Here’s a burning question. Do SpongeBob SquarePants and Samuel Taylor Coleridge really have anything in common? Besides multisyllabic names, a romantic sensibility, and some strong aquatic associations, there may well be collegiate English departments where both are equally esteemed. But even these amazing connections - practically spooky, aren’t they? - don’t tell the whole story.
Start with Coleridge. Opium was a huge albatross for the poet who gave us The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; for a while he even tried paying strong men to keep him away from the stuff. The problem was that later, when he was determined to get high, his flunkies had to figure out how to comply with the wishes of the prudent Coleridge without getting themselves fired by the one who was dying for some drugs. In Thomas De Quincey’s telling, one of the men gently reminded his drug-addicted employer that, just the day before, Coleridge had insisted on being barred from the druggist’s at all costs. “Pooh, pooh!” the poet replied. “Yesterday is a long time ago. Are you aware, my man, that people are known to have dropped down dead for timely want of opium?”
If abstinence could kill, clean-living SpongeBob would have croaked long ago, yet here too there is more in common with Coleridge than meets the eye, for the squarest cartoon character around once found himself in the same situation as the poet’s hired men and suffered the same sort of confusion. It happened when SpongeBob’s cheapskate boss, Mr. Krabs, fell in love and spent a fortune lavishing gifts on the object of his affections, one Mrs. Puff. Horrified by his lack of self- control, Mr. Krabs enlisted trustworthy SpongeBob to take charge of his money and keep him from spending any more. Predictably, when the time came, Krabs begged and railed for his boxy yellow trustee to go against his orders. SpongeBob thus was cast into the same unfortunate position as the porters and coachmen who depended on Coleridge for five shillings a day to stand between him and his high.
Now, if you think this sort of thing is just ancient history or cartoon fantasy, you aren’t keeping up with the tabloids, which tell us that celebrities no longer need rely on mere porters and coachmen. Professional sobriety minders, often former alcohol or drug abusers themselves, charge considerably more than five shillings nowadays to keep well-heeled addicts away from their favorite high. A firm called Hired Power, run by a certified drug and alcohol counselor, reportedly employs nearly a hundred minders in nineteen states, and a competitor, Sober Champion, has branches in New York, Los Angeles, and London. The adventures of one real-life minder, however embellished, even became the basis of a TV show, The Cleaner.
We all know what it’s like to ask someone else to keep us from doing something. Sometimes the stakes are modest, like when, on the way to a restaurant, you ask your spouse not to let you order a second or third drink later in the evening. And sometimes they’re a matter of life and death, like when the writer Andrew Solomon, battling depression, buys himself a gun—and then gives it to someone else lest he turn it on him- self. “Isn’t that ridiculous?” he writes. “To be afraid you’ll end up using your own gun yourself ? To have to put it someplace else and instruct someone not to give it back to you?”
The best-known example of such behavior is from one of the greatest stories ever told, and like so much in our inquiry into the problem of self-control, it comes to us from the Greeks, who were obsessed with the subject. Wily Odysseus, on his way home by ship from the protracted nightmare of the Trojan War, orders his men to tie him to the mast and stop up their ears so he can hear the seductively lethal song of the Sirens without quite literally going overboard. Thus did our hero inoculate himself against his own predictable (and potentially fatal) desires—and thereby demonstrate his wiliness, for a person with less self-awareness might have trusted willpower alone. Odysseus knew that no one is immune to temptation, which is why he’s a crucial figure in the history of self-regulation. His encounter with the Sirens could not be more momentous because the technique he used remains the foremost weapon in the human arsenal against temptation.
We Have Met the Enemy: Self-control in an Age of Excess by Daniel Akst is out this week from Scribe (£14.99).