Intoxication doesn’t just happen. It’s an art, one that requires talent and application. Haphazard drinking leads nowhere.
While there is often something miraculous about the first time one gets really plastered, this is only thanks to proverbial beginner’s luck: by definition, it will not happen again.
For years, I drank the way most people do: depending on the party, I consumed drinks of varying strength, in hopes of reaching that state of heady inebriation which makes life bearable, and all I achieved for my pains was a hangover. And yet I have never stopped believing that my quest might be turned to better advantage.
My experimental temperament gained the upper hand. I was like those shamans in the Amazon who, before they begin to chew away on some unknown plant, subject themselves to draconian diets, the better to unveil its hidden powers; I resorted to the oldest investigatory technique on the planet: I fasted. Asceticism is an instinctive way to create the inner void that is indispensable to any scientific discovery.
There is nothing more depressing than people who, when they are about to taste a superior vintage, express their need to “nibble on something”: it is an insult to the food and an even greater one to the drink. “Otherwise, I’ll get tipsy,” they simper, aggravating their case. I feel like telling them they must not look at pretty girls, for fear of succumbing to their charms.
Drinking and wanting to avoid intoxication at the same time is as dishonorable as listening to sacred music while resisting any feeling of the sublime.
And so I fasted. And broke my fast with a Veuve Clicquot. The idea was to start with a good champagne, and thus the “Veuve” was not a bad choice.
Why champagne? Because champagne-induced intoxication is like no other. Every alcohol has its own particular armament; champagne is one of the only ones that does not inspire a vulgar metaphor. It elevates the soul toward a condition similar to that of a gentleman—in an era, that is, where that fine word still meant something. It makes one gracious, disinterested, light as air yet profound at the same time; it exalts love and confers elegance upon the loss of love. On these grounds I reasoned that here was an elixir that might turn my quest to better advantage.
And with the first sip I knew I was right: never had champagne tasted so exquisite. My thirty-six hours of fasting had sharpened my taste buds, and they detected even the faintest flavors in the alloy, quivering with a new sensual delight that started out virtuoso, quickly became brilliant, and ended transfixed.
Courageously, I continued drinking, and as I emptied the bottle I felt that the experience was changing in nature: what I attained did not deserve to be called intoxication so much as what is pompously referred to in today’s scientific parlance as “a heightened state of consciousness.” A shaman would have qualified it as a trance; a druggie would have called it a trip. I began to have visions.
It was six thirty in the evening, night was falling all around me. I looked into the darkest place and I saw, and heard, jewels. Their multiple fragments tinkled with precious gems, with gold and silver. Fragments that were animated by a serpentine crawling: they did not seek out the necks, wrists, or fingers they should have adorned, they were sufficient unto themselves and proclaimed the absolute nature of their luxury. As they approached me, I could feel their metallic chill. I felt the rapture of snow; I would have liked to bury my face in this frozen treasure. The most hallucinatory moment was when the palm of my hand actually felt the weight of a gemstone.
I let out a cry, which immediately dispelled the vision. I drank another glass and I understood that the potion was producing visions that resembled it: its golden color flowed into bracelets; its bubbles into diamonds. Every ice-cold sip brought a silvery chill.
The next stage was thought—if one can even qualify the current that bore my mind away as thought. At the opposite extreme from the ruminations which frequently bog it down, my mind began to twirl, to sparkle, to bluster with the most ethereal things: it was as if it sought to charm me. This was so unusual that I laughed out loud. I am so used to its recriminations, as if it were some tenant outraged by the shoddy quality of an apartment.
To be suddenly such pleasant company for my own self—this opened up new horizons. I would have liked to be similarly good company for someone. But for whom?
I went through all my acquaintances, among whom there were a good number of likeable souls. But there were none who suited the occasion. What I needed was someone who would agree to submit to extreme asceticism then drink with equal fervor. I could hardly subscribe to the notion that my ramblings might entertain a practitioner of sobriety.
In the meantime I had emptied the bottle and was dead drunk. I got to my feet and tried to walk; my legs marveled at the fact that under normal circumstances such a complicated dance would require no effort. I staggered to my bed and collapsed.
What an enchanting loss of self. I understood that the spirit of champagne approved of my behavior: I had welcomed it into my body as if it were an honored guest, I had shown it the highest regard, and in exchange it was showering me with its virtues. Until this final shipwreck, there was nothing that had not been a favor. If Ulysses had thrown caution to the winds and chosen not to lash himself to the mast, he would have come with me to the place where the ultimate power of the potion was leading, and he would have sunk with me to the bottom of the ocean, lulled by the golden chant of the Sirens.
I do not know how long I dwelled in that abyss, in a realm somewhere between sleep and death. I expected to feel comatose upon awakening, but I didn’t. When I emerged from my depths, I discovered yet another sensual delight: I was now made painfully aware of the slightest details of the comfort around me, as if I had been crystallized in sugar. The touch of clothing on my skin caused me to quiver, the bed that supported my frail self propagated a promise of love and understanding right to the marrow. My mind was marinating in a pool bubbling with ideas, in the etymological sense: an idea is first and foremost something one sees.
Thus, I could see that I was Ulysses, post-shipwreck, washed up on some unknown shore, and before I could draw up a plan I delighted in my astonishment at having survived, at having all my organs in one piece, along with a brain that was no worse affected than before, and that I now lay upon the solid part of the planet. My Parisian apartment was that unknown shore and I resisted the urge to go to the toilet, to preserve a moment longer my curiosity with regard to the mysterious tribe that I would surely meet there.
Upon reflection, that was the sole imperfection in my state: I would have liked to share it with someone. Nausicaa or the Cyclops would have fit the bill. Love or friendship would be ideal resonance chambers for so much wonder.
“I need a drinking companion,” I thought. I went through the list of people I knew in Paris, for I had only recently moved there. My few connections included people who were either extremely nice, but did not drink champagne, or real champagne drinkers who did not appeal to me in the least.
I managed to visit the bathroom. When I came back, I looked out the window at the restricted view of Paris there below me: pedestrians trudging through the dark shadows in the street. “Those are Parisians,” I thought, examining them as an entomologist would. “It seems impossible that with so many people out there I cannot find the Chosen One. In the City of Light, there must be someone with whom I can drink the Light.”
Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents in 1967. She lives in Paris. Since her debut on the French literary scene a little more than a decade ago, Amélie Nothomb has published a novel a year, every year. Her edgy fiction, unconventional thinking, and public persona have combined to transform her into a worldwide literary sensation. Amélie’s books have been translated into over fifteen different languages and been awarded numerous prizes including the French Academy’s 1999 Grand Prix for the Novel, the René-Fallet prize, the Alain-Fournier prize, and the Grand Prix Giono in 2008.
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
From Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb. Reprinted with permission From Europa Editions. Copyright © 2014 by Éditions Albin Michel. Translation copyright © 2015 by Europa Editions.