Punch Drunk at the Edge of Existence

One could be forgive for believing that the expression “punch drunk” has something to do with alcoholic punch, and that to be “punch drunk” is therefore to be, or to resemble, a man filled to the gills with that sticky and treacherous concoction.

But this belief would be mistaken.  To be “punch drunk” (or “punchy”) is to be fuddled by repeated blows to the head.  Used metaphorically, it means permanently dazed by the pummeling of personal failure.

A punch-drunk man has not gone on a bender; he has taken a beating.

What got me thinking about “punch drunk” was this evocative line in a description of a dejected little cotton town, predominantly Black, in northern Mississippi, on a summer afternoon in 1949.

“Of course the day was hot, but the atmosphere of being punch drunk from the mere act of having to exist is, I suspect, a permanent feature of the place” (1).

I know just the atmosphere he is talking about, and suspect that he is right about its permanence.  The United States is rich in these dismal, dejected places, and the South especially.  If you have traveled any distance by car, and have left the interstate, you have seen their moldering shacks, have perhaps entered their grimy gas stations, have likely wondered about the beaten men and women who shuffle back and forth between one and the other.

I do not mean to be unkind.  Life has left me a little punch drunk.  Maybe everyone is beaten in the end.  On most park benches in Florida, you will find a man with a dazed “what happened?” expression on his face.   To live is, it seems, to get pummeled, and then to wait for the end with a punch-drunk “what happened?” expression on your face.

But a punch-drunk man is not at all the same as a punch-drunk place.  He’s not long for this world, but that place will still be there, moldering and grimy as ever, a hundred years from now.

James Burnham explained why in Death of the West.  He was talking about skid row, but a punch-drunk country town is nothing but skid row in the boondocks.  As Burnham explained, skid row is simply “the end of the road” in the way of failure.  It is where failure collects, like runoff in a sump.  It’s where broken men go to take one last beating before they drop over the edge of existence, and out of sight altogether.


(1) Ward L. Miner, The World of William Falkner (New York: Pageant Books, 1952), p. 67.

25 thoughts on “Punch Drunk at the Edge of Existence

  1. Pingback: Punch Drunk at the Edge of Existence | @the_arv

  2. These towns are what keeps me from buying into the whole agrarian ideal thing pushed by some on the right. So many of these places feel powerfully sad to me. In the South, even the countryside can be grim, no walks in the woods, or the pleasant green hills of my youth in England, but thickety forbidding forest and swamp.

    Not all of it of course, and there are upsides, but I know what you mean.

    • There’s a world of difference between the American and European countryside. As you say, the American countryside is very often sad and forbidding. And for some reason its sadness seldom rises to the romantic melancholy of Wordsworth musing over the ruins of s sheepfold. This cannot be explained by political economy. There’s something metaphysical at work.

      • There is a book by Jonathan Raban called Old Glory, about a boat trip he took down the Mississippi in the 1970s. I read it once in parallel with another book called Down the Great River, which was written about 100 years earlier about the same trip. Obviously much of the difference between 1870 and 1970 had to do with a decline in river traffic, but it got me to thinking about how the life goes out of America towns (and Americans) when they are not expanding. Americans handle decline poorly, and when it becomes clear that they are not going to grow into the next Chicago, they often give up and let things go to the dogs. I think the American countryside has also suffered from the absence of large landholders with aristocratic aesthetics. At least it has suffered aesthetically. There are, of course, some fortuitous successes, but most Americans were not interested in Aesthetics, and those who were had a bourgeois obsession with keeping costs down. And then there is the fact that even the most settled populations have only been in place for two hundred years or so, in most places these settled folk are a minority, and their folk culture was at an early date blasted by mass culture from the cities. There’s more too it, but these are some of the reasons I think many parts of the US look like a low-rent motel room that has just been trashed by some bad guests.

      • I stayed in a cozy bed and breakfast in rural Scotland which has been operating as a small family B&B/Inn since before the founding of America. Apropos of nothing I guess, other than to second that there are big differences.

      • Americans act like tenants, even when they own the land; Europeans act like they own the land, even when they are tenants. And as we have learned in recent years, our government always looked upon us as tenants–tenants who it has decided to evict. Tearing down monuments is pretty much equivalent to throwing furniture onto the curb. The landlord has some new ideas about how to use his property.

  3. From my home state, where the chilly nights and warm, dry days were already a foretaste of autumn, I traveled south to watch the eclipse, arriving 24 hours early. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I felt myself being boiled alive in the hot, humid air, and seared by the blazing sun. By the next morning it felt as though I had been in that hellish place for a very long time.

    Most of the world’s population lives without A/C in places as hot or hotter than the American South. Heat enervates; cold motivates. When I’m cold, chopping wood warms me up quickly, as does burning it.

    • From Will Durant’s History Vol. 1 covering the Orient, on India, page 394:

      But from Dehli to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is the heat; heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietest religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow India starves, and dreams of Nirvana.

  4. Pingback: Punch Drunk at the Edge of Existence | Reaction Times

  5. I am currently viewing your site while logged in to my WordPress account. There is a rainbow header across the top of The Orthosphere’s page.

    Another blog owner has asked the reasonable question, “How do I remove the rainbow bar header from my blog?”

    Links don’t seem to be working for me at the moment, so I’ll try a stretched-out one.

    https: // en.forums.wordpress.com /topic /how-do-i-remove-the-rainbow-bar-header-from-my-blog? replies=3

    • I don’t see a rainbow. Perhaps virtual rainbows are, like real rainbows, only visible from certain perspectives. Or maybe Big Tech has decided that the Orthosphere needs to get with the program and that I should be the last to know about it.

  6. In England the countryside is not so bad (the sterility brought about by agri-business apart). The small seaside towns are the direct equivalent. Melancholy at best and often desperate.

  7. I’ll try rootjosh’s explanation again.

    Australia will be holding a national survey on marriage equality over the next two months. To show our support for marriage equality, we’re showing the rainbow bar to all our Australian visitors. You can read more about the marriage equality campaign here: [link to http://www.equalitycampaign.org.au]

    We cannot remove this banner for individual sites. We understand it looks a bit different to what you’re used to, but it’s here for everyone. We absolutely respect your right to publish the content you choose to your site, but the navigation bar styling reflects WordPress.com’s stance as a company.

    The rainbow bar will remain until after the survey results are released, on November 15.

    If this causes you to choose to leave WordPress.com, we’re sorry to see you go.

  8. Is there a way Christians and Jews can take back the rainbow? (See Genesis 9:13ff.) It is the sign of God’s covenant with mankind, Jew and Gentile.

    The rainbow suggests a bridge between earth and heaven. Christian know that the bridge is the incarnate Word; it is He who is the rainbow bridge for the redeemed to cross from here to there.

    At the end of the rainbow, we may consider, is not a pot of gold, but the Cross, where the Savior is crucified, His arms outstretched in love for all and in dying in their place.

    If Word Press inflicts its symbol of decadence upon Australians, perhaps some Australians can provide their own gloss for the real meaning of the rainbow.

    • I don’t know the original significance of the gay flag. I first saw one in the 1980s, and at that time assumed that it was connected to Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition.” This was, of course, the prototype of the New Democratic Party. In either case, I believe the meaning was based on the idea of a spectrum rather than the idea of the end of a storm. The slightly sinister notion was that white light (i.e. homogeneity) was to be broken up into many different colors. The Biblical significance is not, of course, that the rainbow is a spectrum, but that it marks the end of the storm, the storm being the wrath of God. So the two symbols are different, even though they employ the same signifier. I don’t suppose it would make much difference, but one way to preserve a sense of personal integrity would be to refer to the gay flag as the “spectrum flag” rather than the rainbow flag. Of course it is possible that the gay liberation movement latched onto the rainbow symbol because they saw liberation as the end of a storm of persecution, but my guess is that they were attracted to the idea of a spectrum.

  9. Pingback: The Orthosphere | worldcitizenjs

  10. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/09/10) - Social Matter


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