Do drugs, drink aid literary creativity or destory it?
Life magazine has posted a striking slide show, titled Famous Literary Drunks and Addicts, that raises anew questions about the relation of drugs, drink and creativity.
Writers, poets and artists, a fragile lot to begin with, have always been prey to the notion that inspiration can be found in a bottle, or a needle, or an opium bowel. But can it?
Possibly the greatest thing ever said about drugs and alcohol is Lily Tomlin’s remark, “Reality is a crutch for people who can’t deal with drugs.”
And the most glamorous might be Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous lines, “My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends / It gives a lovely light!” It’s hard to image a more lovely justification for destructive drinking.
As a youth I bought into the prevailing counterculture “truth” that drugs open a “door to perception.” William Blake was widely quoted as justification: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Maybe so, I realized in sober middle age, but the ditches are littered with the corpses of those who didn’t make it.
Life‘s terrific collection of pictures is worth visiting if only for the outstanding images. Familiar figures — Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, John Berryman, Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin, Kingsley Amis, Jack London–are shown in little-known pictures. Others — Baudelaire, Fitzgerald, Poe — are presented in their iconic images. It’s an effective mix.
A few surprises: Ayn Rand was addicted to speed? Louisa May Alcott was an opium addict? Another surprise: Of the 36 writers represented, the overwhelming majority sought inspiration or escape in that least exotic of substances, alcohol.
Some died well before their time (Jack Kerouac, James Agee, Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald), while others saw their talents rot under the constant application of drugs and drink (Hemingway, Truman Capote, Kingsley Amis, Hunter S. Thompson).
A surprising number quit drinking or using drugs, either on their own or with help, thereby regaining their artistic powers. Among them: John Cheever, Dashiell Hammett, J.P. Donleavy, Jean Cocteau, Eugene O’Neill.
Inspired by Life’s gallery, I found a couple of websites discussing the pros and cons of alcohol and drug use among writers. Sean French, in a 2000 essay at The New Statesman, examines the issuse with wit and insight. At Talent Development Resources, you can find a wealth of provocative quotes on the subject.
For example: “What I need is clarity. Even not having enough sleep is a problem for me, never mind doing any kind of drugs.” -Film director David Cronenberg.
“Smoking grass eased the strain for me.” — Poet Maya Angelou.
“For Art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indespensable: intoxication.” — Friederich Nietzsche
So what do you think? Do drugs and alcohol aid literary creativity or destroy it?