As to what causes it, the jury remains out. In fact, under the heading ‘Etiology’, my old 1992 Merck Manual announces baldly: ‘The cause of alcoholism is unknown.’ In the intervening years there have been thousands of research programmes and academic studies, and yet the consensus remains that alcoholism is caused by some mysterious constellation of factors, among them personality traits, early life experiences, societal influences, genetic predisposition and abnormal chemistry of the brain. Listing these possible causes, the current edition of the Merck Manual concludes, a little dispiritedly: ‘However, such generalizations should not obscure the fact that alcohol use disorders can occur in anyone, regardless of their age, sex, background, ethnicity, or social situation.’
Unsurprisingly, the theories writers tend to offer lean more towards the symbolic than the sociological or scientific. Discussing Poe, Baudelaire once commented that alcohol had become a weapon ‘to kill something inside himself, a worm that would not die’. In his introduction to Recovery, the posthumously published novel of the poet John Berryman, Saul Bellow observed: ‘Inspiration contained a death threat. He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart. Drink was a stabiliser. It somewhat reduced the fatal intensity.’
There’s something about these answers and the mixed motives they reveal that seems to catch at a deeper and more resonant aspect of alcohol addiction than the socio-genetic explanations that are in currency today. It was for this reason that I wanted to look at writers who drank, though God knows there’s barely a section of our society that’s immune to alcohol’s lures. After all, it’s they who, by their very nature, describe the affliction best. Often they’ve written about their experiences or those of their contemporaries, either transposed into fiction, or in the letters, memoirs and diaries they’ve used to mythologise or interrogate their lives.
As I began to read through these rafts of papers, I realised something else. These men and women were connected, both physically and by a series of repeating patterns. They were each other’s friends and allies, each other’s mentors, students and inspirations. In addition to Raymond Carver and John Cheever in Iowa, there were other drinking partnerships, other vexed allegiances. Hemingway and Fitzgerald tippled together in the cafés of 1920s Paris, while the poet John Berryman was the first person at Dylan Thomas’s bedside when he died.
Then there were the echoes. I’d grown most interested in six male writers, whose experiences seemed to dovetail and mirror each other. (There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.) Most of this six had – or saw themselves as having – that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Three were profoundly promiscuous, and almost all experienced conflict and dissatisfaction with regard to their sexuality. Most died in middle age, and the deaths that weren’t suicides tended to be directly related to the years of hard and hectic living. At times, all tried in varying degrees to give up alcohol, but only two succeeded, late in life, in becoming permanently dry.
These sound like tragic lives, the lives of wastrels or dissolutes, and yet these six men – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver – produced between them some of the most beautiful writing this world has ever seen. As Jay McInerney once commented of Cheever: ‘There have been thousands of sexually conflicted alcoholics, but only one of them wrote “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” and “The Sorrows of Gin”.’
Excerpted from The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing. Copyright © 2013 by Olivia Laing. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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