Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lecture Disguised as Book Review

So I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately. Partly because I’ve just quit my job to write one, partly because I recently discovered The Guardian’s Books page, which is an inspiring haven of literacy, and partly because I’ve just finished reading Michael Largo’s Genius and Heroin (and other variations including pills, absinthe, crack, hash, martinis, bourbon, and sex): The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages.

Today I’m going to talk about Largo’s book. It contains brief biographies focused on the self-destructive tendencies of various writers, artists, musicians, composers, actors, etc., detailing whatever lurid facts are known about the deaths. It took me three months to finish because it was so depressing I had to read it in small doses. Gosh, these artsy folks are really messed up. It was certainly intriguing, though frequently appalling and sometimes plain awful. The upside was that I learned about a lot of interesting people I hadn't really known anything about, and more that I didn't even know existed.


I have three serious problems with this book, the third of which, I warn you, is very detailed:

1. Yes, it’s true, this catalogue is illustrated, but no explanation whatsoever is given for the illustrations, many of which are rather obscure. The credits are listed at the back of the book, separated by semicolons, with no page numbers for reference. What?! What kind of book design is that?! Also, I desperately wish there were not only an index of the unfortunate people who made it into the book, but an index of demises, too. Not just because I have a dark sense of humor and would find it funny, but because it would be useful when you’re going back to look for examples and you can only remember the manner of death, not the name.

2. A lot of these people were not really self-destructive. Emily Dickinson probably had some kind of social anxiety disorder, but she didn’t get it on purpose, and it didn’t kill her. Marcel Proust, likewise, did not die of a fear of germs, he died of pneumonia. Ironic, but not suicide. Also, if the Emperor of Rome tells you he’ll kill you if you don’t kill yourself, and you do it, that doesn’t really seem like suicide either. More like murder by proxy, in which the proxy just happens also to be the victim. In summary: I don’t believe that just because you were artistic and died means you were necessarily tortured by your genius. As far as I know, mortality rates remain at 100% for people in all occupations.

3. The introduction left me deeply irritated, and this sentence had a lot to do with it: “The fact that five of the seven American Nobel Laureates in Literature were alcoholic becomes hard to ignore for a young writer who sets out to create work equally memorable.” OH BOY do I have big issues with this.

First, those numbers are weird. I suspect Largo got them from Donald W. Goodwin’s book, Alcohol and the Writer, which was published in 1988. At that time there were nine American citizens who had won the award. One of them was born in Canada, and two were born in Poland. I think Goodwin discounted the Polish ones and counted the Canadian as American (Saul Bellow evidently moved from Quebec to Chicago when he was nine). And of that group of seven “Americans”, it’s true, five were alcoholics or as good as. But between 1988, and 2008, when Genius and Heroin was published, Toni Morrison won the award as well. Toni Morrison, to my knowledge, is not an alcholic. So there are in fact eight more-or-less American laureates, five of whom drank too much, and then we have these two Polish writers who did not drink too much, who are American citizens but whom we are not counting maybe because they make the numbers look less bad? I find it suspicious when someone wants to draw a scientific conclusion from a sample of fewer than ten people.

Second, any writer who is specifically setting out to create “memorable” work rather than just writing what they write should stop writing.

Third, being a writer is not like being an actor; it’s such a solitary activity that the habits of other writers are not likely to rub off on you. You do not hear that Hemingway was a dedicated alcoholic and say to yourself, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done,” and go buy a bottle of whiskey. Michael Chabon tried that, and I take his word for it that it only worked for Hemingway; and moreover, I might even suggest that Hemingway probably could have written just as well if his crutch had not been drug-related.

Fourth, and I stand by this firmly, writers’ lives should be considered separately from their work. Following the from the last sentence I quoted, Largo says, “Poets such as Keats, Byron, and Shelley made their young deaths part of the poignancy of the work.” Probably he means other people made their deaths a part of the poignancy of their work, because the poets, being dead, were not capable of making anything of it at all. Let’s take Shelley as an example: Shelley drowned while sailing in Italy when he was 29. He didn’t know he was going to die then and in that way. He did not write any poems about it, because once it happened, he was dead. The fact that he was young when he died makes no difference to the meaning of what he wrote before he died. If you’re going to consider his death when reading into his poetry, you’d also have to consider his life, and he was kind of a jerk. He left a trail of suicidal women behind him and is the only man I’ve ever heard of who had children whose maternity is in doubt. Not poignant. Moreover, there is some evidence that he did not so much accidentally or purposely drown as get murdered, so I don’t buy any tortured genius theories about him, nor the other two: Keats died of tuberculosis and Byron got a cold and was bled to death by his doctors. That’s just bad luck.

It seems to me that Largo is just sort of guessing at this theory that creative geniuses are more likely to be self-destructive because anecdotal evidence suggests that it should be true. He has a book full of people who were creative and who, either directly or indirectly, killed themselves—but if he wrote a book about people who were creative and died of natural causes, it would be twice as long. I suppose my complaint is not that there’s no credibility to the suggestion that creativity and madness are somehow related, but that it’s the wrong way of getting at the wrong question. This book wants to know about a particular group of screwed-up creative types—“did genius create their torment, or was it their anguish that created their genius?” I would bet all those people’s addictions and vices and mental illnesses came from a combination of genetics, personality, and circumstance, just like with everyone else. That isn’t the interesting part; that’s the mundane part of human existence. The interesting part is the quality and variety and interpretation of the art that all those people came up with, and what it means to be a creator, not just a sufferer.


Ivan said...

what will your vice be? i think you should develop an addiction to "raspberry cordial" but really just mull your own current wine in a back cupboard. I can see you getting up from writing, saying to no one "time for another 'cordial'" and winking at heslington while you pour yourself another glass. it will be fantastic. be sure to invite me over for a swig once in awhile.

(official congrats on quitting the job!)

Simon said...

I wonder if anyone makes currant wine anymore. Let's look that up. But let's not be greedy like Diana. No puking!

I suppose it's more likely that I'll take up "raspberry cordial" but I personally always thought a laudanum addiction sounded kind of romantically dissolute. (This coming from a person who can't even handle a full dose of Actifed.)

Anonymous said...

'Just the one, Mrs. Wembley'
and you'll be fine - probably applies to Actifed, too.

Should leave lots more comments - you guys (used generically, not genetically) crack me up. Thanks for the smiles.