Run, River, Run

Tradition! Tradition!

Petri Dishes

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” If Oscar Wilde was right about that, then perhaps this year’s River Run will have been the most dangerous yet.  This year, the “supposed tradition that involves drinking a lot of alcohol in the courtyard of the Houses along the Charles River” (to quote the email sent to freshmen by the office of Dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67) featured police cars guarding the exits to the Yard and the entrances to upperclass houses. Freshmen reported having their swipe access to upperclass houses deactivated. Boat-burning was verboten. Some students went so far as to perform the annual “ritual” a day in advance to avoid administrative sanctions.

But what’s wrong with excessive, sometimes dangerous alcohol consumption? We are young. As a 21-year-old, I know for a fact that I am invincible. Every day, on my way to class, I jump out of two planes and yell rude things at heavily armed strangers. I only sleep on Wednesdays. Once I gave myself consumption just to see what the fuss was about. That’s what youth is for.

So why all the uproar over excessive alcohol consumption? Certainly there are medical risks. But if it weren’t for the alcohol poisoning, who would visit UHS? I recently checked in with an intense, stabbing earache and by the time I was called out of the waiting room to be seen, my biggest problem was old age.

Admittedly, alcohol destroys brain cells. But what do we need those brain cells for? Class? Dating? Both are largely restricted to a few physics concentrators whom you can see linking arms as they stroll towards the Science Center. I suppose we could use them to write the Great American Novel, but Hemingway seems to have had no problem doing that, and he drank like a fish who was trying to give itself liver failure.

Then again, I suppose we should be worrying about the future. What if we want to run for president? Actually, come to think of it, if there’s one legacy Barack Obama has left America, it’s that it’s okay to experiment with illegal, dangerous substances—as long as you write an eloquent memoir about it afterwards.

Besides, regardless of what Harvard would have us believe, excessive drinking is not the exclusive province of the class of 2013. It goes back at least until the 1920s. The last words of the poet Dylan Thomas were, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.”

And of course the train continues. Drinking pervades Shakespeare—Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, among others. There’s even a character who blacks out; in “Othello,” Cassio acknowledges that, “I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly; a quarrel, but nothing wherefore.” Admittedly, after this, he loses his job and his reputation, but—considering that everyone else in the play is murdered, arrested, commits suicide, or was a minor character to begin with—he comes out of it rather well.

But many of history’s dipsomaniacs were geniuses. Winston Churchill—another famous drinker who once proclaimed that “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me”—was often extremely rude to his servants. “Yes,” he replied when confronted, “but I am a great man.” Can we use the same excuse? Recently, I tried to rewrite “The Great Gatsby” by replacing all the characters with cats, but I only got about three pages into Catsby’s doomed love before my left eye began twitching uncontrollably and I had to lie down. Maybe we’re not quite there yet. Until that day comes, do we have license to drink like Fitzgerald? Or are we going too far?

That seems to be the worry when it comes to the class of 2013, with their unprecedentedly high number of alcohol-related hospitalizations. But how to monitor this sort of thing?

“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” So inquires Sir Toby Belch of the teetotaling steward Malvolio in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” As Sir Toby realized, people will find ways to quench their thirsts, with or without official approval. If freshmen want to run around the river burning boats and taking shots, even police presence will only go so far to stop them. People have to want to drink in moderation. Some are born moderate, some achieve moderation, and some have moderation thrust upon them. For the class of 2013, it has been mostly the latter.

Of course, DAPA informs me that four-fifths of Harvard students only drink three to five shots one-eighth of the time, or something like that. Unfortunately, I only respond to peer pressure when I can figure out the fractions involved or when it is yelling at me to drink mead from a vat. Perhaps Harvard should distribute water bottles with slogans that speak more to student concerns, with things like: “If you suddenly think that your childhood was intensely interesting and feel an irresistible urge to tell people about it, stop drinking,” or “Never take advice from someone drunker than you,” or, “If you feel compelled to explain to people that you’re still in full possession of your faculties, you no longer are.”

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.