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GP 28 December 2005: In Praise of Excess

The Old Heidelberg.  Just up Chapel Street from the Yale Art Gallery, another gem sculpted by the prolific architect Louis Kahn, whose great museum designs seemed to anticipate the rash of adventuresome museum buildings in the present day, once huddled the Old Heidelberg, a wonderfully dingy establishment for students who cherished boilermakers and disorganized conversations that adventured beyond the confines of academia.  Some had Ballentine ales, instead of beers, because they were a nickel cheaper, and that meant one could have at least six bottles to loosen the tongue of an evening.

To one side, sipping a sherry or perhaps a Dubonnet, smiling benignly, quiet and even saintly, you might spy Paul Pickrel, the hugely over-talented editor of the Yale Review.  Most then did not know about him, but he read and wrote brilliantly about a wide swathe of modern literature, as well as ranging back into the classics, going off to Smith College later in order to escape from the dark passages of New Haven.  There at the Heidelberg a young neophyte posed to him, “I think the rich should exhibit restraint in style and substance, avoiding déclassé shows of opulence.”  “No,” said Pickrel, “the rich owe it to us” to let it all hang out, feeding our most outrageous fantasies.  Of course, the Old Heidelberg Society of Letters and Sipping is no more.

Horace. But maybe Pickrel had inklings about what stir men’s souls.  It’s just possible that creative, grand people occasionally do need boilermakers coursing in their veins.   Sumptuous proceedings occasionally lead to copious brilliance that manifests itself in great works.  A room pleasantly out of control is kinetic and in touch with the currents of the universe outside the human ken.  There’s that old saying that if you are a sea of calm, while about you others are losing their heads, then it’s possible you are simply crazy.  Divine madness, we hope.  We can find a little bit of chaos in the greatest edifices, certainly in the work of the Estonian Kahn, who added so much to Philadelphia, New Haven, Fort Worth, and other unlikely places, or in the rawness of America’s greatest writers from Whitman to Melville to Faulkner.

Of course, our favorite Roman satirist, Horace, would have none of this.  He was the “moderation in all things” fellow.  This, you can read about, with all its Freudian complications, in Paul Allen Miller’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”  “Moderation,” of course, will help you avoid some of the nutty tendencies espoused by people in the present day.  Then too, it’s a low risk way to proceed in a world fraught with evident dangers.  It keeps you out of harm’s way, even if it also keeps you from most everything else.

Other Wise Men.  Yet there are a host of healthy opinionated and witty people who urge us to do it up in spades.  Another Horace, Horace Porter, American general and diplomat, commanded us to “Be moderate in everything, including moderation.”  Oscar Wilde, in A Woman of No Importance, counseled that “Moderation is a fatal thing….  Nothing succeeds like excess.”   The great pamphleteer Thomas Paine offers useful guidance to the churlish flimflam politicos down in Washington: “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.”  There’s some feeling that we may lose it all through excessive prudence and piddling activity.

The Great Samuel Johnson.  We did not know that the great Dr. Johnson, an even finer literary critic than Pickrel, would have no truck with moderation.  In “Idler 57,” one happens upon:

Prudence operates on life in the same manner as rules on composition; it produces vigilance rather than elevation, rather prevents loss than procures advantages; and often escapes miscarriages, but seldom reaches either power or honour.  It quenches that ardour of enterprize, by which every thing is done that can claim praise or admiration, and represses that generous temerity which often fails and often succeeds.  Rules may obviate faults, but can never confer beauties; and prudence keeps life safe, but does not often make it happy.  The world is not amazed with prodigies of excellence, but when wit tramples upon rules, and magnanimity breaks the chains of prudence.

Pretty Maids.  The heavy metal group Pretty Maids out of Denmark, a very prolific assemblage that has yet to climb on the world stage, assures us that the good doctor still has a voice in the present age.  From them comes the thought that “Anything Worth Doing is Worth Overdoing”: 

Life in the fast lane
Living against the law
Riding the Speedtrain
Life is worth dying for.

We all know that too much will surely overwhelm us.  Too little can also do us in.  The Maids say, “My principles are clear / Too much is not enough.”

The New Orleans Revival.  We, as you, have read the several obituaries for New Orleans that were contrived after Katrina.  The funereal strains in the voices who have said it will never come back are far more mournful than that city would ever permit, home as it is to Funeral March Bands that each of us should have playing for us when we are carted away.  New Orleans simply will not settle for circumspect, and it will never urge us to forge a sober list of  New Year’s Resolutions that tearfully recites all the things we pledge not to do this year, next year, and all the years that follow.  New Orleans’s more about what you can do in the face of adversity. 

The Sazerac Company.  Through the generosity and connivance of Mr. Mark Brown, Chief Executive of The Sazerac Company, we just excessively celebrated the voluminous spirit of New Orleans with some festive over-indulgence.  We had the Sazerac, possibly America’s oldest cocktail, with a flock of other revelers.

When you live in the Third-World backwoods of America, it’s hard to come by the right ingredients.  So you wind up using knockoff ryes, Pernod, and second class bitters.  Having drunk the cocktail 3 or 4 ways, we can attest that it pays to get the ingredients right and to select the right barkeep.  Mr. Brown helped us get our drinks absolutely straight, and we reprint his recipe for the Sazerac Cocktail:

The Sazerac Cocktail


1 cube sugar
11/2 ounces(35ml) Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon
1/4 ounce Herbsaint
3 dashes Paychaud’s Bitters
 Lemon peel 

Mixing Procedure

  1. Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice

  2. In a second Old-Fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube

  3. Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar

  4. Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint

  5. Empy the whiskey-bitters-sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel 

P.S.  Since we are schismatics, we cast the sugar cube aside and instead used simple syrup in our Sazeracs.

P.P.S.  The current thinking is that we will move to Indiana for next year’s party and serve up martinis.

P.P.P.S.   For sure, modest ambitions will create modest men.  We comment on this in “Big Beliefs Make Big Men.”

P.P.P.P.S.  There has been an out-sized boom in museum architecture over the past decade which has been commemorated in a host of articles and exhibitions.  See, for instance, “Museums for a New Millennium,” a 2002 Milwaukee show.  Nowhere else are we seeing public architecture of such winning proportions.  There may be some cruel irony here, because there is thought that the public will not come out to fill these “Empty Palaces” and that civic treasuries are going to be left holding very empty bags.  That said, a host of these buildings are nobly adventuresome and worth quite a look.

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