On the Meaning of Pens and Gins: Eros and Thanatos

By Michael W. Harris

The deeper I have delved into my hobbies of pens and gins, the more I was struck by their opposed temporal aspects. Part of this came out of my previous post about how pens do have a timeless quality to them. They are created, tools to be used, and maybe passed down to a new generation as treasured family heirlooms. They are markers of our existence. Proof of our lives and a piece that might live on to carry small part of us forward with it.

Gin, on the other hand, is the opposite of all that. It is a product that is, first and foremost, a consumable. Enjoyment of it only comes through using it up, leaving only the bottle, and a possible hangover, behind. Gin, unlike win or whisky, is also “cheap” in the pantheon of wine and spirits. There is little point in “saving” a bottle in the hopes that it becomes rare, like scotch or whisky, or improves with age, like some wines. And there is certainly no reason to acquire some gins to only save and pass on. Gin will always expire with the emptying of the bottle.

But the longer I thought about it, the more complex the reality of this notion became. Within each is part of the other. Life and death. Eros and Thanatos, as Freud might argue. In creating objects for our posterity, there is an inherent meditation on our death. And in the enjoyment of good spirits, there is a celebration of life.

Granted, drinking too much can kill you. And while the pen is mightier than the sword, I doubt it will actually kill you—unless you are James Bond, a ninja, or Marcus Brody fighting Nazis in a tank with Henry Jones, Sr.

Barring that highly unlikely scenario, or accidently drinking poisoned ink (DON’T DRINK THE INK!), pens will not kill you.

And yet…

*          *          *

New office shelf for inks, pens, and some comics.

Eros, for a lot of people, is a word more associated with love, especially of the more sexual variety. Eros is the root of words like erotic, after all. The Greek god Eros was the god of attraction, whose role in the Roman pantheon was take up by Cupid.

It was Plato, however, who conceptualized of Eros in a purer form, which, when refined, would be the appreciation of beauty inside a person, or even an appreciation of beauty itself in all people and things. Freud, then, extended this conceptualization of Eros to his idea of a “life drive,” a will to live, a desire to create (procreate), and construct monuments, if you will allow me, to ourselves. Even if those monuments, those legacies, are simply the pens, watches, pipes, jewelry, books, or whatever accumulated and curated during a lifetime.

Opposing Eros is Thanatos, the very personification of death (not to be confused with the Marvel villain “Thanos,” but the name similarity is not an accident). Freud, however, did not us the name Thanatos for his “death drive,” but the term has entered the popular vernacular because “Eros and Thanatos” sounds better than “Eros and death drive.” Therefore, while Eros compels us to create, preserve, and otherwise appreciate life and beauty, Thanatos is what compels us to take risks and engage in behaviors that endanger our life. Eros preserves, Thanatos destroys.

Pens are instruments of our posterity, both to record our thoughts and pass them on to those who might care to know them. Gins can actively harm our body, and, when consumed in unsafe levels, can also increase the chances of participating in reckless behaviors or otherwise shorten our life.

Furthermore, pens are objects that, in cases of more quality pens (good fountain pens and certain ballpoint or rollerball pens), are objects made to last. They are carefully designed to be both functional and beautiful. Artistic objects. Classics like the Parker 51 or Lamy 2000 (both of which are still on my “to buy someday” list) are objects that are also showcases of the periods that birthed them. Designs reflective of the artistic and aesthetic movements that birthed them.

Gins have none of these qualities. And while labels and bottle designs can certainly be artistic and beautiful, those are not what you are buying. You are buying the gin to drink. It is consumed and then needs to be replaced, much like the ink for your pen. But you cannot refill the nice gin bottle, nor is the bottle what you use to consume the gin or ink (I repeat, DON’T DRINK THE INK!!).

Gin is something that dies, or whose use is temporally finite, while the pen can be used for years to come with proper care and maintenance. Pens are objects with personal stories to them. They are instruments of history, recording events, transmitting thoughts, or marking important documents. They are implements in the activation of humanity’s single most important invention. The invention through which all other knowledge came: written language.

Pens are life.

Gins are death.

And yet…

*          *          *

The shelf survived the trip from Virginia…as did the print of Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”

Within gin, and indeed all food and drink, there is a celebration of life. What is a life worth if it is not enjoyed? While Dionysus/Bacchus might get a bad wrap for his wild parties, they are a wholehearted embrace of much that our existence has to enjoy and offer: wine, [love], and song.

However, in such enjoyment of life, there is an acknowledgement that we should enjoy it now for our lives are finite in nature. As the Biblical quote is conflated to say, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 and Isaiah 22:13)

Likewise, in the use of pens to record our thoughts in a permanent fashion, using a non-ephemeral tool that, in theory, will survive us, we are inherently contemplating our own death. This is the yin and yang of Eros and Thanatos. One cannot exist without the other, and within one you will always find the other. They are complementary rather than opposing forces.

Similarly, my pens and gins are best enjoyed together. Having a good drink by my side while I write letters or pen blog posts is a perfect evening, or using my pens to take notes for my next gin review (more are coming, I promise, but the move really messed up that schedule).

So, pens and gins are both elements of life and death. As with so many things, it is a complex of meanings and symbols that the objects in our lives inhabit. They are both representations and extensions of us.

*          *          *

Part of my “analog only” desk, along with boxes with some of my pens. And also my “to be swabbed” ink pile.

Both pens and gins bring me great joy. They may be relatively new hobbies in the refined form for me, but the makings of them have been present in my life for a long time. The act of writing is part and parcel with my chosen career of instruction and research librarianship, and my love of archives and rare books only deepen that appreciation. And gin has a long and fascinating history in our culture and whose roots are among the longest in the history of distilled beverages.

But here is the rub. When I think of both of my collections of pens and comics, I am not sure what will happen to them when I leave this earthly existence. I currently have no direct heirs, and while my sister’s kids are my logical first choice for beneficiaries…it is not quite the same. A feeling that is compounded with having seen them a year since their birth (something I do hope to change with my move to Memphis and being only 6 hours away by car as opposed to 10-12).

By the time I post this, I will be 38 years old, and at that age I am not sure I would want to start a family. By the time they would be off to college I would likely be in my 60s, and the chance that I would live to long enough to see grandchildren is maybe 50/50.

And that is to say nothing of bringing children into our current world. If children are an expression of hope in the future, I am not sure it is an expression I can make—not that I begrudge anyone who does have kids right now…you show more faith in our future than I do!

I have recently had the “do you want children” talk twice while dining with friends. And both times I had to say, “I don’t know.” It is such a complex question, and should I ever find myself in a position to have that conversation with a partner who could bear a child with me, that is a conversation that would take place in which her feelings would take precedence over mine.

Still, I collect and use my pens. They are objects with a hopefully long lifespan that I will continue to use and enjoy for years to come. Pen many essays while sipping on gin, celebrating life while contemplating death and my own future. Maybe with kids, maybe not. But always with an eye towards the possible legacy, if any, that I leave behind.


2 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Pens and Gins: Eros and Thanatos

  1. I recently had a friend, in jest, call dibs on a pen. So I wrote it in my funeral plans document. It remains to be seen whether what I treasure (pens, knives, cast iron) will be heirlooms or not.
    But as you point out – no point in saving the gin.

    1. It is interesting to think about, even more so if you have kids (as you do). Sometimes it is hard to predict what will be meaningful to them and if they will even appreciate something. I have little parts of both of my grandfathers (pipes and a watch from one, and some cufflinks and tie clips from another), and while I never use them, I keep them close to my bed as a reminder of their influence on me (even though I never knew one). It is weird to think about…

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