The list is long: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire, Jack London, F Scott Fitzgerald, Philip K. Dick, Edna St. Vincent Millay, O. Henry, William Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams
and many more. American writers Eugene O'Neill, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner were alcoholics who won Nobel Prizes in literature. In some minds, alcohol and drug addictions have become synonymous with famous writers and other artists. This raises the question about whether intoxicants enhance one's creativity or whether these troubled artists produced great work in spite of their deep sickness of body, mind, and spirit.
Pearl Buck, another Nobel laureate, wrote: "The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating." While many sensitive people pursue that all-too-human quest for wholeness, authenticity and truth with a measure of equanimity, others find this experience so acutely painful that the ability to function involves suppressing or escaping the enveloping emptiness, or filling it with something — anything. Carl Jung in correspondence with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote that the alcoholic's thirst for alcohol is, "the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God." There should be no surprise, then, that alcoholism and addiction to other mood-altering substances and behaviors are often associated with those creative persons "born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive." For those more sensitive to the deep quest for meaning and its expression, to a deeply spiritual quest in which the pain of the search is often more than one can seem to tolerate, attempts to find refuge in illusory ways is also stronger.
And this affliction is not limited to writers. Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Van Gough, and Toulouse-Lautrec had their lives cut short by alcoholism or its associated diseases. And one of the greatest tragedies of this affliction is in what we have lost from what these writers, composers, and artists did not create, in the visions they never embodied, in the wisdom they never communicated. I have heard what Beethoven completed of his 10th Symphony. Many have read the incomplete The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the scraps of poetry Sylvia Plath left unfinished. What would Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin have created? We can only imagine how these remarkable human beings would have developed and what they may have created. This loss is comparable to the destruction of half of Shakespeare's plays, differing only in the fact that the loss happened before the fact.
Some of our writers and other artists have come to terms with their disease and moved toward recovery, and they have much to tell us about the illusion of power and creative genius that substances can create. John Cheever became a far better writer once he hit the bottom of his alcoholic life and realized he had a choice between being a living writer or a dead memory. He spoke about his rehabilitation experience with Truman Capote, another practicing alcoholic, "Listen, Truman," he said, "it's the most terrible, glum place you can conceivably imagine. It's really, really, really grim. But I did come out of there sober."
Stephen King has said he doesn't remember writing The Shining or Carrie since he wrote in what amounted to an alcoholic blackout. He remarks:
There's one novel, Cujo that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page. (On Writing)
Once he began recovering, King produced some of his best work including The Green Mile, Dreamcatcher, Hearts in Atlantis, and the Dark Tower series.
What can we conclude from all this? Artists by their very nature feel their lives more deeply, and the great ones have the gift to communicate their experiences to others. Great talents, whether writers, musicians, or visual artists, succeed in spite of their addiction not because of it. Harris Stratyner, a Clinical Associate Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, grew up among creative people - "Dizzy Gillespie" was his godfather and his godmother was the wife of legendary saxophone player Stan Getz. He traveled with both men to various gigs as he was growing up and saw the effects of alcohol and drug use among musicians. He concludes from this experience:
nobody has ever wanted to be an addict. Forget creativity for a moment, if you have trouble driving a car on alcohol or other drugs, wouldn't it stand to reason it might be harder to play an instrument, coordinate a paintbrush, mold a lump of clay?... Don't credit a genetically predisposed disease for the wonderful music, art, and writing that these individuals created. If you look at their respective biographies and autobiographies you will discover they were at their best when they were sober .However, do indeed give the drugs and alcohol credit for one thing in their lives - their contribution to the untimely deaths of many otherwise gifted individuals. (Psychology Today)
IN VINO VERITAS ? Hardly. What's in the bottle, pills, or weed is illusion, loss of creative vision, and the horror of powerlessness in the face of a deadly threat.
This article was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the
June 2014 paperback release.
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