Jump to content

Recommended Posts

We have threads across the board that raise the issue of drug use and creativity, and we have dedicated threads to artists like David Foster Wallace, for whom meds weren't enough to overcome his personal demons.

I don't know of many threads that discuss alcoholism and the arts, at least not here in the Lit area.

This article got me thinking about the subject.

Did alcohol ruin F. Scott Fitzgerald and his peers? And has the fact that writers don't booze as much these days produced better books than Fitzgerald's 1922 masterpiece The Great Gatsby, now a major motion picture?

I would argue that the answer to both questions is yes. The Great Gatsby the film has already produced several think pieces about how Fitzgerald's gilded age mirrors our own (for my money the best was Nick Gillespie in Reason). But as interesting as the large socio-cultural questions is the role alcohol played for writers like Fitzgerald. Several years ago I came across a tightly argued book that examines the question: The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer, by Tom Dardis. ...

Alcoholism may also account for the main dramatic thrust of The Great Gatsby. In his landmark book Under the Influence, alcoholism expert James Milam argues that alcoholics often can't properly process grief and trauma, not because they are overly sentimental, but because their soggy brains prevent flushing bad memories. While it is certainly true that a bad experience, such as a broken heart, can be intense and make us do crazy things, for the alcoholic it's nearly impossible to recover.

I've never heard that last part before, and am intrigued. I've shared somewhere else on the board that I went to counseling a couple of times for hard-to-pin-down depression (not clinical, as it turned out) and was asked to read two books, one of which was aimed at the children of alcoholics. Neither of my parents was an alcoholic, but the counselor saw something in me that reminded her of the sorts of trauma kids of alcoholics grow up with. And the book's description of those attributes was eerily spot-on. I don't remember what came of those counseling sessions, but just knowing that someone out there could so quickly assess my symptoms and give me something that helped me realize I wasn't alone (as cliched as that sounds) was in itself helpful.

Well, enough about me. I'm not sure my situation is relevant to the article. I'm not an alcoholic, thank God, but I sometimes wonder if my ways of processing information might be similar. Or maybe their soggy brains prevent flushing bad memories is a more generic description of how everyone processes hurts and trauma.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to post
Share on other sites

One answer, and one I increasingly question:

There's a link between depression and great writing. Happy people don't write books. Artists feel deeply, they translate those deep feelings into transcendent works of literature, music, whatever, but pain is the grist for all that creativity. And when the pain is unbearable, artists numb it in the usual self-destructive ways. Some of them -- far too many -- medicate themselves to death. Enter Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, D.F. Wallace, etc.

That's the standard "suffering artist" narrative. I tend to think that there's a lot of deception and mythologizing at the heart of that narrative, and it's killed a lot of people. I'm not sure that I agree with the author's contention that artists (or authors, specifically) are less prone to buy into the mythologizing these days. Since the death of the great country singer George Jones, I've read plenty of stories that recount Jones' self-destructive tendencies in hushed tones, as if driving the lawn mower eight miles to the liquor store (because his wife hid the car keys) was some sort of zany artistic antic rather than the sad, desperate, pathetic act it really was. I also can't tell you the number of "ascending to the Great Suffering Artist Pantheon" stories I read a couple years ago when R&B singer Amy Winehouse died. Listen, joining the fabled "27 Club" is just sad, evidence of a talented and troubled life cut far too short, nothing more. Unfortunately, that narrative is alive and sick.

One thing I deeply believe: artists don't need to be drunk (or stoned, or flying on the drug of their choice) to create great art. To me, the litany of authors that includes Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway et. al. is a list of artists who were great in spite of their addictions, not because of them. I blame it on that damn "suffering artist" narrative, and how easy it is to fall into the rationalizations and denials that accompany it. Fitzgerald was great, but he could have been so much greater. His life is a sad and cautionary tale, and not one to emulate.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I think I've cited her on this board in years past, but psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison writes at length on the linkage between affective disorders (depression and [mostly] bipolar disorder) and creativity in her book Touched with Fire. It's been years since I've read the book, but as I recall, her main thesis is that there is indeed a higher incidence of mood disorders (again, primarily bipolar disorder) for artists. Sadly, many people with affective disorders self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs, thus the secondary increase in frequency of addictions for many artists.

Christian, in response to your comment about soggy brains failing to process trauma and hurts, I would say this certainly applies for addicts with a history of trauma. (During the 5+ years that I worked exclusively with veterans with PTSD, I'd say that easily 50+% of them also had a history of substance abuse problems.)

More generally speaking, however, the problem with trauma memories is one of fragmentation. A failure to have a fully integrated and coherent trauma narrative leads to the three main types of trauma symptoms: a) intrusive, uncontrolled re-experiencing of trauma memories (e.g., flashbacks and nightmares); B) avoidance of trauma reminders (alcohol being commonly used in such efforts) with across the board emotional numbing; c) an overactive, nondiscerning elevation of the fight-or-flight response.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

Link to post
Share on other sites

Pretty interesting.

I think it's worth noting that Stephen King bucked alchohol and drugs and has been clean for years. I believe since the mid to late 80's.

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 3 weeks later...

This is quite a read:

Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive

Excerpt:

Part of my drinking and depression was having a voice in my head that was constantly criticizing everybody. I was sort of brought up that way, hypercritical, and I feel like my spiritual practice is a constant correction out of judging everybody else. ...

I’ve been sober almost 25 years and anything anyone’s ever bought from me has been written when I was sober. If I hadn’t been, I would’ve been like David, swinging from a f--king noose. ...

You’re present when you’re not drinking a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day. It’s probably better for your writing career, you know? I think being tortured as a virtue is a kind of antiquated sense of what it is to be an artist. It comes out of that Symbolist idea, back to Rimbaud and all that disordering of the senses and all of that being some exalted state. When I’ve been that way, I’ve always been less exalted than I would have liked.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 4 weeks later...

I've shared somewhere else on the board that I went to counseling a couple of times for hard-to-pin-down depression (not clinical, as it turned out) and was asked to read two books, one of which was aimed at the children of alcoholics. Neither of my parents was an alcoholic, but the counselor saw something in me that reminded her of the sorts of trauma kids of alcoholics grow up with. And the book's description of those attributes was eerily spot-on. I don't remember what came of those counseling sessions, but just knowing that someone out there could so quickly assess my symptoms and give me something that helped me realize I wasn't alone (as cliched as that sounds) was in itself helpful.

That other book I was assigned to read was Co-dependent No More. Which makes Sara Zarr's post today rather eerie.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...