainted or fell asleep on the street, as a rule the militia picked them up. They weren’t visible.
During post-communism the category of the clochards appeared, from the French, clochard. The clochard is a mix between the homeless and the alcoholic, the drunkard. The majority of clochards subsist by begging. They’d buy slosh of the worst quality with the small change they got by begging for food from charitable hands. Well, these are the ones visible on the streets now.
Psychologically, these individuals were embryos, fetuses without a uterus. These individuals see themselves as aborted fetuses, garbage creatures, after birth, pariahs, rejects, excrement. They knowingly handed in their resignation from the world and display a form of mourning for the self. Why? First, their breaking off manifests socially—they don’t have a job, they don’t have a home. Secondly, they broke-off from their own identity: they are not interested in their past; their future holds no concern for them, the present means drinking and surviving in the streets. And thirdly, a break-off from their own body: they are unkempt, ragged, hygiene is nil.
Patrick de Clerc is one of the French analysts who made this interpretation.
He built his career on these individuals with concepts like the expulsion from the uterus, the mourning of the self.
During post-communism a lot of alcoholism was caused by the restructuring of Romanian society. Many found themselves suddenly unemployed, losing their social identity, and they isolated in their own apartments. Some of them even lost their homes. So nowadays alcoholism in Romania, is largely caused by poverty and the high rates of unemployment.
Of course, we can talk about disorganized, dysfunctional families. Where the individuals can’t find role models failure intervenes, family failure, identity failure can solidify into alcoholism.
But I believe that alcoholism is caused more by the pressure of poverty.
During the last years of communism workers practically didn’t work anymore. They’d just sit about, waiting to pick up their salaries. They became indolent, lazy.
But communism couldn’t carry all this inactivity on its back anymore, isn’t it? Everyone was expected to work, earn their money, to deserve it!
Then after the fall of communism, many of the gigantic industrial areas all around the country closed down. Workers were given compensation checks, then unemployment benefits, but at a certain point people had to personally reconstruct their own lives, redefine their own social identity. And if they couldn’t, many of them found the “Path of Alcohol”.
There is also a connection between male identity and alcoholism. If you are a real man you shouldn’t get drunk easily. In our society this doesn’t fully apply, because I’ve seen plenty of drunken women on the street. But as a principle, in a patriarchal society—and Romania still is a patriarchal society—then yes, the man is the head of the family, he has a hegemony, he is the God of the family. So if he loses his job, it’s dishonorable and shameful. Therefore, he turns to the “Path of Alcohol”. On the other hand, I repeat, there are numerous cases of female alcoholics. Women that were deserted by their men, unhappy, emotionally disillusioned, who fell into alcohol.
In the village too, those who stayed in the villages, and from whom the regime confiscated their land—the majority had to work on the collective farm—there too were forms of alcoholism, but not so severe as in the city. Life in the countryside still preserved certain—well, it wasn’t the untainted paradise depicted by Romanian poets at the beginning of the 20th Century, but it didn’t have the infernal facets of city life, of forced mass urbanization, where the only solution to survive without going crazy, was alcohol.
I don’t know if it was the only solution, but it was for those who had a weak nature, and didn’t know how to survive otherwise. Sure, those who have religious clarity, who have unyielding, strong principles, they may not fail. But the communist regime had in fact fought to weaken people’s traditional principles, to make their beliefs fragile. This vulnerability, gave way to alcoholism.
I repeat, there are many people who felt they were cowards, ashamed to have collaborated with the regime. Feeling dirty, immoral, or amoral, they found alcohol to avoid getting crazy.
Well, let’s not forget the phenomenon of abandoned children living on the street, unwanted children that came into this world due to Ceauşescu’s anti-abortion laws, thrown into inhuman orphanages, escaping to the streets. Twenty thousand kids sleeping in subway and train stations or abandoned underground canals, on hot steam pipes in the sewage system, under student dorms and under governmental buildings, right under the Ministry of Finance Office, horribly sardonic... Let’s not forget that a huge numbers of these street kids are aurolaci/paint-sniffing children. They get high on plastic bags filled with Aurolac, a Romanian brand of ether-containing noxious paint solvent with intoxicating fumes, to survive the misery of their life, while creating the phantasm of an artificial paradise. They may be seen as “miniature alcoholics”, “miniature drug addicts”.
Nowadays/at present/today there are some rehabilitation centers, shelters where street glue-sniffing kids and alcoholics can take refuge over night. Things have changed. But during the ’90s it was a jungle, especially in large cities, Bucharest being the center of visibility.
I’ve heard Radio Free Europe broadcast that the communist state was interested in providing alcohol to the population, since much of its revenue was generated from alcohol sales. But this seems to me to be a tendentious, biased interpretation. It’s not valid, because what the state sold was alcohol of very bad quality. You couldn’t buy good alcohol in Romania. Many of those who drank bad alcohol, ended up with cirrhosis, or dying in alcoholic comas. I doubt that the communist state was sufficiently manipulative to intentionally kill its population.
I wouldn’t go for this conspiracy theory.
It was simply that the poverty during the last period of communist was so overwhelming that people could only afford the cheapest, thus very bad alcohol and that is what the state supplied them with. A matter of simple economics. On the other hand people, praised be to God, there are gigantic plum orchards, and everybody made home their own palinka, plum brandy which was clandestinely/secretly sold.
I’m sorry I can’t help you more, but my analyses were conducted on the homeless mentality, on beggars—not on drunks.
I personally worked on the analysis of a beggar. My students were nervous. They didn’t know how to approach street people who didn’t want to talk to them. Some of them were yelled at when they tried.
My students said to me, rightly so, “Professor, you send us in the streets, but what about you?” So I also had to go to work on the streets to set an example.
In the future maybe we’ll study fortune tellers, or on homosexuals, the spectrum being wider.